Books about Istanbul

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Lunch at our favourite lokanta in Uskudar, OzBolu.

Every week I try to have two what I call outing days in Istanbul. One is with my husband Kim and usually involves a museum or art gallery visit and lunch at one of our regular favourites. The aim is to enjoy each other’s company, learn something new, and of course, eat. For the second outing I go alone, armed with a list of sites both major and minor I want to check out for myself. Some of them might just be a small tomb or somewhat obscure local museum only frequented by Turks, others are recently restored structures and others are more famous sites I haven’t visited in ages or have new sections that have recently been opened to the public.

Once I’ve decided where to go I turn to my book case to see what books about Istanbul I already have, to maximise the research opportunities. I mean why only visit one small mosque famous for its hand painted interior when there could be a monument to a Turkish feminist activist or an active Armenian church in a neighbouring suburb? I do have the standard big name Istanbul guidebooks on my shelves and they’re a good investment for initial visits to Istanbul when seeing Sultanahmet and other major sites are high on your must do list. The following books about Istanbul however, are a small selection of the books that for me, really stand out and are a worth a read when you’re ready to further explore and understand Istanbul, beyond the tourist centres.

Strolling Through Istanbul: A Guide to the City – Hilary Sumner-Boyd and John Freely

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 – Saffet Emre Tonguç and Pat Yale

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 connect 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 – John Freely

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 – Ogier de Busbecq

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 – Amy Mills

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.

Of course, being a writer, I had to write my own Istanbul travel guide. Istanbul 50 Unsung Places reflects my passion for, well, all things Istanbul and Turkish. It’s my response to the problem of over tourism and will hopefully make a small contribution to developing sustainable tourism in Istanbul.

Have you bought your copy of Istanbul 50 Unsung Places yet?

I’m fascinated by the history, social life, religious customs and personal stories to be found in less famous sites around the city and set out to document the places that resonated most. Istanbul 50 Unsung Places is aimed at visitors to the city who like to wander the streets with purpose, armed with all the information they need to get to their destination using public transport, know what they’re looking at and why it’s important when they get there, while feeling they’re on a personal journey of discovery.

With this in mind Istanbul 50 Unsung Places includes a comprehensive guide to public transport hubs and the various options (bus, train, tram, ferry etc) on both sides of the city, a section on mosque etiquette and other practical information about restaurants, money and toilets. Each of the 50 entries of places to visit starts with their title in Turkish (useful when dealing with Istanbul residents outside the tourist areas), their full history and little-known facts about them, transport information, step-by-step directions and other handy tips. With Istanbul 50 Unsung Places visitors can immerse themselves in the sights, sounds, smells and scenery of Istanbul to really be in the moment, because other than needing to screenshot a couple of walking routes in advance, no smart phone with WIFI is required.

This eclectic guide for independent travellers celebrates the rich cultural heritage of Istanbul and allows visitors to travel deeper into the world I now call home.


I hope you’ve found something to add to your reading list! Remember, these are just a few of the many books written about Istanbul. Scroll through my website page My books and others for more suggestions of what to read.

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    1. I’m glad you like it and my adventure day idea. To be honest at the moment it’s a tad too hot (read blistering) to go out adventuring, but as soon as the temperature drops I’ll be out and about again.

  1. Yes, I *have read your books too! I probably won’t make it to Turkey but I’m not ruling it out entirely. Meanwhile I read about the history etc, current events, enjoy Turkish dizi and movies and make Armenian food.

  2. Dear Lisa, Thank you for this list of fascinating books. I’m Armenian so the Streets of Memory looks good. I found a used copy of the Turkish Letters so that’s on its way. You certainly provide a great service, and I truly enjoy your personal point of view. Your ‘voice’ is always friendly, vernacular and professional. I look forward to your blog entries! Aloha from faraway Hawaii!

    1. Hi Martha,
      I’m glad you found it interesting. Streets of Memory is a serious read because it comes from an academic study but it is fascinating and extremely informative. I know you’ll like Turkish letters too. I appreciate your feedback on my writing. It’s always lovely to know people get what I set out to do. I hope you’ve enjoyed my books too and one day come to Istanbul and discover all the places I’ve written about in my alternative travel guide Istanbul 50 Unsung Places.

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