İstanbul Safety & Travel Guide For Students, From a Student

İstanbul Skyline

İstanbul Skyline

The U.S. State Department has recently been issuing a lot of travel warnings with heightened terrorist attacks happening all over the world. The Department released 10 travel warnings in March, almost twice the amount it had been issuing over the past year, and 6 as of April 17th. These travel warnings have especially started to attract the public’s attention ever since they moved closer and closer to “home”. Fear of terror has spread dramatically since the attacks in Paris on November 13, then two suicide bombings against prominent tourist attractions in Istanbul, two more high-profile bombings in Ankara, and especially the recent Brussels airport and metro station bombings. There have also been similar attacks in Baghdad, Yemen, Indonesia, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunisia and many other cities.

As part of this growing trend, the State Department issued a travel warning for travel to Turkey, effective March 29, 2016. The warning focuses on avoiding travel to Southeast Turkey and especially the Syrian border, where the Islamic State is most active, but also states that the US Department of State has restricted official travel to Turkey to “mission-critical travel” only.

As a native of İstanbul, the travel warning placed on my home country as well as a massive influx of articles debating the safety of travel, inspired me to write this article. In particular, this paragraph from a Huffington Post article about how it’s more important now than ever to travel resonated with me:

“… for all the danger and senseless violence that occurs around the globe, there is ten times as much love and generosity present. There are kind strangers in every corner of the world ready to share their homes and cities with us, ready to dispense advice about the best breakfast joints in town or the prettiest viewpoints, ready to offer directions to a lost tourist, ready to lend a hand in a crisis, ready to prove — with their thoughtful gestures and their encouraging words and their kind hearts — that humanity is inherently good.”

So, dear friends, I’m ready to share with you the most authentic hookah place, the place with the best Turkish breakfast, the best of everything Istanbul and Turkey has to offer, and how to stay safe while enjoying the city, as long as you’re willing to take a chance and visit Turkey.

Eating & Drinking

Emek Kahve

Emek Kahve is by far my favorite breakfast place in the city, with its tiny tables by the water, the menemen served in the pan it was cooked in, crispy and fresh simit served with your meal… It’s probably Istanbul’s favorite breakfast place too, since it’s nearly impossible to find a table on weekends. I advise going on a sunny weekday and trying to snatch a table by the water, even if it means waiting a good 20 minutes.

Best menu items:

  • Kiymali Gul Boregi; pastry filled with minced meat, shaped as a rose (hence called “gul” boregi)
  • Menemen, with sucuk (Turkish sausage), and feta cheese

Sutis

Pide served at Sutis

Pide served at Sutis

Sutis is another popular breakfast joint, with locations on both the Asian and European sides of the city. One of the biggest reasons Sutis is so popular amongst Istanbullers is that it’s open longer hours than most other restaurants. I would suggest trying Cengelkoy Sutis, the one located on the Asian side; it has a more authentic feeling to it, and you get to sit by the Bosphorus! Sutis not only has great breakfast items, but also provides a wide variety of Turkish food and desserts.

Best menu items:

  • Kasarli kofte (Turkish meatballs stuffed with cheddar cheese)
  • Karisik pide (Pizza-like dough, topped with a variety of cheese and meats)
  • Bal Kaymak (Honey & Kaymak spread), for breakfast
  • Tavukgogsu, for dessert.
  • Fistikli tel kadayif, for dessert.

Askana

Manti dish

Manti dish

Anyone who has heard of Turkish cuisine or has been to Turkey has without a doubt heard of manti, or “Turkish ravioli”. Askana is one of the oldest and most popular manti places in all of Istanbul. Like many restaurants and cafes in Istanbul, the cafe is tiny, and only known by locals. Manti is a must try amongst Turkish cuisine, and Askana is without a doubt the place to have it.

Best menu items:

  • Regular manti
  • Cig borek with kiyma, or cheese for vegetarians (A fried packet of dough filled with kiyma, minced meat, or cheese)

Bayramoglu Doner

Just a 10-minute drive from my house, Bayramoglu is always my first meal when I come home and last meal before I leave for Northwestern. You’ll most definitely see men slicing thin pieces of meat off of huge slabs on a revolving stick around the city; that huge meat on a stick is called “doner”. Bayramoglu is, by far, the number one doner place in Istanbul. If you’re looking for a quick bite, or to try out doner, go to Bayramoglu.

Best menu item:

  • Doner

Mavra

This tiny “café”, located only a short 2-minute walk from the famous Istiklal Avenue and the Galata Tower, is the epitome of small European cafes. I call it a “café” because they actually also sell alcohol: beer hidden in mugs and whiskey hidden in teacups, since they don’t have a liquor license. The liquor restriction the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) put into action in 2013 states that businesses within 100 meters (~300 feet) of a mosque, a place of worship, or any establishment for education (aka schools, private tutoring centers, drivers license education centers…) will not be able to serve alcohol. To put everything into perspective, there are about 3000 mosques in Istanbul, almost 1 mosque per square km. Illicit liquor sales are not all that common, most establishments are able to obtain a license before the Justice and Development Party (very ironically named so, since all they do is replace green areas with more concrete) “develops” another mosque in the region, but Mavra had the unfortunate fate of opening their doors after a mosque.

Mavra has turned not having a liquor license into a fun game by serving alcohol in unorthodox ways: those who know about the concept of “beer in mugs” get to enjoy being part of this little secret! The owners are always excited to see you: Just wait until one of the owners grabs a stool and comes to chat with you over a cup of Turkish coffee on the sidewalk outside the cafe. I would strongly suggest going to Mavra with a good book and willingness to make new friends after a long day of walking around Galata and Taksim, especially after trekking the stairs of the Galata tower!

Safety Note: Istiklal Avenue (and Taksim in general), being the largest street closed to traffic, is packed with demonstrators almost 3-4 days a week. A series of major protests took place at the Gezi Park at Taksim at 2013, when the Justice and Development Party wanted to tear down the Gezi Park, one of the few remaining green spaces in the center of the city. Their plans were met with a great backlash as the people demonstrated against the demolition of the park by camping in the park overnight, building “day care centers” within it and establishing choirs of the park, a demonstration which was soon shut down by tear gas and water cannons by the police. The suicide bombing on March 19, 2016 also took place in front of the Galatasaray High School on Istiklal. Even though the fastest way to get to Taksim would be to use the subway, the safest way would be to take a taxi, or a ferry to Karakoy and the funicular from Karakoy to Tunel. I also wouldn’t advise spending too much time around Taksim Square, rather exploring Asmalimescit and Galata might be a better idea, since I feel that the Taksim region is much more commercialized and therefore overly crowded than the Galata and Asmalimescit areas.

CULTURE:

Karakoy

Karakoy, once a region notorious for being dubious has gentrified to become among the most hip regions of Istanbul, with a new restaurant opening almost every month, graffiti on every wall of its narrow streets and galleries on every corner. Karakoy is the perfect region to spend a whole day at: start the day off with good coffee and an even better eggs benedict at Unter, catch the latest contemporary art exhibit at Istanbul Modern, discover cutting-edge Turkish artists at ArtSumer and enjoy photography at Istanbul’s only gallery dedicated to photography at Elipsis followed by a late lunch at one of the many cafes or restaurants Karakoy has to offer. If you’re willing to pay a high price for mesmerizing views of the Galata tower and the Bosphorus, Ferahfeza has been able to amaze me every single time with its ambiance, views and food. After a long day of art and food, enjoy drinks and live DJ performances at Colonie.

Raki & Balik

Table filled with Raki Balik

Table filled with Raki Balik

As much as we try, it’s impossible to explain how raki balik (raki and fish) is a culture and not just an activity. Soft waves beating against the shore just inches away from your table, cats brushing against your legs and your table packed with meze, Turkish tapas, your skin slightly burned from the days sun, raki balik is by far every Turkish persons favorite activity; even famous Turkish poets have written about it. And Suna Abla’s is so good, it’s worth the travel to the Asian side of the city. Located at Kandilli, a part of Istanbul that has managed to stay just like a tiny town, Suna Abla’s has been a family tradition for many years. As we sit at our table by the water (reserved, of course; Suna Abla is somehow always packed), a familiar waiter brings us a tray filled with meze: this is the menu; you pick whichever meze you wish to be served. You also order your raki and if you’re ambitious and presume you’ll have room for fish, perhaps a sea bass fresh from the Aegean and Black Seas. Tradition is to end a raki balik meal with some tahin helvasi, a type of dessert made from tahini. And good news! You can get to the European side with a little boat conveniently located right next to Suna Abla’s, just for 30 Turkish Liras!

Nightlife

Geyik Bar in Istanbul

Geyik Bar in Istanbul

The drinking age is 18 in Turkey and nightlife has a lot to offer. Whether it be barhopping in the indie region of Asmalimescit, or clubbing with the best views of the Istanbul hills, a night out with your friends can be worth a shot, despite the fact that drinking in Istanbul isn’t the most pocket-friendly of ventures. Two of the best clubs in Istanbul are Anjelique and Ulus 29. Anjelique is located right by the water in Ortakoy, whereas Ulus 29 offers spectacular views of the whole city from a hilltop. The bouncers at these clubs can be very particular, so take care that you look your best when going clubbing. Don’t be surprised if you get invited to Bodrum Manti by some young people you’ve met while clubbing; every night of partying in Istanbul ends with some sort of late night snack (I suggest checking out this article by The Guide Istanbul on Istanbul late night foods. I promise Istanbul has better late night snacks than Cheesie’s and Lisa’s!). Bodrum Manti, like its name suggests, specializes on manti and also offers lentil soup, perfect for cold nights.

If you prefer good conversation and eccentric cocktails to electronic music, barhopping might be what you’re looking for. Best bars in Istanbul are usually located around the Taksim region, specifically in Asmalimescit and Cihangir. At a fairly new bar, Geyik, located at Cihangir, you might find yourself taking orders from the bartender to bring back blackberry liquor from your trip to Berlin, because he’s dying to improve his Blackberry Cobbler cocktail. “No Name”, a bar without a name, provides the ultimate “hipster” experience. The bar not having a name gives it an air of mystery, and you get to make your friends search for the bar. It’s a tiny two-story bar with cocktails worth the effort of finding the bar itself, right across from another bar “CoOp”, on Gonul Sokak. My final suggestion from the area is a rooftop bar: Vida, Pera. Its old stairs and even older elevator might seem sketchy at first, but as you start enjoying the view of the Bosphorus, you realize how beautiful the city is once more. And what better way to end a night out than grabbing a bite at Kizilkayalar, and giving their famous “Islak Burger” (Wet Burger, a burger soaked in their special tomato sauce) a try.

Tourist Attractions

Safety Warning: Most travel warnings issued towards Turkey all emphasize that terrorist attacks are aimed especially at tourists. One of the first attacks by the Islamic State on Istanbul was conducted at Sultanahmet Square, in between the Blue Mosque and the Sultanahmet Mosque. Even though I suggest visiting historical landmarks while in Istanbul, I feel obliged to make this warning. I would suggest visiting historical landmarks earlier in the day thus cutting down hours spent waiting in line, and not being in crowded spaces especially around lunch time (12-1pm). If worse comes to worse, I feel that knowing how to recognize a suicide bomber might help as well.

The Grand Bazaar

the Grand Bazaar

the Grand Bazaar

As many of you might know, many James Bond movies were filmed in Istanbul, and Skyfall includes a hectic motorcycle chase scene, shot at the roof of the historic Grand Bazaar. The Grand Bazaar, or Kapali Carsi, is a world on its own, and deserves a big part out of your day, with more than 3000 shops. It offers fake designer purses and gold, as well as hookah setups, hundreds of types of tea, world famous Turkish kilims, Turkish delight and Turkish coffee. Merely walking around the Grand Bazaar and taking photographs is worth the crowds, but I would certainly suggest shopping for everything Turkish at the Grand Bazaar.

Museums & Mosques

Istanbul, having been home to the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, is a hub of culture. A day spent visiting palaces, museums and mosques is a day well spent discovering Istanbul’s multi-cultural history. For example, Hagia Sofia was first built and used as a Greek Orthodox Church for almost a thousand years and transformed into a mosque at 1453. It is now secularized and used as a museum. Fortunately most museums are located at “old-Istanbul” and are at a walking distance from one another. And if you’re craving some food after all that history the famous Sultanahmet Koftecisi is located right by Sultanahmet Square. Their menu only contains the essentials: kofte (Turkish meatballs), pilav (rice), piyaz (a salad with beans and onions), lentil soup and irmik helvasi, a dessert typically made after, but not exclusively, losing a loved one.

Turkish Bath

Turkish Bath in Istanbul

Turkish Bath in Istanbul

Or hamam as we call it. Turkish baths have been featured in many documentaries about Turkish culture, and are a crucial part of our culture. Although many foreigners find this to be the most unsettling aspect of Turkish baths, there’s something ever so relaxing about the way a stranger rubs –and almost scrapes the skin off- your barely clothed body with a piece of cloth. Once you enter the humid chambers with only a bathing suit and a special towel called pestamal, you are instructed by your person (tellak) to lie down on the hot marble in the center of the room, called gobektasi, to sweat. Once your skin is nice and soft, the tellak scrubs your dead skin off, finishes the treatment with a nice massage with aromatic soaps and washes your hair. The historic Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, constructed by the famous architect Mimar Sinan, provides the most authentic Turkish bath experience. Make sure to call ahead and make reservations!

Shopping

As of April 2016, 1 USD equals to 2.83 Turkish Lira; what that means is if you find a dress for 300 Turkish Lira, that’s $100, so more stuff for less money! And one thing you’ll realize in Istanbul is that there is an abundance of shopping malls in the city. You can essentially go shopping in any region of the city, but some popular options are Nisantasi, Istinye Park and Kanyon.

With all honesty, my friends, I would not be able to guarantee your safety in Istanbul, if you chose to visit, just as I am not able to guarantee my family’s safety, nor mine in my hometown. I recently spoke extensively with a friend visiting Istanbul about where she should stay and where she should visit; and as I woke up in Istanbul on the morning of March 19, after the bombing in Taksim, my first thought was to text her, who was staying at an Air BnB in Taksim. Fortunately she was fine, and pursued her trip, and told me on the day of her departure how deeply in love with Istanbul she had fallen.

Like Corey Patterson said to the NY Times when asked if he was thinking of cancelling his trip, “You can’t stop living life, and the world is worth seeing, so I chose to do it.” Maybe I can’t pledge that you will be safe on the subway ride to Taksim, just as you might not be safe in a car or crossing the street in any other part of the world, but I can promise you this: Istanbul is worth the try.

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