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Exotic, romantic and authentic; Istanbul, Turkey, is full of off-the-beaten-path local spots.
Istanbul is an enthralling city, built along an impossibly romantic stretch of water. It boasts an incredible array of sights, from grand mosques to Byzantine churches. Explore the city as a worldwide local to discover the best neighborhoods, the most interesting food to try, and where to dance the night away.
Istanbul Through Time
The best place to start exploring is in the Old City, where you will find two of Istanbul’s unmissable sights: Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. The 1482-year-old Aya Sofya has at various times been a church, mosque, and a museum, and is full of gold mosaics and beautiful frescoes. Next door, the Blue Mosque is an architectural wonder with an astonishing interior, covered in thousands of Iznik tiles. The kaleidoscopic Topkapi Palace Museum, once the home of the Ottoman sultans, is also a must-visit.
Traditional Food and Drink
Drop in at an Istanbul cafe to refuel with a traditional breakfast of menemen (eggs with tomatoes and peppers), sucuklu yumurta (spicy sausage with fried eggs), or kaymak (clotted cream served with honey). In Istanbul, time moves slower as locals sip çay and türk kahvesi and chat. Stop for a Turkish coffee in a historic coffee house, or a modern brew in one of the city’s indie coffee shops.
Worldwide Local Tip: For an authentic Turkish breakfast, visit Namli Gurme in Beyoğlu, a deli with a restaurant attached that is popular with locals.
Tips for Avoiding the Crowds
Rather than the crowded Grand Bazaar, visit the Çarşamba market, which takes place every Wednesday in Fatih, Istanbul’s central district (the part of the city that was previously Constantinople). Intended for locals rather than tourists, it sells mainly clothing and bric-a-brac, but you might pick up some interesting produce. From here walk to the Süleymaniye Mosque, a magnificent building overlooking the city that is just as dazzling as the Blue Mosque. Wander through Balat, Istanbul’s old Jewish quarter. Instead of the touristy Chora church, take a peek inside the beautiful Bulgarian Church of St. Stephen--one of only a handful of iron churches in the world.
Istanbul Neighborhoods at a Glance
The best way to get to know Istanbul is to explore the city’s unique neighborhoods on foot. Wander through Beyoğlu, and you will come across chic restaurants and cool boutiques, as well as some of the fanciest hotels in Istanbul. Explore the narrow streets of Çukurcuma, which are full of antique shops--and a famous population of local cats. Art lovers can take a detour to SALT Beyoğlu or Istanbul Modern.
Worldwide Local Tip: Çukurcuma is also home to Yeni Lokanta, a restaurant serving modern Turkish cuisine that has received rave reviews.
Where to Eat in Istanbul
Whether you like traditional Turkish food or prefer a more modern fine dining option, there is bound to be a food experience to suit you in one of the fantastic Istanbul restaurants. If you can’t decide what you want to eat, check out Beyoğlu, where there is every kind of eatery, imaginable. There is a myriad of ways to enjoy food in Istanbul. Picking up a simit (sesame seed bread) or a gözleme (filled flatbread) on the street can be just as enjoyable as sitting down in a restaurant. For seafood, try Karaköy. Another option is Bebek, an exclusive neighborhood about a thirty-minute drive north of the city on the Bosporus, where you can mingle with Istanbul’s elite. Back in Fatih, you will find cuisine from the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Syria.
Worldwide Local Tip: Lokantas are restaurants where the city’s workers grab a quick lunch, and the dishes are prepared in advance (like a hot buffet). You can find them all over Istanbul, and they are great for mixing with the locals.
Istanbul After Dark
At night there is something for everyone, whether you want to drink in the view from a rooftop, or dance the night away in a local club. In Beyoğlu, Pixie is a popular underground club. Nearby, Peyote has regular live music and a rooftop bar. Kiki is another option, popular with locals for late-night dancing.
Avoid the tourist trail entirely on the Asian side of the river, which has a more relaxed vibe. Take the ferry from Karaköy Pier to Kadıköy and visit the market. Here you can get the best local produce in the city, enjoy many intriguing places to eat, and find a more relaxed time in Istanbul. You can get fabulous olive oil beauty products and coffee, too. This side of Istanbul may not have the famous sights, but if you’re looking to live like a local, this is where to come.
Worldwide Local Tip: For simple, fresh seafood in Kadıköy, go to Kadi Nimet Balikcilik. They have tables outside on the street, where you can sit and watch people strolling through the atmospheric market, enjoying the temperate Istanbul weather.
Enjoy Your Stay!
Istanbul boasts an incredible array of sights, from grand mosques to Byzantine churches. But as a worldwide local, you’ll get to know so much more: its myriad cuisines, fascinating neighborhoods, and mix of people.