Istanbul, like most large cities, has many faces. To experience these why not stay in a few different areas?
Istanbul has long endured the cliché “gateway to the East”. Fortunately, unlike so many travel clichés, this one is true. However you arrive in the city, and these days it’s more likely to be into Ataturk Airport than via train from Bulgaria, one of the first things you’ll notice are the minarets of the countless mosques scattered across the city, the women in traditional Hijab (and/or the latest Paris fashions), and the merging of Western and Eastern architecture. Prices and the main thoroughfares, such as Istiklal Caddesi, are slowly moving towards European standards, but down almost any side street you can find a city that is more East than West, away from hordes of tourists, and with prices a little easier on the wallet.
The metro and tram systems are efficient, cheap and, importantly if you’re here in mid-summer, air-conditioned. The tram system, though modern, is of course far more romantic, and as they rumble down the centre of the road, past crumbling buildings and busy mosques, it takes only a little effort to imagine you just stepped off the Orient Express in 1932! Like many large cities, Istanbul has many faces, and a good way of really experiencing these, if you can put up with the slight disruption, is to stay in different areas for a few days.
We initially chose to stay in Sultanahmet, which is very convenient for transport links and the major sites, though does suffer a little from the ‘tourist central’ feeling. The Side Hotel and Pension offers a range of differently priced clean and quiet rooms and manages the unusual feat of being central without being near any late night bars. From the rooftop terrace you can see the Bosphorus, Blue Mosque, and Ayia Sofia, all worth a visit, with the latter two providing many a local and visitor with ongoing argument about which is best and most beautiful! We also stayed at the Moonlight Pension, a more inexpensive pension round the corner, which, though a little cramped, had very friendly staff, and was perfectly acceptable for those busy days when all you do in your room is sleep off the sightseeing.
The Topkapi Palace is a short walk away, and is one of those sights that is as tiring as it is breathtaking, being far bigger than it looks from the outside, and containing individual museums of amazing jewellery, Turkish antiquities, and Royal memorabilia - as well as being an interesting insight into the lifestyles of the rich and famous of the Byzantine empire. The Roman underground water tanks of the Basilica Cistern are a slightly different attraction. Unsurprisingly, with only a small entrance on the roadside, these can be somewhat difficult to find, but are well worth the effort. There’s a small café down in the cistern too, which is an interesting place to grab a coffee and cake. They also do evening meals, which have to be pre-booked and could be either romantic, or like dining in a dungeon, depending on your point of view!
There are a myriad of eating and drinking opportunities around Sultanahamet, so recommendations seem of little use, though I do have one tip - competition is so fierce, and some prices (e.g. for beer) are quite high, but we managed to negotiate over the price of drink. Those savings all add up!
Istiklal and Taksim
A Turkish friend recommended that we stay in this area and, not withstanding all the above about Sultanahmet, if you like good food, and the odd beer and to mix with the locals, then this is the place. Istiklal Caddesi itself is a modern pedestrianised shopping street (with a beautiful old tram running down the centre - watch your back), but almost every lane leading off of it is very much the old Istanbul – tiny bars and restaurants serving local and inexpensive food, music clubs (though note that a number close for the Summer and relocate to the coast), and local shops.
You can climb the Galata Tower for a good view of the area, take in some culture at the Modern Art Museum, and simply watch the Turks go about their daily business. There is budget accommodation in this area, though it is a little down at heel, so we stayed at the wonderful Grande Hotel de Londres, which is often used as a film set, and when you get there you see why. We came down one morning to find a new entrance to the lounge which the Turkish film chippys had put up first thing in the morning! If you need 5 star comfort and facilities, the Marmara Hotel is right on Taksim Square – but get a room at the back if you’re a light sleeper-this is a 24 hour city. The Hammam in the hotel is a good representation of a traditional hammam, and very welcome after wandering around the city all day.
Other sights to see
For a break from Istanbul’s big city feel, get off any of the more distant stops of the Bosphorus ferry, or take the bus or walk from Taksim Square to Ortaköy and Yildiz Park, which contains a range of museums scattered round a hilly park. Ortaköy itself is a pleasant river front area, famed for its market and laidback feel. The wonderful mosaics of Kariye Muzesi and the slightly run-down area around it, which contains intact parts of the old city walls and aquaduct, are also worth the effort to find, and where you’re as likely to be crossing the road in front of a herd of goats as you are a tourist bus!