I have visited Istanbul four times in the last two years. That’s not an impressive number. Jamie has visited almost a dozen times and we have friends that make seemingly weekly visits to Turkey’s largest city (it’s a 45-minute plane ride from Ankara). Still, each sojourn has been unique, especially the first, where, on the coldest day the city had experienced in over thirty years, I spent hours trying to find the metropolis’ lone comic book shop.
Everyone should visit Istanbul once in his or her life. And, with plans to build a third airport in the works, the city is poised to become an even bigger international travel hub. So, with the wind now firmly at my back, I thought I’d share a few insights from my personal store for those who might one day find themselves in old Constantinople.
The tourist epicenter is an area called Sultanahmet. Within a couple kilometers you’ll find Topkapı Palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Spice and Grand bazaars, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and the Istanbul Archaeology Museums. That said, the area is a tourist trap. Think of Times Square; crowds everywhere, enough flashing lights and signs to make you an epileptic, an unflinching tram dissecting the street and fleets of honking taxis. God help you if you take out a map; helpful hucksters will descend upon you like locusts.
Topkapı is fun for the feng shui if nothing else. The audio tour will take you to dozens of spots on the grounds, each beginning with a variation of the same sentence: “Here is where the sultan broke his fast … Here is where the sultan listened to music … Here is where the sultan’s children were circumcised.” Get the audio tour for the palace, but not the harem. Unsurprisingly, the information signs in that area are extremely detailed. If you do visit, it’s worth stopping by Dolmabahce Palace on the other side of the Bosporus, just to see the change in culture as Turkey drifted away from its Asian roots to a more European outlook.
The Cistern is a great, cheap way to spend 45 minutes; marvel at the mutant fish that likely haven’t seen sunlight since the Ottoman Empire ruled a quarter of the globe. No need to get the audio tour, but be sure to see the Medusa heads. The Blue Mosque is also good for a brisk walk through. Ladies, remember to cover you heads with a scarf. And no shorts, fellas.
To be honest, the bazaars were a let down. The Grand Bazaar is divided by industry: gold, rugs, leather, etc. But it’s the same dozen stalls over and over. The place could stand to be a little more like Eastern Market in DC. The same problem plagues the Spice Bazaar, which is less than half the size. Gentlemen be warned: if you go with your girl to either one, you will disappear completely. All you’ll hear is: “Pretty lady, carpets to buy … Miss, where are you from? … Hello, pretty woman.” It’s tiresome.
For my money, the Hagia Sophia and the archaeology museums are the best sites. The Hagi Sofia has an audio tour but you’ll be so overwhelmed by the beauty of the place that you’ll hardly hear it. Meanwhile, the archaeology museums are a rarely visited gem, full of sarcophagi and other ancient tchotchkes.
Besides, Sultanahmet there is the Pera district, a small neighborhood on the European side of the city. The enclave is full of places to cure you of any homesickness, including Irish bars (though nearby U2 will forever hold a place in my heart) and Thai restaurants. Be sure to grab a drink at Marmara Pera roof bar; it offers unparalleled views of the city and the winding Bosporus. Even if your tastes skew toward the more modern, there’s also the private Sabancı Museum and even micro-breweries along the bend of the Bosporus to visit.
A final note about Istanbul taxi drivers. They are corrupt cabal that embarrasses their brethren throughout rest of the country. They will not hesitate to rob you blind. Some of the favorite scans include, but are not limited to, the following: pretending not to know English; their meter mysteriously doesn’t work; a flat, more expensive, rate; and the 5 lira for 50 lira switch, as the bills are eerily similar, cabbies will insist you gave them one instead of the other and thus screw you. Never grab a cab off the street; arrange one from your hotel or restaurant.
A part of me wishes I had visited Istanbul more often. But, like New York City, it’s a bustling metropolis, boiling over with tens of millions of people. You could spend your whole life there and not see everything. All though, the Polish enclave would have been neat.