Astride two continents in the city that T.S. Elliot once described as “the still point of the turning world,” Istanbul’s timeless allure lies in its juxtaposition of East and West, where an opulent past merges with the vibrant present. Its numerous mosques, palaces, and glorious views of the Bosphorus will delight the eye at every turn, but here are some of Istanbul’s less obvious, hidden gems.
Istanbul Toy Museum
“I always believed that Istanbul, as a city of fables, was entitled to have a children’s museum,” explains author and poet, Sunay Akin. After visiting a similar museum in Germany he vowed to open a toy museum in Turkey. In 2005, his wooden, fairytale-like family home in the Göztepe neighborhood was transformed into a delightful repository for some 4,000 toys—exquisite dollhouses, porcelain and rag dolls, Turkish tin toys, trains, and a circus gallery, with an entire old toy shop re-erected here. At 3 p.m. on weekends, enjoy a puppet show or magic theater.
(Ömerpasa Avenue Dr. Zeki Zeren Street No. 17; Göztepe / IST; tel. +90-216-359-4550; www.istanbuloyuncakmuzesi.com)
Sevan Bicakci: Lord of the Rings
The minarets, exotic bazaars and childhood memories of his native Istanbul serve as the muse for this genius known in the fine jewelry industry as “Lord of the Rings.” Each one-of-a-kind band—handcrafted from gold, silver, antique diamonds and uniquely cut gemstones of his latest Namesake collection—incorporates Turkish architectural miniatures, fountains, snakes and underwater sea creatures like lobsters and octopi. Each piece is astonishing, and his diamond-studded snake cuff bracelet-ring is truly fabulous. You must email or call ahead for an appointment.
(Malla Fenari Mah. Gazi Sinanpasa Sk
No. 16; tel. +90-212-520-4516; www.sevanbicakci.com)
Asitane: Dine like a Sultan
Retrieved from the culinary archives of the Dolmabahce and Topkapi Palaces, Asitane compiled hundreds of forgotten sweet and savory recipes dating back centuries, then tested them in their kitchen, with only the most delicious making the final menu cut, including one—ayva kalyasi, lamb, quince and chickpeas cooked in a grape molasses—served at a feast for Suleiman the Magnificent’s sons in 1539.
Vegetarian options, including the sublime almond soup, abound. Asitane periodically offers themed weeks such as “The Age of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror” or “Ottoman Aphrodisiacs.” For summer evening dining, there’s an outdoor courtyard with live music.
(Kariye Camii Sokak No: 6 34240 Edirnekapi; tel. +90-212-635-7997; www.asitanerestaurant.com)
Ali Usta Ice Cream
Who could not be insanely curious about ice cream that pulls like taffy and requires a knife and fork to eat? Salepi dondurma, orchid ice cream, is a quintessential Turkish treat not to be missed. For over three decades, Ali Kumbasar and his siblings have made the unique silky-smooth dessert, the vital ingredient being salep, an alabaster flour ground from dried tubers of wild orchids. You might be enticed by the more alluring cherry, apricot or chocolate—but try vanilla to savor the distinctive aftertaste: nutty, shiitake mushrooms, a hint of goat cheese, and an indecipherable faint fragrance.
(Ali Kumbasar, Moda Caddesi No. 264/A, Moda; tel. +90-216-414-1880)
Not carpet shopping while in Istanbul would be like skipping high tea in England or the pyramids in Egypt. But for the time-strapped, you will appreciate Hakan Evin’s no-haggle policy. From the first cup of chai or coffee, you know exactly what you’re buying, for the lowest possible price, and each carpet is certified. Hakan entertains a steady stream of famous customers including the likes of presidents Bush (the elder) and Clinton, and actor Ben Affleck.
(Kürçüler Çarsısı Rubiye Han No. 10 Kapalıçarsı; tel. +90-212-519-1542;
The Basilica Cistern
Eerie and fantastic, the largest surviving Byzantine (532 A.D.) underground cistern was built to sustain the city during sieges, the water arriving over aqueducts from a reservoir 40 miles away. The vaulted brick roof is supported by 336 columns, the bases and capitals varying in design and intricacy.
Classical music accompanies the endlessly dripping water, as visitors wander over wooden walkways to encounter an upside-down Medusa head supporting a column; steps away is a sister Medusa head, although sideways. Their presence and jumbled orientation remains a mystery, though it is conjectured they helped ward off evil spirits. This fabulous setting was highlighted in the James Bond movie From Russia With Love.
Rarely have I been as crazed and intrigued by contemporary jewelry as I have at Soda Galeri, featuring artists working in a wide range of mediums. Their jewelry includes pieces by design genius, Ted Norton, who jabs good fun at name brands with his ultra-luxurious approach; Hanna Hedman distinguishes her fantastic sculpted jewelry by employing a variety of metals, some precious, while others are bits from found objects. You’ll also find intriguing works by photographers Henrik Isaksson Garnell and Miru Kim, and three-dimensional kinetic metal sculptures by Frank Plant. Even if out of your price range, it’s well worth a visit.
(Sakayik Sokak, No: 37/1, 34365 Nisantasi; tel. +90-212-231-8988; www.sodaistanbul.com)