Istanbul is a most rewarding place to experience and photograph, as I had the chance to confirm for myself last summer. It has everything: inspiring streets, welcoming people and a long history. Exploring it never really ends. But this post is not about the photos I made in Istanbul; it’s some recommendations on where to go and look when you happen there for the first time. It could be overwhelming!
Travel guides offer plenty of advice for sightseeing. My post is for the traveler whose goal is photography: places to visit and things to do if you want to capture Istanbul in images but your time is short. Credit goes to the photographers who helped me compile this list of recommendations: scholar and traveler Nancy Stockdale and native Istanbulite and Alice in Wonderland connoisseur Nilgun Erzik.
Start with the popular sites, where most of the tourists converge. Even if you are not interested in snap shots of the places every tourist has already documented, they are worth seeing to experience the spirit of the city and understand its (touristy) background. Also, because that’s so easy: they are all located mostly in Sultanahmet, the historic Old Istanbul close to the Bosphorus.
Recommended: The Blue Mosque, Ayasofiya, the Byzantine Hippodrome with the Basilica Cistern and the Topkapi Palace. And here is an antidote to the tourist plague: get up early, around 6 am, and you’ll have the streets all to yourself while meeting the famed Istanbul cats and the shop owners opening their shops. But try to conserve your energy and time for the rest!
Next stop: the Bosphorus. Flag a taxi and say “Ortaköy” – it will take you to the area under the Bosphorous bridge where you can observe the bustle of sea traffic of people and boats in the symbolic place where Asia and Europe touch. A cruise is recommended to experience it to the fullest. If you venture in the small side streets, you’ll see lots of cafes and small shops, as well as friendly people who don’t mind being photographed.
One of the must-try and most unique experiences for every Western traveler in Istanbul is a hamam (public bath). Not just a practical way to cleanse your body – or the Eastern grandmothers of Western spas, for that matter. Hamams are architectonic gems, historic places and communities where you can socialize in ways you don’t get to elsewhere. For example, see this hamam.
You think that while hamams are great, they are not really a photo op? Well, I for one would not go to one with a camera and am not saying you should either. But Jennette Williams has a beautiful award-winning photography book documenting women in hamams in Turkey and Hungary, The Bathers, that is so sublime as to make us rethink our concept for feminine beauty. Not sure how this works for men in hamams! 🙂
Speaking of spas, you are also thinking about somehow combining your secret desire for souvenirs with photography? That’s easy because shopping – another esteemed form of socializing – is a great cultural experience worth photographing. The most famed bazaar in Istanbul, the Grand Bazaar (Kapalicarsi, one of the oldest covered markets in the world) is a labyrinthine structure of many beautiful historic buildings that can take an inordinate amount of time to explore. I would suggest starting small with the Spice Bazaar, located in the Eminomu neighborhood, which is much more manageable and has the same charm. You can buy beautiful ceramics, rugs, spices, textiles and jewelry in both places.
Besides the Blue Mosque, which is the Muslim equivalent of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome in terms of tourist interest, the best way to understand Istanbul and capture it on film/pixels is by visiting the many smaller mosques of the city. Mosques are also a place for socializing; their internal courtyards are inviting spaces for rest, conversation or just temporary detachment from the busy activity of the city. And of course, they are beautiful inside, too, wheather your interest is architecture, culture or people. Photographing in these places is generally welcome, but of course, be mindful and respectful of those around you, their worshipping and of your inevitable role as an outsider. It’s a good idea to ask (even if only with a smile) for permission to take pictures.
Equally interesting are places of worship of other religions. My favorites are the Christian Orthodox churches. Being a minority in the country, they have a special atmosphere here; not a grandiose imposition but a subtle presence. Even if you are familiar with Orthodox tradition or architecture, visiting one of the many churches in Istanbul is a treat. The Christian equivalent of the Blue Mosque is Hagia Sophia /Ayasofiya, or St. Sophia, the famed basilica of Byzantine Constantinople, later turned into a mosque and now a museum. But again, visit that if your photography interests are in history of architecture. Everyday life is in the smaller churches.
If you want to find quintessential Istanbul, your best bet is the neighborhoods and communal places outside of the historic downtown. For sure, Istanbulites like to visit the centrally located places, too, and have picnics at the sea shore along the Kennedy Blvd (Sultanahmet) or the Topkapi Gardens. But the most authentic places are the small coffee shops, bakeries, plazas, public fountains and cemeteries. Beyoglu for example is the high class area. Teksim Square is the real square of contemporary Istanbul. Uskudar, the oldest residential area of Istanbul on its Asian shore, with a more relaxed atmosphere. Beyazit, with the Old Book Bazaar and Istanbul University. Zeyrek, a picturesque neighborhood overlooking the Golden Horn.
But this list of recommendation is valid for a first-time photographic encounter with this great city and in case you don’t already have an idea what to photograph. To take your understanding – and photography – deeper, gain a better perspective. Read, but not the usual tourist guides. My recommendations are for some novels by Elif Shafak, a noted writer and scholar who is amazing in bridging Western understanding and Eastern culture. Her The Flea Palace is your best and most delicious first step into knowing the city. Also, of course, Orhan Pamuk. His memoir Istanbul, as well as his novel The Museum of Innocence, will give you a glimpse of what you won’t find in guides.
Happy exploring! And for an inspiration of “real Istanbul” photography, take a peek at the photos of Ara Guler.