When I went to Istanbul for the first time I was eight years old. I vaguely remember black rock-paved streets, huge mosques with birds flying around their minarets and flowers; tons and tons of flowers.
My decision to revisit the city did not come from watching the Syrian-dubbed Turkish TV series everyone is hooked on nowadays. I didn’t really think twice when the opportunity to spend a long weekend in Istanbul arose–I was on a Turkish Airlines plane before I even realized it.
The trip was already off to a good start when I noticed that the catering on board of Turkish Airlines is actually good. It is not one of these air meals that you eat out of boredom, but a two course meal that is served hot and tastes good-–a great prelude to the Turkish food awaiting you at the final destination.
Getting from the airport to the city is easy: a quick journey on the metro and then the tram drops you off in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. You can get a map of the tramways from an information desk easily-spotted near every major tram station. The people working in these information offices might be the only people you meet in that city who speak English fluently, so gather your questions before you visit them. Public transport is efficient and cheap, with one ride costing TL2, or about LE7.
Following the advice of a dear friend, I booked myself a room in Side Hotel and Pension in Sultanahmet area, the central part of historic Istanbul, just a few hundred meters from main tourist locations like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Mosque and with easy transportation linking it to the rest of the city. The hotel is very close as well to Palace Cistern (an underground mysterious chamber filled with fresh water and guarded by two Medusa heads for unknown reasons) and Topkapi Palace. I would stay away from the rooms that overlook the Four Seasons Hotel next time to avoid the noisy air-conditioning units. Generally, though, the hotel was clean, nice and cheap (LE300 to LE350 for a double room en suite). The room rate included a fresh breakfast served in the roof restaurant overlooking both the Blue Mosque and the Bosphorus.
I won’t bore you with details about the sweet mixture of East and West in this city that is built on the boundary of Asia and Europe. Do, however, take the ferry up the Bosphorus strait (in Turkish, the Istanbul Bogazi) which splits the two continents. I managed to go all the way up to the Black Sea and stopped at a village called Anadolu Kavagi, where I climbed a mountain to reach the highest spot overlooking both the Bogazi and the Black Sea. This spot is great for a long morning walk. The villagers there usually throw you a deal where they offer a fish, a beer and some mezza for a set price of LE50 in the nameless restaurants they opened near the beach. Be careful though, some mezzas are not included in the set menu and you might have to pay more.
This year, Istanbul was named the 2010 European Capital of Culture. On the website you will find the addresses of different venues and museums that are perfect for a free afternoon. The interesting mixture of the work of young artists and amazing work of veteran Turkish artists will give a great twist to the trip, once you are done with the more traditional tourist sites. The Museum of Modern Art (at the Tophane tram station and costing a LE25 admission fee) overlooks the sea and the mosques on the other side of the Bosphorus and is a great pit stop en-route to the major commercial street of the city: Taksim and Istiklal Caddesi.
At night, people walk around Taksim shopping and maybe eating dinner. (Indulge yourself in one of the many cheap self-service restaurants: They are an ideal choice especially because you do not need to speak Turkish to pick your food). If you feel like eating a la carte, maybe you should try the stuffed chicken dish in a restaurant called Kueste on the main street of Taksim. You would be able to notice it when you see the old ladies sitting behind a glass wall overlooking the street cooking and baking the bread.
Nighttime activities vary in Istanbul. To my surprise the city, once an Islamic capital, is capable of accepting all different lifestyles. Although you find a lot of clubs and bars on Taksim, don’t limit yourself to the main street. Go deeper on the side streets and you will find many nightspots with something for everyone. You might pass by a nice classy salsa bar that is located right next to the heavy metal nightclub.
I picked a bar with a gypsy music theme called Badehane. It was a small bar with a great atmosphere and bartenders who speak good English. (The phone number for Badehane is +90-212-2490550, but I did not need to book in advance.) You’ll notice that a lot of singers are sitting around in bars playing their music or even some American and British classics. Later in the night, you will find the same singers playing their music again on the sidewalk of Taksim under the late night rain, standing against a background of amazing graffiti on each wall.
Istanbul can dazzle you with its diversity, but the best thing about the city is its people, who are gentle and respectful. If privacy is what you desire, Istanbulites will let you be, but when approached they will always help you with a smile. They allow you to relax and enjoy to the fullest this amazing city.