I have several friends visiting Istanbul next week (yes, I'm looking at you Pablo, Yeokyung and Gizem :) and I have been getting a lot of requests for suggestions and places to visit there. Since I had lived in Istanbul and explored quite a bit to take photos, I already had a list of my favorite places in my head. This was a perfect excuse to write them down.
This is truly one of the best kept secrets in the city. It is just behind the brilliant Hagia Sophia but so peaceful! You'll visit the awesome Hagia Sophia, read about the history and you will definitely need to take a break.
Come to this place to get some peace and get some energy from nice home made meals.
This was a medrese built by Mimar Sinan himself, and it is still used for teaching. Maybe you will get a glimpse of students doing Ebru or hear them playing the Ney.
Ebru is painting on water :)
Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi
If you want to go to one authentic tea shop, this has to be it. This is located on the tram route, a few stops after Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque. It is a 300 year old mosque and "medrese" (which means school in Ottoman times). Order an apple tea if nargile isn't your thing, and watch the students, locals or cats sitting next to you. Admire the lanterns and contemplate about East vs. West.
This is one of my favorite spots in the city. It is much less touristy then the Blue Mosque but magnificent nonetheless and offers great views of the Golden Horn. It was built by Mimar Sinan about 500 years ago. Through some bizarre historical accident, there are many restaurants just in front of the mosque which are all offering the same meal, Kuru Fasülye, and the chefs are all from the same city in Turkey, Erzincan. Eat your lunch at one of these restaurants (some have the same names as the owners are relatives of each other). Read up on the reviews beforehand to get more info.
Mimar Sinan Cafe
While you are nearby, you have to give a break at the cafe which has its name from the famous architect. Get anything, it doesn't matter, but definitely enjoy the view.
Museum of Innocence
This museum comes highly recommended if you have read the book with same name from Orhan Pamuk. He had won the Nobel Prize in literature a few years ago and he is the most popular writer in Turkey. The thing that is extraordinary about Orhan Pamuk is that he weaves the story my merging fiction and non-fiction in a unique way. He sends greetings to his daughter (Rüya) in many of his books and he himself is a character in many. With the "Museum of Innocence", it is something even more interesting, because the museum has an important place in the book. And if you have the book, you can enter the museum for free, for there is a ticket in one of the pages in the book. So you get stamped on that page and it makes for an interesting memorabilia.
If you are really into Pamuk novels, you definitely want to visit Nişantaşı district, which is not too far away from Taksim. This is the rich neighborhood Pamuk grew up in, and it is the main location in many of his books. It is also rich and shows the more Western part of the city, so if you're not into Pamuk, you might not find it interesting. If you are in Nişantaşı though, go to Zamane Kahvesi and you won't regret it.
Taksim is nice and historic, and you will definitely notice it is very crowded like the city itself. I had a Japanese friend who told me after visiting İstiklal Caddesi that İstanbul was more crowded then Tokyo :)
If you are around Taksim and hungry, I advise you to treat yourself at Helvetia. It's a nice cozy restaurant which offers you home made, traditional meals.
Take the metro from Taksim and get off at 4. Levent to see Istanbul from high up. Sapphire is the highest skyscraper in Turkey and it has a viewing deck above 200 metres. Go there towards the sunset and enjoy the city from above.
Now would also be the best time to do some shopping if you'd like, because the bottom floors of Sapphire is a shopping center. Thanks to weak Turkish Lira (1 Euro ~ 3 TL), many items are cheaper. Clothing, food for sure but sometimes also electronics as well (Case in point: Fuji X100S).
Karaköy is the new hip district in İstanbul with many cafes or restaurants opening there. Dem Karaköy is a tea room, with literally tens of different teas you can choose from. The most popular drink in Turkey is tea, not coffee, so this tea place is naturally a good idea :)
Sakıp Sabancı Müzesi
If you are into Ottoman history or calligraphy, this is the museum to visit. It has a huge collection of Ottoman calligraphy items and is overlooking the Bosphorus so you can enjoy the view at its garden afterwards.
While you are on the Bosphorus, visit Bebek Starbucks too. Get your favorite drink and if the weather is nice get a seat downstairs on the terrace. If the weather is cold, go upstairs and enjoy the view from above. If you visit there you will agree that it has one of the most beautiful views a Starbucks can have.
After Bebek, continue along the coast line. Take the bus to ride along the Bosphorus afterwards and get off at Ortaköy. The Ortaköy Mosque is a monument you don't want to miss.
Istanbul actually has half of it in Asia! And we have only talked about the European side until now. Historically, the city center all the way back to the Roman Empire had been on the European side. Ottoman Sultans also built their palaces on the Western side. I guess this is one of the reasons why Anatolian side is more organized and less crowded. Many people live on the Asian side and work on the European, and commute continents every day!
Well they can't complain when their view is something like this, can they?
The ships most used in transportation are called "vapur", which is originally from French and reflects the steam powered nature of them at the beginning of the previous century.
If you find yourself in the Anatolian side, you can walk on Bağdat Caddesi, which is a long boulevard and enjoy one of many cafes. After that, go to Moda İskelesi for nice views and a good dinner. For desert, you have to go to Çengelköy, a small cozy authentic place called Çikolata Kahve. Notice the calligraphy decoration inside.
Public transport is generally crowded and a bit complicated. To navigate around, Trafi Turkey App might help you. Taxis are generally affordable and abundant (you'll notice them from their yellow colour). There's also Uber but that might be bit more expensive though much more comfortable I guess. Traffic congestion is a problem, so the best option is using the underground metro, trams or boats whenever you can.
I hope you enjoy your stay in Istanbul!