WHEN IN...ISTANBUL

Istanbul illustration.jpg

Going native: beware of the shoeshine shysters. Alev Scott shows how to make the most of the mosques and the mayhem

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2013

DO arrive on the Asian side of the city, at Sabiha Gokcen airport or Hydrapasa railway station, and wend your way to Europe by ferry. It makes for a dramatic introduction to Istanbul, sweeping past Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque while giving a first shot of the bustle of Bosphorus water traffic. 

DON’T stay in Sultanahmet. The sights may be great, but the nightlife is terrible; instead, join the arty crowd in the bars of Beyoglu for a mojito, before falling into bed at Homage Istanbul near Taksim—an old Italian townhouse, now beautifully renovated as serviced apartments—or the convenient and comfortable Gumusyan Hotel in Asmali Mescit.

DON’T confine your wanderings to the well-trodden paths in the old city centre, but visit Greek and Armenian areas like Balat and Fener. A traipse around hilly back streets can lead to a magnificent Orthodox church, dome-by-dome with an Ottoman mosque. This kind of architectural paradox is what makes Istanbul unique and is best appreciated away from the madding hordes. 

DO take a map: off the tourist track, the locals don’t speak English. 

DO dip your spoon into Turkish cuisine (and this does not mean the ubiquitous doner kebab). Try some delicious street food: midye dolma (stuffed mussels) or gozleme (rustic crepes) and, at the other end of the scale, Ottoman haute cuisine like the duck-breast kebab with almond houmous foam at Karakol in the Topkapi gardens (meal for two, £60).  

DON’T be afraid to haggle in the bazaars, but bear in mind that times are changing: some shops sell quality goods with non-negotiable price tags. Try your luck, but don’t push it. 

DO take in as much of the Bosphorus as possible, by ferry if you can. Cheaper than the tourist-trap boat tours, the ferries stop regularly, giving the chance to get off and explore. Eat fish in Arnavutkoy or Karakoy on the waterfront, washed down with raki.

DO pick and choose your mosques: the smaller ones are often less crowded, allowing you the peace to appreciate them. The Rustem Pasa, famed for its Iznik tiles, is small and slightly tucked away but as impressive in its way as the titanic Blue Mosque.

DO go to a football match and immerse yourself in the hot passion of Turkish rivalry. Almost any match will be filled with melodrama, on the pitch and off. Inonu Stadium is home to Besiktas, a club known for its ferociously proud fans. Not for the faint-hearted: make sure you sit in the right part of the ground.

DON’T get taken in by the shoe shiner trick. This old chestnut involves the shiner "accidentally" dropping his brush, waiting for you to pick it up and then insisting on shining your shoes in return. If you let him, he will demand 20 liras upon completion.

DON’T be shy about talking to locals. Thanks to mass urban migration, you’ll find yourself chatting to people from the Black Sea, the Syrian border, the southern coastline...Every Istanbullu has a personal odyssey to recite.

Alev Scott is an Istanbul-based writer. She teaches Latin at Bosphorus University

Illustration Neil Gower