What to See, Do and Eat in Istanbul
Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, a major cultural and historical site in Istanbul. Photo: Turkiye tourism
The only city to straddle two continents, Istanbul is one of the world’s great destinations. Its strategic location at the crossroads of Europe and Asia led to riches, power and conflict as a succession of empires rose and fell. With a history that goes back more than 2,500 years, Istanbul is a vibrant, modern city that welcomes visitors with legendary hospitality.
Called Byzantium, then Constantinople and, since 1930, Istanbul, it’s the largest city in Türkiye (pronounced Tur-key-yay). The country recently switched to its Turkish-language name to reflect the nation’s culture and history.
Greeks, Romans, Armenians, Persians, North Africans, Jews, Christians, Muslims and more came to Istanbul over the centuries. They brought food and recipes, adding new flavours and dishes to the traditional Anatolian (Asia Minor) cuisine of Eastern Türkiye.
This year, Michelin Guide released its first Istanbul restaurant list, with 53 restaurants making the cut. Turk Fatih Tutak was awarded two stars. There are four one-star restaurants and Bib Gourmand designations recognizing best value for money for 10 others.
I ate at two newly crowned Bib Gourmand establishments on my recent trip to Istanbul: impressive modern Turkish cuisine at Alaf and at traditional Turkish dining room Pandeli, which is located above the Spice Market. Hollywood stars and notables from Queen Elizabeth II to Audrey Hepburn have dined in Pandeli’s blue ceramic-lined dining room.
A traditional Turkish breakfast, called kahvalti, is a feast. You’ll probably experience this eye-popping spread of dishes on the first morning at your hotel. Typically, there are several types of olives, a half-dozen kinds of cheese including braids of mozzarella-like cheese, mild white cheese called beyaz peynir and slabs of creamy sheep’s milk feta. Juicy cucumbers, red tomatoes, bouquet-size bunches of herbs are served, along with pastries, plain yogurt, dried and fresh fruits, homemade jam, amber honey, nuts and the always-present sesame seed covered flattened bagel cousin, simit. A glass of black tea is the best accompaniment.
I had an outstanding breakfast at Perispri Restaurant, an antiques-filled space in a former mineral water storage facility in the former Jewish quarter of Balat. It’s run by glass and ceramic artist Cahide Erel.
The wide passageways of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar spread over six kilometres, making it the largest covered bazaar in the world. With about 4,000 stores, it’s always busy and has a lively vibe with vendors offering samples and trying to convince customers to stop. Buy leather, bathing products like towels and olive-oil soap, textiles, ceramics, carpets and souvenirs. It’s easy to lose your travel companions if you split up. Planning to meet at a certain gate may not be the best idea: There are 36 entrances.
The Egyptian Bazaar, also called the Spice Bazaar, is a 10-minute walk away. With just 80 shops, it’s a less chaotic experience. This is the place to buy spices, dried fruit, nuts, teas and the freshest Turkish delight (lokum). The market’s HazerBaba shop has a huge selection, including nut-studded rolls flavoured with luscious tahini, chocolate and tangerine.
Visit the Asian Side
“You can feel our culture here. You can see local life,” said guide Eser Sedef as we walked through Istanbul’s Kadikoy neighbourhood on the Anatolian side of the city, across the Bosphorus Strait from the European side.
I loved the lively street theatre in the narrow roads of the fish market, as hollering vendors tossed plastic bins with customers’ orders up to cashiers. Somehow, the fish doesn’t slip out. Lunch at Ciya Sofrasi is a must. Celebrated chef-owner Musa Dagdeviren prepares traditional Turkish dishes as part of his mission to preserve culture and heritage through food. Inventive, flavourful and colourful, I never wanted to stop eating this food. Standouts were squash-wrapped, intricately spiced lamb dumplings and cinnamon-spiked cooked and cooled eggplant and pumpkin served with clotted cream for dessert, so sweetly delicious, I couldn’t help reaching for seconds.
Take a Boat Ride on the Bosphorus
See the city from the water with a boat trip on the Bosphorus to appreciate how the European and Asian sides define Istanbul. Costs range from under $2 for a ferry tour, to an excursion on a private yacht. Sunset is an ideal time to sail to see the hills of the old city, mosques and minarets and the illuminated former Ottoman palaces, now luxury hotels, that line the European side of the strait.
Newly opened US$1.7 billion Galataport, built in and around the former post office building, is a new neighbourhood on the Bosphorus. The shopping, dining and hotel destination is home of the new Istanbul Modern, as well as the world’s first underground cruise ship terminal.
Agatha Christie Wrote Here
The art nouveau Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie was said to have written Murder on the Orient Express, is a trip back to the grand age of travel. You can even stay in her room 411. The rate is 411 euros. For a more modest investment, pick up a replica of her room key from the gift kiosk for about $3.50.
Built in 1895 to host passengers arriving in the city on the luxurious Orient Express train, the hotel is an opulent example of the elegance of an earlier time, complete with a cage elevator that was Istanbul’s first electric lift. There’s a replica sedan chair off the lobby that shows how the wealthy passengers travelled from the train to the only hotel in the city with electricity.
The antiques-filled Kubbeli Lounge is the hotel’s gathering place and the cocktail lounge and terrace is a worthy stop.
Suite 101, once the residence of Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, is now a museum. You can also stay in the Ernest Hemingway room. He also spent time at the Pera when he was a war correspondent.
The smell of street foods, like the crispy-salty lamb turning over hot coals on a horizontal spit (cağ kebabı) are irresistible. The cook runs a skewer just under the golden exterior and cuts the succulent meat away. We stood around a low table and stuffed hot slices in thin pita bread, adding peppers and roasted tomato. Delicious. Boat-shaped pide filled with melted cheese, vegetables and meats and small rounds of lahmacun covered with a thin layer of minced lamb, garlic and tomatoes are Turkiye’s delicious version of pizza. Fold squares of lahmacun around soft herb sprigs and add a squirt of lemon. The roasted chestnut vendor does well on a chilly morning. So does the one selling salep, a hot drink made with milk, sugar, cinnamon and a thickening agent made from powdered orchid tubers.
Where to Shop
Istanbul is a shoppers’ paradise. Beyond the bazaars and markets, luxury boutiques in Nisantasi, a chic residential neighbourhood on the European side, are good places to buy Turkey’s famously well-made fashions and shoes. Finish with an upscale traditional Turkish dinner at Nisantasi Baskose. Sultanahmet, the historic heart of Istanbul, home to hotels, restaurants and cafés and the sleek red trams that will ring familiar to anybody from Toronto. It’s also the site of the Roman-built hippodrome, the Blue Mosque (now under renovation, so scaffolding covers the breathtaking blue tiles) and Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque. It’s an ideal area to explore on foot since some of the narrow streets are pedestrian only. Buy crafts, textiles, ceramics, tea glasses and blue glass amulets to protect from the evil eye. Always-busy Istiklal Avenue starts at Tunel Square, where there’s a large number of musical instrument shops, and runs to Taksim Square. It’s always packed and reminds me of the great shopping thoroughfares of London and New York, with colourful flags and banners crisscrossing the road. Primarily pedestrian only, but watch out for the heritage trams that rumble by with tourists hanging off the back railings.
Where to Stay
The Marmara Pera Hotel is in Beyoglu on the European side, close to the Galata Tower and Istiklal Avenue. It has a rooftop bar and restaurant and has an outstanding traditional Turkish breakfast buffet. Some rooms can be noisy due to a rooftop nightclub on the next street.
Turkish Airlines flies direct from Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver to Istanbul, as well as offering direct service from eight U.S. airports. Business class service is exceptional.