I would guess that most who stride through Istanbul on their travels are quickly awe-struck by the historic architecture, markets, and bustle along the Marmara Sea. That Istanbul is quite an enchanting city is obvious to most who enter. While the streets most traveled are very vibrant, I am convinced that the brightest gems in the city are hidden along side-streets.
Pedestrian walkways in Sultanhamet and along Istiklal Caddesi certainly make for decent food and good people watching. Take a turn into a narrow cobblestone and crumbling path, and you are destined for adventure. Buzzing teahouses full of smoke, cheap restaurants with cuisine that makes your mouth burst into drool, and colorful apartment windows open to the streets below all make you feel even more entrenched in Turkish culture. Getting lost in Istanbul’s back-alleys is the best way to spend your time here.
Suggested Walking Tour:
There is certainly no better way to explore Istanbul than by foot. Without bipedalism, surely most of the secrecies would be missed. Many foreigners stay in charming Sultanhamet, so this walking trek will begin here, on the eastern side of the Golden Horn. Starting your morning in the wondrous architecture of the Blue Mosque is a marvelous thought to awaken to. The Blue Mosque can be entered free of charge, but tourists must use a specific entrance. Surprisingly women do not need to cover their hair in the mosque; secular Istanbul at its finest. Listen to the call to prayer, glance but don’t glare at those in worship, and be mesmerized by the beautiful dome above.
After this architectural marvel one may continue along Divian Yolu Caddesi, the street in which the tram runs, towards the Grand Bazaar. You will pass carpets, tiles, and many other tourist trinkets along this walk. Because there is a great deal of competition in this area, you can get some good deals on souvenirs. Once you hit Cemberlitas (the tram stop) make a right and pass the large tower, a mosque, and head toward the bustle of the Grand Bazaar. One must experience this superior market, but beware of luring businessmen and outrageous prices. The best deals can be found after your stroll through as you exit and explore the winding streets surrounding. A few minutes in the bazaar will likely be enough, as it is quite overwhelming. Be sure to get lost for a while just outside its gates, where you will be surrounded by Turkish people drinking tea, also in search of great prices. You can find everything you need along these streets from scarves, to silverware, and jewelry, all for about one fourth of the price inside the Grand Bazaar. Don’t load yourselves too heavy, as we have a day of walking planned.
Once you have tired of the busy marketplace, continue back to Cemberlitas Caddesi for lunch. Just across from the tram stop is a brightly lit falafel sign. Inside this restaurant are fair prices, as well as a Turkish version of falafel that I really enjoy. The popular lunch joint is filled with both Turkish people and tourists, for it has everything including stews, kebabs, and baklava. This is one of my favorite lunch stops in Istanbul, although located in a commonly crossed location. I haven’t gotten you completely lost in backstreets yet.
After lunch make a left from the main road onto Bab-I Ali Caddesi and head towards the Bosphorus. You will quickly leave behind the tourist path and wind up in a Turkish world, passing through the part of town where Turks go to buy stationary and art supplies. Continue along this way and cross the Galata Bridge where you can peer into the lives of boisterous male fisherman lining the sea.
Once in Karakoy (just across the bridge) you can continue along the main road, or make a quick right and walk along the Bosphorus. Soon you will pass Karakoy Gulluoglu, the most popular baklava patisserie (so it seems to me!) in Istanbul. Wander in to discover the many baklava flavors they offer here, from pistachio to chocolate. Don’t forget your Turkish cay, or tea, which is served in a tiny hourglass with sugar cubes and a miniature spoon. There is hardly a more Turkish spot than this popular baklava place, always crowded with people.
Next walk back up to the main street where the tram passes. After reaching the Karabas Mosque at Tophane, make a left and begin heading up-hill towards Istiklal Caddesi. You will pass art galleries, vintage clothing boutiques, and of course a few cafés before reaching the trendiest part of Istanbul where all of the upscale stores lie. Make sure you keep up your pace with the vigor of the Turks filling the street. This is the one place in Turkey where you need not be fearful of cars. While cars aren’t supposed to drive along this busy metropolis, you will likely hear some horns nonetheless. Again get lost in the backstreets surrounding Istiklal Caddesi, which contain many of the most interesting bars and cafes in town.
You will quickly learn that streets in Istanbul are not well marked, so landmarks will better help you in navigation. My favorite café for mid-afternoon snacking is located off of the side street where Pandora books lies. You will pass these two bookstores, one with English titles, and continue until you reach the end. Make a right, and you will soon see a café called Klemuri with the slogan, “think global eat local!” printed outside. This brilliant, modern Turkish café has a very European feel. Prices are modest and the atmosphere is dainty and quiet. Get the red pepper pecan spread, the best snack I’ve been served in Turkey.
To find another backstreet gem perfect for dinner, walk towards the large mall and make a right passing the Gap. On the third block down and just after Beatles café on your left side, you will see a small restaurant where you can peer through the glass at the stews, veggies, and rices inside. The food here is fantastic, and I have yet to eat a cheaper meal. A drink, entrée, rice, and dessert will cost you about 5,00 Turkish Lira, or 3.00 US dollars. The place will be packed with Turkish men, arm-deep in a large bucket of bread. As always, bread comes free with your meal. In this bufe, the bread is waiting for you on the table. For an authentic experience, I believe you will appreciate this hole-in-the wall supper as much as I do.
To end your evening around Istiklal Caddesi, wander into one of the bars or nargile (hookah) cafes lining these backstreets. If you haven’t yet, certainly order a cay after dinner, finishing your meal just as Turkish do. Other beverage options include a shot of Turkish coffee, an Efes beer, or for something harder, top the evening off with a glass of raki. Serefe!