- Asian Shore,
- Bosphorus Villages,
- Old City,
- Western Districts
Istanbul in September with my sister.
See + Do
Topkapı Palace, Turkey
Tel: 90 212 512 0480
You'd expect the centuries-long family home of one of the world's foremost ruling dynasties and command center of an entire empire to be pretty impressive, and you shouldn't be disappointed by the Ottoman residence at Topkapı Palace. Avoid going on weekends or during peak periods of the day so you miss the busloads of people who move in flocks around the grounds in a veritable babel of chattering languages. The ticket system is irritatingly segmented: You have to pay supplements on top of your entrance fee to see the entire complex. If you're stuck for time, limit yourself to the main palace and the harem, the most intimate and personal rooms used by the sultans and their many, many women. Other highlights of the palace include the exhibition of generations of Sultans' portraits, the infamous jewel-encrusted Topkapı dagger, and a range of old relics collected by the Ottomans in accordance with the history of Islam—including the old doors of the Kaaba in Mecca and items said to be from the Prophet Mohammed himself, including one of his teeth, a lock of his hair, and a letter penned in his own hand. Shake off the crowds when you're done with a cooling stroll through the cypress groves of Gülhane Park, set below the palace.
Open Wednesdays through Mondays 9 am to 6:30 pm.
See + Do
Sultanahmet: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Turkey
Don't even dream of leaving Istanbul without visiting this holy trinity of sights. Packed with tourists, touts, and queues they may be, but the history and scale of these buildings render them unmissable. The oldest of the three is the Hagia Sophia, built as a Byzantine cathedral by Emperor Justinian I nearly 1,500 years ago and converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453. Don't be fooled by its dull brick exterior: Its soaring dome and levhas (giant circular plaques inscribed in Arabic) are breathtaking, as are what's left of the original mosaics upstairs on the balcony level. Urban legend has it that the Hagia Sophia might not withstand Istanbul's supposedly "imminent" huge earthquake, so get there while you can! (Open Tues–Sun 9:30–4:30; open daily.)
Directly opposite the park outside is the majestic Blue Mosque (pictured), also known as the Sultanahmet Mosque, a relatively more recent structure built in the 17th century and still in use for worshippers at ordained prayer times, during which visitors are not allowed inside. This resplendent structure is one of Istanbul's finest, with its stacked shining gray domes and piercing minarets that are magically circumscribed by flocks of seagulls by night. Women should cover their heads when entering all mosques, although the authorities at this one seem to be a little more relaxed on that rule (open daily).
Finally, head down to the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayı), which is smaller than the other two but no less incredible. The vast colonnaded underground well was built by the ancient Romans to store water that came into the city via the 12-mile-long aqueducts from Belgrade Forest. The cistern lay disused for centuries and has now been renovated into a superbly lit, slightly macabre subterranean wonder (open daily 9–5).
See + Do
Süleymaniye Mosque, Turkey
Escape the Sultanahmet crowds and head for this impressive and undervisited complex, just a short walk past the University from the back of the Grand Bazaar. One of the greatest achievements of 16th-century architect Mimar Sinan—responsible for a large part of what we appreciate as Istanbul's remarkable historic landscape—the mosque and the surrounding buildings were commissioned by one of the Ottoman dynasty's more successfully expansionist sultans, Süleyman the Magnificent. Süleyman was also known for his softer side—his love of poetry and of his Ukrainian slave-wife Roxelana, with whom he was hopelessly enamored. The pair are buried in adjacent mausoleums inside the mosque's cemetery, on the opposite side of the complex from the architect's own humble little tomb. The mosque itself is open to visitors except at prayer times, and headscarves are provided for ladies at the door. Spanning an area of 36,000 square feet, with a dome whose keystone hangs at a height of 165 feet, the interior is no less impressive than that of the Blue Mosque. The complex also includes a row of buildings opposite the south entrance that functioned as a medrese, or school, now occupied by little tea shops; you can see the old caravansary and a hammam around the peripheries. There's also a former Ottoman soup kitchen that's been converted into a restaurant with a leafy courtyard, Dârüzziyafe—perfect for a postmosque cuppa (6 Şifahane Caddesi; 90-212-511-8414; www.daruzziyafe.com.tr).
See + Do
Princes' Islands, Turkey
Situated in the Sea of Marmara, just off Istanbul's Asian shore, the Princes' Islands were a former place of exile and home to a large number of the city's Armenian and Greek communities before the 19th century, when it dawned upon Istanbullus what a vacation treasure they had on their very doorstep. There are nine islands in all, four of which can be visited, and they make a great and relaxing day trip away from the bustle of Istanbul. Büyükada is the largest and most popular: Traditionally home to a sizable Jewish population, and onetime refuge of Leon Trotsky, the island is a peaceful showcase of gorgeous summer homes, a small monastery on a hill, and a somewhat busier town center. As on all the other islands, there are no cars, so the best way to get around is by horse and cart (agree on a price with your driver first) or by renting a bicycle. Large old colonial-style hotels like the Hotel Princess (90-216-382-1628; www.buyukadaprincess.com) or the Splendid Palace Hotel (90-216-382-6950; www.splendidhotel.net) are a great place to spend the night, and well-being enthusiasts might also be interested in the Naya retreat center for yoga classes, meditation, and massages (90-216-382-4598; naya.ecobytes.net). The other, smaller islands, Heybeliada, Burgazada, and Kınalıada, are also worth a look; if you start early, it's theoretically possible to hop between them all in one day. Slow and fast ferries to the islands leave a few times a day from the dock in Kabataş, on the European side just north of Karaköy.
See + Do
There's no better remedy for the jet-lagged traveler—or for the morning after a long night of Raki consumption—than a good long soak at the hammam. Most high-end hotels in Istanbul tend to have their own little marbled rooms inside their spa and health center, but nothing can beat the experience of visiting an authentic historical bathhouse, as hammams are traditionally important social venues as well as a place for scrubbing down. There are two excellent ones close to Sultanahmet: Çemberlitaş and Cağaloğlu, which date back to the 16th and 18th centuries respectively, and whose locations deem them mostly tourist destinations. The flip side of this, however, is that they are unfailingly clean (a pervading damp odor is par for the course). The dressing rooms and washrooms are segregated; a minuscule towel called a pestemal is provided for modesty, although women usually drop it on entering the hot room. There, bathers lay around on the warm marble slab, staring at the star-shaped perforations in the domed ceiling, waiting to be slapped, scrubbed, and generally manhandled by one of the same-sex masseurs. Don't expect a high-quality massage here: The experience is brief and its emphasis is much more on cleaning and scrubbing dead skin, which comes off in abundance. Women are also generally offered the option of a bikini wax, which, unless otherwise instructed, will invariably leave you as bare as the day you were born.
See + Do
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Turkey
Tel: 90 212 334 7300
Housed in a superb old dockside warehouse—very much in keeping with the industrial aesthetic of the Tate Modern in London—the Istanbul Modern opened to much excitement in December 2004, only to receive somewhat deflated reviews for its contents. The rather pedestrian permanent collection of modern Turkish painting, in particular, bore little relation to the city's contemporary art scene. However, the arrival of new director David Elliott from the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo at the beginning of 2007 means that the museum's program is shaping up: One of the first shows under his management was an extensive retrospective of images of Turkey shot by Magnum photographers, including Martin Parr and Robert Capa. In addition, the curatorial efforts of Rosa Martinez have brought a rich variety of international fare, including a selection of exhibits from the Venice Biennale in 2006. There is also an ongoing display of video art—past subjects have included Sam Taylor Wood, Fischli and Weiss, and Hussein Chalayan—and the cool museum café is almost worth a visit by itself.
See + Do
Eyüp and the Café Pierre Loti, Turkey
The mosque complex at Eyüp might be a bit of a trek from the center of town, but it's well worth the journey for many reasons, not least that it is one of the holiest sites in Islam (the fourth, according to some). Contained within a tomb here is the body of the Prophet Mohammed's companion and standard-bearer Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, or Eyüp Ensari, who fell in battle during the Arab sieges on Constantinople in the 670s. Not really a tourist destination, the mosque nonetheless accepts visitors, and it is advised that you observe proprieties while visiting: conservative dress and head coverings for women. Go on a Sunday, and you'll likely see numerous young boys (usually between the ages of seven and ten) dressed like little princes in white kitschy pomp, celebrating their circumcision days. Equally kitschy cream-puff brides are not a rare sight either. After you're done at the mosque, take a stroll around the surrounding shopping streets, and finish off with a climb up through the cemetery behind the mosque to the Café Pierre Loti on top of the hill. Named after a 19th-century French Romantic novelist who liked to hang out there and ponder the wonders of the Orient while looking down upon the fantastic view of the Golden Horn, it's a modest drinks-only affair; if the clamber up is too much of a haul, take the cable car instead (5 Pierre Loti Caddesi; 90-212-518-3174).
See + Do
Dolmabahçe Palace, Turkey
Tel: 90 212 236 9000
Often overlooked by visitors, this is one of Istanbul's most lavish and extravagant attractions, the last home of the late and declining Ottoman Sultanate, which required lodgings more suited to 19th-century developments in electricity, central heating, and other home comforts than its vintage residence at Topkapı Palace. It's almost ironic that Sultan Abdülmecid's opulent baroque opus looks for all the world like a splendid French château: Construction started 50 years after the fall of the French monarchy, and Abdülmecid pulled no punches in jazzing up his new abode. More than 14 tons of gold were employed to gild the ceilings of the palace, which also lays claim to the largest collection of Bohemian and Baccarat crystal in the world: Chandeliers drip down into almost every room, while even the main staircase is supported by crystal balustrades. There are three sections: the Selamlik (the "official" wing), the harem (where the sultan and his family lived), and the clock museum. A complicated pricing system offers tickets in segments or for the whole palace, with an extra charge for cameras and video equipment. Entry is only permitted in groups, which are guided by somewhat insipid attendants in what is more a whirlwind herding than an edifying tour. If you only have time for one section, head for the Selamlik, as its rooms and Ceremonial Hall are easily the most impressive.
Open Tues, Wed, and FriSun 9:304; closed Mondays and Thursdays.
See + Do
The Bosphorus and Its Villages
The former fishing villages that line both sides of the Bosphorus are inherently different in their nature from the rest of the city that has now encompassed them: They are characterized by the profusion of yalıs, old multistory wooden houses built by the Ottomans to look out over the strait, and life in the villages moves at a slower pace, with the shores often lined by scores of fishermen, quaint little ferry docks, and, by contrast, rows of lavish motor yachts. On the European side, the easiest village to access—and perhaps one of the liveliest spots in town—is Ortaköy. Just next to the colossal Bosphorus suspension bridge, it has a bustling cobbled square by the water lined with fish restaurants and a striking neoclassical mosque (pictured) that's dramatically floodlit at night. Farther up are the villages of Kuruçeşme, Arnavutköy (renowned for its wealth of fish restaurants), Bebek, Rumeli Hisarı and its 15th-century fortress, and finally, Emirgan, site of the famed Sakıp Sabanci Museum and its restaurant.
You can reach all of these places by bus or taxi, and the two-and-a-half-mile waterside walk from Kuruçeşme to Rumeli Hisarı is highly recommended. Another option is to take the public ferry, which leaves twice a day from Eminönü and Beşiktaş (see www.ido.com.tr for timetables) and sails all the way up to the village of Anadolu Kavağı, one of the last stops before the Black Sea; a trip here makes for a great day out, with a fish lunch at one of the many restaurants facing the Bosphorus and a hike up to the ruined fortress on the hill above the village. Alternatively, surrender to your inner hedonist and hire your own private yacht for the day. Boats are moored side by side along the stretch of waterfront from Kuruçeşme to Arnavütköy, many of which bearing "Kıralık" ("for rent") signs. Ada Turizm is one higher-end company with a fleet of luxury boats that start at around $3,800 for a tour of the Bosphorus, food not included (90-216-575-4775; www.adaturizm.com). A little easier on the wallet is the old-school wooden sailboat captained by the gregarious Mehmet Kaptan. His 15-person boat is available for $1,320 per day or $300 per hour; he will arrange food at your request, and you are free to BYO (90-532-797-5710).
Hotel Empress Zoe, Turkey
Istanbul 34400, Turkey
Tel: 90 212 518 2504
Set alongside the glut of cheaper hotels, guesthouses, and hostels in Sultanahmet, the Empress Zoe is one of the rare places in the area to display any spark of creativity in its concept and design. Named after a female ruler of Byzantium (and an infamous polygamist), it occupies a number of old wood-and-brick town houses, resting partially on ancient Byzantine walls and vaulted passages that are visible in the lobby. The charming garden (whose few tables serve as a fair-weather breakfast venue) is bordered by a disused 15th-century hammam. The 25 rooms come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with a lived-in feel that might lead more exacting hoteliers to freshen up with a change of curtains (rooms are being spruced up a few at a time). But they are quaint, with an overriding Anatolian style—black-stained oak, terra-cotta tiles, kilims, embroidered upholstery—that spills over into a number of the bathrooms, some of which are marbled mini-hammams. The Penthouse Suite in the main building has a private terrace with Blue Mosque views, and the Deluxe Garden Suite in the Chez Zoe annex has a platform bed framed by a harem-like screen. The location is great for sightseeing but is diminished by the adjacent Akbıyık Degirmeni Sokak, a street that's invariably a beer-drinking backpackers' haven.