Istanbul is one of those huge cities with both way too many things to see and longer distances to navigate to get there. Because my mom and I had a short time in Istanbul, only five full days (we traveled to Cyprus as well), I suggested that we look into a tour that covered some of the most famous sites in a shorter amount of time, right at the beginning of our trip. The idea was that we’d see the must-sees and wouldn’t waste any time getting lost on the way there, and in the process get ourselves somewhat oriented to getting around the city. So I did a little blog research and came across My Local Guide Istanbul, also known as Salih.
Our hotel was adamant about pushing their own sponsored tour company (from whom they earn commission), but after some persuasion we were able to call Salih and set up an evening tour for the very same day. We chose Istanbul in Two Continents, a tour which included two ferry rides and both the European side and Asian side of Istanbul. The meeting point, Fuego Cafe, is a friendly (and delicious!) restaurant snuggled in the heart of Sultanhamet, close to our hotel. My mom and I ended up eating there twice, before we flew to Cyprus!
Salih was very straightforward and professional at the beginning about the places we would be visiting during the tour. Of course, he was very friendly as well, and seemed really comfortable as our guide and in Istanbul. His English was excellent. Also worth noting, because we went during the low season, we were the only two people on his tour that night.
On our tour we:
– took a metro to the port
– took a Bosphorus public ferry ride to Kadıköy
– walked through a busy street market and restaurant district
– tasted olives and mussels filled with rice & spices
– ate in a southern Turkey / Kurdish cuisine restaurant (YUM!)
– took a second ferry to Karaköy (the more northern European side)
– drank tea and ate the best baklava in Istanbul (apparently? I haven’t tasted all of the baklava in Istanbul, but I can vouch that it was delicious!)
– went to a water pipe (sheesha / hookah) smoking place, which was inside a old and re-purposed school building. (I think?! or church? mosque? I don’t remember precisely, but it was beautiful inside!)
The best parts: walking through the street market, eating southern Turkish cuisine for dinner, which wasn’t in the other restaurants, eating baklava (obviously!)… though what takes the cake was sitting in a room at the end of the night with a bunch of Turkish, mostly middle-aged dudes. My mom and I and Salih were a little bit of the odd ones out, but it was such a fascinating experience and there is no way I would have convinced my mom to go inside a water pipe smoking place otherwise. so, best tour ever?
The worst part: trying olives even though I don’t like olives, but needing to confirm that I don’t like “good” olives either, so I can rest in peace without people telling me that I “just haven’t had good olives yet”. No olives for me, please! Honestly though, there wasn’t a bad part about this tour. From start to finish, it was great, and Salih turned into one of my mom’s favorite people ever, possible challenging one of her own children in ranking. (Sorry Jon…)
Since we loved Salih so much, we booked a second tour with him two days later. We brought a friend, so it was a three person tour this time.
Istanbul Heritage: a tour through western Istanbul and the historical areas that are off the beaten path a little bit. Let me say first thing: this tour was amazing and I highly recommend doing it either with Salih or attempting on your own if you know how to use Istanbul buses and can convince some Turkish men to teach you Okey (see below).
On this tour we:
– took a very “local” bus haha
– visited a famous Greek Orthodox church complex, which is a kind of Vatican for Greek Orthodox Christians (SO shiny)
– walked along the river and bought tea from a walking vender who’s storefront had been taken by the city for bigger construction projects
– walked into the most beautiful but deteriorated neighborhood, where big, beautiful houses were abandoned during a forced population exchange and eventually inhabited by lower-class families (with little funds for property upkeep)
– saw a huge Greek school that looked like it was from Harry Potter
– drank tea and ate bread from a neighborhood bakery while learning a cool tile game named Okey (which I’m OBSESSED with, who wants to play?!)
– took a cable car up the mountain for a panoramic view of the Golden Horn by night
– walked through a beautiful Mosque complex, featuring “the tree of life” and drank (maybe questionable) natural spring water from its trunk
The best parts: the way Salih supported local businesses at every chance he got was particularly great: tea from the guy in the park carrying it in two heavy thermoses, bread from a family-owned bakery, cream cheese from a tiny grocery store. I especially loved the spectacular half deteriorated UNESCO homes sitting beside recently purchased and also beautiful renovated homes. As well, learning Okey and understanding why older Turkish men would rather sit with tea and play Okey than be at home or work was absolutely delightful.
The worst parts: the tour ending… seriously. I’m really into old houses and renovating them and their beauty even while deteriorating, so this tour was perfect. I didn’t want it to end.
If I go back to Istanbul again (or should I say ‘when’?), I’ll definitely be calling Salih and booking another tour with him. Walking around Istanbul with him felt like walking around with a really well-informed friend and you could tell that he’s put a lot of time and energy into choosing the tour spots for people. You can also see him forming friendships with the small businesses around him and going out of his way to support them. As far as Istanbul goes, Salih will always be my local guide.