Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya)- Yes, of course it's obvious that you have to see Hagia Sophia when you visit Istanbul, but I thought I would include a couple of fun things to look for when you go. 1) On the second floor there is Viking graffiti. Fun! 2) Just outside the entrance, the stone cannonballs that line the path are the actual cannonballs used by Mehmet the Conquerer in his 1493 battle. 3) Lustration urns, used in purification rituals, at the entrance.
Istanbul Military Museum (Azkeri Muze)- This museum is great in it's own right, but the most impressive experience at the museum is, Mehter Takimi, the world's oldest military band that gives a performance at 15:00. Do not miss this! It will blow you away! Fantastic musicians, fun costumes, and an overall exceptional performance.
The Museum of Innocence- Even if you haven't read any of Orhan Pamuk books, which you should, especially if you are visiting Istanbul, but even if you haven't, this museum is still interesting. A glimpse into the the lives of people and their common objects used in Istanbul in the 50's and 70's up to modern times arranged beautifully in display cabinets. The items are based off the characters in his book with the same title.
Galata Tower- A medieval stone tower with panoramic views of Istanbul, including a fun legend about Celebi. A man that might have once attempted the first flight off the top of this tower, and later was exiled because of it.
Istanbul Modern Art Museum- A great collection of modern art is exhibited here, including many Turkish artists that I learned about. One of my favorites is, Selma Gürbüz. Some other brilliant artists I discovered here are: Ara Güler, Taner Ceylan, and Nur Koçak. There was also an inspiring exhibit by Roger Ballen.
Wooden Ottoman Houses or Timber Houses- I encourage you to walk around and discover some of the amazing wooden houses of Istanbul before they are all gone. This one was spotted on my way walking to The Museum of Innocence.
Sehzade Cag Kebap- The main dish, Cag Kebap, is made rotating lamb meat over an open wood fire, and it is succulent. You can order sides with the dish, and I recommend you try them all. The kebap is served with a tortilla that you scoop it up with. It's a no-frills restaurant with good service and fantastic kebap. The kebap is insanely good!!
Hafiz Mustafa- Though not a fact, they think that baklava was most likely developed in the imperial kitchens of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, so I had to try it here! I must admit that I've never been a huge fan of baklava, but this confectionary, opened in 1864, and not only still operating, but still open to a packed house, has changed my mind. I guess I was just eating mediocre baklava in the past. Hafiz Mustafa's baklava is delectable and the service is superb.
Dürümzade- Sure Anthony Bourdain has been here, but he's been here because it is "can't talk right now, I'm eating the most delicious food of my life," good. So very good. You have to try it for yourself. Order the double adana wrap, and learn what it feels like to eat a little piece of heaven.
Babel Cafe & Restaurant- I came for the Manti, a type of Turkish dumpling similar to ravioli served with a delicious yogurt, garlic and red pepper sauce. I got it and I loved it. I also came, because I read somewhere the place plays good music, and they do. They mostly play cool Turkish music, which is what I preferred. Every now and again they would play some American tunes too, but I enjoyed the Turkish songs more. It wasn't live music on the night I happened to be there, but they have live music on some nights. The servers are really on point with their service, and the atmosphere is cool and cozy. I got a glass of what I think was just the house red wine, and it was tasty. Many Vegetarian options too.
Balik Ekmek, famous Fish Sandwich, by Galata bridge on Karaköy side- They don't have signs, so all I can do is show you a photo of who is supposedly the best fish sandwich maker (I was told by locals eating it in front of me before I ordered) in Istanbul. The set-up is very easy to move, so who knows if he is always in this same spot, but he was directly in front of the seafood market before you cross the bridge, and this is what he looks like. The sandwich is fresh and amazing! This is Not one of the places in the Eminönü boats, which sounds cool too, but it's simply a man at a grill making you a yummy fish sandwich. Standing by the bridge looking out at the Bosphorus, while eating this scrumptious sandwich, was one of those magic travel moments.
Buyuk Londra Oteli- Every now and again when traveling, you are lucky enough to feel like you walked into a Wes Anderson movie. Visiting this bar is one of those moments. I sat down and ordered my first Raki of the trip from an old-world bartender filled with professionalism and kindness when I noticed a strange sound coming from behind me. That's when I learned that the bar is home to two parrots, one young and feisty, and the other, well...old and retired. I walked up and said my hellos to them, and looked at the many treasures in the bar/lobby area, including many vintage items, and some items that only have the vintage look, but that still add to the charm. I pray this bar never changes, and even though I've read the hotel itself has seen some better days I still might end up staying one night in the future to experience a little more of the nostalgic allure that Buyuk Londra Oteli holds.
Arka Oda- A cool bar on the Asian side in the neighborhood Kadiköy. Spending time at this bar feels like you are at a comfortable house party, but with servers that are super friendly and efficient. The bar comes up with unique and fun dj nights.
Karga Bar- You don't have to go very far to visit this bar if you go to Arka Oda, because it's right next door. This is a beautiful bar with many floors each one containing various salvaged items from Istanbul. Each time you look in a new direction you discover more. The owners definitely pay attention to detail. If you've ever been to a ruin pub in Budapest it definitely has that vibe. At the time I was there, they played only 90s music, which when you are in the right mood, can be very fun. I was in the right mood, and loved the feeling of this bar. The service was fantastic, which seemed to be the case every place I visited in Istanbul.
Hypnos Design Hotel- This was my first time visiting Istanbul, so I went to many of the famous tourist attractions, and this hotel is close to all of them. Another good feature of this hotel is that the tram that takes you to Karaköy, where many of the cool cafes, restaurants, and shops are, is right out front of the hotel, and only a few stops away to Karaköy
I got the room on the top that had a wonderful view of the Aya Sofya, which is a powerful image to see when you first arrive in Istanbul. The room was very quiet and comfortable. The wifi worked good. The shower was hot, and the breakfast was nice.
Istanbul: Memories and the City- This is an exceptional book to read while in Istanbul, or before you visit, or just to learn about the city. It is filled with beautiful hüzün, Turkish word for melancholy, written by a man that has spent his entire life dreaming and studying the living, breathing world of Istanbul.
Bülent Ersoy- A popular performer of Ottoman classical music, a Turkish trans woman, known as one of the greatest singers of Turkish music. Her story as a trans woman in a Muslim society is very interesting too.