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.