Conquering Istanbul: Six Select Tips
By Susan Farewell
Ever since visiting Istanbul about six months ago, I’ve been blasting Turkish music in my car. So has my teen daughter, who—by the way—did not go on this trip with me. Just by osmosis, it seems, she has fallen under the spell of the music, the same way I did while there.
When I listen to Turkish music, I am right back in this deeply intriguing city. The sounds—which come from all sorts of lutes, fiddles and zithers (among other instruments)—are influenced by many cultures including Arabic, Balkan, Byzantine, Greek, Ottoman, Central Asian, European and even American. The music is a reflection of the city itself which is both a patchwork and a melting pot of nationalities and religions—more so than anyplace I’ve ever been. And it’s not just the music. You see the cultural differences everywhere-- in the food, the dress, the art, the architecture. Sometimes it’s unwaveringly faithful to its roots, other times it blends in with the modern life of Turkey.
Because of this, no one ever feels like an outsider here.
So how do you get the most out of a short visit to this compelling city? Of course, you’ll need a good, solid guidebook: one that fills you in on the centuries of history as well as including admission fees and hours of the many attractions you’ll want to see. Take a non-digital one you can mark up, dog-ear and stuff with ticket stubs (make sure it also has a decent map). But before you even get on the plane, take a look at Farewell Travels’ Six Select Tips
• Double the amount of time you think you need in Istanbul itself. Lots of North American travelers really short-change themselves by not allowing enough time to soak up everything this city has to offer. In fact, many group travel and cruiseship companies build just 2 or 3 nights into Turkish itineraries, quickly moving travelers on to Cappadocia, Ephesus, Izmir, Bodrum and elsewhere. Certainly, these destinations should be visited, but don’t you dare rush through Istanbul. The best way to appreciate it is to allow time to just “be” there. Explore the back streets of Beyoglu (not just the every-tourist-goes-to Istiklal Street), linger over a potent cup of Turkish coffee in an outdoor café, even lounge around a hotel pool alongside guests from places like Qatar, Cyprus and Jakarta.
• Get a Hammam on Day 1. Not only is it a great remedy for jet lag, but once you’ve had this traditional Turkish bath, you’ll inevitably want another one over the course of your stay. A traditional hammam alternates hot, cold and bubbly water treatments with body scrubbing and slatherings with a special olive oil soap. Hammams have their roots in the Roman era, as public baths. Not only were they originally used for cleansing, but were highly social. While there are many traditional hammams in Istanbul that are very social, the more deluxe spas offer considerable privacy . A few outstanding ones our staff experienced were Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami in the magnificent 16th- century building between the Hagia Sophia Museum and the Blue Mosque and the Amrita Spa & Wellness at the Swissôtel (we were staying here, and appreciated the convenience of wandering up to our room in a dreamy state of oblivion).
• Stay someplace overlooking the water. It is not often that one has the opportunity to stay on one continent and look out and see another. For this reason alone, make sure you spend at least a couple of nights at a hotel that overlooks The Bosphorus. There's no shortage of magnificent 5 star hotels which are well worth springing for. Tops on our list is the very chic and contemporary Swissôtel Living on the European side, which is within easy reach of the center. It’s especially ideal if you're traveling with friends or family because there is plenty of space to spread out in
one-, two-, and three-bedroom suites. For couples and individual travelers, there are studios there as well and guestrooms next door at Swissôtel The Bosphorus (pool pictured here). Right on the water--also on the European side--is the iconic Çirağan Palace (pronounced "tsheer-an") where almost every guestroom and suite has a balcony from which you won't be able to take your eyes off the view. There are plenty of other hotel options in Istanbul which we can tell you about.
• Take inventory of scarves before leaving home. Some people buy rugs, others buy silver tea sets. But EVERYONE seems to buy at least one scarf or a pashmina in Istanbul either for themselves or a loved one. Rather than add yet another turquoise one to the drawer back home, before going on the trip, refresh your memory of what colors you have. Once in Istanbul, if you go to the Grand Bazaar with a tour guide, take note of how swiftly he/she takes you to the “best” place to buy them. I found multiple stalls selling scarves that were as good--and in a few cases, better priced--than the one he showed me. And...of course, be prepared to negotiate.
• Now’s not the time to watch carbs. Some countries pride themselves on their wines, others on their cheeses. In Istanbul…it’s all about the bread (I’m assuming you already know that the Turkish cuisine in general ranks high on the world culinary stage). You will find it is always fresh and there are many varieties. Most common is Bazlama (a flatbread), Mısır ekmei (corn bread), Pide (pita), and Simit (the “Turkish Bagel,” a sesame-encrusted ring of bread). At high-end restaurants all over the city, you will inevitably get a basket of artisan breads—often served warm--with every meal.
• Get out on The Bosphorus. When you first spot this busy waterway, it suddenly hits you. You’re in the center of the world. But don’t be satisfied just looking at the scene of boats plying the waters between the Black and Marmara Seas. Be sure to get out on a boat. There are many sightseeing companies that offer half-day, full-day, sunset and dinner cruises. They can be crowded though, especially in the summer months. For couples and families wanting some alone-together time, we recommend going out with one of the private yacht companies. As you whiz through the strait, with Europe on one side and Asia the other, you’ll find yourself agreeing with Napoleon who once said “If the Earth was a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
Photo Credits: Main photo by Courtney Crockett taken at Reina; Blue Mosque courtesy of Aida Tours; Pool photo courtesy of Swissôtel; other photos by Susan Farewell.