Last updated on November 19th, 2023
Get lost in the rich culture of Istanbul Turkey / Photo by © EdNurg via Adobe Stock
Tips for visiting this geographically unique and culturally rich city
by Sally Peabody
Istanbul Turkey is one of the most richly layered cities in the world: Uniquely, it is European and Asian. Visitors are diverse, you will meet sister travelers from the Middle East, from Russia, from China and Japan, from Europe and the west.
What is the Bosphorus: The evocative Bosphorus divides the two continents and connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Always full of ferries, ships, tankers, even with small fishing boats, a ride on the Bosphorus is quintessential Istanbul.
Get on the water: Don’t miss a chance to take a ferry across the Bosphorus! Sturdy white and green ferry boats ply the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia leaving various points on either shore. Visitors generally catch the ferry from Eminoniu in the Old City to Kadikoy or Uskudar on the Asian side. You can also catch ferries from Karakoy and Kabatas on the European side. For about $1.00 you have a gorgeous ride across the Bosphorus and can enjoy the enchanting skylines of the Old City, Beyoglu, the Galata Tower and more. Fabulous at sunset.
Turkish culture is enormously hospitable: Turks have been welcoming travelers for centuries! Women will have no issues traveling alone or in small groups in Istanbul. Indeed you will shop alongside stylish women wearing headscarves, no scarves, miniskirts, and even traditional village dress.
Culturally-correct: It is important to remember to bring a scarf to wear into any of the magnificent mosques but otherwise, Istanbul is utterly modern, hip and energized with an enviable cultural and historic side as well.
Istanbul is growing exponentially: The population now tops 15 million. Unless you are in Istanbul for business, find a comfortable hotel in the Old City or in ‘European’ Beyoglu. These neighborhoods are packed with fabulous archaeological and historic sites, remarkable shopping, loads of clubs and restaurants of all kinds- ultra gourmet to humble kebab stands.
Where to stay: Istanbul is packed with accommodations from the most luxe to humble hostels. For first or second time visitors the Old City, Sultanahmet, is a great choice to base yourself. There is so much to see, do and experience within an easy walk or tram ride in this vibrant neighborhood. One very good, centrally located, moderately priced choice is the intimate Hotel Djem with only twelve rooms and a lovely manager and staff. The Djemis a boutique hotel installed in a recently renovated wooden house just behind the Blue Mosque. The family that runs the hotel has been in the Carpet and Kilim business for years and the hotel is beautifully decorated with textiles. www.hoteldjem.com
Must-see historic sites: Check out the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Topkapi Palace, the Islamic Arts Museum on the Hippodrome, the stunning Byzantine Chora Church, the Grand, and Spice Bazaars. Add in the magnificently renovated Suleymaniye Mosque and the intimate, be-tiled Rustem Pasha mosque. And the newer Blue Mosque too. And that is just for starters.
Getting around: Istanbul has a modern tram line that runs through the Old City and across the Galata Bridge, then through Karakoy and out along the Bosphorus on the European side. There is a modern metro serving the newer parts of the residential and business city but chances are visitors won’t use it. There are zillions of taxis and public buses too. Metros, ferries and the tram cost 1.50 Turkish Lira or about one dollar.
Soaking and steaming: Visit a traditional hamam. Your skin will thank you for it! In the Old City, Cemberlitas and Cagaloglu are two beautifully tiled historic hamams accustomed to and priced for visitors. Both are in the Old City near the Grand Bazaar. You’ll want to have a steam, a bath and scrub (gommage) at least, add a massage if you have time. Separate men’s and women’s sections. Wear a bathing suit if you must or wrap yourself in a hamam towel and enjoy the experience. Rates, maps, and more information are on the websites.
Shopping: Turkey is fabulous for shopping at all price points. High-quality textiles, organic cotton, fashion, top quality blue jeans (Mavi is a hip Turkish brand), jewelry, leather goods, silver, gold, magnificent silk scarves, rugs and kilims, housewares, food gifts, hand-painted ceramics, tiles and on and on.
Bargaining: In most shops outside the bazaars you do not bargain but you can always ask for a cash discount. In bazaars, ask if the price is ‘fixed’, if not try to get to approximately 40% of the original asking price. Never look overly interested! Prices are generally easier to reduce if you are paying cash.
Top Picks for shopping: Go at least once to the Grand Bazaar in the Old City. Hundreds of years old, it is the world’s original shopping mall! Over 4000 shops. Yes, there is a lot of touristy product, but also loads of irresistible high-quality textiles, scarves, items for the home and bath, jewelry, leather, rugs, and much more. Dhoku has lovely antique kilims that have been re-purposed into gorgeous rugs at very fair prices. Cashmere House has marvelous ‘affordable’ silk and cotton scarves and also a line of jaw-dropping fine silks, the best pashmina and antelope hair scarves. Go inside the shop to see the best and talk with the hospitable owner. Amazing things!
Arasta Bazaar: The Arasta Bazaar is behind the Blue Mosque and is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar. Arasta is packed with top-quality shops and is a far more manageable experience. Check out Djem for glorious handbags made with antique kilims and Jennifer’s Hamam for organic cotton, towels, tablecloths and more.
Nisantasi is an upper-income neighborhood beyond Taksim Square: The Tesvikiye neighborhood of Nistantasi is the shopping hub for superb Turkish designers like Gonul Paksoy and myriad appealing small shops. Take a taxi or adolmus-minibus for 2.5 lire from Taksim Square. The area around the Tesvikye Mosque is packed with appealing shops and cafes. For fashion, visit the boutique of noted Turkish designer Gonul Paksoy, Atiye Sokak #6. Ms. Paksoy trained as a chemist and specializes in hand-dyed silks and cotton of extraordinary color and beauty. Each piece is unique and while informed by traditional design is utterly modern. Clothing, shoes, and jewelry available. This shop does not have a website. Then, near Gonul Paksoy is the shop called Yastik which sells gorgeous kilims and is particularly known for its high-end kilim and contemporary designs in pillow covers designed by RifatOzbek. www.yastikbyrifatozbek.com/index_english.html
Beyoglu is the name for ‘European’ Istanbul: The ever-energized main street, Istiklal Caddessi, is a pedestrianized boulevard running from Taksim Square down to the Tunel neighborhood. Packed with shops, patisseries, restaurants, cafes, clubs, Istiklal is a great street to browse along with its numerous side streets. Check out the Spice market area. The area around the enclosed, covered spice market is a jumble of food shops, housewares shops, and of course spice shops. Look for ultra-fresh dried fruits and nuts, for pomegranate molasses, honey, herbal and black teas, and of course, redolent spices. I always buy the dark smoky, chocolatey Urfa pepper. It is hard to find out of Turkey and is delicious.
Turkish tea: Yes, the Turks drink tea. Loads of tea! All day long. They grow black tea in the hills up near the Black sea and also grow and offer wonderful herbal teas like fresh thyme, rosehip, linden, lemon balm, sage. You will often be offered ‘apple tea’ which is quite sweet and made from reconstituted apple and sugar. Try the real deal.
Turkish coffee: Turkish coffee can be a bit of an acquired taste. At its best it is rich, strong, almost a little chocolatey. Watch out for the grounds at the bottom of the cup. As you get to the bottom of the tiny cup you will have what seems like 1/8 inch of bitter, very fine grounds.
Coffee, not Turkish: Just in case you are craving a large cup of brewed or filter coffee, you will find numerous Starbucks in busy Istanbul neighborhoods and these are full of Turks and an international crowd. There is a very good Turkish chain called Khave Dunyasi which also sells nice dark chocolates along with its filter coffees and cappuccinos in its comfortable cafes.
Bringing it all back home: Istanbul is a shoppers paradise. Five great choices for gifts under $10 to bring home might include spices from the Spice Bazaar (particularly the fabulous Urfa and Maras dried pepper), or some Turkish honey or pomegranate molasses. A box of Turkish Delight with pistachios or in flavors like rose or hazelnut would be lovely. Easy to pack scarves are everywhere from cheap and cheerful cotton to the most luxurious silks and fine pashmina. Organic cotton towels or colorful hamam towels are fun and useful. Or, maybe a set of those cute tulip-shaped tea glasses for tea lovers. Sally Peabody can pair you with a female guide to shop for your best all over Istanbul for fashion art, food or home decor. One of her favorite colleagues in Istanbul is a private guide Gamze Artaman. Gamze guides for clients of the Four Seasons Hotels and elite travel agencies and is a delightful, knowledgeable licensed private guide. Her rates begin at 200 Euros per day. Contact her at [email protected].
JourneyWoman Sally Peabody specializes in Turkey, France, and the Pays Basque. She advises independent travelers on crafting memorable trips on and off the beaten path, and, leads culinary/cultural tours several times a year. Her clients include women traveling alone, mothers and daughters, families, couples and friends sharing travel adventures. We asked Sally to share her knowledge of Istanbul, Turkey with our JourneyWoman readers.
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