Having called Turkey home for five months now, I can say I’ve discovered my favourite Istanbul experiences. There’s so much to do in this crazy city including the obvious but magnificent tourist destinations such as the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Try venturing further afield to find Istanbul experiences that show Istanbul is not only the glorious city of yesterday, but a thriving modernised city of thinkers and dreamers.
Once an area known only for its prostitutes, this district has seen some big changes recently. The opening of the Istanbul Modern art gallery in the area brought in some cultured folk and it has since become a gorgeous hub of crafty shops, cosy cafes and cool bars. The alleyways lined with fairy lights and street art adds to the atmosphere. This area stretches from the side of the Tophane hamam/mosque down to the shops near the ferry port. I love heading down here for a coffee or beer with friends. Favourites of mine include their fruit infused tea from Fil and the coffee at Karabatak.
2. Buyuk Valide Han
I became aware of Buyuk Valide Han’s domed terrace rooftops after seeing my university friends posting their incredible pictures on Instagram. I knew I had to work out what this place was and it visit myself to see the view.
Located between the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, Buyuk Valide Han was once an Ottoman inn where travelling merchants slept. It’s still off the tourist track so don’t expect any signage to get there, but the people in the area will know what you are looking for and help you out.
To get to the rooftop, go up the stairs of the building and you’ll find a dark and damp floor with a few workers going about their business. If you follow the walkway around the building towards the end, you will find the door that goes up to the rooftop. Normally the caretaker is around to let you up for a lira or two.
3. Balat and Fener
This colourful neighbourhood seems to be missing from the typical tourist’s to-do list, despite its rich history and UNESCO World Heritage status. It was once inhabited by the Greek, Armenian and Jewish Istanbulites before they were evicted from the country during the population exchange of the early 20th century. This history means it is full of European-style facades, old orthodox churches and synagogues. While some of the buildings are decaying, the maze of streets has the vibe of a close community, with neighbours yelling out to each other across the road and children playing football in the street.
In this area you can visit the Fethiye Museum and Chora Church for some beautiful mosaics and frescoes of biblical scenes. The Afilli Cezve cafe is a great place for a Turkish Coffee, tea or some breakfast.
To get here, take a bus (36CE, 99, 28E, 44B, or 99A) from Eminonu.
4. Pierre Loti
A convenient and spectactular place to visit after a trip to Balat and Fener, continue taking the bus along the Golden Horn to Eyup and you will reach the hill of Pierre Loti. Here, you will find a spectacular view of the city and a lovely place to sit and drink a çay or Turkish coffee. You can either take a stroll through the old cemetery up the hill to the cafe, or you can take a cable car. The hill is named after the French novelist who visited Istanbul regularly as part of his work in the navy.
5. Cihangir brunch
The liberal neighbourhood of Cihangir is home to the artists and intellectuals of Istanbul. The European influence is evident in the style of the many apartment buildings (Like the one I live in!). Cafe culture is fully alive here and it’s a perfect place to enjoy a late breakfast on a sleepy Sunday morning (or afternoon). Top recommentations include:
- Van Kahvalti Ev – for Turkish breakfast. Their menemen is the best and it’s quite cheap.
- Journey – for Western style breakfast. Avocado toasties, granola and pancakes are on offer.
- Datli Maya – although this place is known for its fire oven pides and durums, it also has a very nice Turkish Breakfast. This restaurant also prioritises organic and environmental sustainable food and caters for vegans and vegetarians.
- 5 Kat – If you want something spectacular (and are willing to pay for it), you can’t go past their brunch buffet and Bosphorus views.
6. Ferry Boat on the Bosphorus
It wouldn’t be a trip to Istanbul without a ride on the waters of the Bosphorus, the heart and soul of the city. Whether you go by public transport or take a tour, there’s something about the breeze on your cheeks and watching the seagulls soaring above those blue waters that’s so relaxing and therapeutic.
You can also get some great views of the city this way, particularly heading to Uskudar on the Asian side where you can see the Maiden’s Tower. The main places to catch a ferry on the European side are Eminonu (closest to Sultanahmet), Karakoy (Closest to Beyoglu), Kabatas (Catch the funicular from Taksim) and Besiktas (Closest to Dolmabache palace).
Another Asian destination reachable via ferry from Europe. Kadikoy is known for the hippies and youngsters that occupy this middle-class residential and commercial district. The bars, cafes, tattoo parlours and secondhand shops give the area a bohemian feel that reflects its large student population. It has a nice fish and produce market – more laid back than others you’ll find in Istanbul.
It’s also a great place to visit the hamam (Turkish bath) if you’re not so keen on the prices of the touristy places on the European side. It has great Bosphorus views, and a lovely waterfront that’s perfect for a stroll or having a few beers with friends while watching the sunset.
This is a wealthier area of the city as you can see by the fancy houses and the lines of privately owned boats along the shores. Located near the Fatih-Sultanmehemet bridge, it has some lovely Bosphorous views. You can also climb up the hill to Rumeli Fortress and the cemetery for some history. Further up is Bogazici University, which is where I did my semester abroad. The South Campus has some stunning old buildings which were constructed when it was an American University in 1800s. It also has some great views and greenery as well as a huge population of campus cats. I loved coming here everyday.
9. Tarlabasi Market
As a general rule, you should try to avoid Tarlabasi, especially as a solo girl. While only a short walk from the safe and wealthy Cihangir and Galata districts, Tarlabasi a poor area known for its drug industry, violence and transexual prostitutes. Its population is largely immigrants who have come to the city looking for work.
However, all of these concerns take a backseat on a Sunday when the rundown streets turn into a huge bustling market filled with people looking for cheap fruit and vegetables. It’s great to get a bargain and support local farmers rather than the corporations running the grocery stores. The market isn’t for tourists like the more famous bazars of the city but it caters for the local community, so it is a really different experience and one I enjoyed immensely.
10. Whirling Dervish ceremony (Sema).
This beautiful and sacred religious ritual is a must-see while in Turkey and a significant part of Alevi Islam. However, there’s a big difference between a whirling-dervish show with neon lights and bellydancers to top it off, and a genuine Sema. The layers of symbolism, meaning and spirituality can be lost in the more commercial, tourist-centric whirling dervish events.
After reading up on the different ceremonies in the city, I found the Silivrikapi Mevlana Cultural Centre. Located in Fatih, this centre is a place of worship for Alevi Muslims and has a vibrant community of followers. They have Semas on Thursday evenings. I was lucky enough to attend on a particularly special day: the 17th of December, the day that Rumi (the spiritual leader of the dervishes) died, also known as his wedding day with Allah.
BONUS: 11. Food
I couldn’t go without mentioning it, but Istanbul’s food really deserves a post of its own: 33 foods to try in Turkey
So this city is not only the magnificent Ottoman capital and Byzantine Constantinople, but a vibrant and dynamic city of 2015.
What I’m reading: Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk
What are your favourite Istanbul experiences? Have you been to Istanbul? Did you visit any ‘off the beaten path’ places?