Independent in Istanbul

Written by Jo Malcolm

There are places in this magnificent city you may want to explore and where a tour guide will never take you. Read on.

I have spent time in Istanbul off and on for about three years since I first arrived in 2009 to live and work.

Now, I can cash in on these various visits and cherry-pick where to go and what to do. I also have two Turkish and a few long-term expat resident friends in Istanbul, who have introduced me to their favourite places and told me lots of their stories about this fabulous city.

Here’s a little account of two or three hours in central Istanbul, in places you might want to explore where a tour guide will never take you.

A few days ago, I met an old friend here who used to run a book exchange in the Tünel area of central Istanbul. (It has been closed since COVID, but she plans to reopen.) It was more of a kind of ‘salon’ where people from everywhere would come and go and chat and exchange tales, not just books.

This time, we met at the Pera Museum café, which is spacious, quiet, refined, and never busy. The museum usually has exciting exhibitions, and there’s also a sweet little museum shop.

After Turkish tea, delicious simit with fresh goat’s cheese and a good chat, I moved on to the nearby Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote her famous book, Murder on the Orient Express. 

(Apparently, at one time, sedan chairs could be commissioned to take you up from the Sirkeci Railway Station – the destination of the famous train – to the hotel).

You’re not supposed to take photos in the hotel, but a kind waiter turned a blind eye, and I managed a few shots, including one of the pianist who told me she was from Armenia. She was playing Erik Satie to the not-very-appreciative guests.

The “sweetie pink” Pera Palace Patisserie, with its chandeliers and uniformed staff, is inside the hotel and worth visiting just for fun and its old-world ambiance. I liked that the waitresses spoke Turkish and English, of course, but also Greek. (Like most neighbouring nations, the two countries share a bloody history. Once at Athens airport not so long ago, I noticed that the departure board used the old Greek name ‘Constantinople’ to designate the city, not ‘Istanbul’).

Istanbul’s greatest asset is its huge variety packed into a few square kilometres. So after the expensive but kitsch Pera Palace Patisserie, I walked about 10 minutes to sit and read in a café/ restaurant with a totally different setting, atmosphere (and price range). It’s on a back street, not far from the Swedish Consul’s residence in Istiklal, the main street in central Istanbul.  You can see the cafe in my third photo below.

If you’re too tired or want to try it out, take the nostalgic tramway along Istiklal Street to Taksim Square at its far end. Based on a 1915 model, the tram covers the entire 1.4 km distance of the street.

But I chose to walk to my lunchtime destination.  During my 10-minute stroll, I witnessed a political demonstration plus scores of armed police, had a look at some elegant art deco buildings, watched ice cream sellers teasing their customers with all kinds of dexterous tricks, admired sticky sweet baklavas through immaculate shop windows, heard the somehow mournful wailings of lottery ticket sellers, and listened to the ever-exotic muezzin call to prayers.

Istanbul evokes so much romanticism with its rich history, variety, and unexpected, interesting sights you may decide to make it your next destination.

If you would like to know more about Istanbul, please contact janeco@mytravelroom.co.nz.


Recommended Read: ( in Istanbul ) Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernière and Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk
Recommended Listening: Joni Mitchell’s Hejira


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