20 May Istanbul
Istanbul is magic. It’s an impressive, sprawling metropolis, spanning two continents, and straddling the scenic Bosphorus strait. It’s surprisingly modern and stylish, much more than we here in the big, comfy West might image for a country that’s cradled to the east by some of the most hostile nations in the world. Yet, as you walk down the winding city streets, if you can drown out the hustle and bustle of its more than 14 million residents, layers of history unfold around you. Evidence of thousands of years of Greek, Persian, Byzantine & Ottoman rule are tucked into every nook and cranny, blanketing the city in a vibrant juxtaposition of past & present that’s nearly impossible to put into words.
We spent a whirlwind five days touring the city with our Istanbul-native friend, Devrim, who was kind enough to act as our tour guide as well as my own personal dessert spirit guide during our time there. (You can read more about our shared gluttony here.) All of the obligatory Istanbul tourist stops were crossed off the list fairly early on. We gawked at the vaulted ceilings and hidden golden mosaics of the thousand-year old Hagia Sofia, stared Medusa straight in the eyes deep under the city streets in the Basilica Cistern, and toured the breathtakingly beautiful Blue Mosque, formally named the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but nicknamed for the tens of thousands of blue Iznik tiles that adorn the interior.
At the impressive yet huge Topkapi Palace, we imagined ourselves ladies of the harem (by far the most beautiful section of this Ottoman relic), where I also forced my comrades to stand in line for forty-five minutes to enter the palace’s Imperial Treasury so that I could steal a quick glance at the Spoonmaker’s Diamond — weighing in at 86 carats, and the fourth largest of its kind on the world (#worthit). We haggled with rug dealers (though none of us actually bought one because even in Turkey, Turkish rugs aren’t cheap) and covered perhaps about one-tenth of the Grand Bazaar before succumbing to sensory overload and escaping down a quiet street for a reviving cup of Turkish coffee and baklava. Note: If you’re planning a visit, I much prefer the smaller and slightly less touristy Spice Bazaar, but I’m also more of a pistachios and cumin kind of girl than I am a gold jewelry and knock-off handbags one.
Once the big items were toured, we spent the remainder of our time exploring some “off-the-tourist-path” neighborhoods, strolling from eatery to café, sampling the wide array of street foods and imagining what it might be like to live as locals. One of our favorites of these neighborhoods was Beşiktaş, home to not only the best döner kebab of the trip (Steve still dreams of that döner) but also, slightly more up my alley, what Devrim promised was the best lokma stand in the city. Lokma are an intensely sweet Turkish version of the donut – deep fried balls or rings of yeast dough that are soaked in sugar syrup, and served up warm by endearing street vendors (group photo included with purchase). When you bite into one, sugar syrup runs down your chin and fingers making for an indulgent albeit sticky experience, but 100% worth the hike to Beşiktaş for the best.
Perhaps the highlight of our trip though, was the two days we spent on the Asian side of the city in Kadıköy, a modern, largely residential neighborhood where Devrim grew up. We stayed for two nights with his mother and sister, all seven of us (nine if you count the cats), cozily tucked into their apartment for two. Despite the language barrier, Derya & Eylem were the most welcoming hostesses I have ever encountered. I, quite literally, can’t thank them enough for their kindness and generosity during our stay. And holy shit, the home cooking. The food they prepared for us was completely out of this world. I will forever cherish the memories of our slow, shared breakfasts, sitting huddled around their little dining table, a spread that could rival the most elaborate of breakfast buffets laid out before us. Sugar-dusted Apple pastries, sesame-coated simit, homemade lemon preserves, dark chocolate hazelnut spread, honey and tahini for dipping, multiple cheeses (to-die-for feta), a variety of fresh vegetables including peppers, tomatoes, and cucumbers, salty green and black olives, Turkish sausage (that we were warned would make our arm pits smell)…the list goes on.
What we ate & drank:
Turkish Delight :: pistachio and hazelnut are my favorite flavors (varieties?)
Baklava :: all of them
Döner kebab :: a variety of meat, slow roasted on a vertical rotisserie and served on flatbed with French fries in the wrap, ‘nuff said
Simit :: like a bagel only crispier and covered in sesame seeds, best when dipped in a mixture of tahini and honey (my new favorite snack)
Lamacun :: Turkish pizza that you roll and eat like a taco
Midye dolma :: mussels that are cooked, stuffed with spicy rice and served with a squeeze of lemon
Kokoreç :: pronounced ko-ko-rech, spiced and skewered sheep or lamb intestines, served in a soft baguette
Acılı Ezme :: a spicy spread made from tomatoes, peppers, onions and spices then drizzled with tart pomegranate molasses
Tava Böreği :: the star of our Turkish breakfasts, a mashing up of phylly dough, egg, cheese and parsley and/or spinach
Künefe :: cheese baked in crispy phyllo noodles and soaked in sugar syrup
Profiteroles :: prepared in the Turkish way with all the chocolate sauce
Tuvukgosgsu :: custard dessert made from chicken breast, for when you’re feeling adventurous
Turkish Coffee :: I took mine lightly sweet, if you’re lucky served with Turkish Delight
Raki :: anise-flavored liquor that is clear until mixed with water when it becomes cloudy, perfect for sipping with seafood and mezes
Efes :: the Budweiser of Turkey (only better)
Ciya :: this is a restaurant, not a food, go there & eat everything
Where we stayed:
HERE in Galata neighborhood, fittingly just a few blocks from the Galata Tower. This location was perfect because it allowed us easy access to the “Old City” by foot or train while also being only steps from some of the more modern attractions like Istiklal Street and Taksim Square. Compared to other options nearby, this flat was slightly more expensive, but we decided to pay a little more for the prime location (plus sweet digs) and it was definitely worth it!
How we got there:
Turkish Air! Four flights for only $720! Even if you aren’t going to Turkey that’s cheap enough to consider routing through Istanbul for your next European vacation.