Of course, highlights like Aya Sofia, Blue Mosque and Topkapi palace are definitely worth a visit, but after that of course you want to get away from the crowds of tourists. Strolling through city parks where no tourists come, to a traditional drink and dinner room, and to a neighbourhood hamam instead of to an impersonal touristy one. Freelance journalist Fréderike Geerdink lives in the most dynamic city in the world and tells you where to go!
published with a whole lot of pictures, some of them taken by Duygy Arseven.
There is a good reason to book a hotel on the Asian side of the city (called the Anatolian side by Turks) when you visit Istanbul: it provides you with a reason to take a boat to the European side, where the main tourist attractions are located. The city shows itself in all its beauty from the water: the big cargo ships that just pass through, the beacons like Topkapi Palace and the Bosporus bridge, the shrieking seagulls, the heaving fishing boats and the fellow passengers, having a relaxed trip in the crazy Istanbul traffic.
Close to the boat terminal in Üsküdar is the Yeni Saray Hotel (Selmanipak Caddesi, Cesme Sokak 33, tel +90216 5530777, www.yenisarayotel.com, €45 per night for a double room). In Kadiköy the Parkhouse Hotel, close to the harbour and the bus station, is a good choice (Muhurdar Fuat Sokak 12, tel +90216 3361080, www.parkhousehotels.com, €75,- per night for a double room).
Without a doubt the most extraordinary mosque in town: the Şakirin Mosque, in the Anatolian suburb of Üsküdar. Opened in 2009 and designed by Zeynep Fadillioglu, who won prizes for her designs of trendy bars and restaurants. The Şakirin Mosque is light, modern, open and female-friendly: the women’s section is not a dark place at the back of the mosque, but a beautiful, light and spacious balcony – you could almost pity the men, who are not allowed to use the stairs leading to the women’s section. The mosque is situated at the entrance to the immense Karaca Ahmet cemetery, one of the biggest in Turkey. An oasis of peace, with some tombstones dating back to the sixteenth century. Entrance to mosque and cemetery is via Nuh Kuyusu Caddesi, Selimiye (Üsküdar). Most easy way to get there is with a taxi, the name of the mosque is pronounced Sjakeereen Djaamee.
It would have been a real disgrace: last year UNESCO was about to take Istanbul off the World Heritage List and place it on the World Heritage in Danger list. At the same time, the city was working hard to organize “Istanbul Cultural Capital of Europe 2010”. It blew over, but only for the time being, because historical sites are still being damaged or destroyed by urbanization and clumsy renovations.
Anyway, of course Istanbul 2010 is worth a visit. Want to know what event is on and where? Check it out on http://www.en.istanbul2010.org, or visit the information centre, which is at Atlas Pasaji, a passage off the most important shopping street of the city, Istiklal Caddesi (on your left coming from Taksim Square).
From a boat on the Bosporus you see beautiful old estates by the water side, especially on the Anatolian shore. These estates are called yali’s, and unfortunately they are owned by private people and the state and not open to the public. Luckily there is ‘Forbidden Love’, a Turkish novel first published in 1900 that was recently translated into Dutch. It is set in a yali and tells the story of Bihter, a young woman who marries an older rich man just for material gain, but after a while she longs for passionate love. Written in very rich language, ‘over the top’ actually, but with great style. Read it before you go to Istanbul, because if not, you will find it hard to leave your hotel!
Forbidden love, by Halid Ziya Usakligil.
Most beautiful museum
It’s not situated in the tourist heart of the city, so many tourists don’t take the trouble to go there: the Kariye Museum. Pity, because this former church is one of the city’s most stunning museums. It boasts beautiful mosaics and frescos, and next to it is a nice square where you can have a drink and a bite. The Kariye Museum is close to the old city walls of Istanbul, and they shouldn’t be missed either.
Kariye Museum, Kariye Camii Sokak, in the old neighbourhood of Fatih. More information in every Istanbul guide-book.
Strolling and fishing
I do it often, strolling along the Bosporus or the Sea of Marmara. A few good locations:
* Sea of Marmara between Kocamustafapasa and Eminönü. Take the light rail from the train station on the European side, at Sirkeci, and get off at the 4th ( (Yenikapi) or 5th (Kocamustafapasa) station. Walk back in the direction you came from, along the water. You walk through lively city parks with an impressive view on the sea.
* Arnavutköy. In Ottoman times Albanians lived here – literally Arnavutköy means ‘Albanian village’. The coastline is full of old wooden houses, all of them nicely restored. Arnavutköy is just north of the Bebek area, where the famous of Istanbul live, and where you can also have a good stroll. Arnavutköy and Bebek are situated just north of the first Bosporus Bridge, on the European side of town.
* Between Üsküdar and Harem. Walk from the harbour of Üsküdar to the Maiden Tower (to be found in every city guide), and then continue walking along the water to Harem bus station. Tip: from Harem there is a boat to the European side!
By the way, I sometimes take my fishing gear with me so I can catch my own evening meal. Do you have fishing gear? Put it in your suitcase! Fishing is pastime number 1 in Istanbul (and pure necessity for some), and why wouldn’t you join the fishermen as a tourist? Don’t throw the fish you catch back into the sea: the fisherman next to you will be happy to accept them!
Strolling and shopping
For this of course you must go to Istiklal Caddesi, the most famous shopping street in town. Shop till you drop. You can also turn off half way down Istikal, at Galatasaray Lyceum, leave the modern shops behind and start antique hunting. The best area for antiques is Cihangir, situated more or less between Istiklal Caddesi and the water. For example, from Istikla, turn into Yeni Carsi Caddesi, next to the Galatasaray Lyceum, and walk down in the direction of the Bosporus. If you focus on the Findikli tram station as the end of your stroll, you will automatically pass through Cihangir.
Cihangir is also good for hotels and restaurants. Recommended: Hotel Villa Zürich, http://www.hotelvillazurich.com (Akarsu Yokusu Caddesi 44-46, Cihangir, tel +90212 2930604, € 120,- per night for a double room). The upper floor of Zürich has a good fish restaurant. Another restaurant tip: 5. Kat (The Fifth Floor), Soganci Sokak 7, 5th floor (with elevator), tel +90212 2496608, www.5kat.com. You can also have breakfast here.
Getting some exercise
I like to use the fitness equipment that the Istanbul municipality has placed in many city parks. The view is, on my left the Bosphorus bridge, further to the right the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge (the second bridge over the Bosphorus), and passing ships. Often quite a few people join me for exercise, like parents with children, head-scarved women and older men. You can’t really call it intensive sport, but it feels good anyway. My favourite spot is the park right next to the Bosporus and next to Beylerbeyi Palace (tour recommended!), on the Anatolian side of town.
5 times good eating
1. Club/restaurant 360. Istiklal Caddesi, Misir Appartement, 8th floor. Coming from Taksim Square, a bit further on from Galatasaray Lyceum on the left – there is a sign on the building. Trendy restaurant with great view. Friday and Saturday after midnight: dancing! Reservation recommended. www.360istanbul.com.
2. The House Café. Several locations, but the one in Ortaköy is the best because it has a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus. Reservation recommended! Salhane Sokak 1, Ortaköy, www.thehousecafe.com.tr
3. Kanaat Lokantasi. One of the oldest restaurants in Istanbul (1933!) and the most famous in the Üsküdar area. Selmani Pak Caddesi 9, close to the harbour. Ottoman cuisine, also great for lunch. Very fast service, you won’t spend an hour here. Also famous for its desserts.
4. Çiya. In the lively neighbourhood of Kadiköy, Anatolian side of the city. Kebabs, but also lots of choice for vegetarians. Güneşlibahçe Sokak 43, 44 and 48, www.ciya.com.tr.
5. Viktor Levi. Both on the Anatolian (Moda Caddesi, Damaci Sokak 4, Kadiköy, www.modaviktorlevi.com, with garden!) and the European side (Hamalbasi Caddesi 8A, Galatasaray, Beyoglu. www.viktorlevisarapevi.com).
One of the most charming areas in town is Kuzguncuk. Easy to reach from the harbour in Üsküdar by taking the coast road in the direction of he bridge. You can walk it (about 20 minutes) or take any bus going along the coast road (5 minutes). Kuzguncuk is known for the many religions that used to co-exist here, for the old wooden houses and for the creative people living here and for their small galleries. On the coast road, just after you get off the bus, there are a mosque and an Armenian church right next to each other. If you take the street from the bus stop, Icadiye Caddesi, on the right hand side there is a Greek orthodox church with a nice quiet courtyard. On Tufan Sokak is a Greek cemetery, and a bit higher up in the area, almost at the end of Kuzguncuk Deresi Sokak, you find a Jewish and an Armenian cemetery. But don’t forget to just stroll around here!
Akbil, that’s short for Akilli Bilet, meaning ‘smart ticket’. It’s a plastic hanger with a chip, about as small as a key. You can use it on practically all public transport. And it’s really simple: as you get on any public transport, you push the chip into a small machine at the door, and with a loud bleep the fare for a trip is written deducted. The chip is not personalized: you can bleep once for each passenger in a group. An Akbil costs 6 lira. You can buy it at the major bus, boat, and metro stations. There you can also load credits onto it: just give the Akbil with the amount of credits you want to load to the ticket counter, or use the flawlessly working (seriously!) machines.
Many tourists looking for hamam pleasure end up in the tourist hamams in and around Sultanahmet, even though they really had planned on going to just a neighbourhood hamam. Do you also want to visit a very ordinary, non-touristy hamam? Luckily that’s not so difficult, because every neighbourhood has a few. Traditionally they are located next to a mosque, and they are easily recognizable from the outside by the dome-shaped roof. The hamam I regularly visit is in my suburb, Üsküdar, and is called Çinili Hamami, built in 1640. Address: Murat Reis Mahallesi, Çavusdere Caddesi. All-in package costs 25 lira, and that’s (at least) half the price you pay at a touristy hamam!
Raki, mezeler and fish: inseparable
There was consternation last year when the Turkish government forbade showing food in advertisements for raki, the national alcoholic drink. It brought the creativity of advertising agencies to hilarious heights, until a court declared the ban illegal. Quite rightly, because raki (to be pronounced as raku, with a short u) and food are inseparable. Go take a look at a meyhane, a traditional place for eating and drinking. My favourite is Cumhuriyet (Republic), on Balik Pazari, a busy side street of Istiklal Caddesi – Cumhuriyet can be found just past the busiest part of the street, at nr. 47. The food is nicest on the first floor. Don’t ask for the menu, but ask if you can see the ‘mezeler’, the (mostly vegetarian) side dishes. They are presented on a big tray at your table, and you point out the ones you want. Enjoy your mezeler, and then order fish – ask to see the fish available, they will take them to your table and you can choose. To complete the party, of course you order a bottle of raki (mix it with water and ice). That’s how Turks do it!
Fréderike Geerdink has lived in Turkey since 2006 and in Istanbul since 2007. She is a freelance journalist for (among others) ANP, Opzij, Volkskrant Magazine, HP/De Tijd and de Groene Amsterdammer. She writes a weblog about current affairs and daily life in Turkey at www.journalistinturkey.com.