The only city in the world that straddles two continents: Istanbul (map). Its strategic position on the Bosphorus, a strait that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea, was a prized possession since ancient times. Many wars were fought in this area and Istanbul (or Constantinople as it was then known) was occupied by a succession of empires. Each left their mark on the city, many of which can still be seen today; from the magnificent Roman Cisterns and the Galata Tower to the majestic Hagia Sofia, the exotic Topkapi Palace and the breathtaking Dolmabahçe Palace. Istanbul’s colourful past, its stunning location at the crossroads of East and West, and its bewildering mix of cultures make it one of the most fascinating destinations in the world. Once you’ve seen the major sights, consider these tips to experience Istanbul like a local.
Ways to soak in the local flavour of Istanbul
Is Istanbul more European or more Asian? The argument on that never ends, but it doesn’t really matter – the city is distinctly Istanbul. Here are ten ways to soak in the city’s local flavour.
1. Travel by dolmus (a small bus) and cling on! The bus driver collects money, counts change, talks on the phone and smokes while he drives. For a more tranquil experience, mingle with commuters on the municipality ferry from Eminonu. The ferry route offers unrivalled panoramas of the city skyline as it zigzags between the European and Asian banks of the Bosphorus.
2. Have Turkish kahvaltı (breakfast, pronounced kah-val-tuh), mezze (appetizer) with fish and a leisurely dinner in Bebek.
3. Watch the day go by on the Galata Bridge, Istanbul’s famous bridge that crosses the Golden Horn. This is particularly calming after a close shave on the dolmus. The stunning minarets of the Hagia Sophia, Blue and Süleymaniyeh mosques and the Galata Tower form a striking backdrop while the spice-filled air, the anglers, and the traffic on the bridge and the many boats plying the Golden Horn below will keep your senses tantalised!
4. Forget the Grand Bazaar, go to the Spice Bazaar and the lively local market surrounding it. Refresh yourself with freshly squeezed Pomegranate juice.
5. Get scrubbed in a Hammam (Turkish bath). Cagaloglu and Cemberlitas in Sultanahmet have been visited by celebrities, but try Galatasaray in Beyoglu, more popular with residents.
6. Play backgammon and drink coffee with patriarchs along the Golden Horn, an inlet of the Bosphorus. Hungry? Call one of the pretzel paddlers over. Watch the colours of the Golden Horn turn into a shimmering gold when the sun sets.
7. Smoke shisha late into the night while people-watching in Ortakoy. This district has blossomed into one of Istanbul’s most vibrant nightlife and entertainment areas, so there’s plenty to see as you sit back.
8. Take it down a notch at Kadıköy, across the Bosphorus on the Asian side of Istanbul. There are shops and restaurants galore, and you won’t have to jostle with tourists. It’s also a fantastic spot to see the skyline of Istanbul at sunset.
9. Drink raki (Turkish anise-flavoured spirit) and ayran (Turkish yogurt drink)! These are Turkey’s national drinks. Yes, the Turks also have good coffee and tea, but these are in a class of their own!
10. Finally, join a local family for a home-cooked meal. Turkish people are some of the most welcoming and hospitable people I know, and there’s no better way to get to know them and the local cuisine than dining with them in their home.