Hello fellow traveler,
You’re headed to Istanbul and I’m green with envy. Whether you’re sinking roots or simply passing through, please allow me to play your virtual tour guide. Rick Steves and his army of experts will undoubtedly name dozens of other places to eat, drink and play. My intention, however, is not to play expert. Rather, it is to introduce you to snippets of my experience in hopes that you’ll fall in love with the city as much as I have. I include some must-sees, should-sees and could-sees, so use this post as an à la carte menu and take your pick. My hope is you’ll find a beautiful mixture of authenticity and glamour along your way. But then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder…
During my 10 months in Istanbul, I lived in eight different apartments. I’m not a nomad, but I appreciate the perspective change that comes from living in different parts of a city. I can’t say I recommend moving as frequently as I did, but I can now pack up my entire life in under 30 minutes and that’s pretty cool.
- Ortaköy – Translated in Turkish: Middle Village. And hands down my favorite part of town to live. It’s small, quiet, “up and coming,” but a bit further north from all the excitement of Beşiktaş and Taksim, which could be good or bad depending on what you’re looking for.
- Cihangir – Calling all hipster and artsy folks, this is where you belong! Beautiful views of the Bosphorus and an easy walk to Taksim. Not to mention this area has some of the best brunch spots in the city. I never had the opportunity to live here, but sure wish I would have.
- Moda – If the Anatolian side is more your jam, Moda offers a quiet neighborhood that’s only a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of Kadiköy. There’s also a beautiful park that wraps around the southern end of Kadiköy, perfect for running, drinking and sunset watching.
- Etiler – A wee bit more expensive, but a neat place to live if you’re looking for a suburban feel. It’s a vertical climb from Beşiktaş, but is right on the metro line, giving you easy access to the rest of the city.
- Beşiktaş – Not the most glamorous part of town, but definitely the most convenient. Ferry, bus and mini buses will take you anywhere you need to go. If you’re tight on cash and don’t want to compromise location, I’d recommend finding a spot here.
I love food, but I don’t love spending lots of money on something that here’s one second and in my belly the next. That being said, here are a few cafes and restaurants that will keep your wallet and belly full.
- Zubeyir (Taksim) – Recently named one of the best restaurants in Istanbul by Thrillist, let your tastebuds discover why it earned the accolade. However, meat eaters only!
- Kale Kahve (Bebek) – Nestled along the Bosphorus, this small cafe is one of my all-time favorites for a traditional Turkish breakfast. Once you have a food baby, walk south to find Rumelihisarı, referenced in the next section.
- Asmali Cavit (Taksim) – Ask me where my favorite fish restaurant is and I’d send you here where you can order meze plates to your heart’s desire. I celebrated my birthday here and devoured my weight in hamsi (anchovies).
- Mangerie (Bebek) – Although not a traditional Turkish restaurant, this hidden gem will have you thinking you’re in France rather than Turkey. Insider secret: it’s the only place I found bacon!
- Sunset Grill & Bar (Ulus) – If you’re looking for a change of scenery, Sunset sits high atop a hill with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus. Sushi lovers may never leave. Disclaimer: this spot is more expensive than the others, but the views are worth the extra lira.
Beyond some of the places I’ve already mentioned and will continue to mention throughout this post, below are some half- and full-day adventures that will take you to all corners of the city.
- Princes’ Islands (full day)– Ideal for a day trip out of the city. The hour-long ferry ride will carry you through the Bosphorus and into the Marmara Sea where you’ll choose to get off at one of the three main islands: Büyükada, Burgazada or Heybeliada. I’ve been to the first two and recommend Büyükada if you have to only pick one. There are no cars allowed! So catch a ride in a horse carriage, rent a bike or wander by foot to explore these islands where you’ll find Victorian houses, beaches and dozens of fish restaurants.
- Kilyos Beaches (full day) – Grab your swimsuit and head an hour north to the Black Sea. There are a number of beaches. Some are free, others charge a small fee. While you’re up there, make your way over to Istanbul’s Belgrad Ormanı where well-maintained trails will carry you miles into the lush forest. Yes, a real forest.
- Rumelihisarı (half day) – Undoubtedly one of my favorite places in all of Istanbul. I often paid the 5 lira to climb atop the castle ruins and read a book while looking over the Bosphorus. Book recommendation: Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk. When you’re done here, spend the rest of the afternoon north at Emirgan Park, which is known for its tulips.
- Bosphorus Tours (half day) – Every tourist ends up paying 15 lira to view the Bosphorus from a boat, but I don’t blame them. The cruise will take you on a full loop from south to north where nearly a dozen palaces and hundreds of yalı (waterfront houses) early line the shore.
- The Old City (full day) – You’re bound to end up here and it would be a shame to not see these sights: Hagia Sofia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cisterns, Gulhane Park, Topkapi Palace, Spice Bazaar, Grand Bazaar. However, you’re going to be surrounded by tourists and vendors shouting hilarious pick up lines, such as “Hey, Victoria Secret model, come to my shop!” I’d love to hear some new ones, although I doubt they’ve changed their tactics.
Despite most people’s preconceived notions of the city, Istanbulus know how to party. Most drinking nights don’t start until 10 p.m. and you won’t crawl back into bed until the Call to Prayer comes on at 5 a.m. So put your drinking pants on, friends.
- Asmalı Mescit (Taksim) – Dress in jeans and a nice blouse for a fabulous night of bar hopping. Faces, Off Pera, Propoganda were a few of my favorite bars in the area.
- Ortaköy – Grab your heels and lipstick! Anjelique, Reina and Suada are all nightclubs that line the Bosphorus (or are IN the Bosphorus; see picture below). The locals say these spots have been bombarded by too-young and too-rich kids, but depending on the night, these are some of my favorite places.
- Pera District (Taksim) – Great for a cocktails-on-the-rooftop kind of night. NuTeras, Curcuma and Marmara Pera were my go-tos.
- Barlar Caddesi (Kadiköy) – Literally translated to “Bar Street,” this strip of bars is more of an underground scene. Perfect for a whiskey or tequila kind of night, but just follow the music and you’re bound to find something worthwhile.
- French Street (Taksim) – Hidden in the backstreets of Taksim, this narrow street is lined with colorful rooftop restaurants and hookah bars. If you go in the evening, you’ll often find live music calling your name. Ideal for a low-key night with the option to wander around Istiklal afterward.
- Bağdat Caddesi ($$) – located on the Asian side, this tree-lined stretch of stores includes Zara, Nike and Bath and Body Works, but also has plenty of cafes and restaurants to help you recover from your shopping binge. If you go a few blocks south, you’ll find Dalia Beach, offering views of the Princes Islands and a place to rest your feet.
- Nişantaşı ($$$) – Historically this was the nicest part of the city and now it’s made a revival and is undoubtedly the fanciest part of town. You want designer clothes, they’ve got designer clothes. You want international cafes and tea houses, they have those too. I can’t say I shopped here, but I did window shop till I dropped.
- Istiklal Caddesi ($) – Shopping is one of the countless activities Istiklal has to offer. I could probably write a whole post solely about “Independence Street,” but you’re guaranteed to find what you need here.
- Kadiköy Merkezi ($) – Located on the Asian side, this area is one of the largest shopping districts in the city. When I wanted to save money, this is where I found myself.
- Istinye Park ($$) – If you think American malls are nice, you should see Istinye Park. It’s the most beautiful mall I’ve ever seen. It also has the nicest movie theater in the city. It’s a bit of a trek to get there, but totally worth it if you’re looking for quality stores all in one place.
- Breakfast: gözleme (breakfast quesadilla of sorts), menemen (egg scramble), su böreği (noodle pastry)
- Lunch: kumpir (loaded baked potato), mantı (ravioli soup), tavuk ve pilav (chicken and rice with chickpeas)
- Dinner: iskender (lamb over pita bread soaked in tomato sauce), fish (any and all kinds), meze plates (eggplant is my favorite)
- Dessert: künefe (cheese pastry with sugary syrup), Turkish waffles (dessert waffle), aşure (also known as Noah’s pudding because it has a bit of everything),
- Snack: islak (hamburger soaked in tomato juice), mediye dolma (muscles with rice), mercimek çorbası (lentil soup)
- Drink: rakı (national alcohol of Turkey), ayran (a bitter yogurt drink that goes well with meat and rice)
I can say with conviction Istanbul is the most magical city I’ve ever visited, and I hope these recommendations send excitement through your veins as you prepare for your journey. The list by no means is all-encompassing, so please feel free to comment below with questions or additional recommendations. As always, please give Istanbul my love!