Istanbul is irresistible. I made my first visit in November, and found it to be the sort of place I would happily return to over and over, not least because it's easy to extend an airline stopover for a few extra days. It's the city that bridges Europe and Asia, and I guess that's exactly what I loved about it. It's a little bit like Bombay if say Bombay had infrastructure and quality of life. (So perhaps not like Bombay at all.)
Istanbul was once a seat of a great empire and it's laden with history and filled with architectural wonders. It's also visually stimulating, easy to navigate and bursting with activity. There's religion and secularism, art, culture and music and it does all of it well.
Best of all, I found it perfectly safe for solo travel, its people are warm, hospitable and really good looking, and the grub is excellent - doner kebabs, borek, kofte and gozleme were always on my list of favourite foods and I'm pleased to admit that list has many new additions.
- Get an Istanbulkart and fill it up at a newstand with 20-30 lira which should be enough to last you a few days. The public transport system is excellent and the card can be used on the buses, tram, ferry and funicular (underground cable cars). Taxis are fairly cheap but don't discount the brilliant dolmuş, the taxibuses available across the city. And don't knock the quaint and touristy tram from Taksim to Tunel until you've been on it.
Eat and drink:
- Breakfast is a good place to begin. And Lades 2, a no frills joint with old wooden tables and chairs is just the sort of place you should drop by to devour kavurmali yumurta, fried meat and eggs and luscious bal kaymak - Turkish clotted cream and honey served with a baguette.
- Eat lunch at a lokantasi, a tradesman restaurant. They're all over and if they're any good, you'll see them brimming with locals. Pick up a tray, point to what you want and pay before you eat. My recommendation at my favourite one - the charred eggplant with minced beef, stuffed vine leaves and gorgeous, creamy yogurt and some sort of pastry to finish.
- The best meal I (and everybody has) had in Istanbul is across the Bosphorus in Kadikoy at Çiya Sofrasi. Truly, dozens of my friends will attest to this. Get half portions, and get many.
- After corn, chestnuts and simit (doughnut shaped sesame bread), you're bound to spot street vendors selling mussels. Eat them by the dozen with a generous squeeze of lime, they're filled with spiced rice and pinenuts and are delicious and great for lining the stomach before a night out.
- Eat dondurma, Turkish ice cream. That texture can't be beat, slightly chewy and perfect for slowly savouring. I love the plain mastic flavour - a tad bitter and just fantastic.
- Sip on salep, a hot milky drink made from wild orchid tubers and ayran, a salty yogurt beverage and boza. If like me, you're not particularly enticed by those, you'll find pomegranate and citrus juice carts all over. Drink anise flavoured raki, Turkey's favourite spirit and fob off your hangovers by slipping into the arcades on Istiklal Caddesi and getting 1 lira (chair) massages.
- Party in Beyoğlu. Istanbul clubbing probably puts your city to shame.
Things to do:
- Istanbul is on two continents and you will most likely live on the European side - perhaps in Taksim or Sultanahmet, although I lived in bohemian Beşiktaş and loved it. But take the ferry over to Kadikoy on the Asian side, stroll by the water, shop and eat well. Getting on the water is always one of my favourite ways to see a city. (I also went on a bizarre and expensive night cruise, with unlimited booze and Turkish folk dancing and a belly dancer though I wouldn't recommend it.)
- Marvel at the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.
- If you have an afternoon to yourself, head to the Istanbul Modern. The view from the museum's restaurant is rather amazing but if you've missed the sunlight, treat yourself instead to baklava at the really famous Güllüoglu in Karaköy just a short stroll away. A super hip and cosy cafe nearby, Julius Meinl is a great place to people watch over good coffee.
- For more art, stroll along Istiklal and find contemporary galleries, Arter and Salt. When I visited, both had excellent shows on as well as spaces to relax, read and use free wifi.
- Get lost in the side streets off Istiklal. You'll discover street art, amazing cafes that spill onto the sidewalks to drink çay (pronounced chai) at, adorable antique stores and fantastic shops to buy rare books and photographs.
- Look up. Turns out you can head to the terrace of most tall buildings on and off Istiklal and find a cafe with sexy views of the Bosphorus and smoke some nargile.
- Do as the locals do and catch up with friends around the Galata Tower. Great vibe. Lots of bars here too.
- The magnificent Grand Bazaar, the little shops in Tunel and Karaköy, and in Kadikoy.
- I discovered a beautiful shoe store in Sultanahmet called Silk On Shoes with unique leather boots with traditional Turkish silk tapestry, and an adorable design store called Aponia with books and prints that would make excellent souvenirs.
- Pack helva, baklava and lokum (Turkish delight) to take home.
Saving for next time though you needn't:
- Spice market, the colourful neighbourhood of Balat, Istanbul's jewish quarter, Princes Islands, finding the delicious grilled fish by the docks, a hammam for old world architecture and an old school scrub down, fancy meals at Kantin, and cocktails at Pera Palace Hotel, more time in Cihangir, whirling dervishes at the railway station and all the stuff I still don't know I'm missing.