YEAR OF TRAVEL: 2012
HOW WE GOT THERE: Turkish Air
FLIGHT HIGHLIGHTS: Friendly, super-efficient staff. Tasty food. Some air turbulence, but a pleasure.
Straddling Europe and Asia, this Town of Two Continents is an ebullient, mesmerizing metropolis. Unwind as boats slice through the Bospohrus strait. Hear the call to prayer echoing from majestic mosques. Walk through winding streets as you shop, eat tasty local fare and visit stirring sites. Relax with a shisha water pipe. Refresh at a hamam spa. Wander. Wonder. Energize. It’s Istanbul – and, no matter your background or your temperament, you will be captivated.
1. On your return home get to the airport early, keep your eye on the departure board and know the proximity of your gate. This is the one airport where you can definitely miss your flight.
a. You have a bag screen at the entrance to airport – and that can hold you up.
b. Airport lounges in Istanbul do not make boarding announcements.
c. Istanbul’s international airport is vast and it can be a long walk to your gate.
d. It happened to us.
2. If offered euro or lira at the bank machine, take lira. It’s the currency of choice.
3. Try to take a peek inside the Turkish Airlines lounge. More nightclub than rest stop, the lounge – with pool table and several food stations – may be the best of its kind.
4. Don’t just hang around Sultanahmet, the touristy area. Cross the walking bridge by the Spice Market. Ride a tram. Take a ferry to the Asia side.
5. Yes, there are plenty of taxis, and the drivers are great, but you may hit some traffic and could lose some valuable sightseeing time. Always consider walking or using mass transit.
6. You can save a lot of money by buying spices on the Asian side of Istanbul.
FAVORITE NEIGHBORHOODS (with restaurant and bar tips):
The Old City, where all the sites are in walking distance. There’s the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and our least favorite tourist attraction in the world, the way-too-crowded Topkapi Palace.
Twenty minutes by ferry and you’re on the Asia side of Istanbul. This lively town is a maze of reasonably priced shops, green grocers, fishmongers and alfresco dining.
For choice meat pizzas called “lahmacun”, head to Borsam Tas Firin (Mehmet Kurt, Caferaa Mah. Guneslibace Sok. No: 32, Tel: 216 337 05 04)
A little Capri, an up-an-coming Rodeo Drive. Perfect for a stroll or some people watching.
For an expensive outdoor snack: Happily Ever After (Bebek Mh., 34342 Beiktas, Tel: 0212 263 4138)
Bebek’s younger, more relaxed brother. Get some street food. Do some shopping. Look at some Turkish carpets at Hazal (Mecidiye Koepruesue Sokak, No:9 Ortakoey, Tel +90 (212) 2617233, www.hazalkilim.com). Play some checkers or backgammon at a cafe. Or just get up close and personal with the Bosphorus strait.
Our pick for an affordable, leisurely lunch: Ecrin Cafe (Mecidiyekoeprue Sokak No:12 Ortakoey, +90 212 227 81 64, ecrincafe.com)
Beyoglu is a must-see district, trendy and fun, and a nice break from the magic of the Old City. During the day, take a stroll along Istiklal, a pedestrian promenade with lots of shops and restaurants. At night, visit Istiklal’s alleys for eating, drinking and clubbing. Nearby, is the Cihangir district, a even hipper scene with cafes, antique shops and dining gems.
While walking along Istiklal, visit Cicek Pasaji, a drink hall set in a beautiful arcade (www.tarihicicekpasaji.com/cicekpasaji_history.php)
The place to eat: Jash (Puertela Hasan Efendi Mh. Cihangir Caddesi 9, Tel: 0212 244 3042, www.jashistanbul.com)
Expensive options: The Four Seasons Istanbul at Bosphorus (www.fourseasons.com/bosphorus); Four Seasons Istanbul (www.fourseasons.com/istanbul); or Ciragan Palace (www.kempinski.com/en/istanbul/ciragan-palace/welcome).
More affordable stays: Conrad Istanbul (conradhotels3.hilton.com/en/hotels/turkey/conrad-istanbul-ISTHCCI/index.html) or Swissotel the Bosphorus (www.swissotel.com/hotels/istanbul)
A good mid-range option: Hotel Villa Zurich (www.hotelvillazurich.com)
If money is a tad tight, go the backpacker route at the Aga Hamam Hostel (Turnacibasi Sk. No: 48/B Beyoglu, Tel: (0212) 249 50 27)
The Blue Mosque is amazing.
The Hagia Sophia is educational.
The Grand Bazaar is a rip, but worthwhile.
The Spice Market is fun, but ridiculously expensive.
Topkapi Palace is a monumental waste-of-time, though you may think differently.
Nevertheless, the energy and beauty of Istanbul is really in its streets, its people and its strait. Be outside as much as you can – or you’re missing out.
Note: Please check with each venue for address and hours of operation.
Other Entries In Our “Stopover” Series:
Photo courtesy of Alexandra Lande/Shutterstock.com