Days 1-2: Eminönü and Fener-Balat
Eminönü is a bustling commercial district and transport hub, which is home to the Spice Bazaar and the Yeni Cami, or “New Mosque,” built in 1665. The square outlined by these buildings is pretty much always crowded. There are commuters racing to catch ferries and the tram, locals sipping tea and enjoying döner kebab with friends, street cats hoping for scraps, and people shopping for plants and pet supplies at various stalls outside the bazaar. (It also happens to be where you buy leeches used to treat varicose veins, in case you're in the market.) On Friday afternoons, devout worshippers congregate and kneel on plastic woven carpets to observe prayers en masse. Inside the Spice Bazaar, also known as the Mısır Çarşı, there are endless stalls selling tea, herbal remedies, olive oil soap, dried fruit, and spices. For high-quality spice mixes, rose water, and oils, head straight to No. 51, Hayfene Baharat, which is reputable and frequented by local chefs.
You can sample Turkish delight, called lokum, at the Spice Bazaar, but buy it at nearby Hacı Bekir. Established in 1777, the shop is the oldest purveyor of the rose-scented candy and other lokum flavors, like pomegranate encrusted with barberries or pistachios. Next, for a truly Istanbul experience, lose yourself in the winding backstreets of Eminönü, which is essentially the city’s one-stop shop for a mishmash of wholesale accessories, knock-off clothing, cosmetics, fabric, baskets, appliances, and more.
Wander far enough and you’ll eventually find one of the many doors to the Grand Bazaar. It's the world’s oldest covered market, which is large enough that you can use mapping apps to navigate its “streets.” The market is divided into sections of gold and jewelry; leather goods; pashmina scarves; traditional regional wares like cobalt, turquoise, and red Iznik tiles; Eastern-style slippers; shadow puppets; and leaded glass lanterns. Vendors are friendly but can be quite assertive in courting customers. Duck into the antique section for a little peace and quiet and to browse Ottoman-era jewelry, watches, and collectibles. Those in the market for a carpet should head to Adnan & Hasan, a favored seller among American expats.
Refuel after the Grand Bazaar with classic Turkish snacks like pide or lahmacun -- two types of flatbread -- or a simple glass of black tea at any of the tiny eateries that pepper the area’s backstreets. Then make your way from Eminönü past the Golden Horn to Fener-Balat (this will involve a crowded bus ride up the coast). This rapidly gentrifying area is home to numerous antique stores, cafés, and artist ateliers. The mosaics at the beautifully restored Chora Church are worth the uphill walk. Plan on dinner around the corner at Asitane, a fine-dining establishment with a menu composed of carefully researched recipes served from the Ottoman sultans’ royal kitchens.