Last month, I visited the beautiful, but very crowded Istanbul. I loved it, but there were just so many tourists.
To be honest, I hate vast swathes of tourists. They make me uncomfortable (I get the hypocrisy, considering I’m a tourist. I don’t fall for that “tourist vs. traveler” crap). You have to wait in line and push to get a better picture, not to mention dealing with all the touts that are inexorably linked to tourists like fleas on a dog. It just wears on me.
So while I wanted to see the main tourist draws of the city – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Palace and the Grand Bazar – I also wanted to leave the crowds in my wake.
So go see the trip advisor top 10, they are definitely worth it. But if you have enough time, try some of the more relaxing, dare I say, charming, alternatives.
1) Hide from the tourist hoards at Belthur Guelhane Kandil Tesislerl Park
After fighting through the sea of people around historic Old Town, stop at the green oasis that is Belthur Park. The tourist crowd thins here and local kids scamper about. Take a load off at the relaxed outdoor café and let a local kitty jump up on your lamp. It’s instant zen.
2) Decide whether you like Osmanli Mancunu or not
On the way out of the park, you may notice a burly man stirring one of five colored vats with a shiv. Don’t worry, he’s won’t shank you, instead he will spin you a Osmanli Mancunu, a slightly waxy, sugary delight, that looks better than it tastes (in my opinion). Try it and then decide whether you are going to throw it straight in the bin or not.
3) Diversify your Mosque experience
Hagia Sophia, Sulmanyanie and Blue Mosque warrant the praise that’s lavishly thrust upon them, but going to a Mosque where you are the only tourist around is another experience entirely. I was able to sit quietly in a corner of Yavuz Sultan Selim Camii, while two men prayed off to my left and elementary school children listened obediently to a young, fresh-faced Imam off to my right. Sitting on the plush, hand-made carpet redefined my expectation of austere religious conclaves. If you are pressed for time, Faith Mosque is a bit closer to old town and is also less touristy.
4) Go to a church that clangs like a battleship when you strike it with a hammer
Istanbul has a mixed history of Catholic and Islāmic rule (a prime example is the once Cathedral now Mosque Hagia Sophia), so visiting a church is an excellent way to round off your time in Istanbul. Supposedly, the Bulgarian Orthodox church Saint Stephan made entirely out of Iron clangs like battleship when you strike it with a hammer. Unfortunately, when I visited it, it was closed, so I was unable to test the theory. In truth I left my hammer at home, so I wasn’t going to prove anything right or wrong that day anyways.
5) Visit a Flea Market
After a Doener shop owner with a bushy, Tom Selleck moustache hastily gave us the wrong directions (I am pretty sure he did it on purpose), a kindly older gentleman led us to the unassuming entrance of “Horhor Bit Pazari”. The six storied flea market has antiques not only from Turkey, but from all over the world. Explore in peace and quiet without the high pressure sales techniques of the Spice Market and the Grand Bazar.
6) Eat fresh fish in Kumkapi
Close to old town and without the hoards of tourists is the Armenian neighbourhood of Kumkapi. Here you can stroll a little easier and check out some old school Armenian churches. If hunger strikes for traditional turkish food, sit your cheeks down in one of the numerous fish restaurants of the district for the catch of the day.
7) Find out what Salep tastes like (during the cold season)
Steph, my girlfriend, and I, argued on what this seasonal hot drink reminded us of. I said eggnog with cinnamon instead of nutmeg. She said Rice Pudding without the rice and with foamed milk. Doesn’t really matter because it was delicious.
8) Go through the market in Kadikoy on the Asian side
This was one of my favorite experiences in Istanbul. I loved the Asian side – fewer tourists, but so much activity. The markets are filled with a spectrum of smells, from fresh fish to stinky cheese. At a local olive shop, we were greeted by a gregarious salesman who could have sold a ketchup popsicle to a woman wearing white gloves. He first showed us a picture on his cell phone of him when he was a young man. Then, when he found out I was from the US, he yelled “Obama, Obama” and grinned heavily. For his coup de grâce, he juggled a falling olive with the back of his foot and then kicked it into the trash bin. Suddenly, without even realising it, I was being ushered to the cash register with a half a kilo of red and green olives. I wanted enough to sample while I walked around, instead I got a two month supply. With a punum like that, I couldn’t be mad at the guy.
9) Go chic along Bagdat Caddesi
I thought about writing a post called “A tale of two cities” (in fact, I still might), comparing the conservative side of Istanbul and it’s hip, ultra-modern counterpart. The 6 km stretch of Bagdat Caddesi on the Asian side, is a great place to go shopping and stop at some chic cafes to people watch. It’s name is derived from when Sultan Abdul Hamid II captured the capital of Iraq way back in 1638. During the years that followed, the Istanbul elite built mansions along Bagdat, which were later bulldozed to pave the way for more practical buildings. Today you will find all the major luxury brands, plus a plethora of restaurants and coffee houses.
10) Have a drink with a view
Some hotels offer you free bikes to use around the city. Alas, with the hilly and undulating terrain, very few people take them up on their offer. A cyclist’s loss is the bar with a view’s gain. Head to a place like Blue Hotel, Hotel Armada or Zoe for a drink and enjoy a spectacular view of the city. The blue hotel is the best for seeing, you guessed it, the Blue Mosque, the Armada for the Bosporus and Zoe for a panoramic view of Old Town.
11) Stay at a trendy, boutique hotel
Staying in a boutique hotel will allow you to experience the best in Turkish hospitality, which is really world-class. The two hotels we stayed in treated us like old friends. The receptionist at the sub Karakoy hotel discussed with us for 30 minutes about our plans for the day. If you stay there, make sure to grab your parting gift on the way out. At the Minature, both the manager and front desk clerk walked us to our taxi and bid us farewell. The small, intimate boutique hotels are definitely the way to go in Istanbul.
12) Visit a Meyhanesi and drink Raki with Back Carrot
A Meyhanesi is a traditional bar that people go to drink alcohol. I only note this, because some restaurants, especially in the non-tourist areas, don’t necessarily sell alcohol. At a Meyhanesi, you may hear live music by roving minstrels or see the occasional impromptu dancing, but what you really came here for is the anise flavored liquor Raki. Don’t take it like a tourist and drink it straight, do it like the locals do and mix in some water, which immediately turns it milky white, and then chase it with some salty, and slightly horrible, black carrot juice.
13) Throw bread from the back of the cross-continent ferry
Istanbul straddles both Europe and Asia, which makes for intriguing bucket list considerations. People that have never been to either continent can scratch both off their lists in one fell swoop. While crossing it on the ferry, make your way to the back of the boat and bring some bread. Not only kids are allowed to enjoy the thrill of a perfectly timed throw and the way the seagulls bank like airplanes to zero in on their breaded adversary to catch it out of mid-air.
14) Visit the Train station and eat at the station’s cinema themed restaurant
Istanbul is modernising itself at breakneck speed. Rumor has it, that a fire a couple of years back at the train station was no accident. Some believe that it was done intentionally to pave the way for commercial buildings. Don’t worry, the fire was put out and you can still visit this brick masterpiece. Walking through the train station around sunset is eerie. There were no trains coming or going and the only people there other than us were those working at the station. Adding to the bizarreness is the restaurant attached. There were no menus available and to top it off, none of the waiters spoke English. We had to rely on the assistance of a patron who translated for us. The food is good though and the atmosphere resembles a 60’s style cinema. They even projected an old Turkish movie on the front wall halfway through the evening. The restaurant is a great way to end a night in Istanbul.