After a two-month hiatus due to my travels in Croatia, the guest post series is back! This week, we’re off to Istanbul, a city I have yet to visit and want to do so even more now after reading the inspiring post by Jennifer of The Turkish Life. I bet you’ll want to be beamed over to Istanbul, too.
AN EXPAT’S ISTANBUL WANDERINGS
It’s amazing how quickly you can fall into the same old routines in a completely new place. After almost two and a half years living in Istanbul, I’ve largely succumbed (for now!) to the familiar rotation of work — dinner — drinks with friends — maybe going to the gym, but for quite a long time I was “the girl who actually goes out and does stuff.” Usually alone, because there are precious few other people who would get excited (or even just not completely annoyed) by a four-hour urban hike that leads precisely nowhere in particular. And generally on foot, initially for fear of getting ripped off by a taxi driver or utterly lost on one of Istanbul’s hundred bus lines. Though I’m now perfectly capable of tackling every mode of transportation the city has to offer, wandering on foot is still often the best way to go.
I always recommend that visitors stay in Beyoğlu, the “New City,” rather than near the concentrated tourist sights of Sultanahmet. Yes, we have way better bars and restaurants over here on this side of the Golden Horn (and way fewer flag-waving tour-group guides), but I’m also hooked on crossing that lesser-appreciated waterway and hope guests will be too. The best (though not shortest) route is to make your way down İstiklal Caddesi — slowly, because the crowds will have it no other way — ogling the parade of fashions, hairstyles, and faces and then descend Galip Dede Caddesi, or “Music Street,” passing the instrument shops, the hippie jewelry sellers and fruit juice stands, the faux-Peruvian street musicians, and the seemingly endless row of satellite-dish shops.
At the bottom, you’ll find the Galata Bridge, a low-slung span with beautiful views in both directions and strolling people and chatting fishermen packing its pedestrian walkways. Walking over the bridge and looking out across the water was always my preferred way to relieve the melancholy of my early months away from home. But before you start across, veer to the right, sloshing your way through the row of fish sellers’ stands and find a simple wooden table tilting to one side on the patchy field of grass along the water, where you can order a hearty bowl of fish soup, a fish sandwich, or a plate of perfectly fried hamsi (anchovies) while watching the boats go by. (On your way back, catch the sunset from one of the bars lining the lower level of the bridge — I avoided them for a long time because they looked too “touristy” but they’re a damn pleasant place to quaff a beer.)
On the other side of the bridge is the bustling Eminönü district. If you want to know how the locals shop, forget the Grand Bazaar and its aggressive, annoying touts (“we have leather jacket, lady, very nice”) and duck into the labyrinthine streets behind the Spice Market, pushing your way through the crowds and dodging the not-so-occasional hole in the street or guy welding outside his shop to find tucked-away courtyards devoted to towel sellers, wooden-coat-hanger row, and clothes and house wares galore.
There are plenty of more conventional sights that I’m a sucker for, however, and tops among them are castles and fortresses. While Rumeli Hisarı along the Bosphorus has undeniably the better venue, being able to clamber all over Yedikule (Seven Towers) without a guard so much as looking in your direction — and likely having the place all to yourself — is pretty hard to beat. The sight of dozens of tankers idling in the Marmara Sea, waiting to be allowed to pass through the famous strait, is eerily impressive as well. From Yedikule, follow along — and occasionally on top of — the city walls all the way back to the Golden Horn, from where it’s just a quick trip to one of Istanbul’s most rewarding neighborhoods for a ramble: Eyüp.
The burial place of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, the companion and standard bearer of the Prophet Mohammed, Eyüp is a holy place for Muslims, who stream through Abu Ayyub’s tomb and the adjacent mosque (especially on Fridays) to pay their respects and who have over the years sought to be buried in his proximity, leading to the creation of a massive hillside cemetery full of secluded tree-lined pathways and topped by a cafe with a breathtaking view. Eyüp’s central square near the mosque complex is one of the best places in Istanbul to people-watch, especially on a spring Sunday when it’s full of large families with little boys decked out like miniature royalty in preparation for their sünnet (circumcision) ceremonies.
I’ve hardly scratched the surface here of what there is to do in Istanbul. There’s an entirely different continent I haven’t even mentioned, after all. But who am I kidding, we Beyoğlu dwellers only go to Asia to eat at Çiya or listen to our friend DJ at Arka Oda. Our neighborhood, after all, is riddled with funky art galleries, trendy cafes, dusty antique shops, and restaurants that actually serve pork. It’s our little “Yabancıköy” (foreigner village) and whenever I might feel a little embarrassed about spending too much time with my own kind, I like to think about how outsiders have been living in this part of Istanbul for more than 500 years, since the European powers sent their first ambassadors to the newly Ottoman-conquered city and were granted land in what was then called Pera. The neighborhood must have something going for it that generations of newcomers keep following in their footsteps, all these centuries later.