How do you house, feed and clothe 16 million people? High density living, shops lining the streets and great food stalls on every corner. That’s how. Istanbul is a dynamic cultural hub that brings together east and west. The city, really more of a megalopolis, is divided by the Bosphorus, a channel that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. The Bosphorus is an integral piece of the dynamics of this lively city. On the east side of the Bosphorus you are on the continent of Asia, and on the west, you are on the continent of Europe.
We stayed on the Asian side of Istanbul initially because of lodging opportunities and ultimately because we preferred to be away from the touristy chaos that is found on the European side of the Bosphorus. Most of the tourist attractions are found on the west side which is divided by another water way, the Golden Horn which runs perpendicular to the Bosphorus.
On the south of the Golden Horn there is the area known as the Old City which is part of the Fatih district. Here is where you find the famous Blue Mosque, the Sofia Mosque and several other significant Mosques, palaces, markets and the Grand Bazaar. These are just a few of the attractions, there are many more – too many to list. The Mosques were grand, beautiful, awe-inspiring, old and crowded with tourists from around the world. We happened to be hanging out between the Blue and Sofia Mosque when the call to prayer began- check out this video for a small sampling and 360 degree view.
Along with the tourists, comes the scam artists trying to get you into their carpet shop or an old artifacts bazaar or polish your shoes for exorbitant prices. Tea in this area of Istanbul costs three to five times as much as it does on the Asia side!
We love a good market packed with colorful displays of regional goods – everything from fabrics to spices to foods. We were a little disappointed with the Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is located within the covered rebuilt (it was originally wood which burned in the 1700s and was rebuilt then) stone structure and it is definitely grand in the large sense of the word. The Bazaar covers 61 blocks and has over 3000 shops. It was more of a shopping mall with modern signage for the shops and less of a market. We found it to be very kitschy with lots of over-priced souvenirs for tourists. The sellers are hard pushers of their goods- working diligently to get you into their shop. “The best rugs are here”. They start off by trying to be your best friend “Where are you from?” and always end with “come to my shop, best prices”. We were warned by our friends in Kirklareli, to not purchase goods in the Grand Bazaar. To go back to the Asia side and make your purchases there- great advice!
One of our favorite days in Istanbul was spent as students in a cooking school – which you can read about here. The Istanbul Cooking School was located on the north side of the Golden Horn (on the European side) in a district referred to as Beyoğlu. This area is considered to be the economic center as well as the happening night life area for tourists. The shop, bar, hotel and restaurant lined Istiklal Avenue stretches from the Ferry terminal up the hill to Takism square. This is the acclaimed party spot of Istanbul – at least that is what the tour books and websites claim. We took the Fernicular (underground metro) up to Takism square and slowly strolled down Istiklal Avenue. We found that the small streets coming off Istiklal were much more interesting than the avenue itself. The avenue is lined with modern, expensive brand named stores – we knew we were in a touristy area when the first store we saw was Starbucks and the second McDonalds. The side streets are packed with spice and fish markets and old interesting restaurants, just a bit off the beaten path.
Not being big partiers, we skipped the nightlife on Istiklal, preferring to spend our evenings on the much quitter and less touristy Asian side of the Bosphorus (not a Starbucks in sight).
Besides sampling the yummy restaurants in “our” neighborhood (Uskudar), our favorite pastime was strolling down the sea wall towards Kadakoy and stopping at one of the tea kiosks. There we would sit on the steps of the sea wall on comfy cushions, sipping tea and watching the world go by. Sitting in the sunshine, watching locals play backgammon, lovers exchange glances and the occasional kiss, children playing with kittens and fishermen catching fish for the day. Watching the boats from small fishing vessels to huge cruise liners and freight ships navigate one of the busiest waterways in the world was highly entertaining. Quietly reflecting on our journey and simply enjoying each other’s company is and will always be priceless.
We love Istanbul and could easily spend much more time here. We recommend anyone who visits Istanbul to stay on the Asian side. Everything is cheaper, there are very few tourists and it is inexpensive (2.50 TL or about 1 USD) and easy to get across the Bosphorus to experience the tourist attractions. If you do find yourself lodged on the west, be sure to hop on a ferry and experience the Asian side of the city. Watching the sunset over the old city is magical. Not to be missed.