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Istanbul, a Turkish port city on the Bosporus, has long been celebrated as a place where east meets west. Geographically, at least, that’s true, since the bicoastal city spans two European coasts and one in Asia, with each offering something different.
To the south, Sultanamet is home to the oldest minarets and mosques, bazaars and museums. To the north, separated by an inlet of the Bosphorous known as the Golden Horn, Beyoğlu houses many of the city’s best restaurants and upscale shopping. To the east, the Asian shore functions like a more relaxed suburb, offering affordable cuisine, lively bars and live music. And you can reach it all via ferry, bridge, tram, and funicular.
5 … Roll up rugs and spices
For a true taste of Turkey, start in Sultanamet at the city’s famous Grand Bazaar, a melting pot of nationalities, cultures and commerce across 5,500 shops and stalls. Here, stock up on everything from belly-dancing costumes and water pipes to Turkish coffee pots and hand-made chess sets. If you have all day and some cash to burn, perhaps also pursue carpet research and negotiations, always conducted over tea.
If you’re craving saffron, smoked paprika, garam masala and Turkish coffee or tea in bulk, head north. Navigate the Byzantine network of streets -- likewise filled with every manner of shop offering rugs, shoes, chocolates and trinkets -- to reach the Egyptian Bazaar (aka Spice Bazaar). When buying spices, expect vendors to push maximum quantities and vacuum-seal bags before you’ve agreed on quantity. Unless you want $50 worth of saffron, consider laying down the exact amount, in cash, that you want to pay, then have vendors deliver quantities accordingly.
With purchases in hand, seek out the nearby stairs to the Rustem Pasa mosque (Hasircilar Carsisi-Eminonü) -- one of the nicest mosques in the city -- which hides above the bazaar.
4 … Navigate the minarets of Sultanamet (south of the Golden Horn)
To explore the heart of traditional Istanbul, remain in Sultanamet, where you’ll find the lion’s share of the city’s tourist-friendly mosques, markets, palaces, churches, museums, and hotels. Begin with Ayasofya (aka Haghia Sophia), which features an immense dome, 98 feet in diameter, and a well-worn passageway, gently sloping and turning, for reaching the immense, upper level. The structure is literally ancient -- dedicated by the Roman emperor Justinian in 537. In 1453, conquering Turks turned it into a mosque, adding minarets to issue the daily calls to prayer. In 1934, with a movement rising to make the mosque back into a church, the new Turkish republic deconsecrated the structure, making it a museum.
For lunch, visit nearby Fes Café (Ali Baba Türbe Sokak 25-27), located in an upscale shopping area, for pasta and fresh-pressed lemonade, followed by Turkish coffee, served on a silver tray with a shot of Hare Acıbadem Likörü almond liquor, and two tiny almond cookies. To the side of the dining room, also browse Abdullah, a small shop offering exquisite artisanal soaps and natural textiles.
3 … Weighing the Blue Mosque and Topkapı Palace
Few landmarks define Istanbul like the Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii) and its six minarets. Stunning -- from the outside, with attractive gardens and fountains -- the mosque dates from the 17th century. But aside from its gorgeous Turkish rugs, the inside is rather plain. After the hustle and bustle of navigating the city, however, it makes for a good, quiet place to pause. Like all mosques, and especially those located outside the tourist epicenter, remember to remove your shoes at the carpet’s edge or use cloth covers, keep your voice down, cover bare shoulders, avoid wearing shorts or short skirts, and for women, accept a head scarf if offered.
Still in Sultanamet, take the tram to Topkapı Palace, seat of the Ottoman empire until the 1850s. Generally, if you’ve seen one palace, generally you’ve seen them all. Topkapı differs, perhaps, from locations such as Versailles or the Forbidden City, because of its elaborate tile work, as well as the history of the harem -- now a series of 300 elaborately connected rooms with an engaging backstory. See the harem on a tour that leaves every half hour. Also budget the better part of a day to explore the palace’s architecture and museums. But if you’re pressed for time, or don’t want to pay the high entrance fee, skip it.
2 … By bridge and Tünel to Beyoğlu (north of the Golden Horn)
If Istanbul is a study in cultural contrasts, then the European side comes out in full force in Beyoğlu, to the north. Reach it by walking or taking the tram across Galata Bridge -- over the Golden Horn -- and then taking the 19th-century funicular, the Tünel.
Mingle with young Turks reading the paper, flirting, smoking and finding their fortunes in the dregs of their Turkish coffee, at Smyrna (Akarsu Caddesi 29). Order tea or Turkish coffee, which is made to order with your desired level of sugar: none, some, medium or a lot.
For the best choice of restaurants, shopping, tea shops and cafes, head to Istiklal Caddesi, the district’s main, pedestrianized street, complete with street cars and numerous shopping opportunities as well as restaurants. For dinner, visit Sofyalı 9 (Sofyalı Sokak 9); reservations required. Order up an array of mezze -- think Turkish tapas -- including yogurt with garlic, fried cheese, stuffed grape leaves, delicately battered and fried calamari, and squid in its ink. Follow with fish stew baked in a clay pot.
For dessert, head up the hill to energetic Leyla (Aarsu Caddesi 46) for an ice-cold Manhattan or Martini, followed by chocolate fondant and Turkish coffee.
1 … Take the night ferry to Asia
Budget at least one night for dinner on the Asian shore, or longer for seaside walks during the day. To get there, take the inexpensive ferry from Eminonü in Sultanamet, past Haydarpaşa and Üsküdar, to Kadıköy. The Asian shore, which only became part of Istanbul proper less than 50 years ago, is a more low-key, suburban version of its counterparts to the west. But it’s also a great place for affordable, traditional Turkish food.
Nothing says “kebab institution” like the multileveled Çiya (Güneslibahce Sokak 43-44). While the interior is overly bright, kebab-lovers should sample the ground lamb, beef and sour cherry, or sour lamp chop kebabs, all paired with flat bread.
Adjourn for after-dinner drinks at one or more of the bars on Barlar Sokağı (Bar Street). All feature inexpensive beer, with some providing live jazz or rock music. Just don’t forget to catch the last ferry back to Europe, before midnight.
On your way back to the hotel, stop at one of the many all-night shops that sell freshly made Turkish delight, a revelation. Equally so the fresh baklava, bathed in honey, flecked with ground pistachios and sold by weight. Stop beneath a street lamp, pop open the takeaway container, and try to not eat them all at once.