If you are a tourist visiting Istanbul, you are probably stuck in Sultanahmet, queuing in an unending wait for the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi. You’ve likely set aside a whole day for haggling at the Grand Bazaar. Half of your time will no doubt be spent in choking traffic.
To a part-time resident of Istanbul like me, all this rush seems to go against the real spirit of Istanbul, the hüzün. Hüzün is the Turkish word for melancholy, but it is so much more: an enchantment, an illusion, a spell. But you are unlikely to find it when jostling for bargains with other tourists. If you really want to experience the magic of Istanbul, the best way is to sit still and soak in the city’s breathtaking views: sun, sea, minarets and parks. Most of these don’t figure in the tourist guides, which means you can escape the crowds.
The best time to visit the city is in April and May, during laleh zaman, or the time of tulips. Begin at Emirgan Park, which will be carpeted with flaming blooms in scarlet, yellow and fuchsia, more beautiful than any you will ever see in Amsterdam. Contrary to popular legend, tulips originated in Turkey—in the palaces of the Ottoman sultans—not the Netherlands.
Even outside the tulip season, the park has gorgeous, sweeping views of the Bosphorus, pretty cafés, even a Japanese garden with cherry blossom next door.
Next, walk along the waterfront to the posh suburb of Bebek, perhaps the prettiest seaside walk in the world, peppered with bridges, old Turkish homes and fishermen casting for hamsi, a local anchovy. Grab a dondurma (Turkish ice cream) from the hole-in-the-wall Bebek Mini Dondurma while you are at it. Tip: Try the sour cherry.
Guidebooks will entreat you to visit the Galata Tower for sweeping views of Istanbul, but at 30 Turkish lira (TL; or Rs.700) for entry, it’s an overpriced tourist trap, and you will only be allowed to spend minutes at the narrow top of the tower. Instead, walk to the nearby Galata Konak café, where the skyline is scattered with the minarets of three mosques.
Most tourists make the mistake of overlooking the Asian side of Istanbul. Asea, as the Turks call it, is completely different from the European side. It’s what you might think of as the “real” Turkey. You will see more women in headscarves, fascinating local markets, and fewer tourists. In the blue-collar suburb of Üsküdar, you can sit on steps leading to the Bosphorus and eat hot kestane (roasted chestnuts), surrounded by hustling shoe-shiners and knife sharpeners. You will look out on to the graceful spire of the Maiden’s Tower, a medieval structure bang in the middle of the Bosphorus. Local legend has it that a Turkish sultan shut his daughter up in the tower because it was prophesied that she would die from a snakebite. Sadly, the snake got in anyway, in a basket of fruit.
The suburb of Moda also offers wonderful seaside panoramas and old Ottoman houses to explore. The Pierre Loti Café, named after a French novelist and naval officer, and perched atop a steep hill, has spectacular views of the Golden Horn.
Want to look down on the city from castle walls like the sultans of yore? Many tourists take the rushed 20-minute ferry across the Bosphorus. If you have time, though, take the all-day ferry and get off at the 15th century fortress Rumeli Hisarı. It also goes by another, gruesome name, the Bosphorus Throat Cutter, because it was built by Sultan Mehmet II with the aim of straddling the strait and guarding it in times of war.
Locals say that it was at this spot that the Persian emperor Darius I stood, looking proudly at his army invading Europe. That seems probable, because you can’t find a better view anywhere in Istanbul. You will look out over turrets and cannons towards the shimmering Black Sea, bisected by the soaring Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge.
Round off your day with high tea and people-watching at the Ciragan Palace hotel, a former Ottoman palace, perched on the best part of the Bosphorus. It is expensive, at TL 78 per meal, but a worthwhile splurge for the sparkling view of hills and sea, and the delectable mini simits (Turkish bagels) and dolmas (stuffed vine leaves). Dress up; Istanbul’s wealthy make even Olivia Pope from the television series Scandal look grungy.