Istanbul Culture
The Baths, Nightlife, other fun stuff

I've just finished reading a book called "Tales from the Expat Harem", a compilation of short accounts by foreign women living in Turkey.
I really enjoying it and I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in Turkish culture that cannot be found in a museum. As tourists, we manage to barely scratch the surface of this rich and complex society.
The editors are 2 American women living in Istanbul with their Turkish husbands. Many of the personal accounts in the book are by women in the same situation. These women's stories are very intimate and provide a window into Turkish family life and relationships, sometimes exploding myths and misconceptions about Turkish culture.
Their website also offers some resources for the traveler.

I was in the bazaar when I heard alot of men yelling vehemently. There was a large group of them waving their hands and making alot of noise. I became concerned that it might be a demonstration. I asked a shopkeeper. He said, "it is...(he searched for words)...Wall Street!" I felt silly.
We have run into a couple demonstrations. There are sometimes very large ones, which take place in a park on a hill where you are not likely to go.
The first time we went, there was an important international conference and the teachers were demonstrating. There were police in riot gear bordering it. It was kind of scary, but they just re-routed us around it. The last time we went, it was the police who were demonstrating. They were not happy with the government. We know of a couple that canceled their trip on news of this, but it was really nothing. There was an increased police presence. They mostly seemed to be flexing their muscle, but did not bother us at all. There were actually tanks on Isteklal street.
We believe it is best to avoid any crowd with police in riot gear, but we've never run into any real trouble.

People have asked us, "I've heard so much about Sulukule, the Gypsy (Rom) neighborhood. Did you go there?".  Sadly, no. It used to be much visited by tourists. The cafes were full of music and dance. This neighborhood was the first sedentary settlement of Roma. A Byzantine scribe first wrote in 1054 of “Egyptians” living in black tents pitched along the fortress walls and making a living belly dancing and telling fortunes. After Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Sulukule's dancers and musicians became fixtures of the Ottoman court. This makes it an historic and cultural treasure. But, in 1992, the municipality closed the cafes and Sulukule began it's decline. The Rom lost their means of support. Now, at the end of 2007, the city plans to demolish the Roma neighborhood to gentrify the area. A community almost 1000 years old will be lost. UNESCO, the branch of the UN concerned with ethnic cultures, is trying to stop the demolition, along with the Rom and other sympathetic Turks. It seems to me that the money that is being put towards gentrification would be better spent renovating the historic area and re-opening cafes.

Haggling is an art and psychological warfare. Consider it a sport. At first it's distastefull to alot of Americans, especially us Southerners. But, after you've been here a short while, you realize that you've got to let go of some of your ideas about politeness. Here are a couple tricks...
The merchants here have a superstition about the first customer of the day; not neccesarily the first person that walks through the door, but the first to take an interest in something enough to ask the price. If they make a sale to that person, the rest of the day will be good for sales. I went to a shop the other day where the owner would not come down on the price of the pieces I wanted. When I went back, I was the first customer and he was much more flexible.
Ted and I will sometimes play off each other. One of us will ask a price; the merchant counters. If I don't think he's coming down far enough, I'll look at Ted; he shakes his head. No, we don't want it that bad. I start to put it down. That's usually enough. If it's not, you can start walking out the door. We once had a merchant catch up with us 5 blocks from his shop to accept our last offer. If you buy more than one, it's easier to offer less. If he says 14 lira, you can more easily say "3 for 30 lira?"

We've added some google video links to these entries. Lots of good stuff! Most are pretty short. I sat up til 2am searching google videos so you don't have to! is the motherlode of clips of Istanbul

I like this web-site. It's done by Tom Brosnahan, who's written for Lonely Planet and Frommer's guides after duty in the Peace Corp in Turkiye. The name says it all: Lot's of good info. He's also written a book called "Bright Sun, Strong Tea" about his years in Turkiye in the Peace Corp, which I enjoyed quite a bit. You can order the book through his site.

Istanbul is one of the few places where non-Muslims are welcome in mosques (camii). The Blue Mosque is right in tourist central, and is different from the others for this reason. You will be assaulted by postcard sellers and the like as you approach the front door, where men often stand wanting tips to tend to your shoes, which you must remove before entering. You go to the back entrance, where this isn't a problem. (note...they keep moving the door where they want the tourists to enter. there will be signs.)
Women are asked to cover their heads and sometimes their arms. I really recommend women pack a headscarf for such occasions. It takes up no space at all in your bag, and also comes in handy if the weather gets chilly or wet. At other mosques, especially those off the beaten path, women should cover their heads. When visiting Sultanahmet Camii, a gentleman posted at the door was loaning Indian wrap skirts for this purpose; but also for male tourist that were wearing shorts. (You stick out like a sore thumb in shorts there anyway. I advise against them, unless you enjoy carrying around a neon sign that screams 'tourist!'.) Most mosques that ever get tourists have scarves to loan. Some women take it off as soon as they get inside. Don't be that tourist. These people are allowing you into their sacred spaces. Respect that.
At all mosques, avoid visiting during prayer times. These are usually posted at the door. There is a screened area for women only. If there is anyone in there praying, keep a respectfull distance and your voice down. Do not sit down anywhere. Some mosques will ask for a donation at the entrance. Click for a video of the Ezan sung there.
Here is a link to another site that talks about the birdhouses built into the sides of mosques. It took us 8 trips before we saw them; these jewels hidden in plain sight.

Beyoğlu is the place to be at night. We just wander up and down Isteklal Caddesi, a street that is mostly restricted to pedestrian traffic between the Tunel and Taksim Square. There is a trolley that runs back and forth, but we've never ridden it. On this street you will find embassies, the Sufi Mosque, a beautiful old church, trendy shops, restaraunts, and Cicek Pasaji. The "flower passage" is famous; but it's just a collection of restaraunts. More interesting is the little alley beside it with it's fish and produce market. We go there for midye tava, little wooden skewers of fried mussels served with a simple dipping sauce on the side. That's where we met the 'squat hole witch'; the woman who attends the worst toilet in Istanbul. Make sure you've got a tip for her, or she'll turn nasty. (We've made a point of knowing where all the best toilets are, after that first trip. Most do not have attendants.) There are alot of CD, video, and book shops on Isteklal, in case you can't make it down to Unkapani to shop for your music. We have often bought CD's that we heard playing in the shops, and have rarely been disappointed. Our favorite restaraunts are to be found on the side streets radiating out from Isteklal. We really recommend exploring those side streets, but be carefull. Don't go more than a block or two off Isteklal at night if you don't know the area, or it is not a well lit commercial area. These side streets also offer ALOT of live music. (video clip from a saz bar) You will get the hang of finding it quickly. Watch for signs outside the bars. There is often a photo of the musician holding his instrument. If it's after 9pm, you can just walk until you hear the type of music you are looking for. There are alot of saz bars. On our last trip, we heard zurnas, a sure sign of a good party. (clarinets are a good sign, too.) We went in and found a band that had saz, zurna, kaval, davul, and a singer. They had great energy, and we were soon up dancing with the Turks. They could tell we were foreign, but were pleased by our interest in Turkish culture. The band came down from the stage to meet us, and we made many friends that night. We like to hit one of the sweet shops during our evening. You can't miss them. Most display some of the treats in the window, like the baklava type pastries that drip honey all day. In general, chocolate is not the Turk's forte. In colder weather, I like the sahlep drink that's made from orchid root and is halfway between a milky chai and a custard. Ted does not like it, though. I wouldn't order it with a dessert unless a diabetic coma is your idea of a good time. It is a dessert in itself.
We really just enjoy strolling up and down Istiklal with all the folk out to have a fun time. The first time we went, there was a huge international conference in town and the city had some little stages with musicians set up. Since then, we've seen a couple street musicians, but the police chase them off. It's too bad. There is such a great variety of musicians in Istanbul that a small stage or two would just be another of Beyoglu's tourist draws. Click here for a 3 minute video of a santur player there.
When your evening on Isteklal is over, if you have to get back across the bridge, you can forget the tunel. I believe it closes around 9pm. We go up to Taksim Square and get a taxi.

When you're considering a hotel in Istanbul, does it matter if there's a t.v.?
As little time as we spent in our room, we loved having t.v. We only had a few channels, though we were right in the middle of Istanbul. Still, it was good to be able to watch BBC news, and there is SO much good music on! In fact, there are so many good music shows on t.v. that we bought a satellite dish that receives foriegn t.v. when we got home. There are Turkish pop shows that are really fun; but the best are the traditional musicians that are constantly being showcased. We also saw many shows that went to places like Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan that featured wonderfull scenery and footage of traditional costume and decor.

During our 2007 trip, we went to a Hamam (Turkish Bath) for the first time. We chose Cemberlitas Hamam because it's a few blocks from our hotel and 400 years old. They have a lovely and informative web-site. We had passed by it 100 times walking up Divan Yolu to the bazaar without noticing it. The building is gorgeous, but the entrance is easy to overlook, because it blends in with the shops around it. If you are walking  up Divan Yolu from Sultanahmet towards the bazaar on the right side and you get to the tall pillar (surrounded by scaffolding at the moment), turn around and you will see the sign for the bath just around the corner. You walk in and go to the desk to look at the menu of services and pay. Straight ahead, you see the tea room filled with lounging men. I went off to the right side, which is for women, where I was given a washcloth and a light towel. (pestemal) You undress in this area (most women leave their panties on) and put your belongings in a locker, taking the key. There are sandals in the cubbies below for you to wear. Then, you proceed to the cold room, with more lockers and benches. Straight ahead, you see the room where massage is performed. My daughter Sara and I had opted for the soap massage and scrub, so we went left into the main bath area. The floor is warm white marble with a heated slab in the center of the room. There were several ladies on it already, laughing and gossiping, and I had the impression that they had been there without change for 400 years. Sara and I went to some open space and lay down to sweat. After sweating for awhile, the attendants called us over to be scrubbed. Sara thought the scrubbing was slightly rough, I thought it was perfect. After the first round, you find that there is tons of dead skin scrubbed up. Then you're rinsed and scrubbed again. Then came the not-terribly-relaxing-but-very-refreshing-and-energizing soap massage. There was a sign on the wall that said "do not bathe nude", but they said it was ok and the attendants were half nude themselves.
Eventually, you're left to relax and sweat as much as you like. The slab is said to be warmest in the middle, but we found that the near side was much cooler, and the far side was so warm that it was uncomfortable to put my feet on the floor for long. We lay staring at the pierced dome and listening to the echoing Turkish talk for awhile, then went to rinse again at one of the several basins. These include 2 taps for hot and cold water, a basin that these fill, and a bowl. You turn on as much hot and cold as you like and use the bowl to pour the water over yourself. There are grooves in the marble floor that the water runs into. Do wear your sandals when you walk around to avoid slipping. You can sit in the cold room as long as you like before you go to dress. There are hairdryers in the first locker room. The gentleman at the front desk spoke English well, but the bath attendants only knew enough English to confuse us. It didn't really matter, we managed well enough. Ted, over on the men's side, had the place to himself (at 9pm on a weeknight, tho Bob has told us that a Sunday afternoon was packed). His attendant did the same routine, but added a few chiropractic-type maneuvers. We came out feeling nicely relaxed and refreshed after a day of walking all over Istanbul.
Click here for a 30 second video clip of the very ornate hamam at Dolmabahce Palace, or here for a video of a walk through Suleymaniye hamam.
If you go to a bath other than Cemberlitas or Cağaloğlu Hamam, be carefull to ask someone who knows the area first. Some really overcharge tourists, or have some other problems.

Some merchants will buy things from you, or trade with you. We found this out on our third trip to Istanbul. We had taken a gift of sea shells to a friend, who as it turns out, had moved and could not be found. He had taken us to a shop that sells them because he used them in the inlays on his sazes. We didn't want to take them home again, so we went and found this shop and sold them there for more than we paid for them. On our last trip, with Sheque and Kay from Touch The Earth, a shopkeeper stuck his head out his door to offer to trade amber jewelry for Sheque's baseball cap. He ended up bringing home lots of stuff he had traded for.

So you've been walking all over Istanbul and you need to relax awhile...
We think that one of the best places to take some down-time during the day is in the tea gardens. You find them scattered around the city. When you see lots of cafe tables outside, with no building big enough to be a restaurant attatched, you've probably found one. If you order çay, (pronounced like "chai") you get a little tulip glass (about 3 oz) of very strong, acidic tea on a saucer with a few sugar cubes and a tiny spoon. You'll need alot of sugar. If you order "alma" chai, you get something like warm apple cider. No sugar needed. For extra relaxation, have a kitten delivered to your table. Actually, they are not on the menu; but once, we were sitting in a tea garden across from the Blue Mosque watching a kitten frolicing in the bushes. A waiter went over and scooped it up. We were afraid he was going to fling it out of the garden, but he carried it over to a table and handed it to a lady who was there having tea. I guess she asked him to bring it to her. Tea and kittens! Yay! Ice Cream is often on the menu there too, as well as Cola and "dee-et" cola. (remember your Turkish phonetics if you want diet cola) Ice is "buz" ("booz"); you usually won't get it automatically. You might not get it at all. And if you do get it, it surely won't be made with bottled water. For maximum relaxation, have a nargile pipe brought to your table.

One place that most tourists don't bother to go to is Unkapani neighborhood. I'm assuming that since you are reading this on Turku's site, that you like Turkish music. There is a mall there that is nothing but music stores. You are pretty safe buying CD's there without knowing much about the artist. They are very inexpensive, and if there is a folksy picture on the cover, it's probably pretty good. You can always take it to the counter and ask "halk musik?" (folk music) and be more sure. We've bought tons of CD's from artists we didn't know in this way, and rarely been disapointed. If it has a picture of a belly dancer on the front, you're taking more of a chance. If you want belly dance music, the Romani stuff is your best bet. Look for the word "Roman" on the cover. We also took a chance on our last trip and bought some "VCD's" (video cd's). They worked fine on our DVD player and we ended up with some real gems! Lots of great folk dance.
This mall is on Ataturk Bulvari, not far from the aquaduct. Just tell your cab driver, "Unkapani, Ataturk Bulvari, IMC 6 Blok". Or, it's maybe a 30 minute walk from the Covered Bazaar up Divan Yolu.

Check out a movie called "Topkapi" with the late, great Peter Ustinov. It's set in Istanbul, and there are lots of great shots of the city and Turkish culture. There is a scene featuring traditional wrestling that shows a cool band playing a Janissary march.
The James Bond film "From Russia with Love" also shows alot of Istanbul, including scenes filmed in the Yerebatan Cistern. (Click here for a video walk through the cistern)
And if you are thinking of misbehaving, you should, of course, see "Midnight Express". The hero goes to the pudding shop next to Yerebatan Cistern, which is still there and is a great place to get lunch when you can't read a menu. Try the zucchini stuffed with cheese. Yum! The prison has been turned into a very posh hotel.
Note- Recently, the book's author and the screenwriter apologized for the film's inaccurate portrayal of the Turkish people and augmentation of the story to make a more exciting film. But, the damage is done.
There is an Italian film called "Hamam" that has some Istanbul scenes. It's about an Italian man that inherits a Turkish Bath in Istanbul.
My favourite film that features Istanbul, however, is the TLC series called "Byzantium". It's just fantastic, the filming, the narrator, and the way the information is presented. If you love Istanbul, you've got to see it.
Here are some random video links...
A lovely commercial from the ministry of tourism
The lobby of a palace
A walk through the market
This is a clip showing old and new Istanbul set to "Uskadara Gideriken"
Random Istanbul and more random Istanbul
A walk through some of the grounds of the Topkapi.
The interior of the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, well worth the walk.

Most tourists eventually end up at a folklore show and/or a restaurant that features belly dancing. The quality of the performances varies and it's hard to know what you're getting till it's a bit late. One thing that we didn't find till our second trip to Istanbul was the saz bars. Aaaahhhh... There must be a million of them on the side streets off Istiklal Caddesi. We found the first one when we saw a sign that said "Turku" and we had to check it out! These are a quiet oasis after a day of crawling all over Istanbul. You can sit for as long as you like, eating Pistachios (fistik) and drinking yummy Efes beer and listening to a saz player. Usually, he will sing, or there will be a woman singing with him. Very relaxing. If you are feeling adventurous, try the Raki. (Alot like Ouzo; the same licorice taste) The Turks usually mix it with water at the table in a tall skinny glass. When you mix the two clear liquids, they turn white. They call the mix "Lion's milk". It only makes it slightly less nasty, but we figured it was a required experience if we were going to immerse ourselves in the real Istanbul. The second saz bar we found was called "Otantik." ("Authentic!" Remember what I said before about learning the Turkish letters. Spotting words that look Turkish but are actually English has gotten to be a sport for us; and very useful.) It was on the second floor, you have to look for signs up high. There are lots of good, inexpensive restaurants on those side streets as well, they are really worth exploring. Don't be shy about tipping the musicians. There is also a Dervish music and dance ceremony you may attend at a Mosque you will find at the end of Istiklal Caddesi. It's the downhill end near Tunel. Women sit upstairs separate from the men and watch through a screen.

Istanbul is full of Internet cafes now. It's a great way to connect with people at home and let them know you're ok and having a fantastic time in Istanbul! Time is about $3 an hour. That's a bargain compared to international phone charges. (especially from your hotel, which often adds quite a surcharge) Postcards are a pain since you have to spend your precious Istanbul vacation shopping for them, writing them, finding stamps, and mailing them. Some places that sell stamps will slap you with an outrageous surcharge, as well! And you will probably get home before they do. You can find internet cafes by looking up. They are everywhere in second floor apartments and over shops. And it's not like the signs are in Turkish; they say "internet cafe". Once you spot one sign at second story level, you'll see they are all over the place. The only drawback is the keyboards. The "i" key will come up as an undotted Turkish "i". Folks at home will either see a "y" in it's place in your e-mails or a character string that looks really weird. (Guess where y am? Or worse, Guess where &iundot; am?) Use the "i" on the right of the keyboard. Otherwise, there's not much problem. If you don't want to carry around everyone's e-mail address, send yourself an e-mail before you leave that has everyone's address, then copy/paste.

My daughter just sent me an e-mail from Thailand. Her first trip abroad! (Unless you count that quick run into Canada to buy hockey gear, poor thing!) How could I have neglected to warn her about the hustlers?! They are worse in some countries than others. They 'bout drove us nuts sometimes in Morocco; not so bad in Istanbul. The more 'touristy' the area is, the worse the hustlers are. Mostly in Istanbul, though, it's rug sellers. Everybody and his house cat has a rug shop they really want you to visit; or sometimes it's a trinket shop, or maybe a restaurant. There will be someone accosting tourists walking down the street. You soon learn to ignore them. A little more difficult to ignore are the freelance merchants walking around with random items to sell just outside the covered bazaar. But, as Bob says, "don't give them face." If you acknowledge their existence, you can't get rid of them. Or, if you find that uncomfortable, try saying "iyi günler" (good day) to make a polite end to the meeting as you keep walking.
Then, there are the guys down at the ferry docks that pretend to work there. Buy your own ticket at the window with the right neighborhood listed; it's not that confusing. There are printed schedules, but they can be hard to get. If you look at google maps, you will see dotted lines that denote the ferry routes. The name of the line is written on it. Very handy. Here is a link to the feribot web-site.

In Istanbul, you really have to keep your eyes open. If you blink as you walk, you will miss something. Do watch the sidewalks, though, they can be rough. I've learned the hard way to glance down and scan the next several feet ahead as I went walking. And you will (you should, if you don't want to miss some amazing stuff) do alot of walking. We stayed twice at a hotel on Pierre Loti Caddesi off Divan Yolu. Late during our second visit, I noticed a sign across the street from it that said "Theodosius Cistern"; just a little sign on the wall of a large, modern building. We walked across and peeked into the open door...a few steps leading down. We went down. There was a little office with some guards inside. They looked up, then ignored us. So, we walked through the next door. We were in a cistern just like Yerebatan Sarnici, only it didn't have boardwalks or a gift shop. We were delighted. No matter how plain or modern the neighborhood, there are amazing things everywhere in Istanbul. (Click here for a short video clip of a helicopter fly-over of Istanbul)

Many people asked us why we were going to Istanbul during Ramadan. We've been twice during Ramadan; and though we wouldn't visit most Muslim countries at that time, Istanbul is no problem. Quite the contrary, every night during the month of Ramadan there is a festival at the Hippodrome. It's very colorful and you'll be able to hear great live music. You can also try local festival foods that are not usually available. The restaurants are all still open during the day, and we had no trouble getting fed. You might want to be considerate and avoid walking down the street munching away on something.

I recommend that you visit the Askeri (military) museum. They feature a show by the Mehter band daily. This is the original marching band, very cool. There is a short film in English, then the Mehter march in and do a few songs. The museum also has a fabulous collection of tents and captured arms and armor (including some very rare helmets). The best way to get there is to grab a taxi. It's not in easy walking distance of the usual tourist areas. But, it's closer to Taksim square than Sultanahmet. You will be searched on the way in. For a fee, you may take photos inside.(I think it was about 6 lira) The gift shop is very small, but we always end up buying alot of stuff there.

As of this writing (June 2008) many of the galleries are closed for renovation. You might want to ask at the desk. When we were last there, half the place was closed.
Another good place to catch the Mehter band is at the Topkapi. Inquire at the ticket booth to see if they are scheduled to march that day. Here's a video clip of a band playing one of my favorite marches.