Shaken in recent years by terrorism and political turmoil, the buzz is returning to Istanbul. With three millennia of history, exquisite Islamic architecture, mouth-watering cuisine and an expanding bar scene, Istanbul should be on every bucket list.
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Istanbul is the meeting point between Europe and Asia, spanning both continents. The mighty Bosphorus strait divides the city into two halves and connects the waters of the Mediterranean in the south to the Black Sea in the north. The European half is divided again by a large inlet, the Golden Horn, between the historic old town (Sultanahmet) on one side and the commercial heart of Beyoğlu and Beşiktaş on the other. While Asian Istanbul is often neglected by tourists, it offers more authentic insights into daily Turkish life.
Most future visitors will fly into the new Istanbul Airport – the second largest in the world – which opened in late 2018. A 40-minute taxi ride is the best way into town, with public transport connections under construction. Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side of the city predominantly serves domestic and low-cost carriers, and is over an hour from the centre in traffic.
Uber is slowly making inroads into Istanbul, but for now the app only has limited functionality. BiTaksi is the local equivalent. The city also has an efficient and inexpensive public transport network, with trams, buses and a metro network. The tourist boats that ply the Golden Horn and beyond offer waterside view of this
Most visits to Istanbul begin and end with street food. Dürüm (kebab) vendors are everywhere, alongside stalls offering hand-squeezed pomegranate juice for a handful of lira. Simit stands are also ubiquitous, selling sesame seed-encrusted circular bread, a local staple.
Start the day like a local with breakfast at Van Kahvaltı Evi, where you can tuck into copious plates of vegetables, cheese, bread and olives for just $7. The waiters are eager to give meaning to the advertised unlimited tea – they won’t take no for an answer. When lunchtime hunger hits, Gulhane Sark Sofrasi is the pick of the underwhelming, tourist-oriented choices in the old town.
Antiochia stands head and shoulders above the many tourist traps located off Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s main thoroughfare. This is a great option for first-timers to get their Turkish culinary bearings, offering all the usual meaty grill options and a large range of mezzes.
Neolokal is fast becoming Istanbul’s best fine-dining option, perched atop the former headquarters of the Imperial Ottoman Bank. The cocktail list is inventive (try the Lavanta Rüyası) and the regularly changing menu comes with its own tasting notes known as “story cards”. Best to book ahead.
The largest city in one of the world’s most populated Muslim nations might not seem the most obvious venue for a raucous night of drinking. But Istanbul has enough bars and pubs to cater for most foreign tastes. In the hip suburb of Beyoğlu, 5 Cocktails & More is a cosy venue that stays open late, while Nardis Jazz offers Turkish-influenced American jazz all evening in a packed, split-level bar.
On the Asian side of town, Kadıköy is the go-to neighbourhood for nightlife: Karga, an Ottoman mansion-turned-bar, and Arkaoda, a frequent destination for visiting DJs, are conveniently on the same street. Istanbul’s preferred liquor is Raki, an anise-flavoured grape brandy, while Turkish Efes is the most common beer on tap.
Coffee snobs are spoilt for choice. Every street corner cafe serves unfiltered, Arabic kahve (coffee). For those seeking a more Australian style, Espresso Lab has several outlets across the city that boldly proclaim: “Down with fake coffee – the revolution is here”. The revolution extends to flat whites. Old Java Coffee Roasters in Beyoğlu offers a good blend, as does nearby Australian-run Federal Coffee Company (complete with a kangaroo-decorated menu).
Istanbul’s bucket-list sights are conveniently located within walking distance of each other in the Sultanahmet district. Start with the Blue Mosque, which has free entry but a lengthy queue (with fast-track for the faithful – it remains an active place of worship). Stroll across the square to the Hagia Sophia, built in 537AD as a cathedral and converted to a mosque after the fall of Constantinople almost a millennium later. The stunning blend of Christian and Muslim design is worth the entry price.
Just a short stroll down the hill lies the Topkapı Palace, the residence of Ottoman rulers for several centuries following its construction by Mehmed the Conqueror in 1459. Enjoy luxurious palace rooms, an expansive Harem, and views out to the azure Bosphorus. The nearby Istanbul Archaeology Museums can feel overwhelming, with a huge collection of historical materials spread across three buildings. For those with time to spare, the journey through the region’s storied history is enlightening.
A visit to Istanbul isn’t complete without a suitcase of tea and trinkets. The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest covered markets in the world; expect haggling and persistent salespeople. The Spice Market, near the Galata Bridge, is less cavernous and slightly cheaper. Both offer delicious lokum (Turkish delight). Ibrahim, a local purveyor of the sugary treat since 1999, estimates that Grand Bazaar stores collectively sell three tonnes of the stuff on a busy day.
Istanbul Modern gallery features local and international modern artists, with a mix of temporary and permanent exhibitions across five compact floors. Ignore the bureaucratic staff and enjoy a fantastic, forward-looking collection, including some great works on women’s rights and gay culture. It’s a refreshing counterpoint to conservative trends in Turkish politics.
The bulk of Istanbul’s tourist-focused accommodation is split between the old town and Beyoğlu (from Galata Bridge up to Taksim). The Four Seasons and the Ajwa are the best of the myriad hotels fighting for space and views in Sultanahmet.
On the other side of the Goldern Horn, 10 Karaköy and Galata Hotel Istanbul – MGallery by Sofitel each take full advantage of grand old buildings, a neoclassical mansion and former bank respectively. Both are minutes from Galata Bridge and boast great views. Airbnb apartments are plentiful in the trendy Beyoğlu district.
Those who prefer brand name familiarity are well-catered for in this ancient city. The St. Regis Istanbul in Beşiktaş, the waterfront Shangri-La Bosphorus, and the InterContinental overlooking Gezi Park are the pick of the bunch.
WORD TO THE WISE
Beware this common scam in central Istanbul: just as an inconspicuous shoe-shiner walks past a group of tourists, he happens to drop his brush. If a tourist picks up the brush out of kindness, the scammer warmly offers a free shine to express their gratitude – only to later demand an exorbitant fee. This correspondent must have looked particularly gullible, as four brushes were dropped in his vicinity in an hour.