After spending 8 lovely days in Istanbul, I can honestly say it is the city I most want to return to out of any of the other places I have been blessed to see. Its architecture, romantic skyline, never ending abundance of things to do and incredible food make it a must visit city for any avid traveler. 8 days was the perfect length of trip to see the amazing Ottoman and Byzantine sights, spend a lazy day on the Asian side of town and enjoy countless delectable meals of varying style, price range and taste.
My trusty travel companion and I stayed at the Galateia Residence, a comfortable and modernly appointed apartment-style hotel located in Beyoğlu, the old European district known for its nightlife and shopping. The apartment was lovely, with a full kitchen, airy balcony and attentive staff. It’s location is prime- located directly next to a metro stop, Tunel Square, and right off of İstiklâl Caddesi- a rambling pedestrian-only thoroughfare full of restaurants, bars, clubs, shopping and throngs of people.
After vacillating back and forth about where we would stay, I am happy we ended up in Beyoğlu as opposed to Sultanahmet. Sutanahmet hosts many of Istanbul’s must-see attractions, to include the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Cistern and the Topkapi Palace. Because of this, the area is largely touristic and lacks the charm or vibrancy of Beyoğlu. Sultanahmet is an enjoyable 15-minute trip by foot or a combination of the Tunel and tram.
The aforementioned main sights of Sultanahmet are undeniably amazing. The scale and ornamentation of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is breathtaking, and deserve a leisurely half-day. The underground, water filled Cistern is equally interesting, and worth the entrance fee. I was a bit less interested in the epic Topkapi Palace. While the architecture itself did not blow my mind, the gold, diamond, ruby, emerald and rock crystal encrusted amulets, swords, hat pins and thrones of the Palace Treasury are worth a look.
In a much more residential neighborhood off the beaten track is the Church of St. Saviour in Chora. A small church once located in the country, the walls and ceilings are covered in gold mosaics and frescos depicting various stories of the life of Christ that glitter and entrance. It is worth the hike up the hill to see them, though if I go again I will hop on some of Istanbul’s great public transportation. Walking there from Sultanahmet took about an hour and a half.
We also spent a few hours in the Istanbul Modern, which was the most surprisingly enjoyable sight of the trip. Turkey’s modern artists show a great diversity in style and medium and never fail to tell an interesting story with their art. Istanbul and broader Turkey offer incredible inspiration which is well showcased throughout the museum, which is located right on the water and features a lovely café and bar from which you can watch the always boisterous boat traffic sailing by. A huge line of shisha cafes located outside offers a comfortable place to enjoy a late afternoon tea and waterpipe.
On a botched attempt to take a cruise of the Bosphorus, we discovered the Asian side of Istanbul. Originally we tried to get on the tourist ferry that cruises the Bosphorus in an hour and a half, with no stops. When our ferry made a stop after 10 minutes, we realized we were on the wrong one, and decided exploring Asia might be more fun than a 6 hour trip weaving back and forth across the Bosphorus with countless passenger stops in-between. We disembarked at Üsküdar and wandered around the lively fish and produce market before hopping on a bus to Kadıköy, overlooking the Sea of Marmara.
We also spent a lovely half-day exploring the covered Grand Bazaar, the worlds largest market. While the carpet, fake purse and trinket vendors are overwhelming and sometimes quite insistent, we escaped without getting too irritated. We picked up a lovely set of brass dominos in a small wooden box. Right before walking out the door, a quite shop with interesting art caught our eye.
Unlike the majority of other shops, no one stood out front attempting to lure in tourists. The art was well framed and matted, and we decided to take a look inside. I was instantly attracted to some beautiful pen and ink cityscapes. The man behind the counter bashfully told me that the work was his own, and he walked us through his technique- he is also an architect, and it shows. I walked out with a lovely small piece depicting the Golden Horn and the sea.
The food in Turkey is nothing short of amazing, diverse and delectable. A few of my favorite meals:
Van Kahvalti Evi– The best breakfast ever. This café serves the traditional breakfast of Van, a region in Eastern Turkey. Much of the cheeses and produce are brought in from Van, and the obviously fresh eggs and delectable keymek- Turkish clotted cream- were a breakfast dream come true! We shared a plate of boiled eggs, a variety of wonderful olives, and 5 different kinds of cheeses and a yogurt mixed with dill. Fresh sesame breads pair wonderfully with the keymek and Van honey, full of little crunchy honeycomb with a bright flowery flavor.
Çiya Sofrasi– Located in the Kadıköy neighborhood on the Asian side, Çiya came highly recommended by a plethora of foodie websites, so we spent an hour wondering the windy streets looking for it. Our efforts were well worth the wait. A friendly English-speaking chef walked us through the day’s offerings, and we indulged in the self-serve cold vegetarian salad bar to start off. Quince, lamb and spice stew over complex rice was my favorite, through the stuffed eggplants with a yogurt sauce were also amazing. I would highly recommend seeking out this restaurant on a lovely day trip to the Asian side of Istanbul!
The Galata House– located down a windy street from the Galata Tower and a 2 minute walk from our apartment, The Galata House serves rich Georgian food in an old jail building lovingly restored by the owner, a heritage architect. His other half, a Turkish woman of Georgian heritage, played piano in another room while we enjoyed the fantastic meal. The starter plate was interesting and unique, featuring stuffed carrots, amazing broad beans and some fantastic grape leaves. The service was pleasant, and the meal was spot on.
In terms of street food, it is hard to beat what you can find on nearly every corner in Istanbul. Amazing doner kabap (similar to the Arabic shawarma) is served in a soft flatbread with tons of pickled vegetables, tomatoes and a light but tasty sauce. I also enjoyed an amazing liver kabap served with a tri-colored cabbage salad that beautifully freshened the earthy quality of the liver.
My favorite street food, though, has to be the stuffed mussels. Apparently unlicensed due to the pollution in the Bosphorus, men dot every corner of Beyoğlu with a round platter mounded with mussels and lemons. You walk up, the man opens a mussel, and squirts lemon over the delectable treat. The mussel shells are stuffed with intensely spiced rice with a hint of cinnamon and dotted with pine nuts, and it is impossible to not eat at least 5. Some walk up sea-food stands also lace the mussels on a skewer and fry them before drizzling on a light tahini sauce, and these are equally irresistible.
A close second would be the fried potato. We only saw this in one little store front on bustling İstiklâl street, but we were repeat offenders. A potato is put in an apple slicer- the kind that turns your apple into an accordion. The accordianed potato is spread out and laced onto a skewer then plunked into sizzling oil and fried. Spices are dusted onto the finished product, and it is northing short of potato perfection.
Another street food winner can be found on the Beyoğlu side of the Galata Bridge in the fish market. In between all the fish vendors a small restaurant serves a variety of fried fish- we went to the 5 lira platter of Hamsi- tiny finger sized fish fried to perfection served with lemons, arugula, onions and a loaf of French bread. You hold the tail and put the fish in your mouth and pull- after a few attempts you are able to pull off all the meat leaving only the tiny spine and tail to discard.
Istanbul makes for a stellar vacation- Turks are a lively bunch, and obviously enjoy eating, drinking, playing backgammon and smoking to no end. People were overall very friendly and pleasant, and we only felt ripped off once when we were overcharged for a midday shisha and tea. The public transportation, though not perfectly integrated, reaches all parts of the city and is pretty cheap and accessible. I am already planning my next trip to experience Istanbul for a second time.