The melting pot of the world, Istanbul – I really didn’t know what to expect but nothing would’ve prepared me for this stunning place! The smells, noises and lights are so different to anything I’ve ever experienced. I did not put my camera down (hence the gazillion photos in this post), trying to capture every memory as best I could. I apologise in advance for all the cat photos…
Istanbul was the only destination of our trip that we didn’t AirBnB and stayed in a hotel. Towards the end of the holiday you kind of want to get fresh towels everyday and could do with the luxuries offered by hotels. On our first day we had a traditional Turkish breakfast at the Erboy Hotel – a great start to a day of sight-seeing: we saw the Blue Mosque, climbed Galata Tower (my fear of heights was tested here), bought Turkish bowls and jewellery from shops behind the tower, drank so much cherry juice and went to Istanbul Modern. I really enjoyed seeing Turkish art and how it tells such a different story to what I’ve experienced before. You can really tell a lot about people and their sociopolitical environments through the art that comes out of various periods.
Our first evening we had a drink upstairs at the hotel and enjoyed the stunning view of the Bosphorous and then went for wraps at Tarihi Sadabad cag Kebabcisi. We were even ‘treated’ to some apple tea at the restaurant – I’m not sure but I think we paid for it, even though you feel like it may be on the house. I found the Turkish people exceptionally friendly and very convincing.
On our second day we did the Istanbul Eats Culinary Tour of the Old City, which came highly recommended by friends that had previously done it.
We met at Hadim Restaurant just off the Spice Bazaar in the Old City. We were prepared to eat like locals and were told that no meal is the most important in Turkey.
First up was breakfast (kahvalti). We walked around where our guide, Senem, pointed out the dried eggplant, okra and grape leaves hanging everywhere in the bazaar and showed us the most popular coffee shop in Istanbul (the queues are incredibly long but move so fast) which was right across from her Grandfathers’ little cheese shop, Temiz Pevnirci. We sat down at a make-shift table in a little alley in front of a tea shop where we had some black tea or çay – in Turkey the tea originally came from the Black Sea and is always served before or with breakfast where coffee comes after eating.
We were treated to a spread of simit (turkish breads), kashar (a hard, yellow sheep and goats cheese), kaymak (clotted buffalo cream topped with honey which needs to be eaten in a day), pastrami (it’s a lot more red than Italian pastrami), tomato and red pepper chili paste, olives (green and black), dried figs, hazelnuts (80% of Nutella’s nuts are from Turkey), a walnut, oregano, olives and sun-dried tomato mix and raisins. The Turks typically use aisot (spices), sumac, pomegranate molasses and cinnamon in their cooking.
After breakfast we meandered through the spice bazaar and stopped to have some kral kokoreç (intestines wrapped and slowly cooked) and chicken doner (doner meaning twirling).
Senem then took us for baklava where we had bulbul (nest with nuts), traditional baklava, pistachio baklava and katmer (which is made with clotted cream and is apparently quite rare to come across – it sells out so quickly). Real baklava uses no honey and consists of about 45-85 layers of pastry, each meticulously layered, one-by-one. We also had superb coffee here and actually came back twice after this first visit! Coffee is a pretty big deal in Istanbul – there is a lot of tradition revolving around it and coffee drinking has become a special time to connect with your friends and family. The mud in the coffee mug after drinking the dark, thick drink, is often used for fortune telling too. The coffee beans are roasted twice and coffee is served with no milk and usually no sugar. It is prepared in a cezve which is similar to the Italian moka pot.
We made a quick detour to a very quiet mosque which was even more blue than the Blue Mosque. After the sweet treats we had some pidecisi, the boat shaped Turkish take on a pizza. We enjoyed some Ayran with our meal – the salty yoghurt drink is often drank for it’s probiotics to stabilize the stomach, especially if you are eating street food!
In Istanbul there are whole streets dedicated to certain products or specialities, like a sewing machine street. We headed for the “scale street” where, after stopping some more tea, we were ushered into a sweet shop where we tried some Lokum, halva and akide sekeri. This shop we also came back to visit later and on our last day, where we met a videographer from New York who flew in that morning after hearing about the place the previous evening!
Next stop was Sika, where they sell Vefa boza, a fermented bulgur drink that was said to be natures Red Bull. Çerefe (cheers)!
Our tour ended at Sirit Seret where we sat around a table and enjoyed buryan kebap (baby lamb), an almond, raisin, pinenut pilaf covered with dough which is then baked and a side order of azeme (pomegranate, olives, parsley, sumac and oregano).
The Istanbul Eats culinary tour was so worth it and was a fabulous way of seeing Istanbul. I would definitely recommend it to any one going to Istanbul for the first or hundredth time!
After the tour we went back to the hotel to freshen up and went off to see Topkapi Palace which we kind of floated through, trying to take in all it’s beauty.
We made a trip up to the Basilica Cistern the next day. I loved the two Medusa heads in the columns, one was upside down – I really enjoyed this eerie space. Fortunately the Cistern wasn’t too busy because there weren’t any cruise ships docked – cool little trick we learned online, check when cruise ships are in the harbor and avoid any sightseeing that day.
Ofcourse, we walked around in the Grand Bazaar, overwhelmed by all the colours and textures of spices, fabrics, soaps and metal ware. We also by chance came across a string spinster, something you wouldn’t see just anywhere, who invited us into his workshop to watch him work.
We then made our way to the Ayasophia via the hotel and stood in a pretty short queue to get in. It’s apparently better to try get in after 4 as there is usually less people! It’s so stunning inside and I loved the chandeliers and mosaics upstairs.
The one morning we took the tram to Kabatsh, walking all the way up to Orkatoy where we had coffee at Dorns Café. We then walked all the way from Orkatoy back to Kabatash, to Taksim (where we stopped at Simit Sarayi), down Istakal (where I found some nice clothes off the street) and back to Galata. That was a pretty long walk that tested our relationship on a hunger level we had not yet encountered!
On our last morning we went to hang out at Gulhane Park. A beautiful garden with tall trees, lots of cats and odd sculptures of bears, girls and squirrels. We strolled through the gardens towards the Bosphorus and had our last simit and a tea for two before heading for the airport back home.
Originally, Istanbul wasn’t part of our planning for this trip and I’m just so happy we ended up going. It was nothing like any of the other European destinations which was really refreshing. I would most definitely go back to experience the flavours, smells and sights all over again!
This trip inspired me so much (I’m even selling simit here in Cape Town now!) and has made me hungry for more and more travel.