Istanbul Off the Beaten Path

- 26
Required Disclaimer: This post may contain products with affiliate links. If you make purchases using these links, we receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Thank you for your support.

Getting beyond Sultanhamet

Bosphorus Cruise Bridge

Let’s start by getting my bias out in the open . . . I loved Istanbul. So much so I would buy the I Istanbul T-shirt! It has it all. Water. History. Culture. Iconic buildings. Great Food! It’s safe (seriously for a city this size, it feels very safe). Easy to get around using public transport (see the Istanbul Kart below). Friendly people.

And did I mention the Tulips! While it is bustling, people are courteous, friendly and overall the place has a very relaxed vibe. Turkish people are very social and are always happy for a chat, usually over a tea or coffee (and a cigarette). It might be my new favorite city.

However there is much more to explore than just the museums, palaces and mosques in Sultanhamet, and you will get a better appreciation of Istanbul if you get off this well worn tourist path and head further afield.


This is your key to public transport and getting anywhere quickly. Look for IstanbulKart signs on small kiosks around the city. You can recharge (Akbil) at one of these kiosks or a machine at any of the stations (and yes you can get the machine to speak English).

The card costs 7 TL (April 2015) and you can load as much credit as you want on the card. One card can be used by two people. You just scan the card as you go through the turnstile, then pass it back to the next person to do the same. It will tell you how much you have left on the card each time so you know when to recharge.

The card is good for the ferry, tram, Metro or any other form of public transport. If you have used the Octopus card in Hong Kong or the Oyster Card in London, this is the Istanbul version. You can forget about trying to work out fares or how much it costs to get from point A to B. For two of us, for a week, we spent about 30 TL (but we walk a lot as well).

Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi

Istiklal Cadessi is an unbelievable mass of humanity. Great

Istikial Caddesi, Istanbul

Baklava shops (try the Mado shop). Local eateries. And car free.

Zubeyir Ocakbasi, it will be mentioned in the shish kebap recipe post is off Istiklal Caddesi.

Istiklal Caddesi starts at Taksim Square, a large open square with a large Metro station. If you see large protests or gatherings in Istanbul on TV, this is usually where they are. Generally it is a large, open space with a few street vendors selling simits (Turkish sesame bagels) and roasted chestnuts. It runs for about a mile or so and ends near the Galata Tower. If you take the Tunel up from Karikoy it stops on Istiklal Caddesi. If you take the Tunel up from Kabatas it ends at Taksim Square.


Like Karakoy but on the Asian side of Turkey. It’s easy to get to, just hop the ferry from Eminou, KaraKoy or Kabatas. It’s a quick ferry ride, use your IstanbulKart for the fare (when we went it was 4TL one way per person) and you can get some great photos of Sultanhamet and Galata Tower from the boat.

When you get there- very close from the ferry- just cross the busy street toward the Southwest (follow most of the other passengers the bulk of them head that way) you will find a vibrant area full of cafes, restaurants, coffee shops and a great little market.

Some highlights:

The Local Market in Kadikoy

This market is an excellent example of an urban neighborhood market (pazar or pazari) featuring a range of FRESH fish, delicatessens, and green grocers. Anything you want or need for cooking, including fresh, beautiful local ingredients:

  • The village goat cheese – in the goat skin. We were lucky enough to see one just being opened and the vendor cutting away the “sealed” goat skin to reveal the cheese!
  • Sucuk- made at the butcher
  • Any kind of olive or olive oil you might want
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables that would make any meal really special
  • Exotic cuts- including all the offal- lamb’s head, lamb’s feet, beef tongue and the usual liver.


There is a huge selection of every sort- balik (fish) restaurants, meyhanes, kebap shops- the assortments goes on for blocks.

Our choice of restaurant for lunch is highly recommended: Ciya Sofrasi on Guneslibahce Sokak No. 32A . This is both a kebap shop and a lokanta (cafeteria type shop with meals fixed daily so the menu always changes). They had an English menu which made ordering easier for us non-turkish speakers.

We got to try a few things here we had heard about and wanted to try including:

  • Sherbet– this is a drink (in imperial times these were stored in fancy urns which we saw on display in Topkapi Palace in the Imperial Confectionery Kitchen). We were able to try two flavors- Green (which was lovely, a hint of mint and maybe cucumber, it was really refreshing) and Sumac (tangy, minor hint of spice, strawberry-color). The flavors vary daily/weekly.
  • Olive salad
  • Yogurt Soup– Ayran (salty yogurt drink), burglar wheat, a hint of mint and few other things. I was expecting this to be a cold soup but it was warm and quite hearty.
  • Mumbar Dolmasi– or stuffed intestine casing- which is really just the same thing good sausages are made with (if you go to a real butcher this is what sausages were traditionally made with andKadikoy Etabal Honey www.compassandfork.comstill are today) stuffed with lamb, bulgur wheat and spices.
  • Stuffed swiss chard– a healthy option stuffed with meat, bulgur wheat and spice. Served with garlic yogurt.

This entire meal was outstanding. Nothing special in terms of Turkish food, these are all traditional items, but it was well executed and good value as well. Our entire meal was $24 USD.

And dessert was not too far away, walking down Guneslibahce Sokak (toward the harbor), you arrive at Etabal Honey (28/A). The shop has a very friendly shop keeper and the honey is so inviting – it just glows! The honey is from Danca in the Kackar Mountains of Turkey. For only $2USD you could buy a cup of fresh yogurt covered in honey!

Coffee (Kahve)

Here you can see coffee being made over open coals, the traditional way. To learn more about Turkish coffee and the rich history of coffee in Turkey, read our longer post about Turkish coffee and tea.



This is where we stayed during our time in Istanbul. It is known as the artist area. Full of little shops, great restaurants and some great coffee shops.

Why we liked it:

  • We are coffee snobs, but the coffee here was good enough to keep us happy and there was enough variety for us to try a different shop every day. More on coffee in Turkey can be found in our much longer post on Turkish Coffee
  • It was close enough to walk to Sultanhamet and all the major tourist attractions. You walk down the hill past the Galata Tower, over the Galata Bridge, (which offers some amazing views of the Sultanhamet area) and end up right at the Spice Bazaar. Alternatively there is easy access to public transport if you prefer.
  • You are also walking distance to Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi.
  • There are a lot of options for night life and opportunities to see live music.
  • It was also far away from the tourist attractions you could have a break and see how people live in Istanbul.

Some Local Eateries worth trying:

Miss Pizza

Great little pizza parlor serving delicious wood-fired pizzas. Traditional Italian style with the thin crust. Best pizza we have had in a while.


Selvi is a local lokanta, cheap meals with a wide variety, on Sıraselviler Caddesi. No:6, not far from Taksim Square. (Look for the Ottoman Palace Hotel). There is also a great looking baklava shop on this corner as well.


This was the best coffee we had and the best breakfast. It is a funky little place. It has an English menu. Highly recommended. Our two breakfasts took up the entire table!! You won’t leave here hungry.


This is a nice place for a bottle of wine and a meal. Finding a place in Turkey with a wine selection is a bit difficult as there is not much of a wine culture. There tends to be a choice of red, white or rose by the glass, and a couple of bottles from the big wineries. Mellow was the exception. They have a wine menu and you can select from a number of different wines by the bottle or glass. We had a light snack here with the bottle of wine and the food was excellent. The table next to us had lamb shanks and they looked and smelled great.

Also if it is chilly out, the table has a heater in the middle support, which was very nice in the evening.

Bosphorus Cruise- Hop-on-Hop Off version

Dolmabahce Palace

This was a bargain! 15 TL per person. It leaves from the Kabatas dock – first departure 12:45pm. The Kabatas Dock is near the Dolmabahce Palace. So you can go through the palace in the morning then hop the cruise. Any of the stops offer good restaurants for lunch.

This boat cruise led to one of our great finds: we visited Istanbul in April (which is a great time- the weather is good, not hot, not too crowded and the Tulip Festival is on)! Earlier in the week we had stumbled upon Gulhane Park when we left Topkapi Palace. We were in awe of the tulips, but that was before we found Emirgan Korusu which is at the Emirgan stop on the boat cruise. I thought the Netherlands was good with the tulips in the spring time, well I think Istanbul gives it a run for its money. More on the tulips can be found in the longer post on the best time to visit Istanbul just to show off the pictures!

Emirgan Korusu

Along the way on the cruise you will pass a number of large mansions, palaces, the Rumelian Fortress, and travel under the large bridges crossing the Bosphorus connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Many of the mansions are summer houses for Istanbul’s wealthy.

We also jumped off the boat at the last stop, Beylerbeyi. There is another smaller palace here which you can go through but it closes at 5pm so you need to make your way there without too many stops if you want to tour it. For us, this was our late lunch stop. We ate sitting next to the Bosphorus River and enjoyed the late afternoon scenery. We then caught the last boat back which departed at 7:10 pm which worked out nicely for the evening sun in pictures.

The Whirling Dervishes

Turkish Whilring Dervishes

The Whirling Dervishes,or the Mevlevi order, originated in Konya, Turkey in the 13th Century A.D. The founder of the order is Jelaleddin Rumi (1207-1273), the poet and Sufi master, he was called Mevlana (our leader) by his disciples. As part of te ufi religion followers seek a close relationship with God, and this is achieved through chants, prayers, music and a whirling dance.

As everything in Turkey and this blog can be related to food, it is interesting to note that for the Follower in the Order of the Dervishes, each novice spends 1001 days of service. When the novice has completed this initial period of service, he is fully “cooked” having reached spiritual maturity and is then able to become a full member of the Brotherhood.

Near the Galata Tower, there is the first and only Whirling Dervish Hall in Istanbul, the Galata Mevlevihanesi, or Galata Lodge. It is not far from the Tunel at the end of Istiklal Caddesi. They perform in other locations around the city, we saw them in the event hall of the Sirkeci train station.

The performance is rhythmic, mesmerizing, and dizzying! They achieve a trance like state through the whirling. It is a religious ceremony that is accompanied by live music.

The whole performance lasts about an hour. 35-40 minutes of this is the actual ceremony. It is amazing to see (and that someone can whirl for that long) and is highly recommended. If you miss them in Istanbul, there is an opportunity to see the Whirling Dervishes in Cappadocia and in Konya, the home of the order.


Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern Istanbul

The largest of several hundred cisterns under Istanbul, that at one time provided the city’s supply of clean water. The Basilica Cistern,is actually in Sultanhamet, but not what you would normally think of as a tourist attraction.

It is pretty quick to see, but makes a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle above ground and is nice and cool.

The cistern, built in the 6th century to provide water for the Palace, features a very symmetrical construction featuring 336 columns. Many of them marble columns salvaged from other buildings and temples, and the whole structure looks like an underground palace. There are two large Medusa heads in the far corner of the cistern, why these heads are here is somewhat of a mystery.

The water cisterns were managed by the Guilds and the novel, The Snake Stone, (also mentioned in the Topkapi Palace post), gives some account of the guilds working and managing the cisterns.



Istanbul Off the Beaten Path

26 Responses

  1. Trisha Velarmino
    | Reply

    I haven’t been but these will be helpful! How long will you be there? I am planning to go in a few months to do hitchhiking!

    • Editor

      We were in Turkey almost 3 months. There is plenty to see there and you won’t be bored. Thanks for your comment Trisha.

  2. Stacey Valle
    | Reply

    Wow, that sounds awesome! I haven’t been to Turkey yet or haven’t heard much about their culture and attractions. However, there will be a Deaf Olympics in about two years time, so hopefully I will go there and start exploring Turkey and its cities. One of my family friends told me that he went there and it’s his favorite country in the whole world – I’m very curious to find out why myself 🙂

    • Editor

      Stacey. Thanks for your comments. You will love Turkey. Elizabeth and I often don’t like to go back to places we have already visited but Turkey will be an exception. And Istanbul is a city we thoroughly enjoyed. Nice people too. Cheers….Mark

  3. Seems like a whirling dervish of a time (excuse the pun)!! We’ve not read too much about travel to Istanbul, though we know its history well. It seems like a bit of an overlooked destination, especially when seeing what fantastic things there are to see and do. The hop-on hop-off cruise is unique and a great suggestion!

    • Editor

      Yes we really enjoyed the cruise around the Bosphorous. It reminded me of Sydney Harbor (but bigger) with some spectacular homes. Istanbul was great. Thanks so much for your comment.

  4. Gemma Two Scots Abroad
    | Reply

    I’ve only ever been to Turkey once, Didim, to an all inclusive resort but we did take the ‘dolmus’ to the local town and got a scrub which was hilarious! Extensive post for if we ever head back to Istanbul.

    • Editor

      I hope you go back there as there is plenty to see. We had a very funny experience in a very over-crowded dolmus in Cappadocia, where I had to hold someone’s bike so I could squeeze on.

  5. I haven’t made it to Istanbul yet, but after reading this – I’m even more desperate to go! And when we do, we’ll be sure to venture beyond the usual spots. What a wonderful place. Great tips about the IstanbulKart…. will definitely remember this for when we make it there. And all that talk of delicious food (the goats cheese! mmm) has made me hungry. Is it dinner time yet? 🙂


    • Editor

      Hi Gabby. Thanks for your comment. It certainly is a great city to visit. It’s full of color and attitude. We really enjoyed as you have probably guessed. Cheers….Mark

  6. Kimberly Erin
    | Reply

    The Basilica Cistern is something cool I would have on my list. I am a medieval historian and focus on architecture so this stop is right up my alley! Thanks for sharing that one! Its unique

    • Editor

      Hi Kimberley. Yes the cistern was cool. It is also the climax for a novel that we feature in our shop in the Turkish Movies and Books Section. The novel is called Snake Stone, by Jason Goodwin. The main character is Yashim the Investigator, a male eunuch who also cooks. It is set 150 years ago and features a lot of Istanbul’s history as well. It’s a great read. Thanks for your comment. Cheers….Mark

  7. Julie @ Girl on the Move
    | Reply

    I’ve never really considered traveling to Istanbul, however this post makes me want to go! The food sounds amazing and the architecture looks exciting to explore!

    • Editor


      Thanks for your comment. Istanbul and Turkey in general were definitely a pleasant surprise. We wold go back there in a heartbeat. Cheers….Mark

  8. Tracie Howe
    | Reply

    I love Istanbul too! I was shown around by a local, leaving him in full control of what I should see and do. We definitely got off the beaten path a bit, and I think we visited some of what you recommend here. I only regret not ever seeing the Whirling Dervishes.

    • Editor

      Hi Tracie. Thanks for your comment. We really loved Istanbul and the people. The Whirling Dervishes were very cool. They really do go into a trance-like state. Cheers….Mark

  9. Sanket D.
    | Reply

    Lots of people are beginning to see the value of Turkey as a cultural destination. Not surprising at all considering it’s importance in history. I’ve been wanting to sit at one of their cafes and pull sheesha for a while now!

    • Editor

      Thanks for your comment. It is a great cultural destination, we loved it. The history can be almost a little overwhelming at times. Cheers….Mark

  10. Chris
    | Reply

    Turkey is likely to be one of our final destinations before we’re forced to finally head home after this current run on the road, so it’s great to be able to read about it!

    Can’t wait to sink our teeth into the bazaars and the food!

    • Editor

      Hi Chris. Well Turkey will make a grand finale for your trip! The food and the bazaars were great and it’s where you meet the locals. Cheers….Mark

  11. The Educational Tourist
    | Reply

    We visited Turkey in July and had a fantastic time. There is just SO much to see and do. Our week in Istanbul just seemed to scratch the surface. I’m working on a travel eBook for the kiddos because they can enjoy such a wonderful spot even more when they understand the history. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Editor

      Thanks for your comment. Yes Istanbul has the lot. The history surrounding Istanbul is impressive and adds another dimension to the visit. I think people forget that Istanbul and the Ottoman empire were the major world power for a very long time. We visited Istanbul in April when the daffodils were in full bloom and we loved it just as much as you did. Cheers….Mark

  12. Katja - globetotting
    | Reply

    I’ve always wanted to visit Istanbul, this will be a great resource for when I finally get there! The Basilica Cistern looks incredible (as do the whirling dervishes) and Cihangir sounds like my kind of neighbourhood. Thanks!

    • Editor

      Thanks for your comments Katja. We really loved Istanbul. It surprised us in a good way. Lots there to do for a tourist and yes the Basilica cistern was a highlight. There were other cisterns open to the public as well. Cheers….Mark

  13. Natalie Deduck
    | Reply

    I´m so happy that you crossed the Golden Horn and Bosphorus to explored the other amazing sides of Istanbul!
    As you I love this place, I have visited Istanbul 5 times, and last year end up staying two months there. If you have the opportunity venture yourself a little further in the Asia side. The neighborhood called Moda is charming, with a pier and a view the die for. Also the Marina and Fenerbahce park… OMG!! I love this city!!
    All the best,


    • Editor

      Thank you so much for the comments Nat. Yes Istanbul is on our list for a repeat visit (very few cities make that list) and we will certainly look out for Moda. Thanks for the info. Cheers….Mark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *