Istanbul is that city described as the mix between the Western and the Eastern culture. It is one of those cities which travelers dream of. Although in the last few months tourists have stopped coming (this is your chance to enjoy the city with no queues!), the city is still inviting and magical. Like any other great city there are some places you shouldn’t miss, but after living here for over a year, it is time to share with you other 50 amazing things to do and see in Istanbul. (October 2016)
In front of you is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. There are some hours in the day where the light is just special: sunrise and sunset. But let’s not rise early, let’s go and enjoy the last minutes of the sun today.
1 Üsküdar, in the Asian side and at the Bosphorus’ shore.
Walk by the marina leaving the Bosphorus on your right, you’ll see balloons in the water waiting for people to blow them up for fun (and a few coins). Not far from there you’ll find two kiosks and in between some stone terrace with some rugs and cushions, there are also chairs and tables but be ware of the tide. Sit down, have a tea or water or some snacks while you enjoy watching the sun hiding behind the New Mosque.
2 Galata Tower, a view to the Golden Horn.
Some time ago it was the tallest building in this city, but things have changed. Get to the top, go out to the balcony, fight other tourists for the best spot and watch the bright sun over the Golden Horn, Galata Bridge or Topkapi Palace.
3 Kiz Kulesi, or the Maiden Tower.
The history of this tower above the Bosphorus (around the Üsküdar area) starts with the Byzantine Empire. You’ll find a restaurant (a pricey one) where you can dine while watching the sunset. If you can’t afford it you can always cross to this little island by boat. The straight will be the only thing that separates you from the sunset.
4 Pierre Loti Cafe.
What once was an amazing cafe today is just one of many with a great history, but besides the cafe you’ll also find a hotel, a spa… Located in Eyüp neighborhood, just at the end of the Golden Horn, you’ll walk up a hill next to the neighborhood’s cemetery. You’ll be able to walk up or to use the cable car (if you choose to walk look for the quotes on the wall). Once up there, the views are different. Not only you can see Galata Tower or only Sultanahmet area, but you have both with the Golden Horn as the center of that picture.
5 Vapur, views in movement.
Another view where you can see it all, Sultanahmet area and also Beyoğlu, will be when you take the vapur. Either from Europe to Asia or the other way around, this trip crosses the Bosphorus and will allow this picture perfect postcard, but you can also see Dolmabaçhe Palace and Ortaköy.
6 Yıldız park.
Enjoying the green areas of Istanbul is a not-everyday luxury. A place to have this privilege is this park where you could also get a delicious brunch at Malta Pavilion admiring beautiful Istanbul.
7 Secret roofs.
Behind the Spices Bazaar, there are some secret roofs. The kind of secret that everybody knows about. Those of which you’ll only need to ask and (by paying something like 1TL) will let you go through and go up to those roofs! As we were saying, from those roofs you’ll see Istanbul, with the Bosphorus at the end and the New Mosque, and you can turn around to see Suleymaniye Mosque.
Eat like a Turk
The Turks, like any good Mediterranean, love a good meal and a better sobremesa (the after meal talk that can take forever), so every meal takes its time not only in its preparation but while tasting it.
8 Hamdi and the pistachio kebab.
Although there are three different Hamdi restaurant, we firmly recommend the one in Emiönü; so besides the food, you can take pleasure in the views. The first time we went there we did it with our landlord, who recommended us what to order: an absolute hit! The pistachio kebab is something you’ll rarely find so try doing it here, you won’t regret it. Neither will the baklava or the künefe, although if you don’t eat meat you should stay away from this place. Book in advance and ask to be seated on the top floor. If you go at night you’ll see Suleymaniye Mosque lighted and, in front of it the Bosphorus, and the Galata Bridge and Tower.
9 Adana Kebap, a house specialty.
–The best Adana Kebab I’ve tried– said Gabi’s father, a Sirian living in Barcelona. And how would we say something different? Even if we don’t have his experience with Adana Kebabs, we wouldn’t change it for anything.
That is Adana Ocakbasi, a small Turkish restaurant in Şişli with a coal kitchen in the middle of the restaurant: very very Turkish and we will miss it so much once we leave. Again, avoid this place if you don’t eat meat.
10 Bilice Kebap, let’s eat all together.
Lost in a lost street around Istiklal there is this small restaurant. Yes, it looks tacky from the outside and no, it won’t change once you get inside. However, you’ll find barbecue meals here, drink ayran (a drink similar to yogurt) or a beer camouflage in brass cups.
11 Van Kahvalti, a good Turkish brunch.
Of course, we had to choose a good place to have a brunch on the weekends, and that is Van Kahvalti. Get ready to queue and to wait before getting in, and also for a much modern decoration compared to other establishments you might have seen here. When eating, a breakfast is enough for two, and if you’ll be more than that don’t forget to order a menemen (Turkish scrambled eggs).
12 Balikçi Lokantasi, not everything was meat.
Just as Bilice, this restaurant doesn’t look like much. However, the fish is good and fresh: another Turkish joint that we love. But if you want to have a late dinner this will not be your place as the kitchen closes around 9.
13 Ottoman recipe.
Next to the Chora Museum (previously a church and later a mosque and number 38 on this list) is the Asitane Restaurant. This luxurious restaurant (which if you don’t have alcohol is not expensive) only has old Ottoman Empire recipes. In all the dishes you’ll find the corresponding years when the recipe was created, so at least it is picturesque and the presentation is delicious. Another restaurant to avoid for vegetarians or vegans.
14 Ciya, the classic buffet.
If we recommend Ciya, in Kadiköy, is because it is worth it. There are several restaurants under this name but we have tried the classic buffet. In Turkey, this type of restaurant is very common, and in everyday life, you’ll see many Turks heading to these establishments at lunch time. But the majority of them look too industrial. In Ciya however, the badges of food are not big (like they haven’t prepared 200 kilos of köfte) and that is noticeable in the taste. If you don’t feel like buffet just across the street you have the à la carte version of the restaurant.
For the sweet tooth
And if you thought Turks like to eat, they prefer sweets even more (although Arabs say that sweets here are not very sugary). We love desserts more than anything, that is why we’ve been forced to look for those particular good places.
15 Karaköy Güllüoğlu.
Right at the doorsteps of the Bosphorus is Karaköy Güllüoğlu, the best place to have a baklava. This pastry made with nuts and syrup can be found all around the city, but this is the place to buy a box to take home or just to eat it with some tea.
Ok, it is not a Turkish specialty at all, but sometimes you just want to have a good cheesecake. Not one of those that is hard and dry with just some jam on top, no; a homemade cheesecake (or the closest thing to it). And we’ve found it (well, some friends took us there). In the neighborhood of Karaköy there is a small cafe called Kap Cup Garden Terrace (although there is not much of a garden, there is a terrace), the decoration in the cafe is a mix-match of armchairs and sofas. But the most important thing here: the cheesecake is homemade (really homemade) and they have different flavors of it: orange cheesecake, (black or white) chocolate cheesecake and with all sorts of jams (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries…).
17 An ice-cream shop.
You’ll see thousands of ice-cream shops in the streets of Istanbul, and the ice-cream man will be wearing a red fez hat. The traditional Turkish ice-cream is more elastic than the one we are used to. There is a small ice-cream shop in Şişli (Ergekenon Caddesi, as you walk out from Osmanbay-Pangalti metro station on the right-hand side pavement), so small that you might miss it, and it has homemade ice-creams. The aren’t many different flavors but it is absolutely delicious.
18 Trileche (three milk).
Saray Muhallebecisi it’s a cafe where beyond getting some sugar in your taste buds there is a huge menu with many other things, but (let’s face it) we are interested in its desserts. Their cakes are wonderful, so are their baklavas and künefes, the famous ashura (a traditional dessert that mixes vegetables and fruits), or the mini-cakes: oreo-cheesecake, and specially trileche. There is a bite for everyone.
Take me far away from the city
Yes, sometimes Istanbul is too much. Sometimes you just need a break. But, of course, this means at least 1-hour traffic and in this city, that is not easy. That might be the reason for the creation of small places that make you forget where you are (the noise, the rushing…)
19 Limonlu Bahçe.
Limonlu Bahçe is the first of those wonderful corners: so close to the busy Istiklal and so isolated at the same time. It doesn’t look promising entering a place and instead of going up to the sky you go down to the dungeons. But when you get to Limonlu Bahçe, you’ll discover a garden hidden in the city, truly: a garden that makes you forget the tons of cement of which this city is made of. We love having breakfast here but it is also beautiful with the candle lights at night.
20 Cezayir, a modern garden.
Not far from Limonlu Bahçe is Cezayir, another garden with a hipster-modern look and delights in its menu. A bit more expensive than what is usual in this country, the portions are enough. We loved the individual “menus” (where you can eat even two) and its desserts. We have already celebrated a few events there because the vibe is just great.
21 The old Bomonti brewery.
Bomontiada is just that: the old brewery of a Turkish beer called Bomonti. And it has turned into an open space gathering restaurants and ballrooms for many events. During the summer we had the pleasure of being rewarded with open air cinema and jazz concerts for instance.
22 Joker 19.
In Beşiktaş neighborhood you can find Joker Nº 19 just next to a crazy busy street like Dolmabahçe Caddesi is. Its entrance will puzzle you and also make you doubt yourself, but don’t, that not-so-good-looking entrance where all the bikes are parked is the actual restaurant entrance. Beyond the food what will attract you would be the vibe of the place, with an open air area where all the smokers will be and an interior where the music will fill your ears. Long and shared tables, you’ll get to drink and eat as you please.
23 A fairy tale place.
Karaköy area has become the hipster spot, and it is cool. But if you go straight to Kılıç Ali Paşa Mescidi Sokak this great spot appears. A small street full of terraces and small shops (all restaurants and cafes) with some ivy that creates a ceiling between the two sides of the street with colored lightbulbs. Although it is not isolated greatly, there is not the same kind of noise than in the rest of the city, you are in the streets and the noise is made by people having a drink or a meal and just having fun. Our usuals are Baltazar and Pim, but feel free to tray any of them (please share your knowledge).
24 Harvard Cafe.
Changing locations we can find the Harvard Cafe another garden but this time along detached houses. The food is delicious and so it is the service, so good that you’ll want to go back.
All the coolest hoods
Did we say that Istanbul is huge? That it has a population of 20 million? Well, if it wasn’t clear, this city is huge! But not every neighborhood is the same.
It might seem that you are out of the city, and it is just Nişantaşı which it isn’t similar to anything you’ve seen so far. The most exquisite fashion stores, luxurious restaurants and everything around that world. It is ok, there are also regular shops (just less of them) and some of those fast food chains (but few), so you could feel like home: if you want to.
Stop living in a big city and start living in a village. That is what you can find once in Beşiktaş. But this neighborhood is much more, because although it has kept its fish market just by the central square you will find all type of restaurants (look for a fish restaurant), bars and shops too.
Bebek back to being a wealthy neighborhood, but this time it is a real picturesque hood. Right by the Bosphorus, away from city center, you will find this wonderful several floors buildings made out of wood just ready to enjoy the view of the ships sailing up and down the Bosphorus.
In the Asian side, also by the Bosphorus, there is yet another wealthy hood, the best of it: start wandering, just wander around.
Another cool neighborhood up to date. Once a forgotten place it is becoming the hipster hood that every city has. Besides the delicious decoration and clothing shops you’ll find, you will also have art galleries or restaurants (look for Van Kahvalti, number 11 in this list).
This is the trendiest hood of all. Every day there are more and more charming cafes and shops.
In the same area, both on the Asian side (the ferry stop shares its name), is Kadiköy (don’t get confused it with Karaköy). The area is just packed with restaurants of all type: from kebabs to seafood, plenty of charming cafes, music shops, or decoration stores…
In the European side and south to the Golden Horn is one of those neighborhoods with colorful houses and stylish shops.
Other tourist attractions
This palace was the home of the last 6 Sultans of the Ottoman Empire and of the first president of the Turkish Republic. Its interior is full of impressive furniture from another era.
34 Rumeli fortress.
Heading to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus, right next to Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge you’ll find a fortress from which the straight was controlled.
Ortaköy Mosque is one of the most emblematic places of the city, with the Bosphorus behind the mosque, the recently open July 15th bridge and Asia on the other side, it is priceless. But beyond that, there are restaurants, shops, and even a small bazaar.
36 Süleymaniye Mosque.
Probably our favorite mosque (no, we are not taking it away from you Gabi). We are aware that the Blue Mosque is the most visited, but that also means the busiest. This one is almost empty, and it has a great view of the city from its garden, particularly of the Sultanahmet area.
37 A mosque in Eyüp.
Back to Eyüp where you’ll find a mosque and a mausoleum: Eyüp Sultan Mosque. In the mausoleum, the remains of one of Mahoma’s warlord is resting, and in the mosque, there is a rock with some prints from the prophet, or that is what it has been said. This is why this mosque has become a consecrated place (but it is not crowded at all).
38 Chora church/mosque/museum.
As it happens in cities with great history, this museum was originally a Byzantine church and later a mosque. It is not very big, and history hasn’t treated it very well (some of the mosaics have “lost” their heads). But before you go, make sure they have finished with the renovations or you just won’t be able to enter (later you can have lunch at Asitane, number 13 of this list).
Terraces: views and drinks
Of course, we can join view and pleasure (drinks, food…) and here are just some.
With an amazing terrace, at Balkon not only you’ll have good food but you could also have some drinks. Sometimes this terrace is packed, so maybe you’ll have to have dinner one floor underneath the terrace, it is mandatory to get a good place here, particularly if you go with a group.
This terrace is located in a very average building, it has given us the best time on these summer Sunday nights. Open from 7pm with a DJ, this small terrace has no view obstacle of the Bosphorus with the Galata bridge a few meters away.
41 A 360 lookout.
Although the 360 restaurant has a great view over Istiklal next to St Anthony’s Church, it is a pricey restaurant compared to others you could find. But if you like this high-class vibe it will be your place.
42 5th floor.
With a more romantic vibe than the previous one, 5 Kat (5th floor in Turkish) offers a charming environment in Cihangir with some amazing views (once again!).
43 Vida Pera.
Next to Balkon is Vida Pera, a terrace that has provided us with unforgettable moments. The view is quite similar to the one in Balkon as they are only separated by one floor.
What else can I do in Istanbul?
44 You can’t miss the hamman.
You shouldn’t leave without a Turkish bath. What is that all about? Well mostly in a good laughter if you go with friends. The Turkish bath is kind of a sauna plus massage. First, you’ll be in a steaming very humid room where you can cool down with some cold water over your almost naked body. Then it will be the time of the massage, here they will exfoliate and massage you until you are someone new (it is like being beaten up but in a “nice” way). Next, it is time to get something to drink to recover the liquid loss and that’s it. You’ll be a new person. Remember that if you go with friends you’ll sure have a laugh. Our recommendation is Suleymaniye Hamam.
45 Let’s play tabla (or backgammon).
You’ll see Turks playing this game in the streets, and if you look closely they even take it by themselves to the cafes where they are playing. They are very passionate about it and there is no real Turk who can’t play (or at least, that is what they say).
You might have seen their pictures and if you have walked around and look in any souvenir shop you might have seen their silhouettes. Derviches are religious Muslims who dance, turning over themselves over and over again, to achieve a degree of meditation. Surely this has become a show and you’ll find many touristic deals where the show is included with dinner. But that is not a reason to miss it!
47 Princes Islands.
Only an hour away from Istanbul by boat is the biggest Princes Island: Büyükada. Here the summer houses will remind you of the ones in Bebek (a bit worn off). You can go around the island with a horse wagon although you’ll do some extra exercise if you bike. Don’t worry, you can always push the bike on the hills.
48 Sharing a shisha.
Another common routine in many bars and restaurants are the shishas or narguiles; this is a great way to spend your afternoon.
Whether if you like this sport or not, if you come to the city and there is a game you’ll see how “crazy about football” the Turks are. If the league has ended you’ll see the winning team’s flags all around the city too. The most famous derby can be Galata vs Fenerbahçe but you can also visit the recently open Beşiktaş stadium.
Raki that drink made with anise that Turks love (and to be honest it is quite common in the region). Here raki is drunk with a bit of water and very cold while you eat. Another reason why dining takes so long. If you don’t like anise, forget about it.
And that is it, we reached the other 50 things to do in this beautiful city that is waiting for you with open arms (figuratively speaking). Do you think we missed something? Tell us about it!