Istanbul is a truly incredible city, one that seemingly hides its beauty behind two faces. On one side, the city is surprisingly lively and modern, but simultaneously the city’s ancient history and old traditions are clearly visible in the city’s everyday life. This combination of modern and historic is what makes Istanbul the unique experience it is.
Istanbul, a City of Contrasts
The Bosphorus divides Istanbul into two sides, the European and the Asian. A clear divide between modern and classical Istanbul is harder to make – both sides exist simultaneously in every neighborhood and every corner of the magnificent city.
Istanbul can sometimes feel like a mixture of at least eight completely different cities, all rolled into one huge megalopolis. Istanbul is astonishing, irritating, loud, enchanting, diverse and full of potential for adventure. It is one of my favorite cities.
A day in Istanbul can be a vivid and diverse adventure. Shopping and a spot of lunch in the lively Beyoglu district, browsing the art galleries and stopping by trendy cafés in Karaköy, visiting the mosques and bazaars on the historic side, and ending the day partying at a sleek modern nightclub or experiencing a traditional ceremony with whirling dervishes in Galatasaray.
Speaking of which, the whirling dervish are part of a traditional muslim ceremony in which these men basically just twirl around for an hour and a half. The whole thing is based on the belief that dancing takes men closer to their god. I know I’ve often felt closest to divinity while dancing, so it must be true.
Istanbul is incredibly widespread and large in scope – highest estimates claim the metropolitan area has nearly 20 million inhabitants – and it’s simply impossible to even understand the city in just one day. Istanbul might take time to fall in love with, but eventually it will happen.
The European side of the city seems to have new trendy neighborhoods popping up every day. Beyoglu, Cihangir and Karaköy are all inviting and fun, full of nice cafés and restaurants, shops and bars, as well as museums and galleries. My absolute favorite is Istanbul’74, where I was lucky enough to catch an exhibition by one of my favorites, Robert Montgomery, in April 2015.
Istanbul’s main shopping street Istiklal Caddesi may not be the trendiest street in the city, but it is the unofficial living room of Istanbul. It’s always full of people, day and night.
The popular shopping street is basically an absurdly long pedestrian road, but from time to time an old-fashioned tram slides through, dividing the ocean of people. Both sides of the street are lined with shops, restaurants and bakeries with delicious local delicacies. Make sure you try the künefe, a sort of cheese-filled baklava dessert that is amazing.
Street Food in Istanbul
Food is definitely one of Istanbul’s biggest attractions. The city has its fair share of high-end restaurants, but to me Istanbul equals street food. Being caught between two continents gives Istanbul an edge – local cuisine mixes elements from European, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisine very delightfully. Baklava, lokum, kebab and börek… It seems like every street corner is a culinary haven. Even the mysterious sandwich I bought from the back of a dingy van on a dirty back alley was incredibly delicious!
Make sure to also visit Kadıköy, a lively neighborhood that will definitely become the new hotspot in the coming years. Taking a ferry across the Bosphorus is a spectacular experience, especially at night.
Istanbul never sleeps. Beyogly is rowdy and rambunctious seven nights a week.
Karaköy is perhaps my favorite neighborhood in Istanbul. Old industrial buildings and narrow alleys have been transformed into a colorful and lively area full of great cafés and restaurants with outdoor patios, quaint bakeries and small shops. The ruggedly beautiful neighborhood lies along the Bosphorus, with ferries departing from the edge of the neighborhood to other spots in the city.
Cross the Bosphorus and you will reach historic Istanbul, with grand mosques and loud bazaars, calls to prayer ringing in the air and street merchants selling everything from roasted nuts to cellphones. Just when you thought the other side of the city was hectic…
Hagia Sophia is beautiful inside and out.
Shopping at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar
The grand bazaar or Kapalıçarşı is a covered bazaar full of surprisingly polite merchants selling some great products. Haggle for wonderful hand-painted dishes or ornate lanterns, or visit the nearby spice market and grab some seasoning, baklava or lokum.
Istanbul’s true beauty is revealed at sunset.