There are some sounds you can’t avoid in Istanbul. Taxis honking for one. Traffic is a problem here. After all Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world. How seventeen million people get around here daily baffles me, particularly when the taxi drivers don’t seem to know a single street name. Inevitably they end up on a one way headed upstream. This is what the horns are for, eastern standoffs on the narrow cobble stone roads of Galata. Or is it called Beyoğlu now? Who knows, certainly not the cab drivers. It would seem as far as they know Istanbul could still be Constantinople. In this city all that once was, still is somehow in some version or another. But back to the sounds because then there are the cats, the hundreds of cats that belong to any one neighborhood. They’re not the kind of strays you feel sad for though. They don’t go hungry or ignored. They are a communal nuisance and joy for the locals, the responsibility is shared. Leave your window open on a hot summer night in this city and you will inevitably hear them brawl. The noise of cat fights for food, territory, or just the fun of it will creep into your sleep. But just before sunrise the sound of all sounds puts an end to them: the call to prayer. All at once, the imams sing, the chant of each competing with the next, echoing one another for fifteen million people to hear. For a westerner it is overwhelmingly strange, haunting, unsettling and beautiful, a reminder that despite occasional appearances, this is not the Europe that we may know. For the rest, it is just another day in Istanbul.
I tell you about these sounds because they are the things I cannot capture in a photograph. Nine years ago I didn’t know how to work a camera, and I didn’t own one. There were no iPhones, no instagram. That is when I lived here. And so for the last nine years the sounds of this city have been my most vivid recollections. They are my first memories of a life abroad, one of the ways this place ignites the senses, reminding me it is foreign and yet making it so familiar.
When they cease for a moment before daybreak, you can finally hear the sound of the breeze coming off the Bosphorus, from any direction it is safe to assume. The ships sailing it you won’t hear. From the hilltops of Galata or Bebek you feel as if you can reach out and grab them, yet they are silent. East, west, north, south or all at once, they’re coming from everywhere and anywhere because the world collides in Istanbul. It has been for over two thousand years. The continents are the only thing that seem clearly defined here, the Bosphorus splitting the city in two parts, one foot in Europe, one foot in Asia (minor). The rest mingles: often old and sometimes modernized, christian remnants but overwhelmingly muslim, brown skin and fair complexions, conservative and sometimes progressive, beautiful and yet dirty, kind and then hostile, overcrowded or totally abandoned, happy and melancholy, rich and impoverished. This is the world we live in. This is Istanbul. And this is why it is often said it could be the capital of the world. The more I know about Istanbul, the less I know.
I lived here at the age of eighteen for several months studying religion, history, politics, and architecture. There is no better place to experience any of these things than Istanbul. Needless to say this trip was different than my time here before. I lived here through a winter and a cold, wet spring. This time it was summer and it was hot. So hot. The city was all at once just the same and totally different. I visited neighborhoods I never knew well before, and saw a more modern side of the city. At the same time I see more conservatism creeping in, more burkas, more scarves, more stares of discrepancies between east and west evident to the naked eye. I’ve been more places now than I had then, I’ve met more kinds of people than I knew at eighteen. More than ever the Turks seems peculiar to me. It is hard to know where anyone stands here. That excites me and makes me uncomfortable all at once. As a woman, you are acutely aware of your gender at all times. It isn’t always a pleasant experience. But all in all despite its downfalls, Istanbul is worth it. It will delight you too. Should you be in search of such an experience, here is my mini guide to this mind-blowing paradox of a city I know quite well and yet not at all.
Galata ‧ Beyoglu
I definitely recommend to stay in the Galata Tower area or anywhere in Beyoğlu. This neighbourhood feels happening, safe, and authentic and yet modern. It is one of the less conservative neighbourhoods, yet still close to areas like Sultanahmet where you will want to see a lot of sites. The Galata Tower is a great vantage spot if you head to the top. Below it is surrounded by nice shops and decent cafes to dine and drink. On the weekends you will find lots of young people congregating here and hanging out, and if you walk the smaller streets outward from the tower you will find some cute coffee shops, clothing stores, antique dealers, and bars with hip locals.
Where to Stay
Hotel 1312 — This hotel is conveniently situated on a hip yet quiet street just a stone’s throw from Galata tower. I stayed here by myself as my sister and brother in law had reserved a different hotel just down the way. It is small with only about six or so rooms. I got a nice upgrade to the top floor with an enormous terrace, featuring a spectacular view. Each morning my breakfast was served to me in my room. It was extremely comfortable, affordable, very clean, and the staff was so kind and helpful and speaks amazing English. The rooms also have air conditioning which in the summer is a must in Istanbul. The only downside is that there is no elevator so if you have issues with stairs you might want to stay somewhere else. I would definitely stay here again in the future!
Karaköy Rooms — This hip design hotel is where my sister and brother in law stayed during my visit, so I spent quite a bit of time here as well. The owners were there the night we arrived and so kind, stylish, and helpful. The hotel is beautiful and comfortable, and the rooms are even equipped with kitchens and ultra spacious. Breakfast is served in the adjacent restaurant which is delicious. This location is also safe and convenient for accessing various parts of the city where you will be spending most of your time. It is slightly more expensive than Hotel 1312 but still affordable. My sister and brother in law definitely recommend it as well.
Dolmabahçe Palace is located in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul, on the European coastline of the Bosphorus strait. It served as the main administrative center of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 and a fascinating example of eurasian architecture and decor circa the turn of the 19th century. It is one of the most ornate palaces in the world and definitely worth a visit. I had been in the past so did not return on this trip but I recommend it if you are spending three days or more in the city. Vişnezade Mh., 34357 İstanbul, Turkey
Sultanahmet is one of the oldest and most historic areas of Istanbul. This is where the original city of Constantinople was and where you will find most of the Byzantine (post Roman) history still remaining in the city. It is also the home of the Grand Bazaar, the cistern, Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, and so much more. It’s one of the most conservative neighbourhoods as well, so it creates a cultural juxtaposition between the tourist and the locals. I lived here for three months, and now after seeing more of Istanbul, aside from the monuments themselves it is not my favourite neighbourhood to spend time in. I think you can cover its sites in one day, and use the rest of your time elsewhere in the city.
Eyptian Bazaar — Also often referred to as the Spice Bazaar, this is one of the largest bazaars in the city. Located in the Eminönü quarter of the Fatih district, it is the most famous covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar. This is the place to shop for Iranian saffron, Egyptian sponges, Turkish delight, baklava, and any array of spices, dried fruits, or desserts you can imagine. You can also find many wonderful dried teas here. Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Grand Bazaar — The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and over 3,000 shops which attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily. Opened in 1455, this the place to shop for leather goods, tea sets, linens, antique and new jewelry, rugs, and more. The Grand Bazaar has four main gates situated at the ends of its two major streets which intersect near the southwestern corner of the bazaar. Beyazıt, İstanbul, Turkey
The Süleymaniye Mosque is an Ottoman imperial mosque located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, Turkey. It is the largest mosque in the city, and one of the best-known sights of Istanbul. It was constructed in 1550 and the most beautiful mostly for enjoying the surrounding gardens, fountains, and small graveyards. I have been inside in the past, but chose to forego entering again this trip as I did not want to condone the forced covering of women in the Islamic tradition. Süleymaniye, 34116 İstanbul, Turkey
The Basilica Cistern, is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city of Istanbul. While it is a less frequented tourist destination it is absolutely a must visit in my mind. Its cold and damp atmosphere cooled us off from the heat of summer. You can navigate its glowing columns lining the underground pool via a series of pedestrian bridges that lead to the famous statue of Medusa. Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, 34410 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Hagia Sophia is a former Christian patriarchal basilica. It was built in 537 as the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) by Byzantine Emperor at the time the city was still Constantinople. It was later renovated and adapted to become an imperial mosque during the Ottoman era. The remnants of both of its religious purposes are evident at present, mixing arabic murals with orthodox mosaics. Today it is a museum also called Ayasofya, and because it is no longer a place of worship, women can enter freely without being forced to cover their head.Sultan Ahmet, Ayasofya Meydanı, Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey
Karaköy is in fact a lower part of Beyoğlu nearer to the water. It’s waterfront is lined with cafés and boats, while a few streets in you can find some more modern and yet still authentic tastes of Istanbul, including Karaköy Gulluoglu which is a spectacular and famous dessert place featuring an enormous array of Baklava, Koska for a selection of Turkish Delight, La Cité Française which is a covered passage featuring some chic restaurants, and another trendy corridor with an array of shops, cafes, and bakeries where you will find Dandin Bakery, one of our favourite food finds on the trip.
This traditional Ottoman eatery with a modern vibe (thanks to its colorful tiled interior) is a must visit for dinner. Every night there is a nice crowd that you can tell is a mix of in-the-know locals and trendy travelers which makes it a happening atmosphere. The food is delicious, and the staff friendly as it is actually the restaurant attached to and run by the same owners of Karaköy Rooms. I definitely recommend it for dining and if you’re there on the weekend, you may want to reserve to be sure you can get a table. Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mh., Kemankeş Cd No:37/A, İstanbul, Turkey
Dandin Bakery is a sweet and friendly spot that is open from early morning to late at night for whatever you might be craving. It has more of a western vibe, but definitely seems to be a local’s favourite too. They have adorable cakes, great coffee (iced too!) and savory snacks including a delicious breakfast selection for a “toad in the hole” toast and eggs or muesli with fresh berries and yogurt. They also have an adorable dog that lives here and goes around visiting the customers and begging them for some cheese (his favourite). The staff was really lovely to us and the tables are plenty if you want to sit and relax a while. Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mh., Kemankeş Cd No:37/A, İstanbul, Turkey
Taking a cruise on the Bosphorus is one of the best ways to understand the geography of Istanbul and just how expansive it is. The Bosphorus is the body of water that connects the Marmara and the Black Sea, and spans much of Istanbul. These cruises depart from the Sultanahmet side of the Galata Bridge every several hours. I recommend you to take the short tour, or the loop tour, on the Bosphorus line. The cruise will pass under the bridges and takes you past the gorgeous fishing villages that line the shores of the city. You can also see the many Ottoman style mansions that have now been turned into hotels, universities, and country clubs. The tour lasts about two hours.
Bebek & Ortaköy
These are perhaps the two closest and most visited of the Bosphorus fishing village areas. Here you can begin to see a more chic side of Istanbul where many of the affluent go to dine, shop, and hang out. You can hop off the Bosphorus boat tour in Bebek if you like, and go either way by foot to explore. I used to spend many afternoons in Bebek at cafés with friends, as my university, Bogaziçi, was just above. Each afternoon we would walk down the hill when classes were done and stay here until the evening hanging out and studying.
Four Seasons Istanbul at The Bosphorus
I was curious to see this hotel as it opened the year after I lived in Istanbul. Of course being a Four Seasons it is ultra luxury, which means it is a less cultural experience but still worth seeing and heading to if you are looking for a more peaceful area to relax. Their waterfront cafe and bar is a spectacular place to sit and watch the boats go by. They also have hookahs to smoke if you want to try. No:, Kuloğlu Mh., Çırağan Cd. No:28, 34349 Bosphorus/İstanbul, Turkey
Other Things To Do in Istanbul
Topkopı Palace The Topkapı Palace is a large palace in Sultanahmet that was the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for approximately 400 years of their 624-year reign. Here you can see the beautiful harems, the Sultan’s wardrobes, gorgeous gardens, and beautiful views on to the Sea of Marmara.
Whirling Dervishes The whirling dance or Sufi whirling that is proverbially associated with dervishes is best known in the west by the practices (performances) of the Mevlevi order in Turkey, and is part of a formal ceremony known as the Sema. They believe it brings them closer to god. I have seen them in the past and they are truly mesmerizing.
Pierre Loti Café Named for the french novelist, naval officer, and Turkophile, this café is a great place for tea and has sweeping views over the golden horn. There is also a beautiful cometary surrounding it where you can see beautiful and very old Turkish graves.