Old Town Istanbul is home to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (i.e. Blue Mosque), Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, and more historical sights than you could imagine fitting into a single neighborhood.
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Everywhere you go, you’re going to encounter something old and historical. Yet, everything is remarkably clean and well maintained. The best way to get around Old Town is to take the tram. The tram station was right outside our hotel and we were able to get around easily. If I remember correctly, the fare is a flat 4 Lira and the tram goes all the way to Kabatas. We did take cabs sometimes, mainly because the tram would get crowded at night. However, the cab drivers are an unscrupulous bunch and I would avoid them at all cost.
I highly recommend walking around Old Town at night. It’s got a charm all its own. The area is bustling with activity and it feels remarkably safe. Many vendors unload their unsold goods (mainly souvenir items) for something like $0.50 on the sidewalk. There is also an abundance of vendors selling knock-off handbags, if that’s your thing.
You will also run into these nice older ladies who knit hats and scarves
Some of these women sat with their disabled children, in an effort to get more sympathy. Call me a cynic, but I have a feeling this is a scam targeted at tourists. Kind of like all the beggars on the streets of Kabul, who I was told either lie about their circumstances or are watched over by “caretakers” who take all their money in exchange for a bit of food and shelter (think crime ring in Slumdog Millionaire). In any case, I bought a few things for my niece and without haggling. The prices were low already and I felt bad that these women were knitting away on a sidewalk in the middle of the night.
One of my cousins had recommended stopping by Hafiz Mustafa 1864 for dessert. A waiter at the restaurant we had dined at gave us directions and insisted it was within walking distance. It ended up being at least a 20-minute walk. We stopped by a souvenir stand and the guy manning it turned out to be an illegal immigrant from Afghanistan. He was hoping to make his way to Germany because there was “no work here in Istanbul.” We picked up some souvenirs, which he discounted heavily for us. We asked if we were anywhere near Hafiz Mustafa and he confirmed we were just a block or two away. However, he described it as a touristy place and if we wanted authentic baklava, there was a place on the pier that claimed to have invented it. It was late, so we continued on our path towards Hafiz Mustafa.
All of the tables outside were taken and while there was seating on the second floor, we preferred to sit outside. “No problem” said the waiter and sprinted upstairs while his colleagues made us try everything we laid our eyes on. Seriously – you so much as glance at something and they’ll pull out their knives, cut it up, and insist you try it. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t eat appetizers or anything else before the main course, so gorging on samples of baklava before deciding on a full-size option wasn’t my style. These folks were very persistent, so I went along with the binge fest.
Soon, two waiters returned with a table and chairs, which they placed outside for us. It was kind of like that restaurant scene in Goodfellas, minus the organized crime and Jimmy Two Times repeating everything twice.
My cousin recommended the creme brûlée of all things, so I tried that while my parents and sister loaded up on baklava. It was all good and lovely, but not exactly up to the hype. On our third day, my cousin took us out to a restaurant on the Bosphorus called Kasibeyaz. The baklava served there was infinitely better. Still, I enjoyed the service and atmosphere at Hafiz Mustafa.
It was a nice evening and since there was a tram stop right outside the restaurant, we took the tram back to the Sultanahmed area. There, we hopped off and checked out a few shops.
One of them had beautifully embroidered pillowcases and the guy manning the shop immediately walked over and asked in English which ones I was interested in. I expressed surprise that he spoke English so well, and he began rattling off all the other languages he spoke: “Turkish, Arabic, Farsi, Dari…” I stopped him at Dari and asked where he was from. It turns out he was Afghan and when I told him we were too, his demeanor changed and he instantly warmed up to us. He explained that a lot of times when Afghan tourists come around, they identify themselves by the country they live in and not their ethnicity. He expressed how proud he was to have met fellow Afghans who were not ashamed of where they were from.
There are some ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and the other minorities in Afghanistan (Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras). A lot of Afghan television programs in the US stoke these racial tensions, so it was nice to meet someone who looked past these ethnic differences and addressed us as “his” fellow Afghans. Needless to say, he gave me a good deal on the pillow cases and as is customary, offered us tea. We didn’t want to hold him up, so we wished him a good night and headed back to the hotel.
If you are visiting Istanbul, make it a point to stroll around Old Town at night. You will be surrounded by lots of people, you might score a good deal on discounted merchandise, and you’ll see the city through a whole other lense.