The best books for exploring and understanding Istanbul

Who am I?

I’m a Sydney, Australia born sociologist and writer and back in 1990 I hitchhiked through the UK, travelled in Europe and arrived in Turkey just as the Gulf War was starting. After three months in the country I was hooked. I now live in Istanbul and write about the people, culture, and history. Using my less than perfect Turkish language skills I uncover the everyday extraordinary of life in modern Istanbul even though it means I’ve accidentally asked a random stranger to give me a hug and left a butcher convinced I think Turkish sheep are born with their heads on upside down.

I wrote...

Inside Out In Istanbul

By Lisa Morrow,

Book cover of Inside Out In Istanbul

What is my book about?

For most people, Istanbul is synonymous with its world-famous sights, the Haghia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and Dolmabahçe Palace. Few tourists manage to go beyond the beauty of the historical district of Sultanahmet to visit the other face of Istanbul. Yet a short ferry ride from the Bosphorus to the Sea of Marmara brings you to the shores of Asia, to the everyday extraordinary. The stories in the 2nd edition of Inside Out In Istanbul take the reader beyond the tourist facades into a suburban world filled with spice sellers, male belly dancers, and Turkish underwear stores, right into homes traditionally supplied with lemon cologne and slippers. Venture deep into the sometimes chaotic, often schizophrenic but always charming city of Istanbul.

The Books I Picked & Why

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Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

By John Freely, Hilary Sumner-Boyd,

Book cover of Strolling Through Istanbul: The Classic Guide to the City

Why this book?

I bought a copy back in 1991 after returning from my first ever visit to Istanbul. Over the years I used it so much it fell apart and I had to buy another one. The authors’ passion for Istanbul comes through in the detailed information they give about every nook and cranny of the city. I still use it all the time and always find somewhere new to visit. Strolling is ideal for people who want to dive in deep and explore each of Istanbul’s seven hills on foot, to really understand what they’re looking at and why it’s important historically.

Bosphorus: The Ultimate Guide

By Saffet Emre Tonguç, Pat Yale,

Book cover of Bosphorus: The Ultimate Guide

Why this book?

Tonguç is probably Turkey’s most famous travel guide and Yale is the former writer of the Turkey Lonely Planet guide. Together they’ve written a beautifully put-together guide to the Bosphorus, the watery strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. Each entry includes the history and images of neighbourhoods along the waterway, but it’s the quirky anecdotes, nostalgia, and personal photographs, combined with exhaustive coverage of every park, palace, mansion, fountain, mosque, church, synagogue, and other examples of architectural majesty found in them that makes this guide invaluable.

Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul

By John Freely,

Book cover of Inside the Seraglio: Private Lives of the Sultans in Istanbul

Why this book?

Visitors always go to Topkapı Palace and marvel at its elaborate ceremonial courts and beautifully sinister harem where women were sequestered away from prying eyes. It offers a tantalising glimpse into the world of the Ottoman elite but if you want to get a richer idea of what it was like, this book brings it to life. Author John Freely, a physicist and long-term resident of the city, combined historical fact with engaging writing and a blazing passion for all things Ottoman and Turkish to tell the story of the Sultans, their wives, children, and court followers. He drew from rare books in Turkish libraries and travellers’ records as well as letters and reports made by visiting foreign dignitaries of the period to capture moments when innocent amusements, gentle flirtations, and simple pastimes turned into brutal murders and dramatic intrigues.

Turkish Letters

By Ogier De Busbecq,

Book cover of Turkish Letters

Why this book?

Living in a world where we can look at images of places we’re planning to travel without even going there means it’s easy to forget the importance of letters sent from foreign countries. Especially ones as well written as these. Ogier De Busbecq was an ambassador for the Hapsburg Empire in the court of Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century, but his observations, comments, and snippets of gossip read like he was in Istanbul last month. He had a keen eye for detail and nothing escaped his notice – palace machinations, dirty politics, and even prison conditions, gleaned from the time he spent incarcerated.

Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul

By Amy Mills,

Book cover of Streets of Memory: Landscape, Tolerance, and National Identity in Istanbul

Why this book?

I’m always seeking to learn more about Istanbul’s multicultural past and Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of Istanbul, is an area rich in history. The leafy streets and community vegetable garden are now extremely popular with Turkish hipsters, but Mills looked behind the surface by doing an incredible amount of research and conducting fascinating interviews with residents, to bring the past into the present. Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Turks have always lived together here and in Streets of Memory their individual stories, ethnic histories, and differing memories are carefully woven together to create a deeply nuanced, complex picture of Istanbul.

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