Headed to Istanbul (Not Constantinople [or Byzantium])
May 1, 2019 10:33 AM   Subscribe

I'm spending a week in Istanbul starting late next week! What are some must-sees and must-eats, besides the usual sightseeing at Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, etc.? I'd especially appreciate recommendations for specific lesser known museums (with a focus on art and history), shops, and places to eat lunch (I think we've got dinners covered).

I will be staying in Sultanahmet, and I'm traveling with my parents, so nothing too adventurous or strenuous. We're aware it will be Ramadan during our stay, and won't be fasting ourselves since we're, you know, traveling, but if anyone has any specific recommendations for iftar activities, they would be welcome! I've got an itinerary already sketched out, but I've still got a day free on said itinerary and would love some more ideas on how to fill it beyond just "wander around." I'd considered a day trip to Cappadocia or Ephesus, but I don't think the timing works out; we've already got a Bosporus cruise day trip booked. Thanks!
posted by yasaman to Travel & Transportation around Istanbul, Turkey (17 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
there is this restaurant on istaklal which is amazing. it's basically a slightly upscale kebap place. but the meatssss. all cooked before your eyes. oh so good. i will give you the tripadvisor link so i don't butcher the spelling.

i've been there for work many times and the first few i wandered like a lost puppy trying to find it after a friend took me their once. it's basically between istaklal and taksim square. pretty easy to find with google maps (guess i'm getting old i had neither data, gps, or google maps when i first started going there!!)

it's damn good. one of the serious reasons i miss my old job is not going to istanbul (there is MUCH i love there, we almost named a daughter aya sophia, true story)

memail a pic if you make it. i seriously miss this place.
posted by chasles at 10:52 AM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure what counts as lesser known, but the things I feel like I could have mostly easily missed and would have regretted it from our trip are Chora Church and the Mosaic Museum.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 11:28 AM on May 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Make sure you get over the Asian side, maybe for a Ciya meal. I also enjoyed some nice meals in the fancy towns up the bosporus. Bebek/Arnautvakoy - worth a respite from the bit city.

I also love a Hammam. On the advice of expat friends we did one in Kadikoy which was not used to seeing tourists that was fun.

Culinary Backstreets is a great resource if you haven't found it.
posted by JPD at 11:48 AM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Istanbul is where we fell in love with the food media/tour company now known as Culinary Backstreets. Way back then i am pretty sure it used to be called Istanbul Eats before they extended their reach to other cities. We did the two continents two markets tour and LOVED it - we've since gone on CB food walks in a bunch of other cities and its always been great, they do an awesome job balancing food knowledge with history and culture and have relationships with the vendors/shops/restaurants they stop at so you get an exceptional experience. Even if you dont go on a walk w them the site is worth a look around.
posted by Exceptional_Hubris at 11:50 AM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

The cistern under the city is amazing. We heard about it from someone while we were there, but otherwise would have missed it. I'm sorry I don't have details but maybe someone else can provide a link.
posted by TrixieRamble at 11:57 AM on May 1, 2019 [5 favorites]

Seconded Chora Church to the nth degree. I really only went because I had a pass, but it was easily one of the best museums I visited. Fener and Balat, the surrounding areas, are also cute to explore and walk around, a mix of older churches, houses, and newer bohemian businesses. My AirBnb host said she felt like it was "going back to the 90s". I had Turkish breakfast at Forno Balat, but there's great places to have a coffee break, some apple tea, etc.

And seconded Ciya Sofrasi to an even higher degree. Just go. And walk around after to buy stuff that you would pay three times more at the Grand Bazaar.
posted by galleta monster at 11:57 AM on May 1, 2019

Oh, and to add on to TrixieRamble: Basilica Cistern. Literally across the street from the Hagia Sophia but you wouldn't know it.
posted by galleta monster at 12:00 PM on May 1, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: It's hard to even know where to start! Honestly the thing I miss most is just wandering around on foot in all my favorite neighborhoods on both sides of the Bosphorus; the museums and monuments are wonderful, but the best of the city is at street level. Walk across the Galata Bridge, wander around Karaköy and Galata (SALT Galata is a wonderful contemporary art/archive space with a nice cafe, there's also a SALT branch on İstiklal Caddesi); explore some of the back streets of Beyoğlu, take a ferry to Üsküdar or Kadıköy and walk along the waterfronts; if your Bosphorus tour allows, get off at Arnavutköy or Kuzguncuk and look at the old wooden houses. On the Eminönü side of the Galata bridge you've got the spice market (touristy inside, but the stalls along the edges are the real deal) and my favorite mosque in the entire city, Rüştem Paşa Camii, which has the most incredible İznik tilework you'll see anywhere. It's tucked away on the other end of the plaza from the bigger Yeni Camii/New Mosque. Chora/Kariye/the mosaic museum is a little bit confusing to get to by public transit, but definitely worth it. The Yerebatan cistern is pretty neat. I prefer Süleymaniye Camii to the more famous Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque but both of them are worth a visit if you have time. If you want to head up the Golden Horn, Fener and Balat are interesting to explore, and taking the funicular up over the Eyüp shrine and cemetary to the top of the hill gets you a marvelous view of the older parts of the city.

The website/culinary walking tour company formerly known as İstanbul Eats is a good guide for food; some of my usual recs may be outdated but the assorted branches of Çiya in Kadıköy are famous (there's a New Yorker article and a Chef's Table episode you can look up) and the bigger one is a nice place for an iftar meal. Füreyya is a tiny fish place in Galata that has the best fish sandwiches in the city and is a great lunch option if you're in the area. If you want to do a proper meyhane meal, Cumhuriyet and Refik are both solid options in the middle of Beyoğlu, and if you find yourself near the ferry dock in Beşiktaş, Dürümce is a simple-but-excellent kebab restaurant. Another good lunch option if you're around İstiklal (I think they're still open during the day in Ramazan but you might want to double-check) is Dürümzade, a little hole-in-the-wall place that Anthony Bourdain made (justifiably) internationally famous.
posted by karayel at 12:00 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also there are free public outdoor iftars hosted by the various district municipalities around the city; the food is nothing special but it's a nice experience if you don't mind queuing up beforehand. There's usually a Ramazan fair in the evenings in Sultanahmet (in the old hippodrome area, unless they've moved it) with food stalls and arts and crafts and entertainment and so forth.
posted by karayel at 12:05 PM on May 1, 2019

Oh and if you want to go to a hamam my usual recommendation for first-timers is Çemberlitaş, by the tram stop of the same name (or a short walk from Sultanahmet); it's not the cheapest but the architecture is lovely and the women's side is as spacious and beautiful as the men's.
posted by karayel at 12:07 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also in Galata: the Jewish Museum, in the former Zülfaris synagogue, is small but fascinating, especially since the city's active synagogues are pretty difficult to visit due to security restrictions.
posted by karayel at 12:21 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Buy the roasted chestnuts from the street vendors!

And for me, please stop in to some local bakeries and get fresh tahini bread. It's a sweet roll shaped like a flattened cinnamon roll, but flakey, and topped with sesame seeds - with a sweet tahini flavor. One of my top 5 favorite things to eat, ever.
posted by raztaj at 12:30 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

On my visits there I always loved getting deep into the Grand Bazaar, past the glitzy dudes. There's a little "smashed salad" place in there I don't think I could ever find again. We visited some cool textile shops on the roof, but I suspect our friend got us into places we wouldn't be allowed to get to normally.

The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi) is nice. It's near the Blue Mosque.

The Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) is smaller than the Grand one, but just as crazy. It's near the ferry. You can watch the boats or go for a day trip.

Taksim Square is a good place to walk around. I remember finding a nice little pastry shop there.

Enjoy wandering, but just say no to the self-defined guides and guys inviting you to their rug shops.
posted by booth at 12:37 PM on May 1, 2019

If you don’t go to a Hammam you’re missing out.
posted by Middlemarch at 12:57 PM on May 1, 2019

I enjoyed my hammam experience at the Kilic Ali Paşa Hamam.

It was a bit extravagant compared to my spending otherwise, but I was glad I did it -- the bath is in a spectacularly-renovated 16th-century building designed by Mimar Sinan and after spending a couple of lovely hours in a spectacularly beautiful historic building you will emerge thoroughly pampered and relaxed and scented with fragrant oils.

Unfortunately it won't work well if you're a mixed-gender group. But if only part of your party is interested or if you are OK with men and women going at different times it is quite a treat if you're willing to splurge.
posted by Nerd of the North at 1:08 PM on May 1, 2019

Go witness a Sema in Galata (Mevlevihanesi). The Semahane (building where the Sema is performed) was built in 1492, which (as an American) I enjoyed the historical overlap.
posted by SoundInhabitant at 3:47 PM on May 1, 2019

Slightly off the main track of things is Küçük Ayasofya Camii, otherwise known as Little Hagia Sophia. It's generally quiet and uncrowded.

I've also enjoyed walking around the old city walls to the west of the city. They aren't too far from the Chora Church, but it might be a bit of a hoof.
posted by Quaversalis at 7:34 PM on May 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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