Backpacking in Istanbul
Istanbul is unlike any other city in Europe – or Asia for that matter. It combines influences from two cultures, juxtaposing east and west, Christianity and Islam.
But despite it straddles two continents, the city does not feel as disjointed as you might expect. After a few days here, it somehow sees to work together, adding up to a unique experience.
Staying in Istanbul
Cheap positions are easy to find and mostly good quality. Better still; Many Istanbul hostels are centrally located in the Sultanahmet district of the city.
We stayed at the Bahaus hostel on Bayramfirin Sokak. The rooms were nice and clean, and the staff were friendly. But where it really stood out from the crowd was in its café / bar roof terrace – the great panoramic view of the historical sights below had to be seen to be believed!
Things to see and do
The fascinating mix of religion is most visible in Sultanahmet, where Aya Sofya (the ancient Byzantine Church) and Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque) stand opposite each other. Both renovated monuments are appropriately grand and, as an insight into Istanbul's history, equally fascinating.
This is the main historical center, where several museums and the Topkapi Palace can also be found.
Overall, Istanbul's assorted museums can be a bit overwhelming unless you plan on staying for a week or so. I'd recommend the Miniaturk at Beyoglu for a good overview of Turkish culture.
It's a modern open-air museum with a large enough range of artifacts to satisfy even the keenest tourist. The open-air aspect adds an element of interest, too, and it's nice to be able to appreciate the weather as well as the exhibits on a warm day.
The world famous Kapali Carsi (covered bazaar) is also worth a visit. Although it can look confusing at first, the shops are arranged on a grid system and grouped according to type (eg jewelry, antiques etc.) so it's not as disorientating as it looks.
However, for serious shopping, I found the maze of back streets around the bustling Yeni Camii (New Mosque) were more likely to throw up a bargain. The range of what's sold here is truly astonishing – you really can buy anything.
While Sultanahmet is the historical center, Taksim Square is home to the city's modern (and mostly European) restaurants, hotels and shops. But it's not just tourists that frequent this area – it's a true hub of the contemporary metropolis that Istanbul is becoming and a window on its development.
Food and drink
Just behind the Yeni mosque in Eminonu, the Misir Carsisi (Spice Bazaar) is the place to buy traditional fare such as dried fruit, sweetmeats, teas and oils. With the affordable prices, it's easy to imagine living thoroughly off these tasty offerings during your stay …
However, the various tiny shops that line the twisty streets around the Rustempasha mosque are cheaper still.
I was also surprised – but pleased – to find that Turkish dishes are quite healthy in comparison to the kebab shops which have dominated their exported food culture, particularly in the UK.
Mayhenes are customary Turkish eateries and these taverna-like places typically serve mezes (starters) and fruits of the season along with a selection of beer and wine. They are also favorite spots for sipping raki, a local (and rather unpleasant, I thought) aniseed drink.
Along Cicek Pasaj in Beyoglu there's a good selection of reasonable mayhenes and, with so many clustered in a small area, the atmosphere often achieving loud and merry later in the evening.
Cafés serving cay (tea) and nargile (shisha pipe) are another Turkish tradition and lovely for taking a break from the crowds Just off Taksim Square, we found the tiny (and cheap) Aytekin Cay and Nargile Café was a perfect example.
The best budget meal we experienced in Istanbul, however, was at Karakoy – freshly-cooked fish sandwiches that cost less than a pound!
Where nightlife and drinking are concerned, Istanbul has recently undergone something of a revolution. I had been expecting quite a conservative scene in keeping with their Islamic values but the city has all the contemporary hallmarks of its European neighbors.
With numerous McDonalds and even a brand-new Harvey Nichols (at the Kanyon Center, Buyukdere Caddesi 185), Istanbul has a thriving – and continuously growing – collection of clubs and bars to match.
The music is as diverse as can be but, now that western-style venues have become the place to be seen in this 'cool' city, I could not help but wonder how much of the nightlife is about the tunes and how much is about the scene itself …
The rock bars around Taksim are some of the coolest, with cheap beer and student crowds discussing anything from bands and politics.
A late-opening café culture is also developing in Istanbul, particularly on Akarsu Caddesi in Cihangir, with live music and alcohol added to the coffee menu after dark.
The top place to party, though, is along the Boshphorus – during summer months, discos with beautiful views line the riverbanks until the early hours.
Istanbul is a big, crowded place with congested traffic and overflowing public transport adding to its buzz. It's also becoming a major world city, with skyscrapers overtaking buildings from history and a madly developing party scene.
Continued economic problems show its not quite there yet – but that just means there's still room to experience the old Istanbul and its culture.