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Matador’s destination expert on Istanbul lays out the city’s avoidable attractions…and what you should do instead.
1. Don’t… stay in Taksim

Most buildings in Taksim (home to many popular clubs) were constructed before the era of enormous nightclub sound systems — they don’t muffle the party. Istanbul’s night-owl tendencies and lack of noise curfews means the area doesn’t quiet down till the wee hours. No fun for the weary.

Instead, book a bed in Galata or Cankutaran, areas that are centrally located but much calmer by night.

Do… visit after dark

While it may be a lousy place to sleep, Taksim is an awesome place to be awake. Turn off Istikal Caddesi onto any side street and you’ll find a handful of taverns to choose from.

Nevizade Sokak is the most dense of the tavern streets. Families tend to sit streetside at outdoor tables, while the young and agile climb steep flights of stairs to the surrounding rooftop bars.

Riddim has cheap drinks and a genius dj. Mavi Bar is cozy but never dull.

2. Don’t… bother with the Topkapi crowds

I know people will disagree, but unless you’re a huge history buff, Topkapi Palace isn’t worth the mob and the price. Even in the middle of winter, in a downpour, the crowds feel like Woodstock.

What’s more, while the art and architecture are certainly gorgeous, you can see similar pieces in the old buildings and galleries of Istanbul.

Do… check out Dolmabahce palace

It has all the opulence of Topkapi, but Dolmabahce offers a guide and a free harem tour. It’s the site of Turkey’s transition from empire to republic, from being the center of the civilized world to taking interior design cues from other cultures.

The Bosphorus views are fantastic, and there’s an aviary with some pretty goofy peacocks. Also, Dolmabahce has the second largest chandelier in the world (you win again, Dubai).

3. Don’t… think you’re eating Greek

Turkey and Greece have a lot of similarities food-wise, but there are long-running disputes over who invented what. Turks are proud of their cuisine, and to suggest it’s an imitation can cause hurt feelings (or worse, anger).

The cheese may taste like feta to you, and the liquor like ouzo, but ask your waiter for the Turkish names and try to remember them.

Do… accept a cup of tea

The offering of tea is the traditional Turkish equivalent of “can I add you on Facebook?”

When you’re invited into someone’s home or shop for tea, it means, “I like your company, sit and chat with me a while.” It’s considered rude to turn down food or drink, so unless you have a plane to catch, pull up a chair.

One of the loveliest traits of Turkish people is their tireless sociability, even through a language barrier.

4. Don’t… stop at the Pudding Shop

Across from the Hagia Sophia, the Pudding Shop was once the meeting point of new-age travelers on the hippie trail to Kathmandu.

It’s no longer the flower child hangout of 50 years ago. The name is the same, but on the inside it’s just a tourist-oriented (and tourist-priced) restaurant like any other in the area.

Do… get lunch two doors down

Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi only makes a few dishes, but boy do they make them well. This is Turkish food for Turkish people, well-priced and always packed.

Try kofte, a type of grilled lamb meatball, or fill up on bean salad and lentil soup.

Photo: Atilla1000

5. Don’t… bother with taxis if possible

Traffic in Istanbul is plain ol’ slow, especially during rush hour. Give the cabs a miss — buses too.

If your journey is too far to walk, look into Istanbul’s extensive subway, Metrobus, and tram lines. They’re crowded but speedy.

Do… map your route on foot

Istanbul street life is one of the subtlest glories of the city — the narrow alleys, laundry hanging overhead, the sudden slopes and hills.

Steep-but-pretty Galata, where many cars fear to tread, is a hub of cool music stores, cafes, and arty residential pockets.

6. Don’t… misunderstand dress codes when visiting mosques

Women queuing at the visitors’ entrance of the Blue Mosque are often seen fretfully wrapping their heads in bazaar-bought pashminas to cover up tightly, headscarf-style.

Here, it’s not necessary for non-worshipers to cover their hair completely. Some guides will tell you it’s not necessary at all.

Photo: Jrwooley6

What’s more important is for your sleeves, neckline, shorts, and skirts to hit a modest length. No tank tops or short shorts, or you’ll be asked to use your new pashmina as a sarong.

Do… let worshipers worship

Mosques have specific prayer times, but visitors can choose to pray whenever they visit. This means that while the mosque is open for tourists, worship is still taking place.

Try to talk quietly, pul-lease don’t use your cellphone, and if you want to snap pictures of people in prayer, at least be discreet about it. Also, be mindful of the separate men’s and women’s sections.

7. Don’t… live off doner and baklava

They’re cheap, ubiquitous, and oh so tasty, but you’d be shortchanging yourself by staying in this food rut.

Other common, delicious Turkish foods are saucy iskender kebap, lentil (mercimek) soup, and desserts like rice pudding (sutlac) or sticky ice cream (dondurma). Check out the sweets at a Mado Cafe.

Do… try a point-and-choose restaurant

There’s a point-and-choose place on every street in the city. From the window, you’ll see a dozen trays of different foods and a cafeteria-style counter.

These restaurants are inexpensive and fresh. Each dish will cost 2-5 lira, and if you go with a friend or two, you can sample and share the whole menu.

Photo: ae35unit

8. Don’t… take the Bosphorus cruise

It’s a pretty tour, yes, but a relatively pricey one. The boat has plenty of seating, but the window seats fill up fast.

Your 3-hour stopover on the Asian side provides views of the Black Sea and the ruins of a small pre-Ottoman fortress. That leaves another 2 hours and 30 minutes of touts trying to draw you into their seafood shops.

Do… take a ferry to the Prince’s Islands

For a better daytrip, do what the Istanbullians do and hop a ferry to the Prince’s Islands in the Marmara Sea. It’s far cheaper than the Bosphorus cruise but still provides views of Istanbul and its southern waterfronts.

Once on the islands, you can swim, hike, and rent bikes. Buyukada, the last island on the route, is my favorite for its car-free streets and weathered wooden villas ranging from old-world gorgeous to 70s gaudy.

Community Connection

Over at Matador Abroad, find out why Istanbul is one of the 18 Most Scenic Places For Teaching English Overseas, and what life is really like for An English Teacher in Istanbul.

What NOT to do


 

About The Author

Anne Merritt

Anne Merritt has lived in Canada, Europe, and Asia. She teaches ESL, writes, haggles, hikes, and wears sunscreen fanatically. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, GoOverseas.com, and The Compass. Check out her blog.

  • http://www.felinedesigninc.com Christina

    I will be in Istanbul for my first time in about a month, thank you for the tips!

  • http://travelinbones.wordpress.com Ryan Van Lenning

    Great tips Anne! Tea-time brings back memories. I was taken aback the first time I was offered tea in an eye-glass store…and in the airport…and in the bookstore and music shop, etc. What a great custom. I also agree about Topkapi–for some reason I tend to not have much fun in places like that. What did it for me was the ruby-studded daggers and gold-plated baby crib–a bit ostentatious for my taste. Also, in addition to baklava addictions, it is easy to get attached to the anise-flavored raki!

  • http://www.expatheather.com Heather Carreiro

    Terrific piece Anne! I loved this line, “The offering of tea is the traditional Turkish equivalent of ‘can I add you on Facebook?’”

  • http://www.scotlandhereandnow.com/ Ryan

    Excellent review and advice, one thing you should do before travelling to Turkey is watch Midnight Express. Great Blog.

    • Ozgur

      Ryan, the movie is from 1978 by Alan Parker. It’s 33 years ago. Trust me even for that time it did not reflect the reality. Nowadays, the only annoying thing is the hustle by shop owners that are trying to sell you something. So I would recommend just the opposite; pass this movie.

  • http://pocketcultures.com Lucy

    You’re so right about the taxis. I missed my ferry from Yenikapı last week after sitting for 40 minutes in traffic on the way there. It would have been quicker to take the metro, even with my suitcase full of Easter eggs :)

    I like the Bosphorus cruise from Ortaköy as well. It lasts around an hour and it’s much more affordable than the ones that leave from the old city.

    Nice post! I’m off to check out your others…

  • Kelsie

    If I ever go to Turkey, I’m printing off this page!

  • Juan

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll be in Istanbul next month.

  • melis

    Nice post, but I’ll strongly object to #1. It seems that by ‘Taksim area’, you actually mean the ‘Beyoglu area’ with all the crowds and the noise. However, most of the hotels near Taksim are in Talimhane, where there are hardly any bars and no traffic. So it’s perfectly quiet, and just a few minutes walk to the bustling Istiklal Street. I should know, I live there.

    • http://annemerritt.blogspot.com Anne

      You’re right Melis, there are parts of Beyoglu that are perfectly comfortable. I’ve stayed in Taksim and had an uncomfortable time, and stayed in a budget place in Sultanahmet and had a great time. These tips are very much based on my personal experiences. Thanks for the tip though, Talimhane is a great area.

  • http://www.bazaarbayar.blogspot.com Catherine

    No!! Midnight Express is a quaint, horrific and discredited film that even the director Oliver Stone apologized to the Turkish people for! And that prison is now the Four Seasons Hotel. See contemporary Turkish cinema, like the wonderful films by directors like Fatih Akin or Nuri Bilge Ceylan instead, to get a true picture of Turkey.

  • http://dcmuseumgoer.com Julia Ross

    I visited Istanbul for the first time last fall. I’d disagree with the item about Topkapi– the Harem rooms were a definite highlight. I also enjoyed the Bosphorus cruise– the view is stunning from the castle ruins and the restored boathouses are charming. But the best part was wandering in and out of mosques, especially those not on the tourist trail.

  • Mehmet

    Great article, two points though, 1. You can stay in Taksim in Talimhane region without any noise or you can stay around Pera and Sishane where it is much calmer. 2. The Bosphorus Cruise is a biggy and it would be a shame if you miss it. You can always take a ferry from Sirkeci-Eminonü port for a dollar. This ferry goes all the way to Anadolu Hisari on the Asian side furthest north) For more tips about Istanbul try; http://www.best-of-istanbul.com

  • Giovanna

    I have been living in Istanbul for a few months and have visited many times since my father is Turkish. I have to disagree with a lot of this article.

    1. If you are under the age of 25, DO stay in Taksim. In fact, I wish I lived there! No, you are not going to find a totally silent place to rest your head, but if you are only in this city for a few days and plan on going out and having fun, then stay in Taksim. Plus it is cheaper than the surrounding areas and centrally located.

    2. GO TO TOPKAPI!!!!!! I can’t believe you are saying NOT to go to one of the most famous palaces in the world! The jewels are glorious and the harem (though you have to pay extra, which is really stupid) is definitly worth it. I mean, you’re only in Istanbul once, right? You might as well see the center of the Ottoman empire. Dolmabace is cool, but I have been asked before which of the two I would suggest if someone is only going to do only one, and I always say Topkapi. Dolmabace is nice, but you can see its glory well enough from the outside and the inside, while interesting, is not all that great if you have seen palaces in other parts of the world.
    If you go to Topkapi at lunchtime or late in the afternoon, when the tour groups are absent, the crowds at Topkapi aren’t actually that bad. It is all about timing! And really, even though you have to pay more to get into the Harem, the tiles are AMAZING.

    5. The metro is okay and I do recommend it, but it isn’t THAT great. It will get you some places, but honestly it is not very extensive past Sultanahmed and Taksim and the bus system is extremely difficult to figure out. Also, if you try to take it during the commuting hours, it can be so crowded with pushy Turks that you will have a very stressful time trying to get on. Taxis are cheap and if you do have to go somewhere along the Bosphorus on your side of the city, it isn’t a bad option, especially at night, even though yes, the traffic is HORRENDOUS. But what can you do, this city has WAY too many people living in it who all apparently need to drive cars.

    7. I don’t like the “point and choose” restaurants (which in Turkish are called the Worker’s restaurants) because the food tends to be cold and not that great. I mean, it is okay, but not very special. Donor is soooo good (I am kind of addicted…) and all the take-away sweets are great, so by all means do that for noontime meals. And then at dinner, find a lokanta and spend that money you saved on lunch on a yummy warm real Turkish meal. Get meze and drink raki for hours. Or go to a fish restaurant on the Galata bridge. But really, while the “point and choose” places are okay, they kind of lack on real quality whereas donor is almost always good. I’d rather spend 4 lira on donor or a fish sandwhich from near the Galata bridge than 10 lira on a lackluster lunch.
    **Try the Durumcu place down the side street across from the mosque off of Istiklal in Taksim.

    8. Um, the Bosphorus cruise costs a whopping 20 turkish lira (roughly 10 euro) for a 3 hour tour of the Bosphorus and a stop down at the end next to a fortress and the Black Sea. I would hardly call that “overpriced”. I actually am a fan of this for tourists in the city for a few days. But yeah, you could take a cruise to the Princes’ Islands instead or even just take a ferry across the Bosphorus for a 20 minute ride. It just depends what you want to do. If it is the weekend in the summer, do not go to the Princes’ Islands because they become overcrowded with Istanbulites and the ferry is not fun when it is that crowded.

    BUT, good call on the Kofteci in Sultanahmed and the tea thing. DO NOT REFUSE TEA! haha. Turks get really offended and do not understand when you refuse their tea.

    Basically, there is a ton to do in Istanbul and you really just have to figure out what it is YOU want to do. I mean, if you aren’t interested in the Ottoman Emprie, but you find the founding of the Republic interesting, well then go to Dolmabace instead of Topkapi. Or if you prefer to relax in a waterside restaurant and not spend 2 hours walking and getting lost, then take a 15 lira taxi to Ortakoy because there is no metro there and those buses can be very confusing if you don’t speak Turkish. But, if you have the time and patience, that walk along the Bosphorus can be lovely.

  • http://www.istanbulextralarge.com zozlem

    A wonderful article that puts so much things together about Istanbul.. There are somethings I’d like to add:

    2) By all means, go to Topkapi Palace. It is one of the most ineterseting palaces in the world. Sorry you had problems with the crowd , I can totall y understand you.. But if you can arrange the visiting hours, you’ll be just fine. Especially the Harem part is worth seeing, if you can pay the extra 10 Euros to get in.

    And see Dolmabahce Palace too.. These two are not comparable, they ara totally different than each other. And this makes them both worth seeing because, they housed the same empire and they’re so close to each other and yet so different.

    3) Absolutley right on this one.. Greek cuisine and Turkish cuisine have a lot of common courses. Just like Turkish cuisine and Syrians, Lebanese and Iranian cuisines have a lot of similar cuisines. That is totally normal because these countries actually share borders and above that they belong to the same area..

    Every country has different styles to cook those similar courses. My Greek friends adore Turkish baklava (yummmy..) and I adore their version of musakka. Cuisines and friendships, somehow manage to transcend borders… :)

    And you’re totally right again: That tea should be drank! :)

    4)I’m with you on this one. Unless you’re a very fanatic Woodstuck girl/boy, just skip Pudding shop. And if you want to eat real pudding, there is “Saray Muhallebicisi” in Beyoglu, Istiklal Street. Have a “Firin Sutlac” (oven-baked pudding with rice) there, it is gorgeous.

    5) The almighty taxi issue… It totally depends on what kind of a traveller you are. If you don’t like to be jampacked with lots of people in a metro car while you’re going to a nice restaurant, by all means, take a taxi. But if it’s okay with you to have a little crowded ride, then go for metro.

    But unfortunately there are some places that you can’t take metro, because of its non-existence. You have to get on a bus or take a taxi to those places. Good thing is, most of the parts of the city that you will be wandering about, are very close to each other. So you won’t pay a fortune to taxi rides.

    By the way, you can use a bus to go to Bosphorus. (Giovanna I hope this tip helps..) Nearly every bus goes to Bosphorus coastline when you get on it from Besiktas. Just ask “Bogaz?”, or show where you want to go on the map and everyone will try to help you.

    6) Point and choose.. This is a very nice name for these kinds of restaurants, congrats.. Because it is really what you do to order, you point and choose.. :) This is one of the best ways to have a real Turkish food. All are cooked in our homes everyday. don’t go back without trying these. One very good one is in Siraselviler Street (the adjacent street to Istiklal Street in Beyoglu); Selvi Restaurant. Get past the doner stands, you will see it on your right hand side. They always have wonderful meals, I always eat there.

    And do try the “meyhane” style dining in Nevizade, Beyoglu or in Asmali Mescid, Beyoglu (this neighborhood is the new star of the city).

    The two are totally different things. One is casual Turkish cuisine (point and choose), other is (meyhane) Turkish cuisine especially goes well with raki (anise flavored alcoholic drink that Turkish people want to soak in..). Try them both, you’ll see.

    8) I would advise you to have that long Bosphorus cruise with ferry. Because the cruise itself is a very nice one, you see all shorefront wooden houses (we call them: yali) which are gorgeous, along the way. And the breeze of the bosphorus is like sent from heaven in a sunny day.

    I know how pushy those restaurant workers in Anadolu Kavagi can be.. the solution to it is: Don’t eat there and don’t hang around the port too much. There is a very nice place with astonishing views just below the “Yoros Castle” on top of the hill.

    You can walk to the castle (very steep road though, you can take a cab too), see the amazing views of Bosphorus combining Black Sea. Then you can walk down to that restaurant, have a lunch or a cold drink.. So you wouldn’t have to deal with the waiters next to the port.

    If I get to choose just one thing to do in Istanbul that would be a Bosphorus Cruise. It is such a bliss. :)

    Or if you don’t have a half day for a Bosphorus Cruise, you can have a short tour that starts from Ortakoy.

    Or even shorter, you can hop on a ferry from Sirkeci or Besiktas and land on anywhere you want, have a cup of tea there and turn back with a bus, back to Besiktas.

    Or even more shorter, you can take a small ferry to Uskudar from Besiktas and turn back with the same ferry. It takes 20 plus 20; 40 minutes in total.

    If you want to know more about Istanbul: http://www.istanbulextralarge.com
    And you can contact me if you want to ask something.. Anything about Istanbul..

  • http://www.DeniseMichaels.com Denise Michaels, “Your Excellent Adventure”

    Gee, this sure reminds me of my trip to Istanbul 13 years ago. I remember dishes that seemed very Greek to me – but the waiters said, “Oh no, this is Turkish!” I remember being invited to sit and have tea a couple times the day I spent wandering around the Bazaar. I don’t remember Topkapi being so doggone crowded. Dolmabache reminded me of a Turkish equivalent of the White House. Ahhhhhh, Istanbul. Would love to go back.

  • http://www.vagobond.com Vago

    Great tips Anne, except that last one. I liked the Bosporus Cruise. Just schedule it so you take the last ferry out and the first one back and you won’t have to spend so much time on the black sea with all the touts. Of course, if you take the time to talk with people or walk around, 3 hours might not be enough.

    I’m not dissing your suggestion of the Princes Islands, but a Bosporus cruise is worth doing and I’d hate to see people skip it.

    ~Vago

  • Mallika Henry

    Thank you for a lot of good advice, but I also disagree about Topkapi, although I agree it’s a pain. Likewise the Bosphorus. I found the logistics of all the major sites (Topkapi, Hagia Sofia, Bosphorus) abysmal, the crowds unbearable, but still these places are not to be missed.

    You leave out some wonders, though, for art and archeology lovers: the Byzantine church Karyie Camii with its exquisite Byzantine mosaics, and the Archeology Museum with its panoramic history of Anatolia. Though I loved many of the mosques, how I missed figurative art. The Ottomans wouldn’t want it advertised, but Turkey was of great importance to Hellenistic art. I also found the walls of Byzantium fascinating. In sum, there seems to be a battle for Istanbul’s soul still at play, and the history of the much older Byzantium can be hard to find amidst the Ottoman monuments.

  • Neşe

    this was an amazing article and would definately suggest it to whoever visits Istanbul from now on.. yet of course I would like to add some points for the upcoming traveler who had the patience to read this up until here:)

    first of all I loved the name “point-and-choose” restaurants, and you suggesting it, as I have never seen anyone do this before.. in the very first day of two visiting friends from USA I took them to one of those and they loved it.. yes, not all of them are good and tasty but the one named Borsa -not the luxury restaurant but this self-service version- offers very very good authentic Turkish food.. try eggplant puree (beğendi) with (or without) meat stew on it (tas kebabı).. another one is located on the Asian side, Üsküdar, near the shore, named as Kanaat.. keep in mind, this one only works on cash.. and finally another great authentic food place is Çiya, in Kadikoy.. also Saray Muhallebicisi located in Beyoğlu İstiklal St. and in many shopping malls, offer great food and especially desserts.. my guests fell in love with “kazandibi” and ate it every night until they leave:) also “su böreği” and “menemen” are great alternatives for breakfast..

    try eating anything that has eggplant in it, as we do cook it in great varience and really tasty:) if you will try raki, prefer Tekirdağ or Yeşil Efe as they are softer than the other ones, and do not take a double but take a single at your first time.. than you can arrange the water-raki balance by yourself.. in terms of mezes one should definately try eggplant salad, “şakşuka (eggplant with sauce)”, “haydari (yogurt based)”, “pilaki (broadbeans)”, turkish feta (beyaz peynir), “yaprak sarma (stuffed vine leaves)” and melon which suits the raki perfectly.. the turkish cousine has a lot to offer for especially for vegeterians, everyone can enjoy the meal.. for the hot stuff, try “sigara böreği (filo pastry with feta)”, fried calamari and “midye tava (fried mussles)”..

    tea is essential especially in the old city, and yes we do love offering tea, but do not force yourself if you dont want to.. many people may also offer you apple tea if regular Turkish tea in its typical glass is hard for your taste.. and if you are a coffee lover, you can also ask for Turkish coffee -which is very strong compared to many other coffees in the world-, and it would also be served happily to you:) what ever you do, do not leave without buying at least a couple of turkish tea glasses and coffee cups, they are really authentic..

    do visit Mısır Çarşısı and Grand Bazaar, even if you don’t feel like buying.. you will love the atmosphere..

    I also clapped the argument regarding to Topkapi vs Dolmabahçe, as a fan of the latter.. The Harem tour provided in Topkapi also does not give much of a clue.. yet one should definately see the jewellery and if you are ever in the area, a must see would be the Basilica Cistern.. also Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque are very very touristic yet they worth it.. if you have time also the Beylerbeyi Palace on the asian side is a very nice, small palace with very well preserved decorations and furniture..

    do stay in taksim area, talimhane and Taksim Square is pretty less noisy.. yet for cheap hostels, you will need to go into the İstiklal St. Use a pair of ear clogs, but do not miss the night life at all.. it is also very easy to go anywhere in Taksim.. the metro line is extended a little bit more and connected to other lines of public transportation, so it is not a big problem.. taxis are good but they might trick you by extending the way, so be careful.. prefer using taxis that are connected to a specific taxi stop (if they have a logo or a name on their doors they are not free riders but members of a taxi stop)

    and lastly: do enjoy the view from the bosphorus, not only by taking the tour, (not the big one, as they travel very far from the shore, but look for shorter but closer ones) by also drinking tea sitting in one of the many tea houses on the shore, especially at Ortaköy or Rumeli Hisarı… and definately do not miss a chance to cross from one continent to the other by the bridges.. when else would you do that, right?:)

  • Julianhickman

    Thanks….first trip, we like a little adventure. 

  • Munna4

    I have only one day, what should I see?

    • İdil

      You can recognize various plants in the natural environment,you can spend a good time in Ataturk Arboretum.You should evaluate this idea.I’m sure you will not regret.Look at the pictures of Atatürk Arboretum from Google.(I’ve just discovered the Atatürk Arboretum.And I loved it.I can stay boarding. :))))) )

  • Gordan Blazevic

    I couldn’t agree more, great review…except for Topkapi, it’s absolutely great to see and fantastic experience, especially Harem…I was there 2 times so far and if I would go again, I would visit Topkapi again for sure… :) everything else is spot on… :)

  • Homa Massah

    Elham Massah

  • Rosemarie Turtle Biggs

    Very informative. Thank you.

  • Awais Siddique Saleemi

    very informative and enjoyable according to my personal visit to istanbul, thumbs up.

  • Seda C

    Topkapı Palace will give you a TRUE ottoman experience whereas Dolmabahçe Palace is the best baroque building in the world (literally, rivaling Versailles- the location is way better).

  • Rani Lukitasari

    Visiting Prince’s Islands will be a great idea as the islands are such kind of resort area, where the summer houses are located. It would be a great getaway from busy Istanbul city center. Dolmabahce is beautiful as well, but Topkapi is really worth a visit. It is more “Ottoman” compared to the relatively “newer” Dolmabahce.

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