istanbul overview


View Istanbul overview in a larger map

Istanbul is huge, overcrowded, traffic jammed, hectic and as such I am sure that it must be quite confusing for a first time visitor. And then comes the fact that the place falls way short of expectations in a rather crucial aspect: Please be prepared that this is not a romantic, exotic, 1001 nights type of a city at all!

A rather typical Istanbul skyline - ouch!

Yes, in some of its pockets Istanbul may have a certain sort of nostalgic charm (mostly purpose designed for the benefit of her visitors, I should probably admit). And then some of her quiet bosphorus "villages" are rather lovely. And the seascape is of course magnificent - but alas, most of us cannot afford the (several) million dollar view or spend our lives on a harbor ferry. Again, the historic peninsula with its mosques, museums, the Topkapi palace and the Grand Bazaar is impressive - but no local person (outside of the religious crowd for whom the mosques and the holy relics in the palace are a pilgrimage destination) ever goes anywhere near it, I'm afraid - unless they own a shop there or something... So, by and large, "real" Istanbul is ugly rather than beautiful. In fact a popular t-shirt around here proclaims Istanbul to be the "most beautifully ugly city" on the globe.

The main thing to be aware of when trying to "get" Istanbul is that the city does not have one city center, but a lot of them. This comes from the fact that historically Istanbul developed out of many villages which then merged into one big city, without however relinquishing their individual identities. And even new additions, such as the district where the conference venue is, seem to conform to this: Levent is only one of many business centers in Istanbul.

On the map above I have marked up the city centers that I will mention on this survival blog, but there are quite a few more as well. Since some are situated further inland they are more cumbersome to reach, which is the main reason as to why they have been left out. (Koşuyolu, Çamlıca and Ataşehir are such examples). Again, very attractive Bosphorus villages such as Arnavutköy, Bebek, Kanlıca, Emirgan, İstinye and Yeniköy, as well as the 4 Prince Islands and the busy Marmara sea-side neighborhoods of Bakırköy and Yeşilyurt have been left out for the same reason - less ease of accessibility.

İstiklal Caddesi

Demographically speaking Istanbul is a very young city, with 65% of her 15 million residents under the age of 35. Small wonder then that the city has almost 20 universities, both private and public. The huge number of young people is also the main reason as to why Istanbul is such an entertainment oriented city, with an astonishing number of cafes, bars, music venues, taverns and restaurants, concentrated in its many centers but spreading well beyond them as well.

The many centers of Istanbul: I will start with Taksim, since a lot of you will probably be staying thereabouts. Taksim is a huge square, from where a mile long pedestrian street called Istiklal Caddesi originates. To the left and to the right of this long avenue are to be found literally hundreds and hundreds of eating, drinking and entertainment venues. You will need to go in and out, the main street is nothing more than a shopping area. The action is all in the side streets.

Taksim, New Year's decorations

Taksim is not a fancy part of town. Young people of all backgrounds, income levels and interests go there - and quite a few older ones as well. You can spend only a few bucks and hang out on the sidewalk drinking beer all night, or you can splurge on a rakı meal and go clubbing afterwards - one thing is guaranteed, you will always be immersed in huge partying crowds. Taksim is very very very crowded: Urban legend has it that an estimated million unique visitors crowd the streets over the course of a normal weekend, winter and summer alike. (And since I wrote this I have actually been corrected by my colleague Ekmel Ertan, the director of the Amber Electronic Arts festival held here in Istanbul: Ekmel says that according to a recent consumer report which he came across, the weekend number is actually estimated between 2.5 and 3 million!). So, to repeat: If crowds are not your thing, Taksim is not the place for you...

Over the recent years, tourists have also discovered Taksim - so you will probably encounter quite a few non-Turks there as well. The overall area of Taksim is probably best divided into 3 sub-areas: Taksim proper, Galatasaray and Tünel. There are separate posts for all of three on this blog, here>>>, here>>> and here>>>.

Quite close to Taksim, down the hill and to the northeast is Beşiktaş, which is an important transit point with 2 ferry ports, going to Üsküdar and Kadiköy, as well as a terminus for buses and minibuses going in several directions, so chances are you will be going through there at least once, if not more often.


Beşiktaş

If you go into the area southwest of Barbaros Boulevard in Beşiktaş you will find a busy warren of pedestrian streets in the middle of which is to be found a great fish and produce market and lots of food places - anything from taverns to fast food stands. There is a full post on Beşiktaş on this blog, which you can read here>>>.

Nişantaşı

A short way up the hill from Beşiktaş is Nişantaşı (image above), which is one of the older "posh" neighborhoods of Istanbul. You can get to Nişantaşı very easily from Taksim and the conference center as well. Read the special post on Nişantaşı here>>>.

Ortaköy

To the north of Beşiktaş, more or less within walking distance, is Ortaköy (image above), which is the first Bosphorus village on the European side. The Bosphorus gets progressively more up-market as you go north, with some of Istanbul's most expensive neighborhoods lining the shore on both sides. Ortaköy being furthest south is no where in that league, but instead is a great place for regular folk to go to and hang out, with a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus and lots of cheap to medium priced eating places and a weekend flea market. Read the special post on Ortaköy here>>>.

The district where the conference is located is called 4. Levent, and you can reach it either by metro from Taksim or by taking a minibus from Beşiktaş. This will take you all the way to the top of a huge hill and then continue for quite some time inland. 4. Levent is one of the newer business districts of Istanbul, which has evolved from what used to be a quiet suburb up until the 1980's. Which gives you a strange mixture of high rise buildings and small villas, most of which nowadays hold small business headquarters. Read a post on food places in 4. Levent here>>>.

Across from Beşiktaş is Üsküdar, on the Asian side. You can reach Üsküdar from Beşiktaş in 10 minutes by taking a commuter motorboat or a city ferry. (The boat is much faster by the way, so go for that. Simply look out for the word Avrasya Dentur when you hit the shore and you will see the big white vessels lined up).

Beşiktaş to Üsküdar commuter motor boat

Also added should be that Üsküdar is one of the largest religious neighborhoods of Istanbul, so folk over there will be attired more conservatively and behave with greater decorum than elsewhere. Which certainly doesn't stop them from having a great time at the shore side tea gardens, which you should visit too. ;-)

Just like Beşiktaş, Üsküdar is a very busy transit point as well, millions of people go through here everyday as they cross between the two sides of the sea. A separate post on Üsküdar (also incorporating a small overview on religion in Turkey) can be read here>>>.

Beylerbeyi

Up the shore from Üsküdar, reached by a minibus which leaves directly from in front of the boat/ferry ports is Beylerbeyi (image above). Beylerbeyi, at least for me, is the nicest of all the Bosphorus villages. Beautiful little seaside square and nice little fish restaurants, and tea gardens both on the square and in the side streets. And usually not as crowded as the rest of Istanbul either... Read the special post on Beylerbeyi here>>>.

Kadiköy

Again, on the Asian side, but a world apart is busy busy Kadiköy (image above), which lies almost at the southern tip of the city, by the sea. And, many agree that this is one of the greatest neighborhoods in all of Istanbul - especially where food is concerned! Originally Kadiköy was a straightforward produce market spread over a grid of pedestrian streets, but over the past couple of decades the market has extended itself into an eating/drinking location with little restaurants, cafes, Turkish coffee places, patisseries and taverns which share the space with the market stalls. Read more about Kadiköy market here>>>.

The back streets of Kadiköy, going inland up towards Bahariye, have become a hang out location in their own right, with live music places, tattoo parlors, piercing joints and so on, mostly catering to the alternative rock scene of Istanbul, with the main concentration being in Kadife Sokak. A lot of this action takes place inside the many covered arcades and may not be directly visible from the street. But then again  there is certainly enough going on in the streets themselves to make a stroll up there worthwhile.

Moda

Very close to Kadiköy (easy walking distance) is Moda, (image above) a peninsula famed for its clifftop tea gardens which overlook the sea and its ice cream parlors (especially Ali!). And some very nice eating places there as well. A separate post on Moda can be read here>>>.

Baghdad Avenue, İskele Sokak

A minibus ride along the Marmara Sea shore will take you to the district named Baghdad Avenue (Bağdat Caddesi). This is a 7 kilometer long avenue, which constitutes the shopping and entertainment center of one of the prosperous parts of Istanbul, the southern part of the Asian side. This is a very large area, which spreads itself all the way along the shore and goes several miles inland as well. The part of the avenue which has the most action is between Suadiye and Caddebostan. Separate post can be read here>>>.

You can get to the Asian side by taking a ferry from Beşiktaş (Barbaros ferry stop), Karaköy or Eminönü and get off at Kadiköy, which is the terminus ferry port on the other side.The ride across is a joy in itself since it takes you past the historic peninsula with all the minarets etc.

Karaköy waterfront

Karaköy, which is the port located closest to Taksim (or rather Tünel) is also a nice food area in its own right, for which there is a separate post here >>>.

Back on the European side, is the historic peninsula, which is the main tourist destination in Istanbul. Lots of info online on the historic buildings and the Bazaar. What I can add is that this truly is a visitor locale, and most Istanbulites have no reason to go there in their day to day lives and seldom do so, given that there are hardly any shops or businesses who do not cater to the tourist industry. That said, whenever I do go, I love it. And end up spending money on a lot of things which I do not really need>>>...


Historic peninsula

And speaking of the historic peninsula you should also be aware that the area attracts two very distinct types of visitors: Regular travelers who want to see places like the Aya Sofya, the cistern, the palace and shop in the bazaar. However, a second crowd are devout Muslims who come here to pray in the big historic mosques and also to see the holy relics in the palace. So, in a way the historic peninsula is also an Islamic pilgrimage destination.

I will not be covering the historic peninsula on this blog since there is a lot of material available online already. Another reason is that I wish to talk about places that we Istanbulites go to and have a good time - giving more of a local viewpoint if you will.

Food overview
I travel a lot, mostly to major cities on many continents, and I have to say for my home town that when it comes to food (and entertainment) Istanbul is indeed a city to be reckoned with on a global scale. This did not always use to be the case: The city has undergone a major transformation over the past few decades, largely thanks to a massive migration from other regions of Turkey. And, the migration which has happened here has actually worked very positively, bringing about a melange of cultures which really does seem to work (read more here >>>). And nowhere is this more evident than in the contemporary food scene of Istanbul.

Olive oil vegetable dishes from Istanbul

The food you will encounter in Istanbul has three distinct roots: One is the indigenous Istanbul cuisine, which is very different from what is eaten in other parts of Turkey. Nowadays you encounter it mostly in taverns, where most of the tapas will be derivatives thereof. However, the best part of Istanbul cusine is the casserole cooked food, which we still enjoy at home, but which is not so easy to come by in restaurants at this point. On this blog I make mention of 3 restaurants, Hacı Abdullah (post here >>>), Hacı Baba (post here >>>) and Kanaat Lokantası (post here >>>) which are famous for Istanbul casserole dishes. Beyond these established and well known restaurants, self-service establishments which serve Istanbul food and which mostly cater to a lunch-hour office worker crowd, who would like to eat home cooked food during the day when they are away from home (absolutely no midday siesta in Turkish work life btw!), can be found as well.

Anatolian goodies

The second strand, which nowadays is far more wide-spread than Istanbul cuisine, is Anatolian food, which is absolutely delicious: As an example, kebap houses all fall under this classification. Also mantı restaurants, döner places, köfte (meatball) houses, dürüm and gözleme places, Lahmacun stands (please consult the yum-yum page for further clarification  >>>), in short a lot of the local fast food type of stuff which you will find in Istanbul will fall under this category.

The third strain (predicatbly enough) is international cuisine. Here it has to be stated however that this is not a recent influx and that Istanbul has been under a strong French and Italian cooking influence since the 19th century, with regards to all food stuffs but particularly so with patisserie. Indeed a lot of Turks would be quite taken aback if they were told that mille-feuilles and eclairs were not Turkish desserts but French!

Typical Istanbul patisserie window.

Italian cuisine, especially pizzas and pasta (which we call makarna by the way) have always been very popular, indeed Italian style pasta is cooked in practically every Istanbul home on a regular basis. Another big favorite which has its origins outside of Turkey is mayonnaise, which we seem to consume in container loads, especially with french fries and beer. In fact, mayo and all sorts of mayo based dishes have been firmly integrated into proper Istanbul cuisine for close to a century, evidenced in such dishes as Rus salatası (Russian salad) and mayonezli balık (fish mayonnaise), which can readily be found in any decent Turkish cook book.

Thus, most of the cafes which you visit will present you with a hybrid menu with salads, pizzas, pasta dishes and burgers sharing equal space with adaptations of kebaps, meatballs, and traditional olive oil dishes. Dessert will almost always be international, for the Turkish stuff you will need to go to a muhallebici (a local coffee shop) such as Saray (post here >>>), or Sütiş (big one is found in Taksim, as you enter İstiklal, on your left).


And yes, while we all love our Turkish coffee (if for no other reason than to read our fortunes! ;-), tradition tells us that this can only be drunk after a meal. Thus the rest of the daily caffeine intake is supplied through rivers of filter coffee at work and cappuccino and latte in cafes. And when at home, your average local person will much sooner reach for the instant coffee jar than for the tiny Turkish coffee saucepan.

Additionally of course, has come the huge influx of American fast food, and folk relish Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken - and especially Burger King, where the char broiled taste of the whopper and the raw onions is actually very close to what any self-respecting Turk would expect their home made köfte (meatball) to taste like as well.

The good news is that whilst embracing the influx of international fast food and coffee chains, local chains which are strong enough to easily compete with them have also found their place in the market. A good example to these is Kahve Dünyası (see post here >>>), an alternative to Starbucks. And by no means is Kahve Dünyası a standalone poster child for local initiative: The list of Turkish fast food chains is long and covers the gamut from ice cream to kebap and köfte houses. Indeed some, such as Mado (post here >>>), have turned themselves into big international chains in their own right, with numerous franchises in places as far as North America, the Far East and Australia.

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