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Sirkeci, Istanbul

Sirkeci, IstanbulThough most travel guides and people who visit Istanbul regularly will tell you that the place to stay is in the heavily tourist infested area of Sultanhamet or in the modern European area of Beyoglu, in my opinion the best part of the city to stay in is Sirkeci. The reason most guidebooks don't suggest this is because when they were written the neighborhood of Sirkeci was an area of car parts and tire stores, criminals and drug addicts, and somewhere that even my most fearless local friends said they avoided. But in the last five years or so Sirkeci has been transformed with some buildings having been torn down and replaced by beautiful boutique hotels, and others converted into restaurants, cafes and small shops. There are a few of the old style hotels, the kind you find in many cities, close to the train station where you get a room with no frills, their facades and dingy lobbies giving testimonial to the fact that in the past things went on in here that you probably don't want to know about. But these are being bought up and renovated or even torn down and rebuilt. Led by the Sirkeci Group, a confederation of neighborhood businessmen who have taken the responsibility of cleaning up and re-inventing the area by opening inexpensive high quality hotels and top-notch restaurants and bars, other businesses have flooded into Sirkeci and made it into a small, more intimate, a more Turkish version of Sultanahmet. Streets have been pedestrianized and traffic funneled around them so you can have a quiet meal right in the middle of this busy city at any time of day.

Tram in Sirkeci, IstanbulWhat makes the area better than staying up the hill in the main part of Sultanahmet is that you are in a transportation hub that makes the entire city easily accessable to you. Start with the modern tram that cuts right through Sirkeci, taking you in one direction up the hill to Topkapi Palace, Agia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and all the way to the airport if you like. Go in the other direction and it takes you past the Sirkeci Railway Station, past the Eminou ferry port, over the Galata Bridge, past the Kardikoy ferry dock and the subway to Beyoglu, all the way to the ferry port of Kabatas where you catch the boat to the Princess Islands or take the funicular railway to Taksim Square. The Sirkeci Railway station can take you to the fish restaurants of Kumkapi or all the way to the rest of Europe if you like and when the metro is finished will be a major hub that will enable you to get anywhere on the metro system. From the Eminou Pier you can cross over to Asia or go up the Golden Horn to the Greek neighborhood of Fenir or the Jewish area at Balat.

Spice Bazaar, IstanbulIf you are not ready to venture forth with Istanbul's excellent mass-transit system you can easily walk to Gulhane Park (about 3 minutes from any of the hotels), Topkapi Palace, Agia Sofia, the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, and the Basilica Cistern (all within 10 minutes on foot), the Spice Bazaar (5 minutes), Eminou ferry port and the Galata Bridge (5 minutes), and even the Grand Bazaar(maybe a 20 minute walk at the most). You can do much of your shopping right in the neighborhood at the Spice Bazaar and the hundreds or thousands of small shops in the area that surrounds it. Carpet shops abound in Sirkeci as do fastfood restaurants that sell kebabs, pides, and sweets, and from the train station to the bridge you can find every kind of street food from grilled and boiled corn, to chestnuts, stuffed mussels, and pickled vegetables, not to mention the balik-ekmek (fish sandwich) stands under and around the Galata Bridge. The bridge itself has thirty or more restaurants and cafe-bars where you can eat fish and meze and watch the boats go by while above you a line of fishermen keep you entertained with their catch that pass right before your eyes.

Sirkeci restaurantFor people who want to eat simple working class food there is the famous Hoca Pasa Street, a small automobile-less road with several dozen small restaurants  that are frequented by Turks and tourists for lunch and dinner, great for people-watching and regional Turkish cooking. (See food tour).For those looking for something a little more upscale there are restaurants like Pasazade (Ottoman cooking), Imbat (Aegean), and Neyzade (Anatolian), all with rooftop dining and spectacular views of the city, and Sirkecibalikcisi which though it does not have a view is one of the best seafood meyhanes(like a taverna) in the city.(See Restaurants) For bars and nightlife you have the Red River Pub which despite its John Wayne American west theme, has excellent  Turkish Meze and other dishes. Just up the street the North Shields Bar is not only a serious drinking man's bar stocked with travelers and foreign locals, but it shows every televised game including baseball, American football, soccer, golf, tennis, rugby and more, posting the days schedule on the walls outside. For coffee try Cafe Mese, right on the tram line which looks fancy but actually serves reasonably priced coffees, drinks and meze as well as dinner with a European accent and one of the few places you can get an iced coffee. For true coffee connoisseurs who have burnt out on Turkish coffee or don't feel they are getting the buzz they are acustomed to, go to the brand new Brew Coffeeworks at 16 Hamidiyecadessi for espresso, latte, cappuccino, and more iced and hot, brewed with fresh roasted beans. For traditional Turkish coffee and tea go no further than 40 Hoca Pasa street to the Kervan Cafe right across the street from the Hotel Neorion. And of course for baklava and traditional sweets there is the famous Hafiz Mustafa at the intersection of Huvadendigar and Ankara streets right by the train station.

Hotels in Sirkeci

Hotel Neorion staff, IstanbulWhich brings me to hotels in the neighborhood which are all listed on my hotels page. But for the sake of convenience I recommend the Hotel Neorion for its location, excellent service, beautiful rooms, hamam (Turkish bath), swimming pool, sauna, jacuzzi, mezef rom 1:30 to 6:30 which was not only the best meze we had in Istanbul and pretty much eliminated the need to go out to lunch,but it was also free, and the sunset on the roof drinking complimentary wine and watching the boats on the Bosphorus. Other hotels from the same group that are also well worth staying at for the same reasons as above are the Sirkeci Konak Hotel, the midrange Hotel Orient Express, the 3-star Hotel Erboy and the budget Hotel Ilkay, all within a two minute walk of each other and all who provide free transfer from the airport. The quality of these hotels are another reason to make the neighborhood of Sirkeci your home during your stay in Turkey.

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