Spanning 2 continents, divided by the sparkling Bosphorus, Istanbul has a unique, exotic personality. Combining cultures, religions and nationalities, the eclectic city has fodder for those seeking historical sites, grazing on traditional or modern local cuisine, shopping and a prominent art and design scene. A magnificent city and one The Baron and I had the opportunity to visit recently.
We stayed at the famous Pera Palace Hotel in the Greta Garbo suite, a wonderful homage to the lady herself. We made our first port of call the hotel bar for cocktail hour. Enveloped in plush upholstery, hidden from the world behind luxurious drapes and surrounded by magnificent floral displays, we absorbed the history while sipping our martinis. A list of famous names have stayed here including Agatha Christie, where she penned ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, Ernest Hemingway while a journalist for the Toronto Star and Greta Garbo, mentioned previously and needing no introduction. ‘Agatha’, the hotel’s award winning restaurant, was closed for a private function the night we planned to go so reservations in advance are recommended.
Turkish friends provided us with a comprehensive list of ‘must dos’ and, on their recommendation, we managed to get an early sitting at 360 Istanbul. The location is on Istiklal Street but discreetly sign posted so keep an eye out for the unassuming entrance to Misir Apartments, take the lift to the 6th floor and the stairs to the 8th floor entrance. The view at 360 is just that, uninterrupted 360 degrees over the rooftops of Beyoglu. Sundowners on the terrace are recommended and the restaurant provides a twist on traditional Turkish and International Cuisine. The menu shows a sense of humour by way of a chocolate orgasm for dessert but we stuck with the mezze options, not orgasmic but very tasty. The highlights at 360, however, really are the view and the entertainment. To be mid-sentence and peripherally notice a black clad female stealthily climbing the central wall structure or to realise the violins playing are live only metres away, not to mention a crooning dark, bald giant in a sultan’s outfit, you know you are somewhere unique. If you need a little more convincing make your way to the club where international DJs are on the line up until the early hours. 360 Istanbul should definitely make your list.
With google maps on standby and a camera in hand we chose to begin day 1 from Istiklal Street on foot although the public transport system is easy and varied. The Metro, trams, funiculars and ferries will take you almost anywhere you want to go and the many available yellow cabs will take you to the rest. You can buy your Istanbulkart from a machine at most of the stations and it can be topped up as you go. This card is user friendly on all of the public transport options.
Our architecture appreciation and window shopping wander took us through side streets and arcades lined with fresh produce, ceramics, lighting, and souvenir stores. Cafes and local fast food joints, never far away, had Doner kebabs; shaved meat from the big kebabs on turnstiles, Adana kebabs; spiced ground meat pressed onto skewers and Sis (shish) kebabs; chunks of marinated meat also skewered and grilled over charcoal. ‘Borek’; parcels of ground beef, lamb, vegetables or cheese in flaky pastry, sticky sweet mouth-watering baklava and of course, an enormous assortment of Turkish delight. We were looking for ‘Menemen’ and eventually came across it in a side street café. A single pan dish with sautéed peppers, onions, tomatoes, and 2-3 eggs cracked in and left to cook. We saw a couple of versions, the eggs left to coddle or scrambled lightly. Mine were coddled with spicy sausage and tomato served at the table in the pan. The Baron opted for Pide, Turkish Pizza filled with beef, onions, tomato and peppers. Unlike pizza, pide’s edges are rolled into a boat shape and most pide shops will have ground dried chilli to spice things up. To finish, Turkish coffee for the Baron and a surprising mint tea for me; menthol flavoured with honey and lemon resembling a throat lozenge but not unpleasant.
Reaching the top of Istiklal Street at Taksim Square we jumped on the packed Taksim – Tunel tram. There is a ticket machine here so no need to go searching. This tram runs only from Taksim to Tunel with a stop at Galatasaray and return. We were heading for Serdar-I Ekrem Street where retail and design studios have been popping up for the past few years. The street is central and runs from the intersection at Galata Tower. You can’t miss it. Great little cafes punctuate the string of up and coming fashion, accessories and footwear designers. The street is quite lengthy so you will also find home stores with fabulous ceramics, glassware and lighting further down the street. This area was previously light industry but factories and warehouses are now being upgraded for both residential and commercial use. This area of Istanbul, in fact most of Istanbul, is quite hilly and the streets are paved or cobbled so you really need comfortable flat walking shoes. You can buy extremely cool ones in Serdar – I Ekrem Street but best to bring a pair to start the day. While here, if you have the patience, join the queue to climb to the top of Galata Tower. By all accounts the view is superb.
Bypassing the queue we continued to Karakoy Pier passing an eclectic range of small businesses. Weavers, shoe shine, souvenirs, ceramics, fruit stalls and tattooists all sharing the street, great for retail and people watching.
We decided to continue over Galata Bridge but while checking out the fishermen’s catch a slight drizzle began so we thought better of it and sought cover instead. The buckets of fresh fish on the bridge looked like sardines and both of us love them so that was the plan. We needed a good seafood café and with so many to choose from with similar menus in such close proximity we decided on the one with the best view. From our window table on the 5th floor overlooking the ferry wharf we could see across the Bosphorus to Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the minarets and dome of Sultanahmet.
More great views and food. No need to worry about kitchen operating hours, they’re open when you’re ready to eat, noon to 2am in many cases and lunch can run into dinner. Putting it down to the inclement weather our stay was a long one enabling ample opportunity to sample the menu. Our anticipated grilled sardines arrived followed by stuffed and grilled calamari, taramasalata (fish roe dip), smoky eggplant dip, grilled zucchini and eggplant and some beef kebabs; all delicious and all I’d return for. Wine was well priced and the local Turkish wine goes down very easily. Raki is offered almost immediately and is the drink of choice for locals. An anise flavoured aperitif mixed 1 third to 2 thirds water and a cube of ice. Raki has a sneaky hit so try not to be encouraged by your dining partner to have shots. Just saying!
Galata Bridge is the home of the famous fish sandwich so for those who prefer to eat on the move then pick one up here. Bread rolls filled with grilled fish, shredded lettuce or cabbage, sliced onions then covered in lemon juice and a pickle on the side, well worth it.
We put day 2 aside to explore the Eminonu district and the historical sites observed from the previous day. Hagia Sophia is closed on Mondays, Topkapi Palace and Sultanahmet are both closed Tuesdays so try to plan this area for later in the week to be able to see them all. If you’re organised you can buy your tickets online and if you are a museum buff the Museum Pass may be worth it to you.
Be prepared for crowds and queues at Topkapi Palace, the treasury in particular but persevere if you can, the content is fascinating. Built in 1460, the palace was the art, education and administrative centre of Istanbul for 400 years before Dolmabahçe Palace took over in the mid 19th century. The garment construction and printed fabrics of the Sultan’s and his family’s wardrobe were of particular interest. To enter the Harem, a separate ticket is required at 15TL so get it included in your ticket before entering. We didn’t and it was too time consuming to rectify so we missed it. Magnificent pavilions, rolling gardens, intricate Ottoman tiling, domed ceilings and outstanding views will keep you here for at least a couple of hours and there is also a good café so you could plan around lunch.
A close walk from the Palace is Hagia Sophia, an Orthodox Church for the first 900 odd years. It was converted to a Mosque in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed (Mehmed the Conquerer) and has remained so, though Church icons and objects can still be viewed in the museum. The immense dome was damaged in a couple of earthquakes and in 558 completely fell apart, additional structures were added to prevent this repeating, hard to imagine now with the stunning interior features and grand exterior.
Sultanahmet or the Blue Mosque is directly opposite Hagia Sophia with the Basilica Cistern between. The Basilica Cistern, or Sunken Palace, provided water for the Eminonu area from the 6th century and according to all accounts is an impressive underground museum, lit well, piped music and a café. Time ran out for us so we’ll see it on a return visit. We needed to leave the time for Sultanahmet before prayers, the doors close 30 minutes before and for 30 minutes after daily prayer times, in total around 90 minutes. Accurate prayer times can be found here. As with all mosques, respectable attire is required on entrance; covering of shoulders, knees and hair for women and shoulders and knees for men. Shoes are not worn but can be carried through in plastic bags provided along with free use of scarves and dresses to cover any bare flesh that may offend. The exterior appears blue but the Blue Mosque is named for the blue tiling on the interior. It is definitely worth making the effort to enter for the stunning architecture and design.
A wonderful place to relax and contemplate nearby is the Seven Hills Restaurant. Although there are many rooftop restaurants, in my opinion Seven Hills provided the best views taking in the grand buildings, the sparkling Bosphorus and Istanbul’s Asian side. Coffee, wine, snacks and a la carte are possible plus they have the ‘catch of the day’ cart for fresh seafood selection. Stay for at least one call to prayer by muezzins summoning Muslims for mandatory worship at both Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia minarets and if time allows, a wonderful photo op is the sun set behind Sultanahmet. Keep tissue or wipes handy for low flying seagulls. Yes it happened to me!
Walking distance from Sultanahmet is the Grand Bazaar, ideal for retail therapy. Housing over 5000 covered stores in 60 odd streets, categories of merchandise are generally housed together for easy price comparison. The quality standard is high, the service friendly and bartering is encouraged. Jewellery designers, tailors and cobblers can make to spec or adjust to size many items. If you can find Shalchi on street 21, Ali has home furnishings, clothing, footwear, bags and shawls in wonderful designs and materials. I had knee length embroidered leather boots fitted, produced and delivered to my hotel within 24 hours.
The Istanbul art scene could have occupied us for days with the wide variety of galleries from individual artist studios to the Istanbul Modern with its spectacular views over the Bosphorus. We picked up an “ArtIstanbul’ map showing the bulk of the galleries through Beyoglu. It was easy to start near our hotel at SALT, not a gallery they say, but an innovation centre. Less than 100 metres away we found ourselves back in the Misir Apartment building where 360 is and viewed 3 galleries; Galeri Nev, Galeri Zilberman and Pi Artworks before crossing the road to Galeri Apel and Gaia Gallery. You’ll find all of these within steps of each other and can easily be combined with retail therapy on Istiklal Caddesi.
Sadly, we came to the end of our time in Istanbul but we hadn’t yet tried a traditional Meyhane. Meyhanes are Turkish taverns, ‘mey’ meaning alcohol and ‘hane’ meaning home. They are generally packed with locals smoking, drinking and savouring the food. Cold appetisers; dips, vegetables, cold meats and fish are offered from a large platter on arrival while hot items are ordered from the menu. We tried the brains from the cold platter but next time would have them warmed, the stuffed vine leaves were fresh and generously soaked in olive oil, we had char grilled octopus with salad and ordered a second helping of spicy prawns. A complimentary appetiser with bread started us off and of course there was Raki! Tables are tight, conversations loud and raki glasses clink constantly. A wonderful place to lose track of time and make new friends.
Before a trip to Istanbul it is worth reading Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence. It’s a love story, an obsession and there actually is a Museum. On Cukurcuma Caddesi, easily found off Yeni Carsi Caddesi, the museum houses the objects and insights collected within the story. A wonderful exercise in obsessive love and the complications that brings. The Washington Post wrote of the novel – “Spellbinding…A resounding confirmation that Orhan Pamuk is one of the great novelists of his generation. With this book, he literally puts love in our hands”. Wander the streets where the story took place and it will come to life in shop fronts, cafés and where the lovers strolled.
And so just as Fusun captured Kemal’s heart, Istanbul captured ours.