A Girl's Guide to Istanbul, Turkey

september 23, 2018

Istanbul, a city of delightful opposites; international yet exotic, with an Old City located opposite skyscrapers, heartwarming and haggling locals, Bosphorus river views and mosque domed skylines, indulgent spas and abrasive hammams, top-rate shopping at shockingly low prices, and vibrant streets framing dark alleys, all on the border of the East and the West. The continents do no divide here, Asia and Europe seem to spill their cultural heritage across the two coasts in a dynamic and historically rich region where it is all muddled together in a refreshing cocktail.  A city has never pleasantly surprised me in such a way that Istanbul has.


I have been inexplicably drawn to Turkey for quite some time, yet travel advisories and failure of the stars to align kept me away until fate would have the convenience of a travel partner cross my path. My best friend from childhood, Katie, was coming to visit me in the capital of Georgia, Tbilisi. She would have to fly through Istanbul to get to there, so why not make an adventure out of it and tack on a week in this elusive country? Terrorism: that’s why, they said. But I am so happy to have put my trust in fellow travelers who encouraged this venture, rather than the US government touting fear, because I would have missed quite the treasure of Turkey.

SEE // DO

  • The Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed), Hagia Sophia, and Tokapi Palace, the top three tourist attractions in Istanbul, are conveniently located walking distance of each other. Make sure to check opening times and plan accordingly to knock out all three of these at once and then avoid returning to this congested touristic area.

 

  • Suleymaniye Mosque is just as beautiful as the Blue Mosque, but much less crowded. It's elevated position also has scenic views of the river and Golden Horn.

 

  • Beyazit State Library has a stunning reading room, of which I received a private tour, as it is not commonly visited by tourists. I couldn’t help the opportunity to indulge my inner bibliophile and a moment of quiet after visiting the overwhelming Grand Bazaar next door.

 

  • Galata Tower interests history buffs for its purpose as a former prison. One can climb to the top for nice views and a meal at the restaurant overlooking Istanbul, yet be prepared for a bit of a wait to mount the stairs. Alternatively, you can pop by for a quick photo op and then explore the surrounding area, home to many cute cafes and shops.

 

 

  • Smoke hookah amongst locals. My picks: Cafe de Vore for a traditional ambiance on a cute side alley in Beyoglu OR Lulu Hookah Lounge for rooftop river views OR Gulhane Sur Cafe in the Old City for outdoor floor seating on those very cute and traditional cushions and carpets.

SHOP // sPLURGE

  • The Grand Bazaar is a must see, even if you don’t like shopping. It is a cultural experience. Good luck leaving empty handed, if you can find your way out of the maze, that is.

  • Located within the mazes outside the Grand bazaar is a gem of a shop called By Saka. They sell homemade traditional jewelery, along with centuries old clothing and artifacts.

  • Head to the Spice Bazaar for all the flavorful things. I especially enjoyed sampling dozens of variations of baklava and ogling over endless bins of loose leaf teas in enticing varieties.

  • Artemis Rug Store, just around the corner from the Four Seasons, is a great alternative  to the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar. They sell very authentic Turkish goods that you truly can't find anywhere else. It's very calm and well-curated.

 

  • Feel refreshed after a hammam bath. We went the less traditional, more luxe route at the Cowshed Spa of Soho House, a very trendy space with immaculate service.

 

  • I bought a whole new wardrobe boutique shopping near Macka Sanat Park. Favorite shops include Fey (expertly sourced high-end international and local designers),  Beymen Nisantasi (local luxe department store), Mudo Concept (local version of Forever21), Yargici (cute seasonal items), and honestly, so many more, all with incredible prices!

 

  • A Hidden Bee in Beyoglu sells sustainable clothing and accessories designed by a local couple. My favorite shop in Istanbul!!!

 

  • Grandma Vintage, just down the street from A Hidden Bee, sells all the cute oldies.

 

  • Support local artists at Amant Turc by purchasing unique prints and graphics in the store near Galata Tower.

Eat // dRINK

  • Karakoy Lokantasi for traditional fare focused on seafood in a very cute setting of teal tiled walls and white table cloths.

 

  • Aheste for traditional Turkish meze with a modern twist in warm brick building looking out to the street. Tasty breakfast on the weekends.

 

  • Bilice Kebap is the best place to try Turkish meats. They have these amazingly huge platters with lamb kebabs and all kinds of veg. It also happens to be INCREDIBLY inexpensive and BYOB.

 

  • Cecconi’s, located behind Soho House, for the best Italian food outside of Italy in a swank garden ambiance.

 

  • 5 Kat Restaurant for a lovely breakfast spread and impeccable views on a rooftop garden.

 

  • Delicatessen for the best lunch in the city comprised of all locals. It’s also probably amazing at aperitif hour for wine and meat/cheese boards which dominated the menu.

 

  • Mikla, ranked in the top 50 restaurants worldwide with panoramic views from the hotel Marmara Pera.

 

  • The Marmara Pera rooftop bar and pool overlooking the Old City and Golden Horn with live music on the weekends.

 

  • Comedus, a beer, wine, and cheese shop.

 

 

  • CityLights for panoramic views overlooking Taksim Square on the top floor of the Intercontinental Hotel.

 

 

  • BeerCorner for cool alleyway bevs and an international crowd.

 

Getting There // gETTING aROUND

Istanbul is quite large and dispersed over the land. Getting around is a bit more complicated than in other cities, but there are plenty of options:

 

  • Uber is great for getting just about anywhere, although they usually take a lot longer to arrive than what frequent users are used to in other cities. They are generally slightly more expensive than taxis, but they are all XL cars, so they’re super roomy and many are decked out with fancy upholstery and lighting.

 

  • Taxis are plentiful and easy to find. They are also inexpensive and all metered, so you don’t have to worry about being ripped off or negotiating a rate. The only downside is they may turn you down, especially in the case of traffic. It happened twice that a driver said they would only drive us around the Old City instead of taking us across the river to our Airbnb in Beyoglu.

 

  • The train is decent and frequent, but make sure you have cash in low bills to buy a ticket.

  • If at all possible, I recommend walking. Istanbul has so many lovely details that can only be appreciated on foot.

A little note on safety…

 

So we all hear about the bad stuff in the news, I’m not going to repeat it here. I will say bad things can happen to you anywhere, but as two young, very western looking women walking around Istanbul alone (even at night), Katie and I were shocked how safe we felt. The locals are incredibly friendly. All they want to do is give you free tea or wine and chat. We both marveled how we felt safer in Istanbul than we did walking around any big city in the US, notably places we had visited together, such as NYC, Chicago, or where we grew up in St. Louis. Katie said she even felt safer than in her college town of MIZZOU (Columbia, MO). Meanwhile, I’ve had my phone stolen in Ireland and credit card info stolen in Brussels - both places touted as some of the safest and easiest to travel. I can't count how many times and places I've been verbally harassed walking around in the US and just about every country I've visited. As always, I suggest being aware of your surroundings and trusting your gut WHEREVER you travel. But do not let fear keep you from beautiful and fascinating places, such as Istanbul.