10 Essential Istanbul Experiences

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Ok, savvy travellers. If you are coming to experience the rich and dynamic cultural offerings of Istanbul you absolutely must experience the following:

1.)  A Full Turkish Breakfast at Cafe Kale

Situated along the Bosporus, the breakfast at Cafe Kale thrills and delights absolutely everyone. Within a few minutes of placing your order, your table will be covered by numerous small plates: hot and cold, sweet and savory, there is absolutely something for everyone.  It is the perfect way to spend a morning and experience the city.

2.) The Istanbul Modern

In recent years, Istanbul’s modern art scene has exploded.  The Istanbul Modern is the heart and soul of the art world and has initiated the transformation of the surrounding area. New shops and cafes are popping up around it and interesting exhibits ensure I keep coming back. Situated in an old warehouse along the Bosporus  the space alone is worth seeing. It has a fabulous view of the old city and the buzz of activity on the water. The museum’s permanent collection offers a  uniquely Turkish palate,  landscape and overview of modern Turkish art history. It is the perfect lens to gain additional understanding of modern Turkey. There is a lovely cafe and a great gift shop (perfect for those of you searching for souvenirs).

3.) Watch the Sunset from a Terrace Bar

The city comes alive at night and its treasures are hidden above the chaotic streets. As you wander through Beyoglu, look up and find a terrace to watch the sunset. Many old apartment buildings along the backstreets of Istiklal Caddessi host hidden cafes and restaurants with extraordinary views of the city. My favorite is Balkon, near Tunel. For dancing, try the wonderful top floor bar Araf for Balkan beats and a fabulous view of the city…

4.) A Day on the Islands

The perfect escape from the chaos of city life. In 80 minutes you are transferred to a summertime paradise complete with beach clubs, ice cream stands, bicycle rentals and horse-drawn carriages. The Princes Islands were once where the city’s Greek, Armenian and Jewish intellectual elite spent their summers. The beautiful homes around the city center are a perfect testament to the Ottoman charms that once defined Istanbul as the center of the Ottoman Empire. If you only have one day, go to Buyukada. Be sure to have some ice cream, hike the steep hill to the monastery and drink a beer at the top to enjoy the fantastic view.

5.) Take full advantage of Istanbul Eats

Do not make the same mistakes as your friends. Do not stay in Sultanahmet and expect to experience the glory and delicacies of Turkish cuisine. The best Turkish food is found in Turkish homes, on the streets and hidden in small cafes and restaurants hidden in the backstreets. If you want to eat like a local, make Istanbul Eats your best friend. Find the blog. Buy their book. Eat at only restaurants they recommend. And for a wonderful day of eating and exploring, take their food tour. Your will not be disappointed.

6.) Explore a Real Bazaar

Yes, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are essential stops for any tourist. However, the most lively and authentic bazaars are in the neighborhoods each week. Historically, Sunday was ‘bazaar day’. However, now they are scattered throughout the week days as well as the weekends. You can find fresh produce, as well as cheap clothing and housewares in each bazaar at incredible prices. You can also observe Turkish salesmen and pazarlik (the act of bargaining) at its best. The Besiktas bazaar is every Saturday and is full of treasures and activity.

7.) Explore Ortakoy and take a Bosporus boat tour

This charming seaside neighborhood is full of cafes and shops to satisfy any touristic craving, however its charms lure tourists and locals alike. It is famous for its kumpir (a baked potato with every possible filling) and waffles (more like a French crepe). It is also where I bring every guest to witness the glory of the Bosporus. Leaving almost every 30 minutes, there are scenic boat trips that travel along the European and Asian shores of the Bosporus. It is the perfect way to see the city, the lovely Bosporus mansions and the two fortresses that once protected this ancient city.

8.) Discover Istanbul’s Parks

For tourists, Istanbul’s Gulhane Park is a perfect refuge. Situated below Topkapi Palace in the old city, this park offers shade below the tall, old trees above. There is lush grass to sit on, playful cats and perhaps even some parrots to observe…and one of the best tea gardens in the city. If you walk through the park and towards up the little hillside towards the Bosporus, you will find an outside garden with small stools to sit on. Order tea for two, and you will be brought an authentic Turkish tea-pot with cups for at least 2-3 servings. There is also Yildiz Park, in Besiktas,  the former palace grounds of Dolmabahce Palace. This steep hillside park has an old European mansion that once housed guests of the Sultan, and a wonderful cafe at the top of the hill where you can drink tea, smoke hookah and sample some of their famous gozleme.

9.) Take the ferry to Kadikoy and sample everything you can at Ciya Sofrasi

Kadikoy is Istanbul’s equivalent of Berkeley. It is a very liberal neighborhood where university students and expats gather. There is a lively street market every day that often lures official food tours and unofficial foodies. Walk through the bakeries, honey shops, fish stands and small shops that offer every type of olive, cheese and Turkish spice and meze. Discover the lively bar streets and sample the infamous Turkish Efes beer. End your afternoon with a trip to Ciya Sofrasi. I recommend going through the buffet and sharing an appetizer plate that will guarantee a taste of everything. Follow that with several of their specialty kebabs and save room for the incredible walnut dessert (ceviz tatlisi). Your mouth will water and you will be dying to come back for more!

10.) Search for Ottoman treasures at the Flea Market

Many locals are still discovering this regular Sunday market in Ferikoy. Walking distance from the Osmanbey metro, it attracts collectors, artists, locals and hipsters all in search of special treasures. You can find old coins, musical instruments, art, jewelry and other treasures. The vendors are delightful and always ready to strike up a conversation. It is the perfect Sunday activity. Take in the local colors and listen to the music play on the old record players as you wander through the market. Order some fresh squeezed organic orange juice and a karisik gozleme, and you will feel completely satisfied.

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