Bodrum, Çeşme, Fethiye...all popular summer destinations in Turkey, famed for sun, sea and the occasional concentration of overly inebriated Brits on holiday. Istanbul is not the first place that springs to mind as an oasis of tranquility in the heat of August. However, if you know where to go, summer is actually the ideal time to explore Istanbul’s many outdoor attractions and to appreciate it as a “hotspot” in the best possible sense of the word.
Whether you are a tourist faced with the prospect of stifling lines and high season prices, or a local Istanbulite fed up with sitting in an overheated car in traffic for hours, my advice is the same: get out of the city center, forget the crowded alleys of Asmalımescit, and explore further afield for the best of summer Istanbul.
Let’s presume you have a whole weekend to play with. On a Saturday morning, the sun is shining and the Bosphorus glitters with promise: head down to Bebek Iskelesi (ferry stop in Bebek), take a stroll past the boats for hire and pick one that takes your fancy. If you have a group of friends with you, you can hire a boat for the day (or an afternoon) fairly cheaply. The route is up to you—you can meander up to Rumeli Hisarı (Rumeli Fortress), admire the Ottoman mansions on both sides of the Bosphorus, or even anchor somewhere off either coast and have a swim for a couple of hours. It is a mini-personalized cruise of the Bosphorus with all the attractions of a private party: bring your iPod and create a boating playlist for your afternoon of hedonism. You can consume the food and drinks included in the package or opt out in favor of your own cocktail choices and party food, creating your own waterborne lunch party. (This also allows you to avoid the extortionate and overcrowded restaurants on the seafront.) Depending on the size of your party, how long you want the boat and what type of boat it is, rental costs could be as little as 30 TL per person (for a big boat hired for 5 hours), or more for a smaller group. It is worth going there a few days before, and calling the number displayed on the side of the boat for a preliminary haggle. The hard work will pay off later, when you are basking in the afternoon sun, contemplating the choice between a dip in the sea or a variation on your current cocktail…
Early evening arrives all too soon, as you stumble off the boat and start thinking about dinner. If you want to save yourself a drive in the evening weekend traffic, stay in the area and treat yourself to one of the excellent local restaurants, such as the Sunset Bar and Grill up the road in Etiler. Sunset’s menu is unique in its inclusion of Japanese specialties, including sushi, and the restaurant has a breathtaking view. The outdoor bar/dining area transforms into a dance floor later in the night when a DJ arrives with a playlist of unashamed feel-good disco classics.
If you are feeling flush and want to experience the best of glitzy Istanbul nightlife, however, you must tear yourself away from Sunset to the elevated environs of Anjelique, not far away in Ortaköy. This, along with Reina, is the socialite club of choice, and not for the shy or retiring – or badly dressed.
If you would prefer a lower-octane night out, jump into a taxi and head to Pera, where you can have a drink at the Pera Palace Hotel or dance at NuTeras next door. This has a similar vibe to Angelique and Reina but is on a smaller scale and less socially intimidating.
Sunday dawns and a hearty brunch is required after your night out. If your priority is the quality and quantity of food, head for Namlı Gurme in Karaköy, a splendid delicatessen-diner with a dazzling assortment of breakfast specialties, and much beloved by locals. If you would like a lofty view to accompany your brunch, go for Galata Konak near the Galata Tower, where you can eat on a simple rooftop and drink in the view of the Golden Horn along with your tea.
Now for the day’s activities: a much underrated Istanbul sight is the section of the old city walls found near the Chora Church (worth a visit in itself). The walls are a fascinating piece of history, and climbing up to the top of the tower is an exhilarating challenge, rewarding you with an unparalleled view over much of the European side of Istanbul. I feel bound to warn sufferers of vertigo that this is not the outing for them—the last flight of steps is literally vertical and one’s travel insurance might not look upon any accident with much leniency. However, if you are feeling adventurous it is most definitely worth it. Another bonus is the much-famed Asitane restaurant nearby, just below the wall next to the Chora Church. This place is truly one of a kind, a tour de force of authentic Ottoman cuisine, with exemplary service and a charming garden for summer dining. If this is your last night in Istanbul, there could be no better finale to your trip. If you are lucky enough to live here, you will certainly be coming back.