In this insider’s guide to Istanbul, I intend to focus on three things: places to visit that would allow Filipino tourists to appreciate Istanbul’s history and culture, secret food finds (both the cheap and the high quality ones), and places where one could find pasalubong items that would make everyone back home jump in joy and feel like they’re among the royal denizens of the Sublime Porte!
Quick introduction to Istanbul
Istanbul, a bustling metropolis of 16 million situated between Europe and Asia, is considered to be the bridge between the past and the future, the East and the West, and the glory of empire and the vibrancy of a modern age.
However, a cursory glance of Filipinos who have gone to Istanbul on social media groups would show that they focused mostly on the city’s historical quarter, with the rare picture of Filipinos taking selfies and pictures with the Bosphorus Bridge as their backdrop.
As an insider who spends his time in the city for around a month per year on average as well as my countless visits back in the days when I was a student at Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, I could safely say that Istanbul offers a lot more than the Historical Peninsula – that’s where the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace is – among thousands of historical and cultural spots.
The jewels of Istanbul that Filipinos should go to
There are four areas in Istanbul that every tourist should visit, apart from the usual Historical Peninsula itinerary. Here they are, in no particular order:
Uskudar: It’s easy to go to Uskudar from Eminonu (which is where all the tourists are). There are two ferry stations: Sehir Hatlari (literally “City Lines”) is found near the New Mosque (Yeni Camii), while Turyol’s dock is found on the other side of the road leading to Eyup. Both lines cost around P35 one-way – and the ferries in themselves are a tourist attraction that would allow you to experience the waters of the Bosphorus, traveling with birds, and observing the local commute at hand!
There are many pastries, restaurants, coffee shops, and stores in the district. In addition, if you are a fan of Ottoman architecture, the whole place is swarming with mosques and courtyards that come from the Ottoman period, such as the world-famous Mihrimah Sultan Mosque.
Kuzguncuk: Kuzguncuk is a destination that is worth a half-day visit: This old neighborhood has colorful houses, synagogues, churches, and mosques, as well as dogs and cats and locals living with each other in harmony. It is also known for its unique architecture, its chill vibes, its nature, and its wonderful restaurants and pastry shops!
If you want culture, Instagrammability, Western village vibes, and great bites all in a single package, then Kuzguncuk is for you! When you go out of the village, there is also a small park that allows more views of the Bosphorus!
Rumelihisari/Asiyan/Bebek/Etiler: While these sound like four separate places, they’re all pretty in the same spot. Take the funicular from Karakoy to Sishane, then take the metro from Sishane to Levent, onwards to Rumelihisaristu. Finally, take another funicular to Asiyan, and within less than a hour, you would be greeted with majestic views of the Bosphorus Strait!
Rumelihisari is a fortress designed by Sultan Mehmet II in preparation for the eventual conquest of Istanbul. Its towering walls and towers would certainly make you feel as if you’re playing a character in Ertugrul or Game of Thrones! Meanwhile, Asiyan has a marina and a promenade that allows you to enjoy the sea breeze . As for Bebek and Etiler, these are two of the most luxurious neighborhoods in the heart of Istanbul – indeed, you’ll feel a sophisticated atmosphere once you walk in the area!
BONUS: If you are willing to walk a bit more, you could end up in Arnavutkoy, where it’s possible to see both the Bosphorus (15 July Martyrs) Bridge as well as the Fatih Sultan Mehmet (FSM) Bridge! The huge mosque on top of a high hill on the other side is Camlica (pronounced as Cham-li-ja for the Filipino tongue) Mosque,which is the largest mosque in Turkey.
Ataturk Arboretum: If you are a nature lover and a fan of huge, colorful gardens, then the Ataturk Arboretum in Sariyer is for you!
With 296 hectares containing a plethora of trees, flowers, paths, and animals, as well as themed gardens and promenades, you could spend hours and hours enjoying the fresh air, listening to the songs of birds, and just watching the wonders of nature.
Finding sociable, affordable, delicious, and filling food in Istanbul
We all love Jollibee – it’s our number one source of delicious fast food. While most Istanbullites also love eating every fast food chain permutation out there (to give one example, you can find Carl’s Jr with unlimited drinks in Istanbul), many locals know of secret spots that actually contain many of the city’s best views – and delicious food on the cheap!
Introducing the Sosyal Tesisleri (literally “Social Facilities” in English), these places are strategically found throughout Istanbul. In fact, there’s one in the Historical Peninsula. They contain two areas: a buffet area and a restaurant section. You can buy a tenderloin steak for only P400 – complete with vegetables, potatoes, and signature tomato sauce! As for the buffet, you can find snacks such as kofte (meatball) sandwiches, desserts, and huge packs of french fries on the cheap!
Istanbul: Finding the best pasalubong on the cheap!
While most tourists flock to places like Eminonu in the Historical Peninsula and Sisli (this is where iconic Turkish malls such as Cevahir and Trump Tower are located), one can actually get great pasalubong items from places such as local bazaars (ukay-ukay prices but brand new – just make sure you can find a way to communicate), industrial centers (Ikitelli and ISTOC come to mind), and even the local supermarket chains such as BIM, SOK, A101, MIGROS, Carrefour, and Happy Center have their own exclusive products that definitely make for great pasalubong ideas back home! In case you didn’t know, Godiva, a well-loved chocolate brand, was bought by Turkish conglomerate Ulker a couple of years ago. This means that Godiva products are available on the shelves of most, if not all Turkish supermarkets – and they’re sold for only around P80 for a 83-gram bar! On top of this, the top-of-the-line Ulker 65-gram pistachio chocolate bars are sold for only P60, and there’s simply a lot of flavors out there that Filipinos would surely enjoy.
However, if you can set aside some time, you can go to the Ulker Cikolata Fabrikasi in Topkapi (it is just 10 to 15 minutes by taxi from the old quarter of Istanbul) and buy all the sweets, desserts, and chocolates that you want on the cheap!
Finally, knowing some Turkish, or having a way to translate the language beforehand, as well as having Turkish friends, allows Filipinos to grab cool discounts when buying at shops and stores in the city. Yes, I have the personal trophies to prove it: A 30-kilogram hard case suitcase only costs P2000, while a high-quality sling bag costs only P400.
Insider tip: If you want to shop for clothes, buy it in places like LC Waikiki, DeFacto, and KOTON. They offer high quality clothes that are both affordable and last for quite a long time!
Istanbul has a lot to offer both as a tourist destination and a city in its own right. It offers a lot of bang for your buck, while at the same time allowing you to enjoy its sights and sounds. Best of all, if you get your budget right, you would be able to go on a shopping spree that would make you the envy of your house and your neighborhood!
Are you ready to elevate your Istanbul experience?