AN INSIDER’S TOUR OF ISTANBUL—my top 20

After living and teaching five years in Istanbul and publishing a guidebook with Edda Weissenbacher, Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter ~ Back Street Walking Tours, I’m often asked for advice on what to see in Istanbul. Here are my suggestions, in some semblance of preferential order. I assume you’ll have a tour book to help you find these places.

1.     The Blue Mosque, one of the centerpieces of  Sultanahmet. Be prepared…it’s not blue on the outside, but the blue ceramic tiles on the interior are exquisite. It won’t take long to see, and be sure to avoid carpet dealer touts who swarm the place looking for smiling tourists.    
                                 
2.     The Haghia Sophia, in Sultanahmet. This is one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and I recommend you hire a private guide. You won’t regret it.

3.    The Basilica Cistern , near the Haghia Sophia. Many people miss this stunning underground “lake” that once supplied water for the sultan’s palace. It’s a short stop, but an unforgettable one. Cross the tram line from the Haghia Sophia and to the right of the tall brick tower is a smaller brick building, the entrance to the cistern.

4.     The Grand Bazaar —The largest covered bazaar in the world will astound you. There’s a map of it inside the cover of our guide because it’s easy to get lost in the marvelous maze of shops. Wander around the edges of the bazaar, keeping to your right, and you’ll stumble on the open courtyards of hans that once surrounded the ancient bazaar.

5.    The back streets—Take one of the streets off the bazaar (it has 16 gates), and if you get turned around, just ask for directions back to the Grand Bazaar. People are helpful. If you have my book,  Istanbul's Bazaar Quarter,  you’ll have maps, but it’s fun to just wander, making sure you look up at the tops of the ancient buildings. Stop for a döner sandwich in one of the little open street cafes.

6. Carpet shops—Most carpet dealers are happy to give you a little carpet show to educate you about their wares. You don’t need to feel obligated to buy, even if they ply you with tea. The two I most love (and trust) are Harem 49 and Adnan & Hasan . Harem 49 is in the Arasta Bazaar just down below the Blue Mosque (to your left as you face the mosque from the fountain garden). Hüseyin owns these shops, and if you tell him Ann Marie sent you, you’ll get special treatment. Adnan & Hasan’s shop is located in the Grand Bazaar on Halıcılar Caddesi, and they cater to English speaking tourists and ex-pats. They have a stunning collection of carpets and reasonable prices.

7.     Eminönü ferry to Kadiköy and back—The public ferries are one of Istanbul’s great treasures. You can take a ferry anywhere, but the half-hour trek across the Bosphorus to the Asian side is a typical commuter ride. It costs just a few lira each way, and you can wander to the right at the ferry pier past the gypsy flower market to some sweet restaurants (as well as a Starbuck’s)

8.    Topkapı Palace —This is another must if you have time, also best experienced with a private guide. Be sure to take the extra tour of the Harem, the most luxurious section of the palace.

9.     The Spice Bazaar —This is a smaller yet bustling bazaar down by the Golden Horn and Eminönü. Don’t spend your money inside, as you’ll find similar merchandise in the surrounding streets more cheaply. Explore the outdoor garden and pet bazaar on the side facing the New Mosque.

10.     Eyüp —Though it takes some time to get there, this traditional religious community at the end of the Golden Horn will transport you back a century. Be sure to wander the religious bazaar, through the maze of streets, and walk or take the cable car up to the top of the hill to Pierre Loti’s Cafe.                                                                                    
11.     Taksim and Istiklal —Across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet, this area has a European flavor. Istiklal is a long pedestrian boulevard (3 K) running down from Taksim Square, and along it you’ll see endless shops, Christian churches, consulates, restaurants, and night clubs. You might prefer to go at night, but hang on to your wallet in any event.

12.    Suleymaniye Mosque —this stunning mosque, the largest in Istanbul, was built by the famous architect Sinan. Not only is it beautiful, but it offers fascinating history and a panoramic view of the city.

13. Çemberlitaş Hamam  or Süleymaniye Hamam —You really should try a hamam. The Çemberlitaş is not co-ed, while the Süleymaniye is. If you have time, my favorite hamam is number 17 below, Termal at Yalova.

14. The Taş Han—The first site in our guide, the Taş Han is a beautifully renovated han, an ancient inn for artisans and merchants, though now it’s mostly shops and restaurants. The Arkat Night Club is located in its cistern, where you can indulge in an evening of dinner and a music and belly dancing performance.       
                                                                       
15.     The Kybele Hotel in Sultanahmet is a gem. Even if you don’t stay there, they welcome people to tour the hotel, known for its thousands of colorful handmade lanterns hanging from the ceilings. Upstairs from the lobby is a realistically appointed Ottoman Reading room. Ask for Mike’s treasure trove up there, too, if you’re up for a unique adventure.

16.     Ortaköy and The Bosphorus —Ortaköy is a charming city on the Bosphorus, with a sparkling baroque mosque and a weekend craft and jewelry street bazaar. From May through October you can catch an inexpensive Bosphorus Tour (one hour) from the pier behind the mosque. Along your tour you’ll turn around at the formidable Rumeli Castle, the site of the Ottoman’s conquest of Constantinople in the 1500’s.

17.     Termal at Yalova —This is one of Turkey’s best-kept secrets. Located on a small mountain above Yalova (accessible by ferry from Istanbul), Termal has both segregated and co-ed hamams as well as a huge thermal-heated outdoor pool. If you can manage it, spend a night at the Çamlık Hotel, which includes admission to the hamams and the pool.

18.     The Şakirin Mosque —Located in Üsküdar (on the Asian side of the Bosphorus), this spectacularly modern mosque is the first in the country (the world?) to be designed by a woman. It’s well worth the trip.

19.     Dolmabahçe Palace —This Bosphorus palace was designed to rival Versailles and helped break the bank for the Ottoman Empire. It’s stunning, but I wouldn’t set a priority at seeing it unless you want to see some spectacular chandeliers and Ataturk’s death bed.

20. The Prince’s Islands —If you have the time, a ferry trip out to the Prince’s Islands is a lovely way to spend a sunny day. These islands are located in the Marmara off the Asian side of Istanbul, and they don’t allow any car traffic, so you get around in horse carts. The Prince’s Islands are famous for their wonderful fish restaurants, but get the price BEFORE you order. Some raise prices for tourists.