We definitely accomplished our mission in Istanbul. We had two goals in mind: spend time with Jenni’s family and eat lots of Turkish food. We even combined these, and had great times with family over fantastic eats.
We really enjoyed this chance to experience a place more as a local would. Rather than focus exclusively on the big tourist attractions (many of which we’ve both seen on prior visits), we primarily explored the residential area of Kadiköy where my cousin lives and where we stayed. We adored this part of town. There are so many people out and about (it helped that we had fantastic spring weather most days), and dozens of pedestrian-friendly cobblestone streets lined with cafes, bars, doner kebab shops, baklava bakeries and other establishments.
He also lives near the waterfront, and we walked down to Moda Park one evening to enjoy the sunset, the spectacular view of the mosque-dotted skyline (with the sounds of prayer calls of the muezzin in the distance), and a couple of beers with Şans’ friends.
The food was obviously a highlight throughout our visit. (The title of this post is Turkish for “bon appetit,” probably the most frequently used phrase uttered to us while here 😉 My aunt Gül spoiled us with a delicious waterfront dinner at the Kalamiş Marina one night, where we all had a fantastic time catching up over much, much rakı and lots of tasty food. Another night she and her boyfriend treated us again to a feast of a home cooked meal, complete with several of my favorite dishes (mücver and sigara börek) as well as a few new and tasty discoveries (some fantastic cheeses and a lamb studded hummus). This is not to mention even the main course! And we had picked up some baklava and other pastries from Bilgeoğlu, which (along with the rice pudding Gül made) complemented our feast wonderfully. I also discovered that a certain type of baklava is made with cream from water buffalo’s milk – fascinating. And delicious.
Another night we had a great meal with Şans and his friends at Meyhane Meyhane, where we enjoyed great conversation, lots of cold mezze and, again, lots of rakı.
The best iskender of our lives was at Kebapçı İskender. Phenomenal. They bring out a plate adorned with the most delicious and tender lamb laid over bread cubes, with yogurt and smoky eggplant dips, and then table-side they pour hot butter from the frying pan all over it. Scrumptious.
Perhaps it was the effect of just having spent four plus months in Southeast Asia, and coming from a city as crazy as Kathmandu, but we were both struck by how modern we found Istanbul this time around (and this despite that I’d visited a mere two years ago). What was more interesting to us was that the popular, more touristy areas (like Eminönü with so many mosques and bazaars) on the European side actually feel less western and less modern than those over on the more residential Asian side (like Kadiköy, where we stayed with my cousin). We were both reminded how huge the city is, sprawling far further it seems than the last times we visited.
Among the things that I love about Istanbul and Turkey more generally: (1) My family, obvs. (2) İskender. (3) The people are so friendly! It seems people are always excited to converse with one another, and they are quick to help. For instance, when we grabbed a cab to dinner my cousin chatted animatedly with our driver the whole way there, and when we were wandering around the wrong ferry station looking confused two people stopped and offered us much appreciated assistance. (4) Cats. Everywhere. Just, everywhere. (5) Finding things with our names on them! The Çağlayan Princess (my maiden name) boat was a gem of a find, and we even discovered a little shop right near my cousin’s place that is called Alper (my father’s name)! (6) Using my (extremely) limited knowledge of the Turkish language (must learn more!). Alan got a kick out of learning that some of the key phrases I remembered from childhood were phrases that translate to “don’t do it, son” and “good job, daughter.” Does this say something about me and my brother? Among the other essential phrases I’ve retained: “is there any bread?” and “you’re the son of a donkey” have clearly come in the most handy.
On our more touristy excursions we took the ferry over to the European side of town. One day we visited Eminönü and meandered through the café lined streets to the Ayasofya. We were blown away by the crowds: we waited in quite the line to get into the Ayasofya, and the lines across the street for the Cisterns looked even less fun. Despite the scaffolding, we were amazed by the mix of church and mosque in this beautiful old structure.
After taking a few photos by the Blue Mosque, we stopped for a cup of salep (another favorite of mine – a hot milky, spiced drink). And then we got our doner kebab fill before venturing into the impressively expansive Grand Bazaar and the even more densely packed Spice Bazaar.
Another day we ferried over to Beyoğlu and poked around the funky gift shops, cafes and pedestrian (mostly) mall near Galata Tower. We were surprised to discover a Shake Shack opened up here, but having gorged on so much Turkish food we had to skip it. My first taste of Shake Shack will have to wait until New York this summer. We enjoyed the Henryk Tomaszewski poster exhibit at SALT and later our final taste of baklava at Güllüoğlu before hopping on the ferry back to Kadiköy.
Istanbul is a booming city, very large in terms of population (some unofficial estimates put it at nearly 20 million!) and area. There are countless historical sights and a thriving cafe and visual arts scene. It is relatively easy to navigate. We did not drink tap water but generally ate fruits and vegetables with no issues. ATMs and credit card acceptance are everywhere, as are most amenities you’d expect in any Western city.
Some years back, Turkey made the helpful decision to drop six zeroes from its currency, so the exchange rate is now a much more manageable 1 USD = 2.1 Turkish Lira (“TRY”).
Transportation: Şans picked us up at the airport and it was a fairly long drive to Kadıköy with traffic. For our departing flight, we took the ferry at 8 pm going from Kadıköy to Bakırköy. Tickets cost 7.50 TRY each and it took ~20 minutes. From the Bakırköy terminal we walked to the parking lot and took a taxi, which we shared with another guy. Each passenger paid 10 for the taxi and that took another ~20 minutes. It was pretty much an hour door to door from Kadıköy to the airport.
Taxis are widely available and pretty cheap. Though drivers do not always speak English, thus getting a ride to Jenni’s aunt’s apartment required a bit of guessing what the other was saying and the use of an iPhone map. We used ferries for the return trips between Kadıköy and Eminönü and Kadıköy and Karaköy. Each token costs 3 TRY each way. It is cheaper if you buy a card. We did not use the trams or metro, but many do.
Accommodation: We stayed with Jenni’s cousin in the Moda section of Kadıköy. We loved the area. It is filled with cobblestone streets, cafes, restaurants, sidewalk seating, a lovely waterfront park, etc. And very few tourists. Ferries leave often and take only 20-30 minutes to reach Eminönü or Karaköy. I think most tourists would probably rather stay closer to the concentration of attractions in the Eminönü and Galata/Beyoğlu areas. I am using these neighborhood terms somewhat loosely. I’ve not done research on the details of sub-districts etc., but I think if you look at a map you’ll get what I mean.
Food: Be ready for lamb, bread and sweets. The namesake item at Kebapçı İskender (covered above), multiple locations I think, we ate in Kadıköy near the ferries and PTT building was terrific . It was not cheap at 44 TRY for the 1.5x portion with smoky eggplant, but worth every penny. Doner kebab is available everywhere and often has french fries inside the package. It usually costs 4-12 TRY.
Dinner at Paysage at the Kalamış Marina offered lovely sunset views. We enjoyed mezze, superb calamari, lots of rakı, and more. We were generously treated, and I think it is pricy. This area is quite upscale and we saw many restaurants by the marina and along Bağdat Caddesi (aka Baghdad Avenue), which also has high end shopping.
One night we ate with Şans and his friends at Meyhane (which means something like “tavern”, but was also the specific name of this place) in Kadıköy, which was good and located on a lively street with outdoor seating everywhere. Breakfast at Munchies (also in Kadıköy, basically across the street from Şans’ apartment) meant several pancakes with about 10 ramekins filled with jams, honey, nutella, peanut butter, etc., along with some Turkish meats and cheese. It was delectable. Iced coffee at 180º was solid.
Simit (“a circular bread, typically encrusted with sesame seeds and a fluffy interior”) for 1 TRY is ubiquitous from street carts.
On Jenni’s prior visit in 2011, she dined at Münferit in Beyoğlu and liked it a lot.
Activities: We went light on the tourist activities as we’ve both been before, and we enjoyed experiencing the city a little more like locals. We still visited the Ayasofya (30 TRY each to enter), the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, plus we spent an afternoon walking around the Galata and Beyoğlu neighborhoods and poked our heads in at SALT Beyoğlu.
Other popular sights and activities include the Blue Mosque; Topkapi Palace; the Cisterns; Galata Tower; Istanbul Modern; a Bosporus straits cruise; the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. It would have been fun to attend a Fenerbahçe football match. If you try to do this, investigate whether men are banned from the stadium at that time!
April 21-25, 2014 (Monday-Friday)