scarvesIstanbul is one of the most richly layered, fascinating cities in the world.

Uniquely, it is both European and Asian, a mecca for fellow travelers from the Middle East, Russia, China and Japan, from Europe and the west. This great city, now a metropolis of fifteen million people, is endlessly exotic and engaging, AND, it all ‘works’ in organized, easy to understand ways.  

Why visit Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey? In this article we’ll focus on Istanbul, in a another  article we’ll talk about other splendid destinations like the fairytale landscapes of Cappadocia, the evocative silk-route era cities and villages of the ancient southeast, the splendid archaeological sites lining the blue Aegean coast, and, the lovely Mediterranean coast with hip resorts like Bodrum or Antalya.

It is remarkable but true. Everyone I’ve met or talked with who has visited Turkey in recent years has had an excellent, often surprisingly fine experience.  What ever it is that you love.. layers of history, gorgeous architecture, evocative churches full of mosaics and light-filled domed mosques, astonishing shopping, delicious regional cuisine, art, active holidays or lounging on an intimate ‘gulet’ sailing the Mediterranean coast, islands, beaches, Turkey has it all, and more.  

Turkey abounds in possibilities for image-making and is a paradise for photographers.  Indeed from that ‘lens’ I am leading a one- time Turkish Photography Expedition in October 2013 with a friend and colleague who is a noted National Geographic photographer. His partner, a photojournalist who has photographed in turkey on Fulbright fellowships, will also join us to inspire and encourage folks who love photography. Istanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey, is an endless feast for photographers.

suleymaniye sunset shot

For starters, Turkish culture is enormously hospitable.  Turks have been welcoming travelers for centuries. Women will have no issues traveling alone or in small groups in Istanbul, remembering that this is a big city and city smarts are useful. Indeed you will shop alongside stylish women wearing headscarves, or no scarves, miniskirts or even traditional village dress. Note. It is however important for non-Muslim women visiting Mosques to tuck a scarf in your purse to cover your head when visiting Mosques.  And, men and women need to be ready to leave shoes outside mosques or safely stored in plastic bags and placed on racks in the back of a mosque.

Paris has the Seine, Istanbul has the Bosphorus. The evocative Bosphorus strait divides Europe and Asia and connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea.  Always full of ferries, ships, tankers, even with small fishing boats, a ferry ride or other cruise on the Bosphorus is quintessential Istanbul.  Talk about photo ops.  Don’t miss a chance to take a ferry across the Bosphorus!  Sturdy white and green public ferry boats ply the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia leaving from various points on either shore.  

Visitors generally catch the ferry from Eminoniu in the Old City to Kadikoy or Uskudar on the Asian side. You can also catch ferries from Karakoy and Kabatas on the European side. For about $1.50 you have a gorgeous ride across the Bosphorus enjoying the enchanting skylines of the Old City, and Beyoglu. Buy a glass of good, strong Turkish tea from a vendor and sit watching the scene unfold. Fabulous at sunset.

Where to stay? Istanbul is growing exponentially.  The population now tops 15 million. Unless you are in Istanbul for business, find a comfortable hotel in the Old City or in ‘European’ Beyoglu. These neighborhoods are packed with fabulous archaeological and historic sites, remarkable shopping, loads of clubs and restaurants of all kinds… ultra gourmet to humble kebab stands.

Must-see historic and cultural sites.  A short list has to include the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Topkapi Palace, the Islamic Arts Museum on the Hippodrome, the stunning Byzantine Chora Church, the Grand and Spice Bazaars.  Add in the magnificently renovated Suleymaniye Mosque and the intimate, be-tiled Rustem Pasha mosque in the Spice Market quarter.  And the newer Blue Mosque too.  And that is just for starters.

Getting around is easy. Istanbul has a modern tram line that runs through the Old City and across the Galata Bridge, then through Karakoy and out along the Bosphorus on the European side. There is a modern metro serving the newer parts of the residential and business city but chances are visitors won’t use it.

There are zillions of taxis and public buses too.  Metros, ferries and the tram cost 1.50 Turkish Lira or about one US dollar. If you will be in the city for several days, consider purchasing an Istanbulkart, pre-loaded with lira for the trams, ferries, buses and metro.

Buying and bargaining. In most shops outside the bazaars you do not bargain but you can always ask for a cash discount.  In bazaars, ask if the price is ‘fixed’, if not try to get to approximately 40% of the original asking price. Never look overly interested! Prices are generally easier to reduce if you are paying cash, but Visa and Mastercard are widely accepted. 

Steam and soak

 Treat yourself to a steaming Turkish ‘bath’. Visit a traditional hamam. Your skin will thank you for it! In the Old City, Cemberlitas and Cagaloglu are two beautifully tiled historic Ottoman-era hamams accustomed to and priced for visitors. Both are in the Old City near the Grand Bazaar.  You want to have a steam, a bath and scrub (gommage) at least, add a massage if you have time.  Separate men’s and women’s sections. Wear a bathing suit if you must or wrap yourself in a hamam towel and enjoy the experience.

Shopping. Turkey is fabulous for shopping at all price points. High quality textiles, organic cottons, fashion, top quality blue jeans (Mavi is a hip Turkish brand), jewelry, leather-goods, silver, gold, magnificent silk scarves, rugs and kilims, housewares, food gifts, hand painted ceramics, tiles and on and on.

Private Guides. Turkish Journeys can pair you with a guide to shop for your best all over Istanbul for fashion art, food or home décor. Interested in a private guide? Rates begin at 200 Euros per day.  If you are making major purchases like rugs or fine leathergoods, or Turkish designer fashion, a guide can be well worth your investment to assure quality and help get the best price.

Top Picks for shopping.  Go at least once to the Grand Bazaar in the Old City. Hundreds of years old, it is the world’s original shopping mall!  Over 4000 shops. Yes, there is a lot of touristy product, but also loads of irresistible high-quality textiles, scarves, items for the home and bath, jewelry, leather, rugs, and much more.

  Dhoku has lovely antique kilims that have been re-purposed into gorgeous rugs with very fair prices.  Cashmere House has marvelous ‘affordable’ silk and cotton scarves and also a line of jaw-dropping fine silks, the best pashmina and antelope hair scarves. Go inside the shop to see the best and talk with the hospitable owner. Amazing things!

If the Grand Bazaar seems to be a bit too overwhelming, consider the Arasta Bazaar. The Arasta Bazaar is behind the Blue Mosque and is much smaller than the Grand Bazaar. Arasta is packed with top-quality shops and offers a far more manageable experience. Check out Djem for glorious handbags made with antique kilims and Jennifer’s Hamam for organic cottons, towels, tablecloths and more all made with traditional methods and organic cottons.

The Spice Market. The area around the enclosed, covered spice market (alongside the Golden Horn) is a jumble of food shops, housewares shops, and of course spice shops.  Look for ultra fresh dried fruits and nuts, for pomegranate molasses, honeys, herbal and black teas, and of course, redolent spices. I always buy the dark smoky, chocolate-y Urfa pepper.  It is hard to find out of Turkey and is uniquely delicious.

 Nisantasi is an upper income neighborhood beyond Taksim Square. The Tesvikiye neighborhood of Nistantasi is the shopping hub for superb Turkish designers like Gonul Paksoy and myriad appealing small shops. Take a taxi or a dolmus-minibus for 2.5 lira from Taksim Square. The area around the Tesvikye Mosque is packed with appealing shops and cafes.

For fashion, visit the boutique of noted Turkish designer Gonul Paksoy, Atiye Sokak #6.   Ms. Paksoy trained as a chemist and specializes in hand dyed silks and cottons of extraordinary color and beauty. Each piece is unique and while informed by traditional design is utterly modern. Clothing, shoes and jewelry are available. The shop does not have a website.  Near Gonul Paksoy is the shop called Yastik which sells gorgeous kilims and is particularly known for its high end kilim and contemporary designs in pillow covers designed by Rifat Ozbek.

Beyoglu is the name for ‘European’ Istanbul. The ever-energized main street, Istiklal Caddessi, is a pedestrianized boulevard running from Taksim Square down to the Tunel neighborhood.  Packed with shops, patisseries, restaurants, cafes, clubs, Istiklal is a great street to browse along with its numerous side streets.

Bringing it all back home. Istanbul is a shoppers paradise. Five great choices for inexpensive gifts to bring home might include spices from the Spice Bazaar (particularly the fabulous Urfa and Maras dried pepper), or some Turkish honey or pomegranate molasses. A box of Turkish Delight with pistachios or in flavors like rose or hazelnut would be lovely. Easy to pack scarves are everywhere from cheap and cheerful cottons to the most luxurious silks and finest pashmina.  Organic cotton towels or colorful hamam towels are fun and useful. Or, maybe a set of those cute tulip-shaped tea glasses for tea lovers and a bag of Turkish tea.

Best Baklava.  Finally, a sweet treat that cannot be beat!  Famed pastry maker Gulluoglu is the mother ship of all things Baklava.  Located in Karakoy on the European side on Rhythm Caddessi (you can’t miss it, it is on the street level of a large multi-coloured parking garage!). Gulluoglu is one of the very best baklava makers in Turkey. They bring their top quality pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts and more from the Turkish southeast and make these magnificent treats in Istanbul for an adoring public.  There are over 25 varieties of baklava at Gulluoglu (including a to-die-for chocolate version) and this baklava is not too sweet. It is all about the quality of the nuts and the flaky, buttery yufka pastry with just a little syrup.  Choose two or three varieties, get a glass of tea or Turkish coffee and ascend straight to culinary heaven.

Sally Peabody specializes in Turkey, France, Andalucia and the Pays Basque. Avid amateur photographers will not want to miss her one-time Turkish Photography Expedition in October co-led by Steve Winter, an international award winning National Geographic photographer, and Sharon Guynup, an award winning photojournalist, who knows Turkey inside-out.  Sally advises savvy independent travelers on crafting memorable trips on and off the beaten path, and, leads intimately scaled culinary/cultural tours several times a year. Her clients include women traveling alone, mothers and daughters, families, couples and friends sharing travel adventures. or  Email Sally at