10 Great Reasons to Fall in Love with Istanbul
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Istanbul is a fabulous city for wandering on foot, with most of its best-known sites within easy walking distance of one another. A stroll across the Galata Bridge reveals a flurry of activity—dozens upon dozens of fish restaurants on the lower deck, and a throng of pedestrians, cars, trams, fishermen (yes, they’re all men) and tourists on the upper. Istanbul is also a great place to take to the water, whether for 20 minutes or for the day, its bustling waterways navigated by dozens of boats and ferries each hour.
In terms of getting to Turkey, fly Turkish Airlines (a Star Alliance member with United) if you can. Not only do they feed you, they actually bring a chef on board, and you can taste the results. When in your life have you had really good airline food? (United, from sheer disorganization, canceled our 7pm flight from Newark at 11pm, kept us in the airport until 2am for rebooking, then held our baggage hostage until 6 the next morning. We were thrilled to make the change to Turkish Air, even though it meant racing over to JFK.) Turkish Air has recently initiated new direct flights to Istanbul from a few US airports, making the voyage that much easier for us Americans.
4. Street culture and cafe society—and the painter who speaks 21 languages.
In the New District, narrow, winding streets climb steep hillsides lined with 19th-century buildings and linked by even narrower alleys. Beyoglu, or the Pera, as the area is commonly known, was traditionally home to Westerners and the usual blend of artists and intellectuals. The New District’s hippest neighborhoods—Cihangir, Tophane, Galatasary, and Karakoy—are filled with shops, clubs, restaurants, and cafes, many just a couple of tables and chairs in an alleyway or spare open space.
Turks love to eat, drink and talk outside in the warm weather. Cafe patrons sip Turkish coffee—a thick, rich brew in which the grounds sink to the bottom, with a result that looks like grainy mud—and the ubiquitous, strongly brewed Turkish tea, drunk in small, clear glasses that are very hot to the touch.
Istanbul street culture is about the character of the neighborhoods, the authenticity of the vibes and the incredible mix of the new and old, the crumbling and the elegant. Much of the New City is a maze of nooks and crannies, with “collectable” stores adjacent to chic boutiques and run-down upholstery shops beside elegant townhouses. Wandering the labyrinths and climbing the hills becomes a magical mystery tour of rounding the next corner to discover yet another fascinating spot.
Food, culture, conversation, and attitude are readily available. A tiny restaurant/music club posts a sign that reads, "Don't Think Twice. Come in. Trust the Chef." (We were glad we did.) A nearby vintage store offers "Objects of desire for the slightly deranged collectioner seeking identifiable memories."
The Old City is no slouch in terms of outdoor culture, either, although its focus is more exclusively and intently on the tourist trade. Hundreds of handsome, clever English-speaking men—again, always men—work incessantly to bring you under their spell, or at least into their restaurant or shop. The give-and-take can be fun, even when you refuse their pleas. It’s all part of what seems to be a never-ending conversation. (Turkish men are talkers.)
And speaking of talking, in the Old City we found the painter who speaks 21 languages, by his own account. Ilhamy Atalay, [vi] an artist and unique character, owns a marvelous gallery/museum/personal theater in a battered ancient setting along a cobblestone street near Hagia Sofia. Atalay's wife, sons and daughter all have a hand in the prolific spread of colorful, unique, sometimes tongue-in-cheek art on display. Atalay says he needs to communicate with all his visitors, and clearly he loves to. As we looked on he effortlessly shifted from Turkish to English to Spanish to Finnish ... so those 21 languages may not be an exaggeration.