Local's guide to Istanbul
I’ve been enchanted with Istanbul since my first visit in 2001 and have now been living and working here as a journalist for 12 years and counting. After all this time, the city’s combination of rich history and kinetic energy continues to captivate me, making up for the challenges and frustrations of living cheek by jowl with 15 million-plus other people.
When I have friends in town… visiting the top-tier historic sights such as the Aya Sofya and Topkapı Palace is a must, of course. However, I also like to take guests on walks through Istanbul’s varied, vibrant neighbourhoods. From the chic boutiques of Nişantaşı, to the bustling market and nightlife of Kadıköy, to the families thronging the holy sites of Eyüp on weekends, Istanbul is veritably many cities, rather than just one.
My favourite place to see the sunset… is the Moda seafront in Kadıköy, where picnickers gather in the summer months to watch an explosion of evening colour over the Old City across the water. For a swankier option, you can’t beat the rooftop bar on the towering Marmara Pera hotel in Beyoğlu, which has incredible cityscape panoramas. The nearby terrace bars at Balkon or the charmingly shabby Büyük Londra Hotel are fantastic for a low-key sundowner.
When I need to relax… there’s no better (or cheaper) cure than hopping on the ferry crossing between Istanbul’s European and Asian sides. The 20-minute ride provides sea breeze, spectacular views, fresh air and the soothing motion of the waves – never failing to dispel the stresses of big-city life. Sit outside, order a cup of tea from a roving vendor and keep an eye out for dolphins.
A typical weekend involves… shopping for fresh fruit and vegetables at the weekly neighbourhood street market, and ideally getting out for an urban adventure, like walking all seven hills of the Old City or the length of the historic land walls. Evenings are usually pretty chill, meeting friends at a local restaurant in Cihangir, or perhaps the stalwart Çukur Meyhane, followed by a drink at Urban. When we want to linger over a more sumptuous meal, Aheste, Karaköy Lokantası, Yeni Lokanta and Karaköy Gümrük are among our top picks.
When I’m looking for a cheap eat… I don’t want to settle for just any old greasy kebab. For döner, it’s worth the trip to Bereket Döner in Fatih, where fresh slices of lamb are hand-stacked each morning on the rotating spit, interspersed with chunks of tomatoes and peppers whose juice flavours the succulent meat as it cooks. And most dürüm (wraps) can’t hold a candle to those at Dürümzade, where the skewered lamb, chicken or liver is cooked to perfection, thin-sliced onions are dusted with sumac and the fresh lavaş (flatbread) seasoned on the grill.
One of the best things about Istanbul… is having a leisurely Turkish breakfast at Van Kahvaltı Evi, Cafe Privato or somewhere else serving serpme kahvaltı: a table-filling selection of small bites to share. The bountiful spread involves olives, jams, honey and thick cream, eggs with spicy sausage, roasted red peppers, slices of cheese and cucumbers, seasonal fruits, fresh bread and endless little cups of black tea to wash it all down.
When I get bored… I like to make the rounds of the local art galleries, museums and cultural centres in Beyoğlu, to take in the latest shows at Istanbul Modern, Arter, Mixer, Depo and SALT Galata, among others. I also love poking through the stacks and bins at the sahaflar (second-hand book dealers) in Aslıhan Pasajı near İstiklal Caddesi and the Beyoğlu fish market. Even if you’re not looking for English-language reads, the variety of ephemera for sale – vintage magazines, postcards, ages-old black-and-white photos, weathered maps, classic printed advertisements and the like – is fascinating and can make for quirky souvenirs.
One tip for travellers… is to buy an İstanbulKart from the machines in metro stations, at tram stops and by ferry piers. This reloadable transit card will save you time and money on each trip on the city’s robust public transport network.
When I want to get out of the city… I head for the vast Belgrad Forest in northern Istanbul near the Black Sea coast with my running group, or to other outskirts areas of the city with a pack of adventurous urban hikers. Any green space close to a parking lot is often packed with picnickers, but once out on the trails, it feels as though we have a largely undiscovered landscape all to ourselves. A day trip by ferry to the beautiful, car-free Princes’ Islands is always blissful too – just as long as you don’t try it on a holiday weekend when everyone else has the same idea.
One thing to avoid… is being on the road during commute hours, though traffic in this sprawling megacity can frankly be heavy at any time. Traffic congestion, unscrupulous taxi drivers and the constant noise and dust of construction sites are all high on the list of pet peeves for most İstanbullus.
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This article was originally published in September 2017 and last updated March 2020.