The locals' guide to...Istanbul

Istanbul is where Europe and Asia kiss demurely across the Hellespont and the resulting cultural trifle is richer and more satisfying than a bucket of Turkish Delight. Here's what the locals say...


How do I get away from large tour groups wearing matching caps?

Tourists swarm over the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia like, well, ants on a baklava. Do see them, but then take a short taxi ride west to the Fener and Balat districts and let your head stop spinning while you stroll around the old streets - with beautiful 16th and 17th century buildings - and the Jewish quarter. There's also the Byzantine Church of St Saviour in Chora that could give Hagia Sophia a close run in any 'who's the prettiest church?' contest.

Where do the locals party?

If you get it wrong in Istanbul you can end up in a bar that looks like your granny's kitchen, watching a Turkish third division football match on a tiny TV through a curtain of cigar smoke. Serious Istanbul party folk are found in the Beyoglu district. Looking for crazy locals dancing to Turkish music? Try the Türkü Bar or if you fancy attempting some serious late night moves, head to Babylon. If you want to feel the breeze on your face rather than the sweat on your back, try Yeni Melek, a big open area in Beyoglu.

Restaurants without an 'all-you-can-eat tourist buffet'?

There's an unproven theory that 33 per cent of Istanbul is made of food and if you want to see how much meze a local man can consume choose any of the many 'meyhane' (traditional Turkish wine houses-cum-restaurants) that litter the city. Find the noisiest and you'll probably avoid the white-socks-with-sandals city break crew. Some of the best are in Nevizade Sokak.

tip tip The locals' absolutely secret number one tip : Istanbul in the summer is hot and dusty so visiting mosques can be a triple pleasure. They are places of deep tranquility and great beauty, but they are also refreshingly cool. The ritual foot-washing in cold sinks around the building goes beyond pleasure.

A quick guide to where the locals hang out


The shops: Lots of generic high street shops these days but it's a long way from London to Istanbul and the Grand Bazaar is worth the hassle of kids trying to sell you 'Chanel' eau de tap water.

The place to stay: Most cheap hotels in Istanbul are south of the Golden Horn - try the Hotel Agan, for example. If you are looking for Istanbul luxury hotels, rest your mind, body and soul at the Barceló Eresin Topkapi.

The spa: After a visit to any of the city's hamams you'll feel great and a bit like you fell asleep in the tumble dryer. If you want to literally hang with the locals try Büyük Hamam in Potinciler Sokak.

The place for people watching: Try rush hour by the Galata Bridge where most of Turkey seems to be on the move.

The view: Take a boat across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul, stand on the stern and look back as the mound of Sultanahmet rises from the sea. It'll make your Istanbul city break all the more magical.

The trip: Get on a ferry to the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. There are beautiful wooden houses and no cars. The treacle-slow pace of life still bubbles along nicely here.

The coffee: Being in the Grand Bazaar can feel like you've been through the washing machine with the contents of your gran's attic. For an injection of coffee, stop off at Divan on Cevahir Bedesten.

The gallery: Istanbul has a lot of great old stuff, so when you've had your fill try Galeri X-Ist to see what modern Turkish artists are up to.

Why not try? A Bosphorous cruise and Istanbul's Egyptian bazaar private tour


Can I drink the water?

The eight essential questions you'll need answering

Which local animal is likely to hospitalise me?

Don't get spat at by a camel - they carry syphilis, which is a surefire way to ruin your Istanbul holiday.

Which native liquor will make me think I am attractive?

Raki is the aniseed-flavoured national tipple and those with the experience mix it with ice and water.

How can I avoid a beating by the local hard nuts?

Stick to the tourist areas at night where you can't swing a cat without hitting a policeman - not recommended by the way.

Will I get lost?

Istanbul is a complicated city with little sense to its warren of streets. But it's not huge so invest in a decent map and you can't go far wrong.

Will I find myself?

There's a good chance, especially if you're lucky enough to be leaning on the rail of a boat in the Bosphorus as twilight etches the skyline of Sultanahmet against the sky.

Should I take an umbrella?

It rains in winter and occasionally in the sweltering summer, but pick up a fake Ralph Lauren brolly in the city. They're all the rage.

What should I order in a restaurant to impress the locals?

Being able to pronounce most things on the menu will be impressive enough. But see if they have any yummy-sounding Kokoreç. It's sheep intestines and you know you want to try it.

Can I drink the water?

In Istanbul hotels, restaurants and homes it's totally safe.

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