Istanbul was one of our most anticipated places to explore. The things we were told by friends about the food, the culture and the sites were nothing short of excellent. In the middle of moments of amazement and wonder, we found the vastness of the city and the fusion of cultures a little bewildering at times.
Turkish culture is unique. Women in headscarves walking together down the sidewalks, men lounging in cafés smoking, stray cats everywhere (healthy looking and clearly held in affection by the locals), little street carts selling freshly roasted corn on the cob and a vibrant young music scene pumping most nights.
A rich history
Istanbul is a holy city, well-known for its mosques, palaces and monumental buildings. In 1985, a number of these sites were added the UNESCO World Heritage list and designated as the Historic Areas of Istanbul. The most familiar of these areas is Archaeological Park, also known as the Sultanahmet district. I am fascinated by the history of Turkey – Istanbul being the former capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
We were in total awe of the Hagia Sophia, thought to be one of the most beautiful architectural sites in the world, Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), the underground Basilica Cistern (with the fascinating the upside heads of Medusa), Topkapi Palace which was the former residence of the Ottoman rulers and famous Galata Tower with its stunning panoramic view of the city.
Where to stay
We stayed in the new part of the city, in a small neighbourhood of the Beyoğlu area downhill from the popular Taksim area. We loved getting lost amongst the cobble-stoned streets of Karaköy, Cihangir and Galata. Nearby were Jewish synagogues, quirky shops, the wonderful Istanbul Modern Art Museum and Pera Museum, and the busy Golden Horn bay in the Bosphorus with its hordes of fishermen.
Whilst you will spend time in both old and new areas of the city, we recommend staying in the Beyoğlu area. We found it less touristy than other areas with its cosy neighbourhoods, a wide array of restaurants and cafés and the famous Istanbul nightlife – all still within walking distance of the major sightseeing spots.
Turkish coffee, without a doubt, is a thing unto itself – the best coffee we had was at Café Mandabatmaz, a tiny shop situated in a quiet alley off the busy İstiklal Caddesi. Address: Olivia Gecidi No. 1A, Beyoglu.
The beans they use are freshly roasted and ground daily. The coffee here is out of this world – creamy, rich, sweet and strong. Just like it should be. It’s no wonder the name ‘Mandabatmaz’ roughly translates to ‘so thick even a water buffalo couldn’t sink in it’!
Culinary Backstreets Food Tour
We don’t normally take part in food tours for fear of them being touristy but we were intrigued to try the Culinary Backstreets tour as it was raved about by many sources. This tour was easily one of the most impressive and memorable things we enjoyed in Istanbul. Many of the spots we visited were places that would have been tricky or possibly downright impossible to find on our own.
The fact that we were the only people on the tour was a huge bonus. Our guide Esin eagerly shared her vast knowledge of Turkish food, culture and religion which made for some interesting and rousing conversations.
Our day started in the Eminönü neighbourhood in the Fatih area. We gathered around an improvised breakfast table covered in newspaper and enjoyed a wonderful spread. Simit (crusty Turkish style bagel), olives, many cheeses including a goat’s milk cheese ripened in a goatskin casing called tulum peynir, rose jam, pastrami, fresh clotted buffalo cream drizzled with honey called kaymak, fresh walnuts, dried apricots (not the bright orange kind – these were dried slowly, a dark brown in colour with a lovely caramelised taste) and biber salçası which is a spicy red pepper paste. It was an absolute feast! We washed it all down with glasses of tea – a staple with almost every Turkish meal.
On our first visit to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, we found navigating the stalls a real challenge with people rushing at us from all sides. On a quieter Tuesday morning with Esin, she showed us all the good stuff (beware the mediocre vendors selling dubious kiosk items and inauthentic Turkish delights).
We tried pistachios from different regions and learnt that Turkey is the world’s largest hazelnut producer. We met a charming old Macedonian man that had been in the Bazaar selling his cheeses for over 20 years – a portrait of Ataturk affectionately called the ‘Father of the Turks’ hung in his shop, a mark of his liberal beliefs.
The best baklava we had was from Develi, a small shop close to the Spice Market. Esin told us using clotted cream in the layers is best but because of the cost, most makers use butter instead. A sugar syrup is superior to honey – honey gives that cloying sticky mouth feel whilst sugar just melts. The more sheets of filo pastry the better: 60+ of very fine sheets is best. Address: Hasırcılar Caddesi 89, Eminönü.
It was fun stumbling upon shops only selling 1 or 2 things (we saw one vendor with a shop full of scales and another that just sold safe boxes) or shops that sold only a handful of items that were totally unrelated like one vendor we spied selling only rope and chestnuts.
The shopkeepers we met were very friendly and generous. We met a 4th generation maker of Turkish delights or lokum, his small shop Altan Sekerleme which was established in 1865, is well-known for traditional naturally flavoured lokum. We had the rose and pistachio kind and tried some interesting flavours like grape, blackcurrant and mulberry which were all delicious. Address: Kibleçeşme Caddesi 68, Kantarcılar (Küçük Pazarı)/Eminönü.
Turkey has some of the most fresh, hearty street food – we made frequent stops for various delicious food and drinks:
- Boza – a drink made from fermented millet, water and sugar and served with cinnamon and roasted hazelnuts on top. It was surprisingly fresh, creamy and just a little sour. Try it at Vefa Bozacisi: Vefa Cad. 66, Vefa/Fatih.
- Tavuk göğsü – a sweet milk pudding with chicken breast that has been poached and then pounded to wispy fibers. It’s creamy and rich, not chickeny at all. Try it at Göreme Muhallebicisi: Kurtuluş Caddesi 82, Kurtuluş (Şişli).
- Kelle paça – a hearty soup made from parts of sheep’s head served in a spicy red broth. It tasted better than it sounds, a rich tasty soup that is a popular hangover cure we were told. Try it at Murat Kelle Paça: İstiklal Caddesi, Büyük Parmakkapı Sokak 5/A, Beyoğlu.
- Cağ Kebap – a kebab made with slices of lamb and tail fat layered with charred tomatoes, peppers and onions. Try it at Şehzade Erzurum Cağ Kebapçısı: Hocapaşa Sokak 3/A, Sirkeci.
Where to eat
A cool, funky dining room but the food coming out of the kitchen is true to its roots – specialising in cuisine from Antakya in Turkey’s Hatay Province. We loved the Kekik Salatasis – a meze of crushed green olives with fresh thyme and extra virgin olive oil. Address: Minare Sokak 21, Asmalimescit/ Beyoğlu.
This was one of our favourite places to eat. A wonderful meyhane (Turkey’s version of a tavern) serving fresh, quality ingredients prepared simply and with care. They pride themselves on serving excellent seasonal fish. We had a whole roasted blue fish, butterflied anchovies grilled over charcoal and a wonderful chard and onion dish with garlic and peppers. Address: Asmalımescit Caddesi 16/D, Beyoğlu.
Van Kahvalti Evi
The Turkish word for breakfast is kahvalti, originating from two words ‘kahve altı’ which literally means ‘under coffee’ – proof that a nice long breakfast should end with a well-made Turkish coffee. We visited this place a few times it was that good. We loved their selection of local cheeses and honeys and their menemen – scrambled eggs cooked with sautéed onions, green peppers and tomato, was a definite favourite. Address: Defterdar Yokuşu 52/A, Cihangir, Beyoğlu.
We took the vapur (ferry) from Karaköy to Kadıköy (the Asian side of Turkey) and had lunch at this buzzing restaurant. We enjoyed delicious regional dishes like the eggplant stew with tomatoes and slow roasted lamb, the keme – a type of mushroom found in Anatolia which was sliced and grilled, stuffed vine leave filled with rice and a lovely farmer’s cheese called lor. Address: Güneşlibahçe Sokak 43, Kadıköy.
We had excellent creative Turkish food here. The menu combines traditional dishes with innovative modern elements. We loved the sourdough straight from the wood fired stone oven with their oak-smoked lor peyniri (Turkish ricotta) and the slow cooked meat and vegetable stew called ğüveç. Address: Kumbaracı Yokuşu 66, Beyoğlu.
We’ll be reminiscing about this trip for some time to come I imagine. Have you been to Istanbul? We would love to hear about other people’s adventures in this fascinating city.