Lately, I've come to realize that there are certain things that guide books tell you to do, but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only things to do, nor necessarily the most fun. They are simply the "touristy" things to do. Not that that's a bad thing, but come on! You're in Istanbul. For many people, it's the first Muslim country you have visited. For others it may not be, but Turkey is still different from Arabic speaking countries. If you haven't been here before then you probably don't know what to expect, and you certainly don't know what to do other than see the historical sights.
To make a long story short, here's the deal: I'm going to elaborate upon, summarize, and otherwise illustrate my favorite things to do, see, and eat in Turkey, particularly in Istanbul. You may want to check back on this part of the website often. It's going to be changing quite frequently.
On the Asian side, Kadikoy is a very unsung part of Istanbul. There are other upscale and energetic areas on the Asian side, particularly in Bostanci along Bagdat (Baghdad) Street, but for pure fun and affordability I recommend Kadikoy. It offers the best of Asia's hip but affordable nightlife. To get to the best bar street in Kadikoy, go to seaport where the ferries leave from. Take a left up the main thoroughfare. Turn right at the oversized Simit Sarayi (if you see any American fast food restaurants, you've gone too far). Walk straight until you can't walk any further. Hang another left, walk to the end of the street, and hang a right. You will see a "For You" store on your right. Hang left at a little yellow food kiosk, which sells all of your Turkish favorites (hotdogs, grilled cheese, ayran, etc.). Turn left on KadifeSokak, which is the bar street. You'll know it when you see it. It's the one with all the bars and neon signs.
Note: You probably won't be able to follow these directions. You can also get a taxi to Kadife Sokak. That will cost you about $3.
When you get there, check out a couple bars. There are a variety of atmospheric options. My favorite place is called Isis, named after the Egyptian mother goddess. It has awesome fake Egyptian friezes.
Taksim: So many choices, so little time.
The best place in Taksim is Nevizade. Nevizade is the main bar street of Taksim, and it blows every other such street I have ever seen out of the proverbial water. You can find it by walking downIstiklal Caddesi until you see the Balik Pazar (the Fish Bazaar). Turn right and walk past all the nice food: Midye Dolma (clams filled with spiced rice, which are succulent... don't miss these little gems of goodness), kokorec (basically tripe... I tend to steer clear, as intestines in any shape or form generally don't appeal to me), and, of course, fish. Upon entering Nevizade, you have a choice. On the right side of the street are the quieter, more traditional restaurants where you can get a buffet of appetizers: cheese dishes, various dips, olives, and fish, all served along with a strong draught of Raki, Turkey's traditional anise-flavored liquor. If you're lucky you can even catch some live Turkish music.
If you choose the left side of the street, you are looking for one of two things, maybe both: beer and dancing. The beer you choose will be Efes, and the only difference between one pub and the other is price, anywhere from 3 to 6 YTL ($2-4). If you go up any stairs, you will find the balcony and terrace pubs. The music varies and the air is always smokey, and these places are usually packed on Friday and Saturday nights.
Note: My favorite pub in Nevizade is not actually in Nevizade, but right at the end of the street. It is called Balans, and it is one of the few independent breweries in Istanbul. It's a nice break from the monotony that is Efes Pilsen.
b)Restaurants, Cafes, and Coffee!
My favorite restaurant in Istanbul is Gani Gani. Hang a left at McDonalds on Istiklal Caddesi and keep going until you can't go anymore. It's on your right. Gani Gani has several floors, three of which offer an Oriental, particularly Indian (not American Indian!) atmosphere complete with Indian-style cusions and seating. The menu is extensive, and you will not lack for traditional Turkish options.
For dessert, be sure to visit Bolulu Hassan Usta (look for a big yellow sign that says "Hassan", it's easier that way). Most people prefer the Profiterol, which resembles a Boston Creme style pudding treat. Personally, I prefer the Vanilla Rice Pudding.
If Hassan's place doesn't sound like your cup of pudding, head to Inci, a place that many Turks claim is the best dessert to be had in Istanbul. Order the bread pudding, also called Profiterol, and be prepared to go into sugar shock. If pudding doesn't sound palatable, stop at one of the local chocolate vendors. Taksim and Istiklal are located in the area of Istanbul called Begolu, and Begolu chocolate is renowned for excellence. Order chocolate from a variety of options: white, dark, bitter, milky, with pistachios, peanuts, caramel, whathaveyou. Or just get baklava. Baklava is always good.
Baklava deserves its own heading. It's so plentiful and so good that you honestly can't miss it. Now, while it's true that all baklava is good, one must be aware that some baklava is great. If you go to the Patisseri called Mado, with locations in all of Istanbul from Uskudar to Taksim, you can be assured of quality. In fact, a good rule of thumb is that pretty much any baklava that looks fat and excessively nutty will prove to be divine.
Coffee also deserves its own section. Turkish coffee is abundant in Istanbul, but real coffee is so hard to find that it's almost frustrating... if you don't know where to look, that is.
For a small cup of cheap, real coffee, head straight to your local McDonalds or Burger King. Be prepared to stand in line, as service is often slow at fast food restaurants in Istanbul, but it's worth the wait.
For a big cup of Daily Coffee, make a stop-in at Starbucks. For real coffee, wireless Internet, a smoke-free environment, and comfy chairs, Starbucks in Istanbul can't be beat. The pastries are overpriced and uninspiring, but they're the same in the States so I really can't complain. With many locations to serve you (3 Starbucks on Istiklal alone!), Starbucks is your most plentiful option.
For free wireless, cheap coffee, wonderful frozen coffee drinks, and free chocolate, go to Coffee World (Kahve Dunyasi). You get a chocolate spoon with which to stir your beverage and chocolate-covered coffee beans for an extra caffeine tweak. You can order other chocolates--chocolate covered raisins, figs, apricots, etc.-- at Kahve Dunyasi's very own confectionary. Watch them make the chocolate as you wait. Not in the mood for chocolate? There are wonderful sandwich options starting at 3 YTL ($2!). The only downside is the smokey atmosphere.
Note: For real coffee I'm willing to overlook my mega-corporational, globalistic, capitalistic reservations, especially for free Internet, free chocolate, and a place where I don't leave smelling like smoke.
The Princes Islands: Sometimes, Istanbul can be a little much. 16 million people strong and counting, the urban jungle can be overwhelming at times. There are a few reprieves from the cars, crowds, and pollution, the most rural of which can be found a one hour ferry ride from Kabatas going to the Princes Islands (old guide books and Internet sites tell you to go to Eminonu, but this is wrong. The ferry to the islands moved to Kabatas in March 2007). . There are several islands to visit, quiet little places where you can rent a bicycle for the afternoon, grab a quiet bite to eat, and maybe visit a cafe for some tea and backgammon. Granted, the Princes Islands are not terribly exciting, but they are quite beautiful. It's a nice daylong excursion. Eminonu to Sultanahmet: the Tourist Hells
Multiple subheadings are needed for these areas. Firstly,
a)The Grand Bazaar: Famed, many-storied, glorious... these are a few of the adjectives that tourist guidebooks and websites use to describe the Grand Bazaar. If you are in Turkey, you should certainly see it. The history alone is reason enough, not to mention the unbelieveable concentration of touristic goods into one immense covered market. Every shopkeeper speaks three or four languages (at least!) and you can buy every bright trinket that no native Istanbul citizen has used for a hundred years or more.
Yes, you should see the Grand Bazaar, but be prepared to be thoroughly annoyed. It is very crowded, ridiculously over-priced, and even the most steadfast shopper finds it difficult to ignore the persistent shopowners' sales pitches. I would say spend one hour here looking around, tops; but if you try to walk into a store, any store, expect a fifteen to twenty minute delay as the shopkeeper caresses you with chinanigans.
b)The Egyptian Spice Bizaar:
The Spice Bizaar is a mini Grand Bizaar, but infinitely better, in my humble opinion. The prices can be more competetive than in the Grand Bazaar, and while many things are the same price, you can also grab some delectable samples of local sweets, meets and cheeses. You can ask the shopkeepers (here, also, they are often over-aggressively ready to assist you) to get a portion of spice from any of the colorful, heaping mounds.
If the indoor portion of the Spice Bizaar isn't your style, head outside in the direction of the Yeni Mosque and walk through the Pet Bizaar. The animal magnitude of the Pet Bazaar has dwindled considerably over the last several years, now displaying mostly fish, birds, a few cats and dogs, and even a rodent and reptile every now and again, but it is still an entertaining walk-through.
If you explore the area on the other side of the Spice Bizaar building, directly opposition the Pet Bizaar, you can find some of the cheapest outdoor shopping in Istanbul. Housewares galore, assorted olives, cheeses, spices, nuts, and a very excellent wholesale coffee seller with freshly ground Turkish coffee, as well as imports from Kenya to Brazil. Across from the coffee seller is a little shop that is to die for, with some of the best Pastrami, cheese, and generally the best sandwich and buffet options I have seen in Istanbul ı love the Spice Bizaar area.
c) The Galata Bridge:
Stretching over the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge is one of the most sensory sights in Istanbul. Standing on top of it you can see all of Eminonu from the Yeni Mosque to Topkapi Palace. Mosques dot the horizon, and dozens of minarets jut like daggers from the seven hills (Constantinople, the City on Seven Hills) that Constantine distinguished to emulate the seven hills of Rome. Local fisherman are thick along the bridge's ballustrade, pulling up fish which they sell to Galata Bridge restaurants and other fish vendors in the area.
Beneath the Galata Bridge there are restaurants which are renowned for fish. Although I find the menu options a bit overpriced, you can't beat a view of the Golden Horn with ferries and boats coming and going, fishermen fishing, and tourists being heckled as they walk by the restaurants as you eat. For pure atmosphere you can go to On Numera, which is a tea, backgammon, and nargile cafe with beanbag chairs, low comfy couches, and contemporary music. It's a perfect place to relax after a midafternoon stroll through the cluster of Eminonu, and it's also a great place to go for a drink later in the evening!
Note: Walking along restaurants lining the Galata Bridge is perhaps more annoying that walking in the Grand Bazaar. If someone asks you "Excuse me may I ask you a question?", I highly recommend you either say "No" or just say nothing at all.
I know you'll do it anyway, but I just want to remind you. Go inside the Blue Mosque. Wait to hear the call to prayer (it's more beautiful here than anywhere else in Istanbul). See the Hagia Sophia. Budget at least 2 hours for Topkapi Palace.
Note: Try to see these sights during the daytime. Pictures of Hagia Sophia are difficult to take at night.
Ortakoy Located right next to Besiktas, the section of Ortakoy located near the Bosphorus is one of the most picturesque parts of Istanbul. If you catch a bus going towards Bebek you will find it. The best time to visit Ortakoy is on a Sunday, which is the bazaar day. You will know it by the multitude of shops, restaurants and cafes, the outdoor trinket sellers, rows of waffle and homemade gozleme (traditional Turkish pancakes) kiosks, and the Kumpir shops that sell the famous Ortakoy Kumpirs (baked potatoes filled to bursting with toppings of your choice). It's worth an afternoon luncheon and a bout of nicknack shopping. Afterwards, feel free to walk along the Bosphorus towards Bebek, or grab the hour long ferry tour for only 5 YTL ($3).