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Where Asia meets Europe: A Guide to Istanbul, Turkey

August 6, 2019
Where Asia meets Europe: A Guide to Istanbul, Turkey

It was the summer of 2013 that I first travelled to Istanbul. I arrived by train from Plovdiv in Bulgaria and was instantly captivated by the city. It was bold, chaotic and full of life. The mosques sang every morning and local fisherman gathered over Galata bridge from sunrise. Yet a few metres away, coffee shops brewed modern takes on Turkish coffee culture and Istiklal street roared into daily life. It was modern, European, trendy and forward-thinking, yet at the same time, traditional, cultural and lost in time. I stayed a week in the mid-summer heat and loved every minute.

Fast forward a few years, and I craved to see the city again. So in December 2018, I travelled back to Istanbul, this time it was mid-winter but the city still held bundles of charm. I spent a week exploring the different neighbourhoods, finding all the best vegetarian food in the city and seeking out some of the best views. Here’s my guide to one of my favourite cities in the world.

Beyoglu & Around

On both my trips to Istanbul, I have stayed around Beyoglu, and therefore I will begin the guide here. This area of the city is one of the most modern, yet also packed around it is some of the most traditional. The long and mostly pedestrian Istiklal street runs down the middle of this area, connecting Taksim Square to Galata. Along with it, you’ll find many international chains, modern clothing boutiques and places to grab fast food. However, head off into the side streets and you’ll find ancient fish markets, cobbled streets lined with bookstalls, traditional canteen-style diners and a whole lot more. I love exploring this part of the city, and it seems there’s never enough time to see it all.

One of my favourite spots in this area is Zencefil, a vegetarian restaurant in a bright, airy space which feels incredible cosy on a winters night. Here you’ll find well-priced vegetarian dishes, desserts and drinks. Staff are friendly and the atmosphere is relaxed. Prices are a little higher than you might get used to elsewhere in Istanbul, but it’s more than worth it and still cheap compared to European prices.

Nearby and with a more traditional canteen-style vibe is Hayvore – there’s plenty of vegetarian options here, all fresh and with traditional Turkish dishes and flavours, and they also serve meat and fish. It’s cheap and delicious and I recommend trying their local desserts too.

If you’re looking to check out the modern Istanbul art scene, look to SALT Beyoglu, a modern art space which holds exhibitions, performances and libraries. It’s free and you’ll find that many young locals like to come here, hang out with a coffee or work on projects. They also have another branch in Galata which is housed in a rather spectacular building.

If you’re looking for a cosy place to relax with a coffee, look to Kitabevi which is located at the end of Istiklal street as you head into Galata. Downstairs doubles as a book shop, and upstairs is the perfect place to work or spend a few hours relaxing between a busy day of exploring.

Galata & Around

Galata is the hilly area which begins at the end of Istiklal, passes the Galata tower and heads to the Golden Horn and the Galata Bridge. There’s so much to see in this area, it deserves a few days of your time to properly appreciate the atmosphere and hidden gems of this part of town.

For me, there’s no better place to start the day in Istanbul than on the Galata Bridge. As the sun rises, fishermen gather along this iconic bridge and from each side, you can see many of the icons of Istanbul – the Galata Tower and Suleymaniye Mosque standing out the most. Evening time is also a good time to visit the area, where the fish sandwich stalls on the Eminonu side of the bridge are crowded with locals feasting on the street dish.

From here, head east into the Karakoy area – one of the cities most exciting districts. The narrow streets here are now home to a multitude of bars, restaurants and coffee shops which have popped up over the last few years. Street art decorates the street and some areas (such as the umbrella walkway) have now become popular with Instagrammers. The area has a lot of charm, and although prices here are higher than elsewhere in the city, it’s a great place to come and see a blossoming young Istanbul. I recommend checking out Fil for cake and coffee and just exploring the streets taking it all in. Nearby, Karakoy Gulluoglu does arguably the best Baklava in the world. They serve it with homemade cream and it’s completely divine.

Heading up towards the Galata Tower, this is another area full of interesting side streets and small shops. There’s a lot of souvenir shops here, although they tend to hold more interesting finds than over in the Eminonu area. For a great view over the Golden Horn, head to Galata Konak Cafe. The view here is better than up the Galata Tower, and you won’t have to queue and pay for it. Food is over-priced but you can grab a drink and stand or sit on the outside terrace watching the sunset over the city.

Another highlight of this area is the Galata Mevlevihanesi Müzesi, which hosts whirling dervish performances twice a day. Go during the day and buy a ticket from the desk outside. The hall was built in 1491 and is beautiful. The performance is guaranteed to be a highlight of your time in Istanbul.

Nearby is one of my favourite canteens in the city – Helvetia, open from 12-10pm every day. For around £4 you can choose 5 dishes from their fresh and delicious canteen selection. It’s served with a huge basket of bread and is some of the best food I ate in my time in Istanbul (and I ate a lot of food). The staff speak basic English but are happy to help. There’s a lot of choice for vegetarians and vegans.

Balat & Fener

Balat is one of Istanbul’s fastest-changing neighbourhoods. It was once one of the cities most traditional areas, with wood-panelled houses, traditional bakeries and cobbled streets, yet in the last few years, it has become one of the cities hipster hot-spots, with cafes, antique stores and boutiques popping up along the main high street. I loved exploring this area for both these contrasting parts. The new businesses definitely give it a buzz and a cultural flair, yet exploring the backstreets is wonderful and you can get lost in the colours of this area.

One place to check out is Terekeci, a jumbled antique store with lots of hidden gems to be discovered. Head off the main street, into the hilly side streets where you’ll find local life and colourful architecture. If you’re craving a coffee, Cooklife is a great stop. It’s a cafe which would fit in perfectly in Berlin, and the shop even prints their own magazine which you can browse through while enjoying your drinks. In summer, you can sit outside in the small square and watch the world go by. Nearby Cafe Naftalin K is also a good option, with more of a Turkish feel and it also has chairs on the street outside. Just up the hill from here is Phanar Greek Orthodox College, a huge towering red brick structure which sits on top of the hill overlooking the Golden Horn. It was closed when I arrived (I can’t find any information on whether it is open to the public), but I enjoyed watching the students wander through the backstreets of this area.

Eminönü and around

The oldest district of Istanbul is also the most touristic, as it’s home to the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, Grand Bazaar and many of the other sides high on sightseeing lists. There’s still a lot of hidden gems in this part of town, particularly around the markets which lead out of the Grand Bazaar.

A site which has become a bit of a myth in the last few years is Büyük Valide Han, a rooftop view which got big on Instagram. This old site which was on the roof of an old artist workshop building is now closed due to the roof being close to collapse, but it’s still possible to see the same view from the more modern building next door. You won’t be able to get that Instagram pic sitting on the dome, but you can still get the same epic views over Istanbul at sunset. To get there you will need to go through the doorway on the left of a black and white sign labelled ‘Tek | Sapka -Bere – Kasket ve Malz’, you follow the way up the stairs and it leads to the roof. It is helpful if you can find the old men who run the place, I visited about an hour before sunset and there was someone at the bottom of the stairs leading people up. They sell tea at the top which enables them to keep the place open.

The Grand Bazaar is definitely worth an explore and outside Sefa restaurant is a great little traditional canteen serving lots of local dishes at good prices. Their lentil soup is delicious.

While you shouldn’t miss the Blue Mosque, Suleymaniye Mosque is equally as beautiful and much quieter. The structure is in the same style, and it has a large grassy terrace which opens up onto beautiful views of the city.

The Asian side

It’s a short ferry ride from Karakoy to Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul. Istanbul is split across two continents, and the majority of the city you will explore during your visit is likely to be in Europe. Going to the Asian side not only gives you the joy of traversing continents in a day, but it also gives you a very different idea of Istanbul. The neighbourhood of Kadikoy is laid-back, residential, with modern architecture and in a way- a much more European feel. In the last few years, it has also become a bit of a hipster hub, with creatives moving out of Beyoglu and Galata seeking cheaper rents. This has meant some great modern Turkish eateries have opened up and I also noticed a number of vegan cafes along the backstreets. One of the best brunch spots I found is Küff Yeldeğirmeni who serve a pretty epic traditional Turkish breakfast. Vegans should try the nearby Muhtelif Mekân, a fully vegan restaurant with a changing daily menu. This side of the city is also one of the best places to try traditional Turkish food, and Çiya Sofrası was recommended to me countless times by locals for lunch.

The streets around here are also perfect for exploring – with fish markets, home-made soap shops and plenty of places to grab a Turkish tea and simit bread. This side of the city doesn’t have a lot in terms of attractions, although Kız Kulesi (Maiden’s Tower) has become quite popular on Instagram in the last few years.

Things to Know

Getting there: Istanbul is in the centre of the Eurasian continent and therefore is very convenient to get to from a number of places in the world. It’s often a good place to do a stop-over if you are travelling from Europe to Asia. Istanbul’s main airport is located on the European side, around 40km from the city centre. I found the more convenient way to get there was by the Havaist bus which drops you off near Taksim square (from here you can get on the metro to travel around the city). If you want to arrive by an eco-option, consider getting the train. The city is connected to the European train network via Bulgaria (Plovdiv and Sofia both have direct overnight services which are comfortable, cheap and convenient).

Getting Around: Istanbul has a good public transport network, although it can be a little confusing. A big tip is to download Google Maps, which works throughout the city and will tell you the best bus, metro or tram service to catch to wherever you want to go. Trams are often the most comfortable and clean choice of transport, although buses and boats are also not far behind. If you’re in the city for a few days, it’s worth it to buy an Istanbulkart which you can use on public transport around the city. To travel between the European and Asian sides of the city, or to the Princes Islands, you should get the boat.

Money & Costs: Istanbul is a relatively cheap city by European standards. You can get a good quality meal for under £5, and tea often only costs 1-2 L which is less than 50p. A journey on public transport typically costs 2.60L, which is around 40p. Overall, I’d say a daily budget of £10-20 is sufficient, not including accommodation.

Accommodation: The choices for accommodation are wide and varied in Istanbul, with many hostels, hotels, guesthouses and homestays available at a good price. I stayed in a homestay Airbnb in the Beyoglu area during my trip, and it was excellent. Fatma’s house has many rooms which are all available on Airbnb and also for long term rent. There is a small kitchen you can you and a terrace. The room was cosy and heated well (important in the middle of winter!). There are also many hostels and well-priced. guesthouses which you can find on Booking.com.

Extra research: There are lots of great Istanbul Instagrammers and Bloggers, but I particularly love the work of Deniz Yilmaz Akram who lives in the city. She posts lots of great images from more off the beaten track parts of the city. Follow her at @photostorming.

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Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.

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