First thing to know about Istanbul is that it’s a place where you can’t possibly get bored. It’s a place of diversity, chaos, beauty, history, art, but most of all human kindness – something that you can hardly expeience in most of the world’s huge cosmopolitan cities.
I’ve visited Istanbul hundreds of times, so my relationship with this city has long ago passed the line from rational to purely emotional. That’s why in this post I’m not going to make a list of the must-vist places and things you absolutely have to do during your long weekend in Istanbul and I will write about the places that would take you out of the touristic madness and let you feel the beating heart of the world, its real atmosphere and special energy.
Taksim Square, Galata Tower, Istiklal and More
Most of the people who are visiting Istanbul for the first, second or even third time would start their journey from the famous Taksim Square and go down Istiklal street to the Galata Tower. If the tower is open, you should visit and go to the top and enjoy the breathtaking view, but keep in mind that you can find similar views at any of the rooftop restaurants in this area, while also enjoying a delicious Turkish meal. While many people would stop there and hop to another “must-do” sight, I would recommend you to take your time and go all the way down Istiklal – it gets narrow and steep, so make sure you’re wearing comfortable shoes. This is the place where you will find plenty of little artsy shops and ateliers, usually with their owners working inside. We’re absolutely not outside of the touristic area here, but I find these shops really charming and worth visiting. If you’re looking for any kind of gift – you can find it there and don’t worry they are not even overpriced.
If you are into artsy places and authentic architecture, you should definitely visit Cihangir / Nisantasi – one of the oldest neighbourhoods of Istanbul and currently a very hype place to wine, dine and meet up with friends.
Hello From the Other Side – Moda!
Further down is the Galata Bridge and the public boats to the Asian side of town, leading to one of my favourite areas – Moda. Oh yes, important tip: there are lots of touristic boats going around the Bosphorus, which I personally find boring and overpriced. Taking the boat that is directly crossing the Bosphorus is not only cheaper, but it also makes you feel like a local as this is the public transport that most of the people are taking to go to work or meet up with friends “on the other side” as they call it. If you have the chance of taking the boat around sunset time, get ready for an unforgettable experience! During the 20 minute trip you will enjoy wonderful views towards the countless mosques of the citiy and you will also get to see the locals, enjoy a glass of chai and listen to street musicians performing on the boat to complement the enchanting atmosphere (please, don’t forget to give them a lira or two, because the journey on the boat would not be the same without them!)
Before you know it the boat arrives at Kadikoy/Moda and you get absorbed in the crowd again. I just love wandering the streets of Moda with no purpose and direction. It’s so colourful and authentic with plenty of little local shops, restaurants and coffee places, vegetable & fish market, gorgeous views of the Bosphorous… it makes you feel like you are part of the city
The Famous Cats of Istanbul and Their People
One of my favourite things about Istanbul are the cats. The stray cats of Istanbul are perhaps the happiest stray animals on the planet, because they are so well taken care of. You will notice dry cat food everywhere on the streets and a bowl of water in front of almost every residential building. A Turkish friend once told me that it is like part of the locals’ daily routine to buy a bag of cat croquettes every day on their way back to work and leave it in front of their door. But it goes further than that. People actually make houses for them for the winter out of cardboard boxes, cover them with plastic bags to avoid water coming in and putting a warm piece of clothing inside. As a result the streets are full of beautiful and kind cats of all ages, who are not afraid of people and living a beautiful life. I like going to Ortaköy next to the Bosphorus during the day, sitting on a bench and just contemplating the fishermen and the stray cats waiting patiently behind them, knowing that the small fish will be given to them. In winter you can often find many cats sleeping inside the coffee places or shops during the day feeling so homey. It’s something that is truly melting the heart of any cat lover, like me, but more over small gestures like this say a lot about the people.
Istanbul is a place that immediately makes you feel at home, because people there treat you like family. The human kindness is overwhelming and often shocking for people coming from big western cities. While in the central areas you will easily find locals speaking English, German, French and even Russian, that’s not the case when you go out of the touristic places. Don’t worry about it. People will go out of their way to help you always. If you ask them a question or need something and they can’t understand you or can’t answer you, they will start stopping random people from the street asking them to translate and the strangers will gladly do it. If there is no one around they would give you their phone and ask you to type in google translate. If they notice you’re looking for something or staring at your map looking lost they would stop and proactively propose to help you. It’s quite amazing for a city of 20 million citizens that despite of their busy schedules and fast lives they will always take a minute of their day to help a stranger, because they take pride in their city and want to make sure tourists feel good there. From what I’ve heard and experienced, this applies for the whole of Turkey!
A Bonus Tip
And since you took your time to read this post almost until the end here is your reward – I will share with you my secret place in Istanbul – widely unpopular for tourists, a place you’re unlikely to read about in the tourist guides. The neighbourhood is called Yesil Koy (which means green village) and is only 10min away from Istanbul Atatürk airport. It’s a beautiful residential area, next to the sea with plenty of restaurants and coffee places, especially around the marina/small port. Lively, but somehow calm compared to the chaos and madness of the central area, Yesil Koy is the place where you can enjoy the most beautiful sunsets and sunrises. It’s far from the city center and it would take you time to reach it, so if you have limited time it may be better not to aim for it. It’s mainly convenient for a sleepover if you have a morning flight from Atatürk.
When I travel I usually like to take with me a book that is somehow connected to the place I’m visiting. For me this is a way to learn more about it and have the full experience even if I have limited time. If you’re doing that, too then you have a huge choice of authors and books when it comes to Istanbul starting with the nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who wrote an entire book dedicated to his hometown – a beautiful book that I would strongly recommend whether or not you are heading to Istanbul anytime soon.
And finally just remember that a couple of days are not enough to really visit Istanbul, neither is a week, a month or a lifetime. So, don’t aim at seeing everything, don’t rush from one place to another, just wander down its streets and take a few moments to notice the details, to contemplate the people, to forget about everything else and feel small. Don’t try to figure out what makes it so special, just let it steal your heart.