On a typical Istanbul holiday, a visit to the Sultanahment Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Basilica Cistern, Galata Tower and a Bosphorus Cruise would come recommended on all websites and guide books and they are worth visiting and exploring. But, if you are looking at something more local and more authentic Istanbul, then you might want to read the below 11 top experiences of this Turkish city where the East meets the West. During my last trip to Turkey, I visited Istanbul many times and due to the local friends that I made there, I got to experience all these in person.
1) Wine, Dine and Shop on Istiklal Street
With more than one million visitors walking this street every single day, the Istiklal street is one of the world’s busiest streets and is Istanbul’s eating, drinking, party and shopping hub. It is packed every evening and more so on Friday and Saturday nights. If you want to experience local foods and drinks, this is the place. If you wish to buy Turkish fashion, Turkish hand made towels or musical instruments, this is your place. If you are the nightlife type, then this is your place too as it is packed with clubs, pubs, lounges and discotheques. Mavi Jeans is a great place to pick up Istanbul souvenirs.
2) Visit the Asian Side
On a holiday to Istanbul, most tourists only explore the European side of this city, but if you wish to see a different side of the city with lots of local character and more off-beat buildings and architecture, then the Asian side of Istanbul is the place you should explore. You could either catch a bus, ferry or take a taxi to reach here.
3) Indulge yourself in a Raki Sofrasi at Cicek Pasaji
The Raki Sofrasi is one of Turkey’s national past times. And Cicek Pasaji is one of Istanbul’s iconic wining and dining hub. It would be a no-brainer not to experience this classic Istanbul drinking session with friends at one of the city’s most beautiful setups complete with hookahs (shisha) and all.
4) Take a Local Ferry
A lot many Istanbul locals take the ferry to commute from the Asian to the European side every day. You would definitely take the trams to explore the sights on the European side. But, if you take a local ferry, you will get the opportunity to connect with locals or simply feed the sea gulls and enjoy a hot cup of Turkish cay while you see the city from the Marmara Sea.
5) Soak in the Galata Bridge Experience
The Galata Bridge is one of Istanbul’s iconic places and the sight of its fishermen has been portrayed in almost all travel books and magazines. It is a great experience to see how these fishermen go about their job while the rest of the city whizzes past them. And when you feel like getting some fish for yourself, head one floor below and enjoy a classic fish sandwich or other fish dishes on any of the many famous fish restaurants on the Galata Bridge.
6) Eat Local Food with a Turkish Family
Connecting with a local family, going to their house, talking to them, cooking with them and eating with them is an absolute surreal experience. It is nice if you have friends or if you are staying with locals. I had an absolute blast during my Istanbul gastronomic journey with locals. There was delicious food, great cultural exchanges, bazaar visits and much more.
7) Go High on Turkish Delights
Turkey has a sweet tooth and if you do too, you are bound to have a blast. From traditional Turkish delights to Baklava to Kunefe to Sutlac, you are bound to go absolutely high with all that sugar. But, this is one of Turkey’s and Istanbul’s authentic food connections.
8) Listen to street musicians at Beyoglu
If you like good traditional music, then you should head to Beyoglu in the evenings. Local bands, poor artisans and basically musicians from all over Turkey gather here to share their love for music with the rest of the world. Most of them play music unique to their home town and some of them are seriously good.
9) Treat yourself to the services of a Turkish Barber
If you have a beard, you are bound to enjoy the Turkish barber experience at Istanbul. They have some of the most skilled barbers who are adept at shaping crisp and sharp beards. Whatever be your design, they are bound to make it for you. And they don’t even make a dent in your wallet.
10) Enjoy Delicious Turkish Breakfast at Saray Muhallebicisi
Started in 1935, this restaurant on Istiklal street is a great place to relish a delicious Turkish breakfast with Turkish Kahve or Cay. Their croissants, sahlep and menemen are my absolute favorites. It is a great way to start your Istanbul day.
11) Become Sultans and Sultanas at the Basilica Cistern
This is a bit cheesy and not very local, but if you do end up visiting the Basilica Cistern, see if you wanna become a Sultan or a Sultana. You will be decked up in traditional clothes, given traditional accessories and photographed in a very local surrounding. It is expensive and kind of a bit tacky, but sometimes being tacky is a lot of fun on a holiday.