Istanbul feels inherently intrepid. It’s the end of Europe, the beginning of Asia.
Istanbul lies at the heart of it all and must rank as one of the world’s greatest cities. Spending 72 or more hours here is essential for any self-proclaimed traveller. This is Constantinople, this is the Ottoman Empire. The rich Islamic and Christian history is trodden into the very cobbles of the ground. Door to the Arabian peninsula, to the northern Mediterranean, to north Africa and to eastern Europe, today Istanbul is the commerce and hustle of some 15 million people.
It’s a truly stunning city, if occasionally baffling. Importantly for us, it’s a city of wonderful culture and restaurants.
Where to eat and drink
In a perversion of geographical good sense, let’s start in the south of the city, work up and lurch eastwards. Beginning at the southern tip of the European side of the city, Havuzlu is inside the Grand Bazaar. It’s essentially the best reason to visit the Grand Bazaar, serving a classic set of Turkish dishes which act as a great entry point for so much of what’s to come. Lamb stews, a lasagne-inspired pasta dish with lamb and cumin, kebab, plentiful rice and warm staff make Havuzlu an old-school must. Nearby is Tarihi Haliç Pidecisi. Any Istanbul visit will include eating pide, often dubbed the Turkish pizza, but few will be richer, heartier or more pleasing than at Tarihi. At about £3 per pide it’s also one of the better value lunches around this touristy part of town.
Across the Golden Horn waterway over the Galata Köprüsü is Neolokal, an inventive, elegant, highly refined rooftop restaurant. Jeremy King famously once said “show me a restaurant with a view and I’ll show you a boring restaurant.” Not so in Istanbul. The city’s rooftop culture is as much a part of the restaurant scene as its street food vendors, with dozens of elevated dining rooms serving food well worth the ascension. Marcello is another such place, ideal for varying the delightful Turkish food with some rich, beautiful modern Italian fare. The space at Marcello is refined, contemporary, comfortable and clearly no expense has been spared in making a space to feel at ease in.
Another higher-falutin’ spot is Karaköy Lokantası, a swish space on the ground floor at the Holiday Inn (I know, but trust me). It essentially serves the rich, flavourful Turkish food you’ll be looking for in a more refined space. Less hidden gem, more just a gem, Lokantası is what the kids would call ‘a vibe’. Around the bland, very generic Taksim square, good eating is scant, but Zübeyir Ocakbaşı/Taksim is a must. Hold your nose and pass by the frothing rabble on the Oxford Street-esque Istiklal Caddesi road and dive down to the pleasing side streets where the real action is. Zübeyir is historic. The cold mezze arrives tableside with classic choices of hearty taramasalata, feta with tomatoes and acılı ezme, followed shortly by heavenly köfte.
Elsewhere nearby, Asmali Cavit offers a more offal-led vision of Turkish food. Expect liver and tongue served with the classics of börek, kuzu şiş kebab, stunning tekir (red mullet) and çiroz (smoked mackerel). Sitting in the courtyard with a bottle of Turkish raki and some well-barbecued lamb chops, it’s hard to imagine how life could be better. Kafe Ara is something of a find near Taksim too. Just off this busy central shopping district is this joyful, heartwarming little cafe. Ara’s relaxed vintage décor reflects its pleasingly straightforward combination of filled pastries, hummus and beautiful aubergine salads.
If you only eat one meal in Istanbul, make it this
On the Asian side of the bustling city, the Kadiköy market (see below) hides the exceptional Ciya Sofrasi. It’s essential eating, a restaurant which translates 30-odd years of regional Turkish favourites into a menu of exceptionally appealing little dishes. Fried chickpeas with mint and coriander replace traditional falafel, pillowy kibbeh sits alongside red wine and cherry soused lamb meatballs and okra with peppers sit atop a gluttonous, rich sauce. If you only eat one meal in Istanbul, make it this.
When it comes to drinking dens, it can be hard to know where to go. Turkey is very much a Muslim country, but not a dry one. Bars are plentiful, but many fall into the ‘tourist trap’ category. Yet, at the same time, these places can often be relatively affordable. In short, if a glass of wine or a local Efes beer will quench your thirst, then you won’t be short of options.
For a slightly more elevated bar though, Foxy Nişantaşı is a must. This hip little restaurant and wine bar – found near Marcello (see above) – has a modern list of great young wines, and in a city where the markups on bottles are as eye-watering as a sliced onion, Foxy remains staunchly affordable. Elsewhere in the trendy Nişantaşı neighbourhood is the House Cafe Corner, a buzzy local favourite in the heart of the action, with nearby streets of Ahmet Fetgari and Husrev Gerede a must-visit for the bustling arty scene.
Whilst the Grand Bazaar is the perfect destination for those looking longingly at a dubious Rolex which won’t survive ‘til Tuesday, the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Market, is the infinitely more interesting, food-friendly alternative. The covered market dates to 1664 and buzzes with the constant throng of hawkers, baklava samplers, spice merchants, tourists, locals and restaurant owners.
On the other side of town, Feriköy Antika Pazarı is a vibrant little flea market and an ideal way to while away a few hours. Trinkets, vintage medals, knick-knacks, artworks, cameras and records line the tables of the 450+ stalls. Expect to haggle, and be sure to take cash.
The calm meandering pedestrian streets on the Asian side of Istanbul slowly build to reveal the huge Haydarpaşa port and in its shadow, the Kadıköy market. Dubbed the heart of the Anatolian quarter, the bazaar is a must-visit with a near endless number of tumbling food stalls, shops, market vendors, and importantly, beautiful restaurants.
Where to stay
Like all great cities, Istanbul is made up of smaller distinct districts; each district feels unique, individual, with its own rhythm and charms, yet connected. The old town, the Asiatic side, Karakoy, Nişantaşı and more – deciding on where to stay matters, but transport and taxis are easy enough to navigate. There’s Uber, but it’s terribly unreliable.
The Old Town will place visitors in the heart of much of the action and the most impressive landmarks. However, staying around the Galata district will provide access to both the Old Town and its plentiful mosques and the hipper Beyoğlu neighbourhood. Here’s where you should be staying:
The Stay Nişantaşı: Nişantaşı feels like the most youthful, trendy place to be. A vibrant ‘hood of almost Parisian joy, the art shops, the galleries, bakeries, bars and cafes make this an electric little block which really comes alive at night. The Stay is an ideal little hub right in the heart of it all.
SUB Karaköy: SUB isn’t a ‘budget’ hotel by name, but at under £70 a night it certainly has affordability going for it. Found in Karaköy, a bustling little harbourside neighbourhood bordering both the essential Museum of Modern Art and the central Galataport transport hub (ideal for both trams and boats), the location couldn’t be more convenient.
Splendid Palace Büyükada: It might be a rogue choice but trust me when I say the Princes’ Islands in Istanbul are essential for a day trip (if you’ve 24 hours to spare) and on the main island of Büyükada, a stay at the Splendid Palace is just that: splendid. Aladar is a great little port town and my top tip: head on a little boat to the tiny neighbouring island Sedef Adasi and take in a long, easy lunch at Elio Sedef. You’re welcome.
Georges Hotel Galata: The Georges is a smart little hotel nestled among the bustling streets outside the always buzzy Galata Tower. Rooms are comfortable, stylish and the rooftop restaurant ‘24’ offers some of the better breakfast views one could wish for in the city.
What to see
In a city as rich and diverse as Istanbul, it can be hard to know where to start when it comes to sightseeing. If you’re anything like us, the restaurants and bars will be at the top of the list, but it’s worth visiting the historic monuments, mosques and museums that Istanbul has to offer. The Galata Tower is as good a place as any to start. As a sufferer of acrophobia, I felt particularly proud of myself when scaling the tower and circling the ninth storey platform.
The views are worth the ascent, and it allows you to scout out future locations. From the tower you’ll not miss the Hagia Sophia Mosque, but with exceptional, unending queues instead it’s best to opt for the stunning Blue Mosque instead. The light-filled space is both intimate and cavernous, a gilded columned room filled with stunning cartography, billowing domes and majesty. It’s an ethereal place perhaps only mired by its popularity and the crowds of khaki-wearing tourists.
Such is the depth of culture in Istanbul that even the sewer systems are a must-visit
Elsewhere in the Old Town, the Basilica Cistern is an enchanting underground world, located under the first hill of Constantinople. We’re talking about Roman heritage, 2,000 years of history and the ancient city of Byzantium. The legends of these cities and settlements told through a cistern might seem unlikely, but such is the depth of culture in Istanbul that even the sewer systems are a must-visit.
The Dolmabahçe Palace is another beauty. Contained within its walls is a fascinating history of the Ottoman Empire, but to avoid the queues and myriad crowds, view this exceptional piece of architecture from the river by taking a boat out from the Beşiktaş or Kabataş port.
Finally, the Museum of Modern Art is essential. The Renzo Piano-designed building houses a gorgeous collection of works from broadly Turkish, eastern European and Western Asian heritage. It demonstrates the core pro-European sensibility felt by many artists in the region, whilst addressing things like repression in Muslim societies, rebellion and philosophy. The Turkish artist Mübin Orhon has a display of around a dozen works, some of the most beautiful examples of abstract expressionism I’ve ever encountered.
Spending a not inconsiderable amount of time in Istanbul remains an essential, bucket-list item on any true traveller’s agenda and there is simply too much to fit into any reasonably pithy guide. The charm and history of this extraordinary city, the bustle and warmth of its generous people and the spectacular moments to be had all await.
This travel guide was published and last updated in November 2023.
Cover photo and photo of The Galata Tower licensed by Adobe Stock. All other photos by Mike Daw.