Istanbul See And Do
As a European Capital of Culture in 2010, Istanbul saw a lot of money poured into its arts institutions and private and commercial arts ventures have burgeoned as well. Contemporary art fans should check out the multimedia displays at the dynamic new five-story Arter space on İstiklal Caddesi, as well as the nearby smaller Galerİst and Platform. A few minutes' walk from here, Tophane has become popular with the art crowd (to the chagrin of some local residents), and a great cultural stroll can be had down Boğazkesen Caddesi, where you'll find many young Turkish artists showcased at the Pi Artworks, Outlet, and Non galleries. The magnificent Tophane-i Amire building hosts temporary group exhibitions. From here, it's five minutes to the larger Rodeo and Depo spaces, on Lüleci Hendek Caddesi.—Vanessa Able
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).
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.
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).
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.
Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Liman Işletmeleri Sahası, 4 Antrepo
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.
The very heart of Istanbul, this mile-long pedestrian street that runs from Tünel to Taksim Square is regularly mobbed by residents who come for the shops, cafés, and restaurants. The Tünel end is marginally quieter, with a small street, Galip Dede Caddesi, leading down to the Galata Tower. From Tünel, you can explore the backstreets of Asmalımescit, a bohemian neighborhood of cafés and bars that's especially animated on weekend nights. A relaxing way to see the İstiklal Caddesi is to take the historic tram that trundles sporadically from Tünel to Taksim Square and back again—though in doing so, you'll only catch a glimpse of all the vibrant streets and alleys that shoot off the main drag. If you can tolerate the crowds, this district is best wandered through on foot.—Vanessa Able
Kariye Camii Sokak
Tel: 90 212 631 9241
Tucked away in a far corner of the Old City, just by the Edirnekapı gate, is the tiny Kariye Museum, also known as the Chora Church. This small building (more akin to a chapel) went up sometime during the 11th century, while its spectacular Byzantine mosaics and paintings date to around 1312. As Islam swept across Istanbul following the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the little church was converted into a mosque and the artwork plastered over, only to be re-revealed in 1948 when it became a deconsecrated museum. The restorers have done a great job: The walls and six domes of the church are adorned with images and stories from the life of Christ and various saints and apostles; one of the most impressive scenes is the enormous Khalke Jesus and the praying virgin, a partially salvaged gilded mosaic on the first wall of the inner narthex (entrance hall). The best time to go is after 3 pm, as the tour buses tend to come earlier in the day. A stroll through the surrounding residential neighborhood of painted wooden houses and winding streets is worth the time, as is the traditional Ottoman lunch menu at the fantastic Asithane restaurant in the Kariye Hotel next door (6 Kariye Camii Sokak; 90-212-534-8414; www.kariyeotel.com).
Hippodrome, 46 Atmeydanı Sokak
Tel: 90 212 518 1805
This scarcely visited museum is housed inside the İbrahim Paşa Palace, a building on the edge of the At Meydanı (Horse Square) in Sultanahmet, the site of the former Roman Hippodrome, and now across from the Blue Mosque. The palace dates to the 16th century and is considered one of the foremost examples of secular architecture from that period. The collection includes artifacts that span the history of Islam, and a notable assortment of antique carpets, some of them of breathtaking dimensions, as well as manuscripts and miniatures dating back to the 7th century. The best little gems may not be immediately obviouslike the 18th-century Süleymaniye waterway map, rolled up into a scroll, some intricate Koran boxes, and candlestick holders. The collection, however, suffers from a most moribund presentation (much of it lacks labels), and the ethnographic exhibit on the lower level, with its mannequined renditions of yurts and other central Anatolian dwellings, is an educational giggle, if nothing else.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 9 am to 4:30 pm.
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.
1 Kazım Karabekir Caddesi
Tel: 90 212 444 0428
This art gallery and museum is set inside an impressive structure that was Turkey's first industrial power station, or santral. Located near the source of the Golden Horn, Santral Istanbul also doubles as a quite extensive campus for the Bilgi University, complete with a restaurant-bar, canteen, and an organic juice bar. The factory building houses a pretty basic science museum that appeals mostly to kids (and those adults still fascinated by electrostatic plasma balls), but the larger attraction by far is the factory itself. A walkway takes visitors around the giant pieces of superbly restored machinery and through the Star Trek-esque control room, undoubtedly the highlight of the visit. The other part of the museum, a huge four-story section, is devoted to changing contemporary art exhibits. It's a 15- to 30-minute cab ride here from Beyoğlu or Sultanahmet, depending on the traffic, and there are also free regular university shuttle buses that leave from outside the Atatürk Cultural Center in Taksim Square.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 8 pm.
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).
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).
Bab-ı Hümayün Caddesi
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.