I thought I would do this Istanbul mini-guide for those who maybe only want to buy maybe ONE guide book (and not like 5 or 6 like some other people- Messy looks around, whistling) and who only have a couple of days in Istanbul....obviously if you have longer there are a whole host of other websites, blogs, travelogues which will provide guidance on things to fill your stay. This is part 1 of the mini-guide - I haven't quite decided how many parts there will be yet! It isn't meant to be comprehensive by any means...but maybe it will help somebody planning a trip to Istanbul.
I thought I would start with Sultanahmet in the Old City, which is where we spent the first two nights of our stay (I will cover our hotels and getting to and from the airport on the Asian side in another Part). The big ticket items on everyone's must-do list are the: Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya), Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi), Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, Underground Cistern. We didn't get to see the Topkapi Palace, Underground Cistern or inside the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, mainly because of timing- we only had one full day in Sultanahmet before we moved hotels. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia were magnificent (I even got up at 6am to take some sunrise shots of both but unfortunately there was no spectacular sunrise so I just got strange looks from the locals going to prayer and a very friendly, stray cat). As for the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market, they aren't really my thing (I am more of an open air, fresh food market kind of gal) but were worth a short look-see. Being off-season, neither were crowded but I still felt rather claustrophobic- I can't image what it must be like in the middle of summer with tourists crammed into every nook and cranny. Atmospheric or Hell on Earth...depending on your particular persuasion. The Grand Bazaar is huge so I would try and download a map in order to navigate its labyrinth of streets. For me, the best thing about the Grand Bazaar was the tiny kebab shop called Aynen Durum (which I mentioned in an earlier post) just outside the Bazaar near the informal money market. It is basically a "hole in the wall" set up with room for one guy to cook and seating for about 6 people either side of a stainless steel "condiment bar". You order your lamb or chicken kebab (cubes of lamb not the shaved doner variety) which is cooked over charcoal, wrapped in soft, chewy flat bread with a little tomato and handed to you to load up on condiments - sweet,minty pickles, dried chili, pickled chili, spices and masses of fresh, bouncy flat leaf parsley. Simple, clean, honest (and cheap) food- probably the best we had in Istanbul. You eat shoulder to shoulder with the locals (we were the only non-locals I spotted both times we passed by) and it was always packed. I gave the owner a "that was awesome!" thank you after we had paid (around 8 YTL) which produced some laughs from the other punters. The address for Aynen Durum is "Merkez: Muhafazacilar Sk. No:33 (Ayakli Borsa Yani) Kapalicarsi" Tel: 0212 527 47 28. If you make the effort to track it down, I promise you won't be disappointed :)
If you want to buy something to take home and can't face the prospect of the Grand Bazaar, try the Arasta Baazar which is tucked away below the Blue Mosque. It is just two rows of shops, open air and much less daunting. The Hedonist's Guide to Istanbul lists some of the shops worth seeking out in the Arasta Bazaar, Spice Market (Egyptian Bazaar) and the Grand Bazaar- bargaining/haggling is de rigueur so, once again, this may be your idea of heaven or hell (I can't tell you how much I loathe having to bargain- give me a fixed price any day!). It might be worth limbering up with a few smaller purchases before bargaining for that carpet or pricey antique ceramic.
Post Grand bazaar recovery? Head to the tranquil, chilled Erenler Cay Bahcesi- a nargile (hookah) cafe. I loved this place- I could have stayed there for hours drinking tea, chatting to the locals (did I mention this place is full of locals?!) and taking photographs. Alas Mr Messy has a thing about me asking people for photographs in his presence so I only managed to get the one of the gentleman (above) smoking his nargile. We ordered Turkish coffee and a cheese toasty- perfect revival fuel. I would have had a shot at smoking a nargile but the embarrassing prospect of coughing and spluttering my way through the experience stopped me (this is when travelling with friends comes in handy).....The sweet, heady smell of our neighbours smoke, listening to him inhale and the water bubbling was oddly soothing. I can't recommend this cafe highly enough particularly as it is so close to the Grand Bazaar but has (so far) escaped being touristy. Mesale cafe near the Arasta Bazaar (and our hotel), also a nargile cafe, is an example of a cafe which appears solely geared towards tourists- and that is all I will say!
Thick, leathery Turkish coffee at Erenler Cay Bahcesi (below):
Stoking the coal which sits in the top of the nargile with the fruit tobacco:
Once you are refueled and armed with a good map (does anyone else have trouble finding street signs in Istanbul?), head towards the Istanbul University and Mosque of Suleyman The Magnificent and then down into the back streets of the Old City: your destination being Vefa Bozacisi the home of Boza, a curiously addictive fermented millet drink. We got hopelessly lost trying to find the cafe but is was well worth it- for the chance to see life in the back streets of Vefa, to check out the beautiful cafe and to drink Boza with the steady stream of Turkish people heading through its doors. School kids accompanied by their parents, businessmen and women, local workers- it seems everyone needs their afternoon fix of Boza. The drink itself is an acquired taste (although I pretty much acquired it after 2 sips!)... it looks like yogurt but it doesn't taste anything like yogurt- it is thick, "oaty", creamy but with a "spritzy" ending (I guess that is the ferment). It is served sprinkled generously with cinnamon and what I think were crunchy, sweetened chickpeas on top. I saw Vefa Bozacisi for sale in take away bottles all over Istanbul but the cafe is something a bit special.
This little boy's grandfather helped direct us to Vefa Bozacici:
Inside the cafe:
Then you just need to go up some stairs and are at the Rustem Pasha mosque with its exquisite blue floral tiles:
As for dining out, we ventured to Tarihi Selim Usta Sultanahmet Koftecisi which seems to be very popular in guide books and on forums but which we found wholly underwhelming.