trip report: istanbul
For our big vacation this summer, we hit up Istanbul, Santorini and Crete (posts coming later on those). Istanbul had been at the top of our bucket list for years; the culture, the food, and the climate all made it seem like a city that was tailor-made for us. Virtually every person I spoke to that had visited told me it quickly became one of their favorite travel spots in the whole world. Big shoes to fill.
Were we a little worried about going to Turkey, considering the pockets of violence? Yes. We even made a tentative backup plan to go to Dublin first and then fly directly to Athens from there. We bought trip insurance (which I can't recommend highly enough for any vacation), so we knew that even if we needed to change things last minute, we'd be covered. But, after talking to our travel agent and keeping an eye on the State Department website, it seemed that everything on the ground there was totally safe and we opted to keep our original plan. And we felt safe the entire time, no question about it.
Was I worried to travel while 19 weeks pregnant? No. I checked with my doctor, I got the go ahead and I just made sure on the flight to stay hydrated and get up and walk around every few hours. Turkey and Greece were both very hot, however, so I had a bottle of water on me at all times. But other than that, I don't feel like there were many things that I couldn't do (apart from the Turkish baths, which was a little sad). What is the likelihood that I ate unpasteurized cheese? 100%. It was kind of unavoidable.
Anyway, in Istanbul we opted for a four-night stay, which was a decent amount of time to see the major sites, but, like I heard from many people, you can stay a week or two weeks or three weeks here and still barely scratch the surface.
For our home base, we chose the Four Seasons Bosphorus. It was a little outside of the main tourist areas in Besiktas, but we wanted a hotel on the river and this one looked oh-so-pretty. We stayed at a lot of FS properties while we were on our honeymoon and Bosphorus certainly ranks among the best: awesome service, beautiful room, and a ridiculous brunch buffet (Is this a FS hallmark? We've had very tasty breakfasts at every one we've been to.)
Istanbul is an overwhelming city for a planner like me. There are so many churches/mosques/landmarks that are all must-see, not to mention cuisine that is some of the most flavorful and unique in the world. I spent many weeks zeroing in on what neighborhoods to explore, what sites were on our must-do list, and, of course, what food items I had to try.
We landed late morning on a Friday, and decided to stick close to the hotel for the first day.
Lunch was out on the hotel terrace (pictured at the top of this post), where I got to try lahmacun for the first time. It's essentially like a Turkish pizza: a flatbread covered with tomato sauce, spices and seasoned meat. Incredible.
From there, we took a quick cab (the cabs there were extremely cheap, by the way) to Dolmabahce Palace, an Ottoman-era complex made up of multiple palaces, huge gardens and tons of cats (!). Istanbul has more cats than I have ever seen in any city. This makes it paradise.
Dolmabahce was impressive on the inside, but we waited in the heat for about an hour to get our tickets. I'm not sure I would do that again, to be honest.
We walked home from the Palace, wandering in and out of a few local shops in Besiktas along the way. The best part? The baklava stores, obviously.
After freshening up, we took a cab to Taksim Square and Istiklal Avenue for dinner. Our ultimate destination was Zübeyir Ccakbaşı for grilled meats, but we got to the area about an hour early so we could stroll down Istiklal, which is more or less pedestrian-friendly. Just watch out for the street cars.
Zübeyir. Oh God, how to describe this? I doubt I will ever have sausages and beans and greens as good as I had here. Pictured above is the grill, which is constantly manned by at least two cooks grilling dozens of different skewers. I wish I could bottle the smell.
After dinner we ate about seven baklava AND fresh, hot kunefe from a pastry place down the street. Kunefe is made up of shredded wheat, pistachios, and melted cheese, all soaked in a sweet syrup. It sounds a little odd, but the mix of the salty and sweet is phenomenal.
To maximize our Old City sightseeing, we hired a guide through Sea Song for most of Saturday (which was the only day that we were in town that all the major sites were open). Yes, it's a little more expensive than doing it on your own, but we didn't have to wait in line for entry tickets, we had a car at our disposal and it was extremely helpful to tour with someone who was bilingual who also knew the city's history.
We started at the Blue Mosque (pictured above), which is not actually blue from the outside, but so named for the intricate and beautiful tile work within. If you liked the design, you can buy it on everything from dresses to coasters (which I did!).
Then, we walked back over to the Hagia Sophia, a former church, former mosque and now museum. I could spend this whole blog post just recounting its history, but it's definitely worth a Google if you're not familiar.
After, we retreated underground to the Basilica Cistern. It definitely feels like a scene from a Dan Brown novel in there. It's also refreshingly cool.
After a quick lunch break at Nar Lokanta (I definitely recommend the cold buffet), we popped into a rug store near the Grand Bazaar to see how famed Turkish carpets are made. While we didn't buy a rug, we did pick up a few pillow cases for Baby Girl Lewin. Might as well start her wanderlust early, no?
Afterwards, our guide Efren took us around to some of his favorite booths in the Bazaar. This may have been the best part about having a guide: the Grand Bazaar is ENORMOUS, with over 60 streets and 3,000 vendors. To have someone with you that knew the reputable vendors was enormously helpful. We picked up scarves, a chess set, coasters, some musical instruments ... you know, the basics.
Our last stop on the tour was the Spice Market, which, at only two streets, is tiny, but pretty magical for someone who loves food as much as I do. I ate my weight in dried apricots, pistachios and Turkish Delight. The most important bit of knowledge for any foodie: this is where you should get your Iranian (not Turkish) saffron. Make sure you're buying from a legitimate vendor, but the prices you'll pay in Turkey are maybe a tenth of what you'd pay in the States.
Dinner that night was at Raika, a traditional Turkish place near Taksim that had killer views of the city. The best dish we tried was definitely the Armenian topik, a vegan mezze made from chickpea and potato, and flavored with currant, pine nuts and cinnamon. Does anyone know if you can find this in New York?
On day three, we walked to Ortakoy, a neighborhood just north of Besiktas with a fishing dock. The most famous building there is this little jewel box of a mosque.
For lunch, we went back to the main street of Besiktas and tried out a few different street food vendors (all cooked meat, promise!). Number one to find was kokorec, which, well, you can read the description here.
It was delicious, by the way. Sort of like the Turkish version of an Italian sub. Turks like it so much, they even wrote a song about it. You can learn it too, by clicking here.
To escape the heat, we took a cruise up and down the Bosphorus that afternoon. We didn't have time to get to the Asian side of the city (most of the major sites and restaurants are on the European side), so this was a nice way to at least get to see it.
In search of even more baklava and treats, we spent the later part of the afternoon in Karakoy, probably the hippest neighorhood we went to in Istanbul. Mike went to the Turkish Baths while I toured the modern art museum.
FYI, the most famous baklava shop is near here, Karaköy Güllüoğlu (please don't ask me how to pronounce this). It absolutely lived up to the hype. We bought about a dozen and were able to nibble on them for quite a few days after.
For dinner, I had wanted to try Ottoman palace cuisine and one of the best spots was conveniently located next to our hotel. Tugra was one of the fancier meals we had on vacation, but it was well worth it. Ottoman palace food is essentially recipes from the royal courts, dug up from hundreds of years ago. Food historians went to the libraries, copied the recipes and recreated them to the best of their ability. There are lots of nuts, creamy sauces, and many spices; I'd never really had anything like it before.
Our last day started with breakfast at the hotel. You guys, there was a lady who made fresh burek! I wish she had told me all of her secrets.
Other awesome things included like six different types of honey, a dozen Turkish cheeses, smoked fish, Turkish yogurt, and tons of fresh breads and fruit. It was a great way to try a lot of Turkish dishes all in once place.
ANOTHER great way to try a lot of different Turkish dishes is to hop on a food walking tour. Culinary Backstreets was recommended to us by a few different people, so we ended up booking their tour of the Grand Bazaar. I believe the grand total of food sampled was 13 different dishes, ranging from pide (boat-shaped breads stuffed with melted cheese and meats) to kadayif (another delicious shredded wheat dessert). I absolutely would recommend this to any traveler, whether you're a diehard foodie or not. You learn so much history of the Bazaar and get to wander the little-known roofs and back alleys of the area, where generally just the vendors go.
For our last dinner, we met up with some friends at Mikla, which is probably the most-mentioned Istanbul restaurant in the States. The food is definitely modern Turkish, both the presentation and the menu items. Very good.
It was a jam-packed four days and, like everyone said, we barely scratched the surface. We'll certainly back, probably next time with an extra Lewin in tow. What?!