Over the past year, we have taken quite a shine to city tours, which is not something we were really into before. The private kind of tour that give you a local’s perspective on a city.
The kind that enable you to see all the good bits at your leisure, while skipping queues, missing the crowds and getting better access to the big ticket attractions. We have also found it’s a great way to gain good local insight to help you better explore the rest of the city later.
This is what we got recently, a local’s guide to Istanbul; where the locals eat, shop, drink, explore and relax.
There’s a new breed of tour guide these days. They are young, mostly university educated and well informed in matters of local and world affairs. They are up with popular culture and what is fashionable. This means knowing the latest local fads in food, fashion and socialising. So as well as sharing an in depth, educated knowledge of local history, art and architecture, they can guide you to the hottest restaurant, art exhibition or off the tourist trail market.
Istanbul had experienced a very unexpected and heavy snow storm the day before our tour. We had a plan of what we wanted to see, but the snow and ice meant it was going to be difficult getting there. Istanbul had nearly come to a standstill!
Thankfully, the company we had arranged the tour with was just the kind we like, flexible, cruisy and open to whatever you wanted to do.
Our guide Furkan explained that while the company offers set tour options of the main tourist attractions, they are also open to whatever the customer wants to do. If we wanted to sit on the banks of the Bosphorus all day, drink wine and chat, he said “Fine, we can do that!” (note: schedule this for another day)
He once had a very wealthy customer who wanted to go to the new fancy shopping centres to buy furniture. “No problem, it’s your day!” He said he had absolutely no interest in or knowledge of furniture shopping, but hey.
So on the premise we would not be trudging the tourist trail, we left ourselves open to see the places Furkan liked to visit, as a local, his guide to Istanbul, with one exception –
Panorama 1453. Mark had specifically wanted to see this museum which took Furkan by surprise. A history museum mostly frequented by high school students and Turkish people interested in Ottoman history. Luckily the road to this was passable.
The museum commemorates the Ottoman siege of Constantinople in 1453. And the reason Mark so desperately wanted to go? Well, it’s pretty cool.
The centre point of the museum is a 3D panoramic depiction of the actual 15th century siege. A dome, hand painted by eight artists over five years, measuring 38 metres in diameter and covering 2,350 square metres.
When you first enter the centre platform and stand under the dome, you almost feel dizzy. The sound of cannons roaring, flaming cannonballs and arrows look as if they are flying through the air directly at you. At any moment, you could get caught up in the battle.
Your entire sense of balance gets momentarily thrown as you are suddenly surrounded by this dramatic environment.
It made me think of the movie with Jim Carey, The Truman Show where he unknowingly grows up in a dome built to create a reality TV show about his not so real life. It really is quite an incredible installation.
The real life scene of this moment in Turkish history is here, the old city walls of Istanbul. Stretching 22km’s, making Constantinople an almost impenetrable city until the Ottomans came along!
So with Mark’s wish list checked off, it’s on with our locals guide to Istanbul.
Kariye Museum Or Chora Church, Church of the Holy Savior. Considered one of the most beautiful remaining Byzantine churches in the world, it is possibly one of the most underrated museums in Istanbul. Chora Museum receives a fraction of visitors the Hagia Sophia does but is equally, if not more striking, due to the interiors stunning array of frescoes and mosaics.
The majority of the frescoes and mosaics depict the lives of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, including some rare depictions of the birth and life of Mary herself.
Like Hagia Sophia, Chora was converted into a mosque after Constantinople fell to the Ottomans and the stunning frescoes and mosaics were plastered over. In 1948 restoration began and around 10 years later the building was opened as a public museum.
And on your way to Chora, keep an eye out for all the gorgeous timber Ottoman style architecture in the area.
While the Blue Mosque is undoubtedly on the “Must See” list for Istanbul, there is another mosque that doesn’t quite draw the same crowds, but is equal in beauty and a much more pleasant visiting experience.
Süleymaniye Mosque may not be the most well known with the tourist crowd, but it is the largest mosque in the city and a landmark that sits atop the third hill of Istanbul. So while many see it, many do not visit.
The gardens surrounding the mosque offer incredible views of Istanbul, even on a cold, dark, snowy day.
Istiklal Avenue. Head into the Pera district and take a stroll down the famous Istiklal Avenue. A 1.4 km pedestrian strip lined with shops, restaurants and historical patisseries.
Thanks to our new found local knowledge, we wandered the back streets, stopped for tea in some gorgeous little cafes and found beautiful arcades that epitomise the European side. Then there was shopping in one of the biggest and coolest retro stores we have ever seen. Mark finally found that spacesuit he has been looking for!
We saw the side of Istanbul that was more than just beautiful old mosques and museums. The locals Istanbul.
Take the Tünel back down the hill and a stroll along the waterfront before lunch.
It was too cold to take up on the offer of sitting by the water, drinking wine and chatting for the afternoon! Maybe next time. We had to settle for this fantastic restaurant instead.
It is a must to experience all the major attractions of the Old City, the Asian side, and the European side of Instanbul. But, if you have a spare day, make like a local and head to the less popular places or just wander the streets. You might like Istanbul from a locals perspective.
Guided Istanbul Tours offer a number of quality private tours around Istanbul and Turkey. They are also happy to guide you on any tour or activity you would like to do – Shopping anyone! Prices are subject to tour type.
Tours include transport, entry fees and bilingual guides.