Istanbul is a destination that has inspired many writers over the years. The 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk calls the city home. Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Umberto Eco, Ian Fleming, Graham Greene, Elif Shafak, Leon Trotsky, and many other writers have visited and subsequently woven reflections on the city into their works.
I am an avid reader, and I’ve found that following in the footsteps of writers and their characters offers a unique way of exploring a city. That’s especially true when it comes to Istanbul, since so many excellent books are set here.
But whether you’ve read books set in Istanbul or not, the city’s rich literary heritage will offer you a new way of looking at Istanbul and maybe even guide you to a place you would otherwise have missed.
Here are six of the city’s must-visit literary landmarks.
1. The Museum Of Innocence
The Museum of Innocence is a magical place. It was set up by writer Orhan Pamuk after the success of his book The Museum of Innocence, which follows the obsession of an upper-class man, Kemal, with a lower-class woman, Fusun.
The museum is dedicated to the fictional world of the novel and holds all the items Kemal painstakingly collected over the years, including salt shakers stolen from Fusun’s family and old cigarette butts with her lipstick on them. The museum even features Kemal’s room, where he wrote the book. After visiting, you’d hardly believe the book is a work of fiction!
If you can read the book beforehand, that helps, but my husband, who had not read the book, was just as enthralled as I was. You can pick up a copy of the book downstairs in the tiny gift shop.
2. Pera Palas Hotel
The Pera Palas Hotel is much more than a literary landmark — it’s an important part of Turkish history. It’s home to Turkey’s first elevator; it played host to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey (and incidentally, an author); and it was frequented by the illustrious passengers of the Orient Express.
Not surprisingly, Agatha Christie chose to write her crime novel Murder on the Orient Express at the hotel, in room 411. As a young journalist, Ernest Hemingway stayed and propped up the downstairs bar, as did Graham Greene, who featured the hotel in his Travels with My Aunt.
3. Sirkeci Terminal
If you are lucky enough to arrive or leave on the Orient Express, be sure to catch the legendary train at the Sirkeci Terminal. Just off the bustling ferry terminals of Eminonu, this splendid railway terminal dates to 1890. Many a Hercule Poirot, whether for television or the movies, has been spotted strolling purposefully to the train, where a murder so foul would take place. But even if you are not a crime-novel fan, this is a lovely part of Istanbul to visit and appreciate.
4. Buyukada Island
Buyukada is the largest of the Princes’ Islands, which lie less than an hour’s ferry ride away from Istanbul. There are no cars on the island, but you can rent bikes or hike. The island is quiet and idyllic, with forests covering the hills and beaches overlooking the Sea of Marmara. No wonder writers such as Elif Shafak, Resat Nuri Guntekin, and Leon Trotsky came here to write! The hustle and bustle of Istanbul feels a million miles away.
While you cannot tour any of the writers’ retreats, you can enjoy the architecture of the island’s magnificent mansions and the many good restaurants, such as Yucetepe Kir Gazinosu. It is a steep climb up the hill, but the views are certainly worth it.
5. Topkapi Palace
There are plenty of reasons to visit the splendid Topkapi Palace aside from its literary significance, but while you are wandering around, bear in mind that the miniaturists of Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red worked here, and the Eric Ambler novel The Light of Day, which was made into the film Topkapi with Peter Ustinov back in 1964, is set here.
6. Minoa Bookstore
Whether you’ve run out of reading material or just love drinking your coffee surrounded by books, you’ll love the charming Minoa Bookstore. The store is filled to the ceiling with books, with plenty of English-language options. There are lovely tiles on the floor, chandeliers made from books, and amazing coffee and cakes. Need I say more?
Whichever way you look at Istanbul — through the eyes of a reader, a writer, a historian, or simply a traveler — you’ll find magic around every corner. And whether you’re making a pilgrimage to the spots you’ve read about or you’re inspired to relive your trip by reading about the city after you’ve left, you can’t go wrong.