How to Explore Istanbul Like a Local
When travelling, if you're looking to really immerse yourself in local culture, food, nightlife and other activities, often the best way to do it is to explore like a local. Ok, so I can’t claim that I didn’t do anything touristy on my trip to Istanbul – of course I wanted to see the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sophia, but I was lucky enough to be visiting a friend who’s made the city her home for the past three years. This meant I could leave the guidebooks behind and enjoy discovering Istanbul as shown to me by a local.
And boy, was there a lot to discover. I’ve wanted to visit Istanbul for some time, as its unique location sat between Asia and Europe, divided by the great Bosphorus Strait, as well as the melting pot of cultures here, really fascinated me.
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque
Let’s start with the guidebook hotspots. Hagia Sophia has a really peaceful atmosphere about it, despite its multiple past identities. Constructed originally to be the world’s largest cathedral, to later become an Ottoman imperial mosque, it now stands as a museum. There’s so much history preserved here and it was amazing to see the Christian and Muslim religious influences all around.
Across the way is the Blue Mosque. Standing in the gardens looking onto this giant, it almost had a Disney quality about it, as if it wasn’t really real. It’s like the daddy of all the mosques in Istanbul.
The Grand Bazaar
We then explored the Grand Bazaar with its many spice and sweet shops, ornate lamps and glittering jewellers. Don’t worry too much about getting lost in here – it’ll happen anyway. We also stopped by the Galata tower, which can be seen from any point around the region. Legend goes that you’re destined to marry the person you climb to the top with…
The Princes' Islands
My favourite place was the Princes’ Islands. We took a ferry over to Heybeliada - the second largest of the Islands, leaving the crowded city streets behind in exchange for quiet woodland lanes. Only the emergency services have motorised vehicles here – otherwise its horse and trap or bicycle, adding to the place’s quaint charm. We walked up to the site of an old chapel where you can enjoy a cold drink and gaze at the beautiful views across the bay to other islands. The Princes’ Islands are home to several old monasteries, worth a look while you’re exploring.
Now let’s talk food – because it’s one of the main things we go to experience in a new destination, right? I think I can surely say I tried my fair share of Turkish cuisine, from traditional coffee and Turkish delight to pide pizza. The cake shops in this city are amazing, stocking everything from fresh breads and pastries, to mouth-watering desserts and extravagant cakes. We got traditional simit (like a sesame seed bagel) – get it from a shop rather than a street stand though, it’ll be fresher.
My top foodie experience was visiting the renowned Karakoy Gulluoglu for delicious, syrupy baklava. This shop has been in business since 1871 and I’d have snapped a quick photo of its pretty pink ceiling if the place wasn’t heaving with customers – proof of its popularity.
I also thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of the miniature Turkish ravioli, Manti. These tiny hand-pressed meat dumplings are served with a dollop of a garlic yogurt and tomato sauce, and you can ask for them boiled or fried for an extra crispy edge.
Partying in Istanbul
Istanbul is a city that likes to stay up pretty late too. On my first night we went to a packed-out gig. Whilst alcohol in this predominantly-Muslim city is expensive (only compared to everything else), the barman’s free pouring made up for it! We also went out in the area of Arnavutköy, famous for its wooden Ottoman mansions, where the buzzy partying spills out onto the street and there’s a friendly village vibe.
On the Shores of the Bosphorus
Away from the partying, we also spent a lovely evening dining on the shores of the Bosphorus with a big group of my friend’s pals. We had Turkish tapas – same idea as any other tapas, just slightly different food. Apparently this social eating is really popular, as is the Raki that came with it. Now, I’ve done my time with Sambuca before, and consequently aniseed is not my favourite flavour, but I’ve never before been encouraged to sip it as part of a casual meal! They ordered me turnip juice as a chaser, which in itself didn’t taste great but totally neutralises your palette, FYI.
I know Turkey has had more than its fair share of religious and political upheaval and incidents over the past few years, but it’d be a shame to miss out on all the amazing history and culture Istanbul has to offer for fear’s sake. Plus, it's pretty affordable too, so you’d have to work hard to blow any budget. Book and experience it yourself – the Bopshorus sunsets are worth it.
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