The earth moved. Far below, the tectonic plates slammed together in a frenzy of fire and stone. From where I sat, in a cafe in Istanbul, I saw my tea cup rattle and the pot plants shake. The waiter and I shared a look: “Is this really happening?”
Eight hundred years ago, Rumi - a poet and mystic - declared:
“Stop acting so small. You are the universe in ecstatic motion.”
When I arrived in Turkey, I was surprised to find that Rumi’s words still rang true. Istanbul was a city in motion.
It wasn’t just the earthquake. I had expected Istanbul to be a city defined by its history - akin to Athens or Rome. What I found was different. The ancient sites were beautiful, but the modern sights were captivating.
Students handed out pamphlets - a call to arms - on street corners. Thousands of people joined in protests. The cafe that had rattled with the earthquake was a communal cafe, where you paid what you thought the meal was worth. This was one of many innovations and community ventures that had sprung up around the city like wild flowers.
The locals told me that this energy was called “The Awakening”. Everything was changing - both in politics and on the street.
As a travel writer, the question I am most often asked is “What is your favorite city to visit?” My answer is always Istanbul. This guide highlights all of the reasons why. For the perfect day in Istanbul, trade the tourist traps for insight and authenticity. This guide will keep you on the move - much like the city itself.
8 am: Breakfast at #Bunk
Rest amongst the restless and wake up in the center of the action. The pounding heart of modern Istanbul is Taksim Square. Stay at #Bunk Taksim, both a hotel and a hostel. The design elements are simply stunning throughout both. Hungry? Head straight for the top floor. Here you will find your breakfast, and a terrace looking over the city, above all the beautiful chaos. Take a moment to yourself here, because adventure awaits.
9 am: Get Lost
J. R Tolkien famously said that not all those who wander are lost. Don’t be surprised if your wandering leads you astray. Get lost amongst the little lanes and sprawling streets. The tourist maps are going to point you in the direction of Istikal Avenue. My advice: skip it and head in the general direction of Space Debris Gallery. Take your time getting there to stop at the little modern art galleries along the way.
10 am: Grab a Coffee at Press
Right next door to Space Debris Gallery you will find all the cool kids at Press Cafe. Here you can drink the best coffee in Istanbul, in fact one of the best coffees that I have had anywhere in the world. Sip your coffee whilst on a swing set. Press is yet another example of Istanbul’s emerging arts and design scene. You are going to need your coffee to keep up with this city’s frantic energy. Do not go past their heavenly red-velvet cake to give you that extra kick.
11 am: Take the Ferry To Asia
It is only a short walk from the cafe to the Ferry terminal. Your tourist guidebook is going to suggest you take a scenic cruise. Once again, ignore it. The regular ferry costs less than a dollar and is an authentic insight into the Istanbul cityscape and its people. Here you can sip turkish tea amongst the locals, the buskers and the general chaos. All against a backdrop of the river Bosphorus and the city in silhouette.
12 pm: Lunch Like A Local
Istanbul is a city that straddles continents. Hence the earthquake and the unique worldview. Take some time to stroll around Kadiköy. Not many tourists make it to these backstreets. For lunch, look for anywhere with the words “Self Servis” printed above the door and join the lunchtime rush to eat amongst the office workers and students. The lines out the door are a sure sign of local wisdom.
2 pm: Go Back In Time
Get the ferry over to Sultanahmet, the old-city. Here the streets are thick with crowds and tourist traps, but it is worth the battle. As you wind your way up to the monuments, perhaps stop awhile to join the old men sitting on the street for tea and backgammon.
3pm: Take a moment at the Blue Mosque.
There are many monuments and museums here. The best is the Blue Mosque. Inside the mosque is an out-of-mind experience. Once again, Rumi puts words to the moments that leave me speechless:
“Let go of your mind and then be mindful.
Close your ears and listen!”
Remember, the mosque is intwined with the city’s spiritual life. Respect the religion and its beautiful manifestation in this sacred space. Go one better: find the door with the sign that reads “Ask Me About Islam”. I did, and I ended up having an hour conversation with the Imam about peace, extremism, women and love.
4pm: Cross the Galata Bridge
Cross back over to the modern city via the Galata bridge. Skip between the fishermen and their lines and if you find a man with a bucket full of muscles Stop. In. Your. Tracks. I insist: you must try some of the muscles stuffed with risotto. There is an art and spectacle to this. Eat whilst standing right there.
5pm: Sunset, Drinks & Dinner
Much like buried treasure, you will have to work a little harder to find this gem. Just to the left of the bridge you will see a fish market, currently undergoing construction work. Take the back street behind it, about 100 meters up. There will be one building with a door conspicuously open onto a set of stairs. Follow the stairs and your intuition up four floors. Once you reach the top, the views and the food are worth the somewhat perilous journey. This restaurant has no discernible name and the waiters speak no english. You get the feeling you might be the only tourist to have made it up here. The ever-so stylish locals, however, come here in droves. Join them for a drink at sunset. Look over the city as the call-to-prayer resounds. The perfect end to the perfect day.