Living in L.A., I understand sprawl, but Istanbul is in a league of its own. The city is huge - 15 million people spread across two continents - and it's been drawing them since at least 6000 B.C. It's the first thing I notice as I head from the airport to Cihangir, one of Istanbul's trendiest neighborhoods. The next thing I notice as we wind our way up through impossibly narrow streets and throngs of people is that we’re definitely lost. I only have three days and a must-see list a mile long, but being confused and disoriented is part of the adventure, so I continue to make unhelpful suggestions that we maybe should have turned on Bakraç-something street. Quick warning: My Turkish is hopeless and does not improve over this course of this blog post.
Oğul from EV Apartments meets us outside our home for the next three days, which is on a quaint little street next to a grocery store, an ice cream shop, a bookstore, an intimidating salon called Hair Mafia, and about a half dozen charming cafes. The location is perfectly perched within walking distance of İstiklal Avenue (the main pedestrian artery), nearby neighborhoods like Karaköy, the Galata Tower, and public transportation to everywhere else in Istanbul.
Oğul gives us the grand tour of this large garden level apartment and, most importantly, the wi-fi password. It has everything you could need for any length of stay, including a modern kitchen and washing machine for longer visits. I also love the little touches that you don’t get in a hotel – private garden, tiled entryway, chandelier in the bedroom, waterfall shower that still makes me swoon, eclectic art, and wine in the fridge left by some wonderful human being. I definitely recommend staying here or in one of their other properties instead of a hotel so you can immerse yourself in the places where locals actually live. Plus, you get a lot more value for your money to spend on the things that matter, like food, drinks, and shopping.
With stacks of aforementioned spare Lira burning a hole in my pocket, my cousin Jojo and I head over to İstiklal to try to get our bearings and begin the marathon of eating and drinking that is essential to any travel experience. We have our first “we’re not in Kansas/Los Angeles” moment when we notice that suicidal pedestrians and homicidal drivers alike boldly defy the rules of the road. Don’t even get me started on the suicidal AND homicidal vespa riders who roam both sidewalk and road in search of prey. Trust me though when I say it is possible to avoid bodily injury by jaywalking smartly.
Even on a Tuesday, Istanbul is alive and pulsing with activity. All along İstiklal Avenue there are vendors selling flowers, roasted chestnuts, raw chilled almonds, döner (literally meaning meat that spins), and mussels with lemon wedges for the fearless traveler with a stomach of steel. We check out a church, the very cool multimedia art in the SALT Beyoğlu, and various international and local shops lining the street on our way to the Galata Tower. The tower is an historical landmark that is visible from all over the city, and it’s a great starting place to take in the view and apparently try out your selfie stick. The building itself is impressive and has weird historical tidbits: Some poor genius survived the first human flight by jumping off the roof in a winged contraption only to be jailed for using dark magic. Bummer, I think, as I write this from a plane.
Photo Credit: Deniz Hotamışlıgil
After climbing up and down several thousand stairs, we head to dinner at Well Done, nestled in an alley strung up with fairy lights and decorated with dark walls and Mid-century Modern furniture. They serve Turkish beer and wine to go with anything from quesadillas to kebab.
The atmosphere, the food, and the price are just right, and the mixture of locals and foreigners looked like they were thoroughly enjoying themselves. Of course, we round out the introduction to Istanbul with a shisha bar and cups on cups of çay (tea) at Mona Lisa Café.
When it comes to smoking shisha, it seems like any of the packed cafes will do. Just sit down, choose a flavor, and hang out until the sun comes up.
DAY TWO: Being a Tourist
We put on our tourist caps and launched into a 9-hour tour of Istanbul with the very dapper Atakan Acar (firstname.lastname@example.org). Usually, I opt to roam free, but given the short amount of time I wanted to get the most out of sightseeing and not wander around lost for once. Other guides will do a better job of describing each of the old city landmarks, so here is my quick and dirty itinerary:
Hagia Sofia (Ayasofya): Pretty much a wonder of the world. Enough said.
Basilica Cistern: Maybe not on everyone’s agenda, but a very cool detour from the aboveground sites. The emperor Justinian junked all of the unused columns intended for Hagia Sofia here, including two enormous heads of Medusa. Poor Medusa, relegated underground, gets her revenge through cultural creep – her evil eye can be seen all over Turkey, the Middle East, and wrists of twenty-somethings everywhere.
Hippodrome: In the ancient Roman Hippodrome (chariot racing arena) there’s a German fountain next to an Egyptian obelisk next to a serpentine pillar of metal from the defeated Persian army. It makes no sense. Enjoy.
Blue Mosque: Blue is the national color of Turkey. The original İznik tiles (from İzmir) covering the interior are worth more than gold. Images of tulips are everywhere – they’re the national flower of Turkey due to their resemblance to the word Allah written in Arabic. The government spends ridiculous sums to plant them every spring around Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace: Jewels, weapons, and cool views from the café make it an easy sell.
Being a tourist is fun, but winding down with drinks and delicious food is my idea of a good time. We took the tram back over to Karaköy for happy hour at Unter. I talked with co-owner Zeynep Moroğlu, half of the female entrepreneur duo behind the bar/restaurant. She started out working in finance in the U.S. before becoming a baker and teaming up with head chef Esra Muslu. Together they’ve started a series of ventures that have set the standard for cool eateries in the neighborhood. It’s hard to believe this area was barren when they arrived on the scene two years ago because it’s now packed to the brim with restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries.
Unter still has the industrial feel of its gritty beginnings – “no tools to lend” is stenciled on the bare concrete wall from when it was a repair shop. Apparently, there were a lot of neighbor shop owners bugging the owner to borrow his tools all times. Everything else has been totally updated though – from the modern Turkish fare and creative cocktail list to the warm ambience and brass fixtures.
Zeynep recommended the homemade smoke entrecôte with quince chutney, smoked duck gözleme with pickled cucumber salad, chicken tenders, sliders with bacon caramelized in brown sugar, and the refreshing Pear Me Up (pear liquor and vodka dotted with pomegranate arils). The food was a delicious balance of sweet and savory, and the small plates make it great for sharing. Come with a group of friends or alone with a book to unwind in the afternoon and into the night.
For dessert, we jumped back into the past at Saray, a five-story institution in the heart of İstiklal. In the window, a chef spoons decadent amounts of syrup over a mountain of baklava. Yes, please.
We order baklava, of course, but the winner is the warm künefe – a baked cheese pastry drowned in syrup and topped with crushed pistachios and whipped cream. It’s a speciality of the levant countries of the former Ottoman Empire and a contribution to civilization on par with their advances in math and science, in my humble opinion. We stumble home, drunk with sugar and exhausted but so so satisfied.
DAY THREE: Body, Mind and Soul
After a day of sightseeing, I had some serious tourist fatigue and was in need of a change of pace resembling normal life. So, I dragged my cousin to a yoga class taught by the masterful Seda Erkman at YogaŞala in Etiler, a cool neighborhood way off the beaten path. Do yourself a favor and brave public transportation instead of taking a cab. Taksis are harrowing rides with no seatbelts, no English, and no rules. I arrived to Seda’s class 10 minutes late shaking and sweating…and then the real shaking and sweating began. She took us through a challenging set of poses almost entirely in Turkish, offering much-needed corrections in English and reminding us that now would be a good time to breath.
After class, we relaxed and caught our breath in the gorgeous light-filled studio and sipped on some complimentary tea. Probably out of pity Seda and her boyfriend, a fellow yogi, invited us to lunch at All Sports Café where she explained that yoga is a relatively new but growing trend in Istanbul.
After graduating from Brown University and moving to New York, she eventually moved backed to Istanbul in 2009 where her family lives. She took up yoga to cope with debilitating migraines and other health issues, eventually becoming a passionate teacher not just of yoga but mindfulness and a healthier way of living. (Reserve a spot at one of YogaŞala’s locations or book a private lesson with Seda email@example.com).
Almost two hours and a lot of spinach dip later, we were having way too much fun chatting about everything from politics to physics to chakras. Seda and her boyfriend were so warm, generous, and witty – people you feel like you’ve known forever. I sheepishly asked if they would read my fortune in Turkish coffee grounds, which they obliged after some protesting that they didn’t know how. As it turns out, they were basically experts who taught me the fine art of fortune telling.
Here’s how it goes:
1. After sipping the coffee down to the gritty sediment, cover the cup with the saucer and turn it over while still hot.
2. Place a coin on the overturned cup to cool the grounds.
3. Make a wish.
4. Slowly pick up the cup – if it resists, then your wish will come true.
5. Let the masters do their work deciphering your fortune.
6. Pour the grounds back into the cup and then read the plate for more clues.
7. Ask if she wants to go back to your place – at least according to Seda’s boyfriend’s father who used to pick up American chicks with this gimmick.
Hopefully they saw another visit to Istanbul in my future to spend more time with new friends. After parting ways, we headed back to Cihangir to pick up some gifts on Boğazkesen Cad. We dipped into a couple of tiny shops featuring work by local designers like 100% Istanbul, but I ended up spending 45 minutes in Hamm trying to figure out how I was going to pack all the amazing trinkets I picked up. I snagged a tea set with traditional glass cups and bright orange geometric saucers, miniature versions of the glass jars seen all over Istanbul, handmade soap, candles, and I don’t even know what else. Marble, glass, brass, and wood are the materials of choice used by local designers, often working in Hamm’s own workshop nearby.
Luckily, I didn’t have time to take everything in the shop home because we had dinner plans at the home of two Turkish professors across the river on the Asian side of Istanbul. The plan was to take the tram to the ferry to the minibuses to their apartment. The quick ferry ride across the Bosphorus was idyllic as the sun set over Hagia Sofia, but I was not prepared for the hell that broke loose after disembarking. Buses and shuttles and taxis were coming and going in every direction, and we had little luck finding an English speaker to direct us. After attempting to board a private shuttle, we decided to pick a line and stand in it, which turned out to be right. We crammed onto a minibus at rush hour, replete with mother of pearl steering wheel and gearshift. There aren’t really stops – you just flag them down, pay about 50 cents, tell them where you’re going, and pray you get off in the right place.
We eventually found our hosts who live in a quiet upscale neighborhood lined with trees. Their apartment was filled with old photographs of relatives in Ottoman military uniforms and antique glassware. They gave us slippers, poured us wine, and fed us homemade hibesh and semolina halwa with strawberries like the Turkish grandparents you’ve always wanted. We spent the rest of the evening looking at their old high school yearbooks, watching Turkish TV, and listening to classical music until I fell asleep on their couch. Blessedly, we took a taxi to catch the ferry back to the European side.
DAY FOUR: Farewell to Istanbul with a Lovely Bath
With only a few hours left in Istanbul, I ambled downhill early in the morning to Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı – the crown jewel in an already amazing trip. This hamam, or Turkish bath house, is the epiphany of relaxation and luxury. Built and in use since 1580, the building underwent an intense 5 year renovation and finally reopened two years ago to a local and foreign clientele. Everything from the soft natural light to the trickle of the marble fountain to the soft music is made to help you forget the chaotic life outside those warm brick walls. There are designated times for both sexes – women’s hours are 8:00 am – 4:00 pm and men’s are 4:30 pm – 11:30 pm.
Like most hamams, it is attached to a mosque, which has historically been the center of social life, especially for women, during Ottoman times. Women were not usually permitted outside the house except for this ritual where they would spend the whole day socializing freely, bathing, eating, and scoping out brides for their sons. Water also has a special significance in Islam as muslims are supposed to wash their bodies before each of the five daily prayers; falling water in particular is considered pure, hence the abundance of public fountains in Istanbul.
The experience is definitely more intimate than European spas. I might have hesitated if someone asked if I would enjoy sitting around in just my underwear while a stranger scrubbed me down, so here’s what to expect when you arrive for your reservation.
Come early to take your time sipping on sherbet, a typical welcome drink before heading upstairs to get changed.
Undress except for your bottoms and wrap yourself up in a traditional Turkish towel. Bring a change of underwear or bikini bottoms because you will get doused immediately with water.
You’ll meet your masseuse at the bathhouse, who will greet you by whipping off your towel and start washing you with hot water. Just go with it.
After the first wash, they invite you to lay on a warm marble slab in the center of the room to relax you before your scrub. I had fifteen glorious minutes alone with just the sound of my breathing and water dripping from little cutouts of stars and hexagons in the domed ceiling. It was so peaceful, I could have laid there for hours.
Eventually, your bath attendent will come seat you on a ledge next to one of the sinks lining the bathhouse and proceed to gently but firmly scrub your whole body from face to toes. It was actually very soothing. My favorite part was when she dipped what appeared to be a pillowcase in soapy water, filled it with air, and squeezed out a mountain of bubbles that covered my whole body.
Finally, she’ll shampoo and condition your hair before washing off the soap and drying you off in an adjacent room. You’ll leave the bathhouse feeling like a million Lira.
Afterwards, take your time lounging on the divans outside of the bath, order some çay and simit (circular bread with sesame), and get lost in everything this incredible city has to offer.