Here at the Hotel Büyük Keban, people often ask us for tips on how to spend their time while visiting Istanbul. And since we’ve been catering to visitors from around the world for over 40 years, people think we really know this town – so they ask us, “what’s the ultimate cultural experience in Istanbul?” At first we thought this was a trick question. But then we realized that it must have been a language problem – because in Turkish, “Istanbul” means “ultimate cultural experience”
But we still think it’s a trick question, because – and here’s the honest answer – Istanbul is the ultimate cultural experience. The city itself, with all its living, breathing, fascinating mix of culture. Walking the curving, cobbled alleyways of Beyoğlu, ambling down the delightful market stalls and sampling various flavors of loukoum in the Grand Bazaar, enjoying a strong mokka at a cafe on the banks of the Bosphorus – this is what we love to experience in this wonderfully cosmopolitan metropolis. But, since you asked, here are a few of our favorite cultural experiences.
– Cross continents and back again in just a few minutes: take one of the stylish, wooden old-world ferries from Beşiktaş on the European side to Üsküdar on the Asian side. And just like that, you’re on another continent. Can you tell? We can – it just seems different. And take one back, perhaps to Eminönü this time – where you can…
– Walk in the footsteps of sultans in the Old City, and especially in the exquisite palace gardens of the Topkapi palace. For over six hundred years the Ottoman sultans ruled over a vast, rich, and transcontinental empire. And the center of their power was here on the Historical Peninsula. For four of those centuries, they were headquartered at the lavishly beautiful Topkapi – a name synonymous with mystery, riches, and intrigue – have you seen the classic film of the same name? If not, do – you won’t regret it.
– Weird and wonderful are the best ways to describe the Basilica Cistern, a Roman-era construction that served as a before-its-time water filtration system for the city. Its use over the centuries mirrors the myriad political and demographic changes of the city, and it’s the ultimate venue to witness ancient recycling and repurposing – just check out the upside-down Medusae!
– Creamy, luscious, and delicately aromatic sahlep is a Turkish delicacy. It’s milky, sweet, nutty, and its many versions sometimes feature an herbal aromatic infusion too. Simply delicious and just the thing after a walk around the city, especially if it’s chilly outside.
– Try a delicious balık ekmek (fish bread), and eat it on the run – chased down with a strong Turkish çay or mokka (tea or coffee) in a workingman’s corner cafe. The ubiquitous “fish bread” is so much more than the sum of its parts: in our opinion, the ultimate balık ekmek experience can be found on either side of the Eminönü end of the Galata bridge, between the Eminönü and Karaköy districts. There are several versions on this hometown favorite, and we love the ones with plenty of herbs and ground red chili sprinkled onto the mackerel fillets while they pop and smoke on the grill, which are then served on delicious Turkish bread with a generous squeeze of lemon, a garnish of greens, and if you like it hot, a bit of chili paste. Generations of Turkish fishermen can’t be wrong – give it a try!
So then, give these a try and tell us which was your ultimate cultural experience in Istanbul!