I’ve been dreaming about traveling to Istanbul for years. From the moment I stepped off of the airplane, I knew it would be a special trip. To begin with, Istanbul is situated between two continents – Europe and Asia. And in so many ways, it was a city that is the gate between East and West. On nearly every hill of the city (and there are a multitude of hills!), there sits a mosque. Five times a day, you hear the melody of the call to prayer. Yet at the same time, you see a modern and conservative population that seems comfortable with the differences between each other. Situated on the beautiful Bosphorus, you have constant views of the water that separates the different parts of the city.
Often when I travel, I try to rent an apartment. This was one of the best experiences to date. We stayed in a beautiful three-story townhouse. One of the great things about staying in a residential neighborhood is that you aren’t with tourists the entire time. We were about to go to the local markets to purchase fresh eggs, cheese, olives and fruit for breakfast. By the end of our stay the vendors recognized us and we felt like we were part of a community.
I think one of the reasons it has taken this long for me to write about my trip, is that it was such a profound experience. It has been difficult for me to express the effect it had on me. There were beautiful sites I will list below, but overall, it was the spirit of the city that I loved the most.
Other activities you should take the time to enjoy:
1. Sultanahmet. This is the area of old Istanbul and the place where the most well known attractions are located. Once the heart of the Ottoman Empire, is the Topkapi Palace. As a designer the tiles in the Harem of the palace were mind-blowingly beautiful. It’s worth purchasing the extra ticket to go into – it’s room after room of endless inspiration. Be sure to take the time for lunch at the restaurant inside of the palace. Close by is another Ottoman beauty, Sultanahmet Camii. Often referred to as the Blue Mosque in English, this mosque is known for its beautiful tiles and lofty domed ceilings. I found the small details most alluring – the marble wash-basins at the entrance had me entranced. Finally, Aya Sofia (the former church of Hagia Sophia) is the legacy of the Byzantine Empire. Mosaics of incredible splendor covered much of the walls and ceilings.
2. The Grand Bazaar. All of my guidebooks warned of aggressive vendors at the bazaar. I found it to be very tame in comparison to the markets of Morocco. We found the vendors to be kind (many cups of tea!) and there was a plethora of incredible shops with fabrics from Uzbekistan, hamman bowls, towels, soap, tea pots…anything you can imagine existed at the bazaar. We were fortunate to have someone come with us to help us navigate some of the better shops.
3. The Spice Bazaar. We definitely made this a priority and came home with spices, teas, and Turkish delight. One of my favorite spices that I’ve been using on everything is Sumac – it’s delicious on eggs, cauliflower, you name it!
4. Cukurcuma. This was one of my favorite neighborhoods. Charm doesn’t begin to describe this lovely area. Known for its gathering of antique shops, hip cafes, and 19th century apartments, I felt I could have been in another world! A few favorites in this neighborhood were A la Turca, a coffee at Holy Coffee and I’m still dreaming about the dinner we had at Munferit.
5. Arasta Bazaar. This is where we found beautiful Turkish towels, rugs, and fabric. It’s a manageable size and on a smaller scale than the Grand Bazaar.
6. Asia. One of my favorite days was spent on the Asian side of the city. There was far more green space, and what seemed like a slower pace of life. We were definitely on a mission to eat at one restaurant tons of friends recommended. After weaving through small market sidewalks we came across it and let me tell you, it was one of our best meals – go to Ciya Sofasi it’s a must!
7. Istanbul Modern. A relatively new museum of modern art, Istanbul Modern sits of the shore of the Bosphorus and has a light airy and very modern feel. Eat at the cafe – it has a remarkable view.
8. Hammam. Going to a hammam was pretty high on my list of things to do while in Istanbul. Multiple friends suggested Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam. If you want to enjoy some true r & r and pampering this is just the thing for you. I did it the morning before we left for Paris, which felt incredible after all of the walking we had done. The renovation they did on this space is visually stunning.
9. Turkish Towels. To say I only bought a few would be a lie. I fell madly in love with all of the beautiful details each towel and hand towel had. From the tassel details, to the patterns, to the colors – it was love at first site. I now have them hanging in my bathroom and each morning they remind me of Istanbul.
10. Shops. While we went into dozens upon dozens of stores, here are a few of my favorites that I’ll definitely be going back to when I return. Sofa Art & Antiques – for beautiful antique treasures you really can’t find anywhere else. Jennifer House – for stunning Turkish towels. Yazzma – for custom pillows. You pick the fabric and size, then they make it within two hours. It’s amazing! Ottoamano – If you’re looking for luxurious scarves this is the place to go. Situated in a cable car in the middle of the Grand Bazaar you are surrounded by thousands of scarves. You’ll leave wanting more than one. Lastly, Tulu Textiles – this was a dream. It’s four floors of what feels like heaven. Elizabeth, the owner, has an incredible eye for design.
I’m already planning my next trip because I feel as though I barely made a dent in the what was discovered when I was there. I hope this has inspired you to plan a trip to Istanbul.
Photos by Caitlin Flemming