Destination Guide: Ek Tha Istanbul

Destination Guide: Ek Tha Istanbul

By Parm Johal.

Photos courtesy of Parm Johal.

Dreaming of which far flung destination to travel to next? Look no further than your cinema screens for inspiration! From Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger to Daniel Craig’s Skyfall, action flick fans get a double dose of Istanbul this fall. From gritty street chases to panning landscape shots, the cinematography (along with the films’ hunky stars of course) make Istanbul a drool worthy destination for travel junkies like me. A city straddling both Europe and Asia, Istanbul offers a truly authentic and intriguing blend of East meets West for the 9.5 million international tourists expected to visit by the end of 2012. Lucky me, I happened to be one of those tourists this past September.

Istanbul surprised me in so many ways during my one week trip this fall. It started off with a few mis-adventures (read Part 1 HERE), but along the way helped open my eyes to appreciate the little moments that make travel so addicting (read Part 2 HERE)
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Here are my top tips on where to stay, what to see and how to explore Istanbul as an independent traveler, the Desi Globetrotter way!

When to Go and For How Long 

Tourism season starts in April and ends in October. Check the weather before you go as it can become sweltering hot in certain months. In September/October it was 30 degrees Celsius most days. Plan to stay in Istanbul atleast a minimum of 5 days. Trust me, you will need it. Istanbul is a large, sprawling metropolis and you need time to see the sites without over exerting yourself. Besides, you’re traveling to enjoy the moment right?

Stay 2-3 days if you’re planning on sprinting to see the sites and have a desire to be only in the tourist zone. Wait, why are you still here reading? Hurry, you have no time, let’s go! Eyeing that embroidered carpet on your way to the Blue Mosque? Sorry, no time! How about a sit-down lunch at the Galata pier? Nope, grab that donair and let’s go! Rush, rush, rush. And a blur.

Beat the exhaustion by staying 5-7 days if you want to see a variety of neighbourhoods both on and off the beaten path, see all the sites, sit and people watch and still have time to relax at a shisha lounge before checking out Istanbul’s pulsating nightlife.

Istanbul

Where to Stay: Sultahnamet vs Taksim

There are two central neighbourhoods with accommodations for tourists – Sultahnamet and Taksim – both on the European side. There are pros and cons for both:

Sultahnamet – Main Tourist Hub

Pros:

  • Most of the main tourist sites are all within this area: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Galata Bridge, Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market.
  • Easy to find streets and not too hilly.
  • Less crowded at night, quiet and relaxing.

Cons:

  • Too touristy – a lot of tour groups in the morning and less locals in the evening.
  • Depending on what you’re looking for, streets are dead after 11pm. Not much to do in the evenings.

Taksim – Entertainment & Nightlife District (near where I stayed)

Pros:

  • Bustling nightlife and shopping – 7 days a week, all day and all night. Great energy.
  • A neighbourhood popular with locals – unlike Sultahnamet where I saw restaurants filled with only tourists. 
  • Offers a lot more choice

Cons:

  • Very crowded and hilly
  • Easy to get lost on the side streets
  • About 20 mins by metro to the main sites

Istanbul

Visting the Mosques: Escaping the Mayhem

Day vs Night

Istanbul is a very touristy city. It’s a known destination well traveled by many, especially by those who book packaged bus tours. There won’t go a day without noticing the large groups of people following their travel guide to the same places you’re going. As an independent traveler, it’s hard to go off the beaten path in Istanbul. However, with my tips, you can still experience those breathtaking travel moments without suffocating with the masses.

During the day, the Blue Mosque was filled with tour groups and constant banter where I couldn’t even hear myself think. So annoying. Hardly, a place I’d call spiritual. Actually, to put it bluntly, it was pure mayhem. We stayed inside for 5 minutes and we left, a little disappointed.

For a peaceful, quieter experience, visit the beautifully lit mosques at night. I’m so glad I went back to the Sultahnamet neighbourhood in the evening and back to the Blue Mosque. Very few tourists, welcoming, safe and a whole different vibe at night. One of my favourite moments.

Visit Lesser Known Mosques

Sometimes all you need is a quiet, reflective space before heading back into the busy streets. In every guidebook and online travel magazine about Istanbul, the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are the two sites that are always mentioned. They are worth seeing, but go off the beaten path and see some of the lesser known mosques and you will be pleasantly surprised. We visited the Suleymaniye Mosque – beautifully decorated inside, less tourists and awesome view of Istanbul from the courtyard.

Istanbul

Bosphorus Cruise

If staying for a week, plan a day long cruise on the Bosphorus. Great way to get away from the city life for awhile and see what else is near Istanbul. Both half day and full day cruises are available.

We went on the full day cruise and got off on the last stop at a small, quaint fishing village, Anadolu Kavagi, 1.5 hours from Istanbul. We had a few hours to roam so we hiked up to the ancient Yoros Castle, a Greek ruin with beautiful vistas of the water below. The hike was daunting for a non-hiker like me, but so worth it for the views! Treat yourself to fresh ice cream at the top of the cliff and fresh seafood at one of the restaurants lining the pier.

Transportation

From the airport, take a shuttle just outside of the main doors (much cheaper), but once in town, I would recommend taking the local metro (the funicular as the locals call it) and walking by foot. It took us half a day to figure out how the metro line and trains work so factor in that time, but after our first day it was easy. The metro uses charge cards where you can load at each station. Affordable and you have a chance to see how the locals get around. And by walking in between, you will pay attention to details you wouldn’t notice otherwise.

Istanbul

Exploring Neighbourhoods

After seeing enough of Sultahnamet and Taksim, explore and walk around different neighbourhoods to truly get a sense of the whole city.

Cihingir – Boho and artsy, with its tall, pastel coloured buildings and trendy cafes, is a local neighbourhood I can see myself living if I was to ever move to Istanbul. This is where the artist enclave lives – film makers, writers and western expats. One part San Fran, one part European and one part completely Turkish.

Fatih – less touristy, more traditional neighborhood of Istanbul made up of working middle class and lower middle class families. Fatih houses an ancient aquaduct worth seeing. Although we came to visit this neighborhood in the hopes of seeing ‘traditional’ Turkish men and women – it wasn’t all too different. We did notice that there were more men than women on the streets and in the parks and the women we did see wore traditional head scarves and burqas, but there were also non-traditional Turks walking the streets.

Karakoy – is one of the oldest and historic neighbourhoods of Istanbul and if you’re going over the Galata bridge you won’t miss this area. Karakoy is now an important commercial area and transport hub and connects with the old city via the Kabatas train line. Head over to the Galata Tower for sweeping views of the city or check out the collection of contemporary art at Istanbul Modern. Other points of interest also include a number of synagogues, churches and mosques.

Hop on a train, pick a destination and walk the streets without a plan. You never know what you’ll find!

Istanbul

Istanbul Nightlife 

A trip to Istanbul is not complete without checking out the nightlife in Taksim. The Turks know how to party! Pick a place, order a beer, listen to some live music, watch a football match or head to one of the nightclubs belting out American hip hop and pop music. The energy is infectious all week long! We went to a bar on a Monday night and sat on the second floor balcony. Packed to the brim with mostly locals, the Turkish guitarist and singer belted out tunes that all of the Turks knew by heart. Chanting the song in unison, a group of girls on the bottom floor were up and dancing. Upstairs near our table, couples were canoodling in the corner enjoying the music while another group of girls were up and shaking their hips. Back on the main level, a male belly dancer appeared out of nowhere. A fun night and a chance to see how the locals party!

If the bar and club scene is not your thing, not to worry. There’s still plenty of things to do at night. Head over to Taksim Square, pick up a bite to eat from a street vendor and chill out as people walk by. Tea houses, shisha lounges and shopping are all open until late.

Coming from Vancouver, a “no fun city”, the crowded streets, the energy, the culture of being out and about with family and friends, while frequenting public parks, squares, cafes and bars until the wee hours of the morning, will always feel exciting to me.

Istanbul

People

The Turks are very friendly people, helpful and even though at times language was an issue, we were able to get by. There were times, like at the Spice Market, where the vendors would greet us with a “Namaste!” or “Hi, my name is Shah Rukh Khan!” just to get our attention. We even had one jovial guy on the street yell out, “Hey, you’re Indian, I’m from Pakistan amigo, we’re neighbours!” If only this type of mutual friendliness could exist in every corner of the world. Lots of random moments on the streets of Istanbul!

I loved Istanbul and happy to finally check it off my bucket list! Anyone who has visited has nothing but good things to say about this city. Go on and experience it yourself!

Have you been to Istanbul before? What did you think? Share your travel tips with us!

Desiglobetrotter is a new travel blogazine with a focus on independent world travel through a South Asian lens. For destination guides, travel stories, tips and travel features, please visit www.desiglobetrotter.com.

Parm Johal - founder of travel blog desiglobetrotter.com

About Parm Johal

Parm is a travel junkie living in Vancouver and is the Editor-in-Chief of www.desiglobetrotter.com, a travel blog that connects South Asians passionate about independent world travel. Parm’s favourite travel moments include backpacking solo in Spain and Portugal, spending a night in the Saharan desert gazing up at the stars, exploring the streets of Mumbai, working on a cruise ship in the Caribbean with over a 1000 crew members from around the world and experiencing the magic of travel with her husband in Thailand.