Insiders Guide To Istanbul

There have been some lofty travel goals set in my wanderlust-filled life: An expedition to Antartica, Galapagos, seeing the Roman sights, taking a slow boat down the Mekong river... my list is endless. But visiting Istanbul is one that sits high up there. Lucky for me, I was able to check this one off with my husband and his family guiding us along. It’s Istanbul, after all, with its grand bazaar, over 3,000 mosques to explore, rugs to strategically schlep back home, baklava to devour, culture-filled neighborhoods, the requisite hammam you simply must try, and oh yeah and that big lol Bosphorus. It's a place with magic, bringing in both new and old world charm. Did I also mention that Istanbul sits on both Europe and Asia? Yep!  The best way to experience Istanbul is to allow for unscheduled wandering in between visits to historical sites and museums. Rise early enough to participate in the celebrated Turkish breakfast. 

Case in point: there’s a lot to squeeze in. 

Equal parts invigorating and dizzying. Istanbul has been the capital of three empires—Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman. And, five days is all we had in Istanbul; indeed, an undertaking, and not nearly enough time. Rest assured, your head will be spinning with Turkish delight once back on the plane, but undoubtedly, it’s worth every single moment. Get ready for another journey into the unknown, this time by way of Istanbul. 

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Good To Know's

While in Istanbul, and Turkey for that matter, I was here for Ramadan. It was a delight, and an incredible experience to witness. Turkey is a secular country, with Islam being the predominant religion. Women dress how they please, as modern as American women to full modesty in the Islamic faith. Dress as you please, but be respectful especially in places of worship. Turkish, though English-speaking assistance can often be found in tourist-heavy areas like Sultanahmet (the Old City), at museums, and in many shops, restaurants, and bars. 

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Keep it simple with old world charm and in the heart of Old Istanbul at or keep it homey with Airbnb. Feeling a little posh? Check into Soho House Istanbul tucked into the Beyoglu district. With 87 rooms, two rooftop pools overlooking the Bosphorus, and rooms that boast Turkish tiled floors and rainforest showers, it’s the perfect (and most stunning) place to rest your head.

Have the hotel arrange a tour for you to check out the Grand Bazaar with the ever lovely host, Aysem Erginoglu. She speaks fluent English, Turkish, and German and will prove to be your trusted tour guide as she whisks you from the ritual of rug shopping (apple tea & five dedicated employees), through the nooks and crannies of the very overwhelming bazaar. Pick up one up a rug from Dhoku at a fraction of the cost; they sell to ABC Home in NY as well as Anthropologie. Well, well, well…you little product sourcer, you.

Venture to the spice market where you’ll have sensory overload and then tuck into a cup of Turkish coffee at Kurukahveci Mehment Efendi, where you’ll be able to swing some home for your very lucky friends. With your buzzy energy boost, you’ll be well on your way to take in some legendary sites. You can’t come to Istanbul and not see Hagia Sophia, which will certainly be on your top five list. So rich in history (think doors apparently made of wood from Noah’s Ark), this architectural masterpiece is quite near to the Blue Mosque, so you can ensure you make it to both Istanbul standouts.

Have lunch at Kiyi, a beloved seafood restaurant that has maintained its menu since the 1960s because if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. A quick stop at world-renowned Gulluoglu for the best baklava you’ve ever tasted and then back to the hotel just in time for sundowners overlooking the Bosphorous. Take it easy and have dinner at Mandolin tucked into the hotel and offering mezze plates and local wines, or dine around the corner for a traditional kebab at Camim Cigerim where plates of meats, herbs, and flatbread are dolled out to your table like clockwork.

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Insiders Guide To Istanbul Travel Guide

Wake up and have breakfast at Namli Gurme, a colorful deli/restaurant where you can sample over 70 types of cheeses and endless kinds of honey. Perfect for some light pecking before heading to the absolutely necessary Hamam experience. You can go old school and classic (albeit touristy) at Cemberlitas Hamam, which is the city’s most famous, or be a non-traditionalist and go for a more Ottoman chic at Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam. The latter is housed in celebrated architect Mimar Sinan’s final structure from the 16th century.

Stroll to Peche de Malle to snag some hostess gift approved tea towels and beach blankets, and to neighboring Hic, where the cools kids are finding their tchotchkes for the home. You’ll be close to the antique district, so you may as well mosey through there for any last minute finds. You’ll be tuckered out, so have some Turkish tea back at the hotel, and rest up. Last night of dinner should likely be Karakoy Lokantasi, where you will need the concierge to help you get a table. Chic and brand spanking new, it’s the hot spot for good reason. The team at Soho House says to order the Midye Dolma (stuffed mussels with garlic sauce). Per usual, they are right.

* Side note: During the publishing of this post, I was married. Photos have been edited or replaced for the sake of privacy.

Valerie is a San Francisco native who loves overall health and wellness. She content creator and recipe developer, helping brands in the Fitness, Health & Wellness space tell their stories through gluten-free, mostly plant-based food, life + travel.