Visiting Istanbul For A Second Time Around

February 24, 2012
Visiting Istanbul For A Second Time Around

Istanbul is a city of crossroads – time, culture, religion, and language all intersect in this meeting of east and west. The Asian continent joins Europe, and a people descended from one of the most powerful empires of all times struggle to become recognized by the modern world. It is a city where a tourist could blend in and feel at home, a melting pot of people of every ethnicity embracing Turkish culture and carrying it along as the city expands at warp speed.

International banks sit next to centuries-old mosques, McDonalds is as crowded as the kebab stand around the corner, and the Grand Bazaar competes with Saudi-owned shopping malls and internet-based companies.

This was my second time in this glorious city, a place that I had thought of fondly since my previous trip around the world and was glad for the opportunity to revisit. I remembered the smell of fish freshly caught and fried under the bridges, the saliva-producing window displays of baklava and baked goods, the nighttime traffic of people heading toward the sea, meeting for tea and company after the sun and the heat of the day had passed.

Though it was more than a year ago, the delicate and complicated designs of Hagya Sophia and the Blue Mosque (must-sees if you’ve never been before) were fresh in my mind. And, the call of the faithful to prayer that sounded five times a day throughout the city felt as familiar and comfortable as the wind stirring the leaves outside my window back home.

The Turkish friends I had made last year through Couchsurfing were excited to have me back in town.

I spent about a week in Istanbul last year. Additionally, I had four days between other legs of my trip this year to explore parts of the city I hadn’t seen, as well as revisit my favorite places. The Turkish friends I had made last year through Couchsurfing were excited to have me back in town. They werehappy to provide me and my traveling companion Mikael with plans to fill up every day.

If you are in the same position as I, and have spent time in Istanbul before or are going for an extended trip to this exciting city, I would recommend the following places as alternatives or additions to the main touristy scene that we all have to participate in, but occasionally wish to escape.

The Grand Bazaar is one of my favorite places in Istanbul, the labyrinth of the gigantic covered bazaar filled to the brim with shops selling everything imaginable – replica Arabian lamps, spices, cloth and clothing, dishes, fresh fish, light bulbs, and brightly-colored candies and nuts. The bazaar overflows in every direction into the alleys around it, and people of every variety flow in and out of shops and cafes, carrying ice cream or shopping bags or dragging children along by the arm or window shopping at their leisure.

Visiting Istanbul For A Second Time Around

Navigation is out of the question – your best bet is to start at the top of the hill where the bazaar begins, and always head downhill, turning whichever way catches your eye – eventually you’ll proceed through the Egyptian Bazaar (attached to the Grand Bazaar but further downhill) and come out by the sea.

To get to a good starting point, take the funicular train from Taksim Square to Kabatas, and then the tram (T1) over the bridge and a few stops past Sultanahmet (ask anyone, or just look for all the people with their bags waiting for your tram).

If you don’t stop and eat somewhere within the Grand Bazaar, there are few things better than tucking into a fresh fried fish sandwich and an Efes in one of the breezy cafes under the bridge you crossed on the tram on the way to the bazaar (the Kara-Eminonu bridge). Blue and rusty, the underside of each end of this bridge is home to restaurant after restaurant serving the traditional fish sandwich (no more than 4 Turkish Lira) and an assortment of other meals to suit your fancy.

Whenever it comes to meals, I always recommend choosing which restaurant to sit in not by which waiter was most inventive/annoying in getting your attention. But, by which one has the largest number of local, hard-working people eating in it. You’ve got a higher guarantee of a good (and fairly priced) meal if you point at what someone else local is having and say “I want one of those”.

You’ve got a higher guarantee of a good (and fairly priced) meal if you point at what someone else local is having and say “I want one of those”

Between the Grand Bazaar and the bridge is the Sultanahmet tram stop, and just uphill from this stop is one of the less-well known tourist spots in Istanbul, the Basilica Cisterns. Well worth the 10TL you’ll pay to enter, enjoy your descent out of the heat into this temperate underground water chamber, an ancient storage site for water drawn from the Belgrade Forest, an impressive 20km NW of town.

This being my first time in the cisterns, I was amazed by the beautifully carved columns, the size and colors of the underground stone and marble chamber accented by the well-placed lights and mysterious dark recesses. No water feature, no matter how ancient, would be complete without its own collection of giant koi fish and shiny coins left by wishers and hopers, but the overall effect was dimmed not in the slightest by these additions – the beauty and calmness of this site left me speechless.

If you have a spare day to spend in Istanbul and want to escape the city itself, pack a picnic, hop on a ferry at Kabatas, and head to the nearby islands. The ticket costs 5TL, and you’ll want to rush to the top back deck of the ferry immediately to get a seat outdoors. Enjoy the view as you cruise between the shores of the never-ending city, and wait to get off until the second (and biggest) island.

Once you get to the island, choose between the two methods of transportation available – horse-drawn carriage, or rental bicycles (the only motor vehicles belong to select administrative offices). The bikes are cheap (and price is always negotiable), and the island is small enough that you’ll be able to bike everywhere you want to go in one lazy afternoon.

Head out of the main square to find some cheap local food. And whatever you do, watch out for those crazy carriage drivers.

Head out of the main square to find some cheap local food. And whatever you do, watch out for those crazy carriage drivers. We spent the last hour waiting for our ferry back to the mainland on the terrace of one of the expensive hotels overlooking the water, enjoying the expensive view with a cheap iced tea.

Finally, the evening will arrive, and you’ll want nothing more than to follow the locals down to the seaside, escaping the heat which can be rather oppressive in this city of concrete and asphalt. Trust the natives, and head down to any number of small cafes along the shores of either the European or Asian sides of the cities, or even just to the sidewalks along any section of shore.

Grab some street food (but avoid anything that’s not cooked in front of you), laugh at the boys who compete with each other to make the biggest splash as they jump into the river, and enjoy the lightshow on the two big bridges spanning the water. If you take a bus down to the Beykoz neighborhood, or take the ferry from Besiktas across to Kadikoy on the Asian side, be sure to get the return times and not miss your chance at a cheap ride home. Or, pay the moderate taxi fare.

Don’t be surprised if the human traffic continues until 2am.

Every section of the city has its own central area (Taksim has outgrown itself, and each neighborhood has taken a piece of the commercial pie), and many of the cafes have perfect rooftop terraces to enjoy countless cups of Turkish tea and conversation.

Don’t be surprised if the human traffic continues until 2am. The Turkish have a late-night culture fueled by caffeine, sugar, water-pipes and the music of this never sleeping, always changing, sweet and spicy destination halfway between here and there.

visiting istanbul
Visiting Istanbul

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Visiting Istanbul For A Second Time Around top photo credit: Jess Scott and Pixabay. Jess Scott is a foreign correspondent for Pink Pangea. Read more of her stories at

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