As many articles there are on the internet about Istanbul, and especially when it comes to things to do and see in Istanbul, it is always interesting to know what other newcomers opinions are when going to the city for the first time. Instead of writing a top list of things to do and see, or an article about '36 hours in Istanbul' (which can effortlessly be achieved), I am going to present the top 10 things that I love about Istanbul. This city is certainly an overload of senses.
1. The architecture of the Istanbul buildings impresses me a lot. Both the European and Asian sides of the city are adorned with multi-colored homes scattered on the narrow hills overlooking the Bosphorus river. It comes across that a lot of period architects have done a lot of trial and error' with the shapes and sizes of the homes. Many of the blocks have flat roofs, for sleeping on, and even at street level there are balconies everywhere, for catching the breeze from the Bosphorus. The city certainly has a concentration of inhabitants.
2. The Ayran. It's a cold beverage of thick yogurt blended in with water, and sometimes a bit of salt. Very similar to the South Asian drink, Lassi. Said to be an old favorite of the sultans - it also makes you go to sleep- fast!
3. A wonderful place called 'Büyük Valide Han' (which means the 'Grand Inn of the Mother Sultan'). It's in Eminönü, and neatly buried among textile merchants, a hidden architectural gem of a place that still maintains its original two levels, three courtyards, and a sea of beautiful domes that constitute the roofs.
4. The Byzantine cisterns that lie underneath the city- they are hundreds of them. They were historically known as the Constantinople for more than a thousand years until 1459.
5. The people of the city. The true multicultural aspect of Istanbul is an example of a race that have made the most of getting along with each other. They say that the Turkish people are perhaps the most hospitable in the world because they have a warm/hot blood. I am not sure if I stand by that theory but it's a compliment of these welcoming people. Tarlabasi is an example of this. It was a prosperous neighborhood inhabited by Greeks and Armenians, until the 1950s, and then later it became one of Istanbul’s most notorious ghettos, occupied by Kurds, Romanians, African immigrants, and refugees from Iraq- and now perhaps Syria too.
5. Fresh pomegranate juice. Historically the Turks and the Ottoman used to add pomegranate in their dishes as far as back in 1469. Astane Restaurant next to the Kariye Museum is said to be the oldest restaurant in Istanbul which provides fine Ottoman cuisine with all the recipes having been taken from the Topkapi Palace. Try the 'almond soup', which has grated nutmeg and pomegranate. It's exactly the same dishes that the Sultans used to eat. Turkish food is exceedingly delicious. Though I do not wish to divulge into a general stereotype, I do believe that almost all Indian, Irish, Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and Italian mothers are the same. They all want their sons to marry the most beautiful looking girl, have the best job ever, and eat the most delicious food ever. Its even more so with Turkish mothers (and restaurants)...they feed you like there is no tomorrow (old cliche, but it's so damn true).
6. I love cats, and in Istanbul you see them everywhere. The cats are a part of the culture of Istanbul, and Turkey itself. Historically these little furry creatures have been wandering around the city for years gone in times in memorial. The vast majority of the cats have proper vaccination, and are healthy. One of the reasons for the cats to be allowed freely to wander by the government is because it's a clean animal, and so there are no objections. If someone likes a cat then, yes, they can adopt the cat (provided they have it all checked up etc!).
7. The Bosphorus fish. This particular type of fish is available only in selected restaurants around the Galata Bridge, and only in Istanbul, and only between the 3-4 months in autumn and winter (between September to December). I went to the popular Galata Restaurant, which is located right underneath the ugly looking Galata bridge. If the sight of the beautiful food is enough to drift your thoughts away from the highly un-attractiveness of the bridge then that should be a compliment. Its best to come here during the summer months because you are not only gifted with a gorgeous red sunset, but it’s also comfortable to sit outside.
8. The Bosphorus River cruise. The last time I had taken a proper cruise was when I first arrived in Guangzhou (China) in 2003, and so it was a humbling experience to take a cruise again. You can see Istanbul with glimpses of the rooftops, the minarets (I lost count on how many), and the abundance of Turkish flags flying patriotically around the hills- I counted at least 25 on the 2 hour tour! Perhaps the cheapest and best way to explore the Bosphorus is offered by the public ferries that traverse the Bosphorus from Eminönü (ferries dock at the Boğaz İskelesi).
9. The various bookshops and Turkish bars around the Beyoğlu (Pera), provide enough time to explore the not just the touristy side of the city but also the historic part of the city. The most interesting part of this area is that the tourists just wander on the main street and don't happen to venture into the side roads where there are tiny cosy bookshops, cafes, and bars presenting the best of Istanbul's nightlife.
10. Kumkapı (KOOM-kah-puh, "Sand Gate") is an old Ottoman Greek and Armenian fishermen's district near the Sea of Marmara shore due south of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar. The Kumkapı district is centered on a small plaza where six streets meet. It's surrounded by seafood restaurants, and restaurants line many of the streets radiating from the plaza. Restaurants are open all year, but in the warmer months (usually April through October) tables are set outside, and every night is a lively, sometimes boisterous (not to forget the pickpockets), and joyous dining scene with customers who are made to smile, scurrying waiters (i.e. not lazy) and itinerant paddlers and entertainers.
On thing you notice about Istanbul is that people are not hopelessly lazy or chatty or sluggish (suicide is out of question here!), as is the case in some Mediterranean countries. Perhaps the gift for this is because Istanbul is not a young city, and so with tradition you would expect that strong ethos of culture to portray itself too. Just a word of advice is that I wouldn't exactly go to Kumkapi wearing my best Armani shorts, or Gucci sunglasses- I hope you get my meaning. Many happy travels.
You can reach it by suburban train (banliyö treni) from Sirkeci station or Cankurtaran station (get out at the Kumkapı station), or by taxi (TL15 or less).
AND, last of all but not least below are three restaurants which I highly recommend offering some of the best Turkish cuisine around in the city. I know that in a city such as Istanbul where food is everything it would be a hard choice to dip your nose into something...but these three are recommended. Hamdi comes across as too touristy, but then again it may just be the thing for you if you have been wondering around the Grand and Spice bazaars and are looking for somewhere to eat except street food. Be spoilt for choice I say.
Finally, here is the link for the article on FLY.COM: www.fly.com
Astane Resturant near Kariye Muesum
Hamdi Restaurant near the Grand Bazaar
New Galata Restaurant (underneath the Gatala Bridge)
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