ISTANBUL: With flights leaving from Beirut to Istanbul almost every hour and a half, many Lebanese are acquainted with the bustling district in the Old City of Sultanahmet and its various touristic attractions, such as the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace. For those keen to see a different side of Istanbul, there are less commonly visited neighborhoods, parks and scenic vantage points that are accessible and just as breathtaking as the historic sites of the Old City. With Easter quickly approaching, April is an ideal time to visit Istanbul, as summer tourists have yet to descend to the city.
A neighborhood for
artists and starsWhen deciding where to stay, lose the tourists in Sultanahmet and the crowds of Istiklal and explore the boutique hotels and B&Bs of Cihangir instead. A short 10-minute walk down from Taksim Square and all its public transportation amenities, this artsy neighborhood is known for its cafe culture and turn-of-the-century architecture.
As Orhan Pamuk notes in his aptly titled homage to the city “Istanbul,” the district’s proximity to the center of the early Turkish film industry gave it a glamorous atmosphere that persists today.
Young acting talents still flock to the coffee shops, with their welcoming outdoor patios, to see and be seen among the stray cats basking in the sun.
In addition to the chic crowd that calls the neighborhood home, Cihangir offers access to a host of amenities such as grocery stores, pharmacies and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The Bosporus can often be spotted gleaming under the sun between houses, as the district is just uphill from the Kabatas ferry terminal and tram stop.
Breakfasting Turkish-styleIn addition to chic boutiques and cafes, Cihangir features some excellent places to enjoy a proper Turkish breakfast.
Moving from salty plates of cheese and olives with a side of fresh veggies to sweet dishes of tahini and molasses, cherry jam and fresh honey and cream, restaurants specializing in breakfast thrive during the weekends, so get there early to snag a place. Apart from the small plates, Turkish scrambled eggs known as menemen are a must.
For a classic Van Province-style brunch, distinguished by the cheeses served and the way the eggs are cooked, check out local favorite Van Khavalti Evi (+90-212-293-6437) in the heart of Cihangir.
Those looking for an update with environmentally conscious and organic ingredients will find it at Kahve 6 (+90-212-293-0849) on the main road of the neighborhood. This cute cafe serves breakfast all day, along with sandwiches and pasta, in a beautiful, tucked away garden.Flowers of IstanbulAnother often underappreciated feature of Cihangir is the neighborhood’s parks. Spring is the best time to see the city’s green spaces, as the wealth of flowers cultivated by the municipality creates a veritable carpet of color, with hyacinths, daffodils, pansies, tulips and the blossoms of Judas trees that line the Bosporus.
Yildiz Park in Besiktas was once the imperial hunting ground of Ottoman sultans and is now one of the largest parks in the city, with various structures built by different rulers and with an assortment of exotic flowers, imported especially for the gardens.
To really experience the bounty of spring in Istanbul, head to the European suburb of Emigran and visit its sprawling park. The grounds play host to the city’s Tulip Festival from April to May each year, with events lined up to celebrate the blooming of over 3 million of these iconic flowers, all planted in intricate patterns.
Boating the Bosporus For sweeping panoramic views of the city, consider taking a Bosporus cruise through the Golden Horn all the way up to the Black Sea.
While many companies offer this tour, with several stops along the way, the largest and most recognized is Sehir Hatlari (+90-212-444-1851), which leaves Besiktas several times a day and features an optional digital guide that explains over 70 points of interest. The trip takes just over an hour in total, ending at Andalu Kavagi, a small town on the Asian side.
The town, located on the outskirts of Istanbul, features a strategic castle built on a hill by the Byzantines over Phoenician and Greek ruins. Though the interiors are closed for an archeological dig, the views of the Black Sea and sprawling Istanbul are well worth the steep walk up to Yoros Castle.
Once back in the picturesque town and before catching the return boat, stop by one of Andalu Kavagi’s seaside restaurants for Turkish mezze and a wide variety of fresh seafood.
The Big IslandSimilar to Andalu Kavagi, the Princes’ Islands have long been a refuge for Istanbulites wanting to escape the crowded city and return to nature.
Home to exiled royal family members during both Byzantine and Ottoman times, the chain of islands in the Sea of Marmara is easily reachable from Istanbul by a ferry, which stops at four islands.
The biggest, and last on the ferry stop, is Buyukada (“Big Island”), which is the most popular with tourists.
Consisting of two steep hills with green parkland and a surrounding forest, the island has outlawed cars, forcing people to turn to simpler modes of transportation: horse-drawn carriages, bikes and their own two feet.
For Easter, a procession is made from the port to the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. George on one of the hills.
The streets surrounding the late-Ottoman ferry port of is brimming with ice cream vendors, souvenir shops and beautiful 19th century houses decorated in delicate carved wood and painted in soft pastels. One can also rent a bike and pedal off toward the closest peak to escape into island’s verdant landscape.
While a trip down to the beach may be tempting, try to make it up the grueling hill to the monastery before sunset to witness another stunning view of Istanbul to one side and dotted islands with the Sea of Marmara reaching all the way to Anatolia on the other.
The monastery itself, like much of the town below, dates to the late 19th century but was built on Byzantine foundations and serves as reminder of the thriving Greek Orthodox community that once resided there.
After racing back down to the port, many reward themselves with ice cream dipped in chocolate and dusted with ground pistachio or peanuts, before catching the ferry back to Istanbul.
If the weather’s not too chilly, grab a seat outside for more memorable views of the city as the ferry snakes its way back through the Golden Horn.