Foodie Istanbul

So as I’ve been sharing over the past few weeks with you about my experiences in the great city of Istanbul, you might have notice that with the exception of the Asian side, I shared very little about one of the most important parts of traveling in a new country… the food. Living in Italy, I’m sure you can imagine that I have access to great food all the time, and it’s true–but it’s always nice to get away from the Italian classics and experience something more out of the box, and Florence isn’t exactly known for its great variety or its exceptional foreign food. Heading to Istanbul was just as exciting for the potential culinary opportunities as it was for the amazing culture and we enjoyed every minute of it.

I’ve already mentioned the Istanbul Breakfast Club, a great and highly recommended way to eat a traditional Turkish breakfast and meet really interesting people on the Asian side.

IMG_1512

I mean how can you resist all those great looking vegetables and cheeses? But there is so much more to Istanbul than breakfast, beginning with the notable Turkish coffee. Strong and served in a tiny cup like in Italy, it’s similar and dissimilar to espresso. Notably the grounds are kept within the coffee, so you have to be careful to not get a mouthful of them towards the end of your cup. It was okay, but overall I wasn’t super impressed– though we only had it once, so I’d be willing to give it another chance.

IMG_1724

Juices were huge on the streets of Istanbul, and super cheap– one thing my friend and I really enjoyed about Istanbul was the available options of street food, something that we don’t really have a lot of here in Florence. You can get all types of juices– we opted for orange which was super cheap but they also have pomegranate juice. If it wouldn’t have set me back about 8 USD I might have gotten it, but that seemed a bit much for a juice!

IMG_1728

When we were on the Asian side we walked through the fish market and the surrounding streets– it seems every few shops there is an option for purchasing tea or dried fruits… yum yum!

IMG_1522

Food in Turkey was amazing, and really reasonably priced. It was nice to be able to go for a sit-down dinner and feel like it wasn’t going to break the bank, even if you ate in courses! We tried a place the first night and split a bunch of different dishes so that we could taste different things. We started with hummus, what else? They also gave us complimentary pepper dip, which I’ve previously mentioned to you in the Istanbul Breakfast Club. The pita bread that we ate them with was incredible– so soft and fluffy and the vegetables were superb… we definitely could have eaten some more summer tomatoes.

IMG_1468

Then we indulged in this pida, which was similar to a white pizza, and a meat dish that was served with vegetables and rice.

IMG_1469

 

We got kebabs another night, in the Galata area… they were some four meat kind, we weren’t positive, but they were amazing! Just a little hole in the wall place but definitely delicious.

IMG_1726

 

Pretzel-type things are a big street snack in Istanbul, and we couldn’t resist getting them one day… the Nutella filled ones of course!

IMG_1611

Another night we went to a different restaurant we had wanted to try based on its great people-watching windows and low-slung chairs. We tried raki that night… it’s a Turkish liquor that has a licorice flavor. Orhan Pamuk talks extensively about it in The Museum of Innocence (see last week’s post for more on him), and the characters seemed to drink quite a bit of it. All the time. So we figured we had to try it! Ours was served in these ice bowls and diluted a bit with water.

IMG_1639

For dinner I opted for a veggie kebab, wanting something a bit healthier after all the street food we had been eating! The pretzel-type things are far from the only option, and in fact earlier that day we had indulged in watermelon on the street. Seriously, get on that Florence! I have a feeling it would sell way better than the light-up things the street vendors throw in the air.

IMG_1640

Who, though, could go to Turkey and NOT indulge in baklava? Yep, dessert was definitely on the list and we tried baklava multiple places. Turkey serves many different kinds of baklava– milk and walnut are available, though pistachio seemed to be the most common. Below you can see a sort of syrup-cake that I tried one day… it was pretty good, but you can’t beat baklava!

IMG_1744

 

We typically got samplers so that we could try multiple kinds. You only live once right? Plus those honey-soaked fritter things were SO good.

IMG_1528

 

And finally, don’t forget Turkish delight!

IMG_1746

What about you? When you travel, are you a food-experience seeker? What’s your favorite?

 

Through the eyes of an author: Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul

One of my favorite things to do when exploring somewhere new is to see it through the eyes of a local. Sometimes a great way to do that is through literature, and I was lucky enough to have a Turkish author from Istanbul recommended to me in advance of traveling to Istanbul. The book is called The Museum of Innocence and it’s really a great read, I would highly recommend it to anyone thinking of traveling to the city. Orhan Pamuk is from Istanbul and that clearly shows in his writing as he intimately describes the neighborhoods his characters traverse. I felt like I really got to know the city even before arriving, and I wasn’t disappointed when we got there. Pamuk conceived the idea for the book and a corresponding museum at the same time. The book was published in 2008, and the museum opened in Istanbul in 2012, a testament to Pamuk’s importance and high level of respect in the Turkish community. He has won the Nobel Prize in Literature and is a truly talented writer. The book isn’t for the faint of heart–it’s long and very introspective with a slow plot, but it is beautifully written. We were able to stop by the museum and explore the neighborhoods surrounding it during one of our days in Istanbul. Below you can see the front of the museum, which contains mementos that have significance in the book. If you’d like more details than that, feel free to ask, but I don’t want to spoil it for everyone!

IMG_1714

 

We wandered around that area of town for most of the rest of the day, just walking and exploring, getting off the beaten track and for the most part seeing very few tourists. We wandered the backstreets, winding up (and up and up) hills and just exploring. We saw this really cool graffiti on one of our notable uphill climbs.

IMG_1719

All this uphill walking was for a purpose– we were heading to the Pera Palace hotel, where famous people the likes of Agatha Christie and Atatürk have stayed. One of my DAR ladies had recommended we stop here and ask to check out the rooms, so we did. Christie’s room, is, unfortunately for a big fan such as myself, still rented out, so I couldn’t check it out, but I do definitely plan to try to sleep there someday! Atatürk’s suite was converted into a museum room and a manager in training took us around it and shared some stories with us, so that was really interesting. He had left many things in the room at the time of his death, and those objects are what are now displayed there (two rugs that were gifted to him, pajamas, documents, etc). From there we walked around the area for a bit, checking out the cable car and shops… this was a very bustling and busy area.

IMG_1721

 

We wandered down to Galata Tower from there– it was nice to be walking downhill for a change!

IMG_1729

The line was ages long so we didn’t end up climbing the tower but we walked around it before deciding to continue downhill and meander our way back towards Sultenhamet by walking across the bridge over the Bosphorus.

IMG_1739

The bridge has great views and local Turks still fish off the bridge as well. You can see them fishing below with Galata Tower in the background.

IMG_1741

 

The bridge has great views looking towards both sides of the river.

IMG_1742

It’s a great reminder of how important the river was and is to Istanbul, both for trade and transportation.

IMG_1740

In this instance, a great day was created thanks to the recommendation of a friend and being willing to get out and explore a different area of the city, but when traveling it’s just as important to be flexible and to go with the flow when things come up. Getting off the beaten track in a destination can be challenging at times, but sometimes it’s a simple as appreciating events when you stumble across them. After one long day in Istanbul we stumbled across a military band playing and took advantage of the opportunity to indulge in watermelon from a street vendor and a bit of music.

IMG_1631

Istanbul is a beautiful city and exploring all of the hidden corners of it would take years. Finding all of the tiny things that make a place stand out to you is one of the greatest things about exploring new (and even old) places. For us, it was the reminder that Ramadan was coming, as we walked back through Sultenhamet at the end of our stay.

IMG_1747

For me, living in a Catholic country at the moment, the reminders of daily Muslim life couldn’t have been more different than my normal life, but it was a really amazing way to become a part of the culture of the country.

IMG_1748

 

That Local Life: Istanbul

One of the best things about travel is when you can get off the beaten track and experience things that are unique and get to know the locals of the city– and that’s what the next two posts I’ll be sharing about Istanbul will focus on. My friend and I are very compatible travelers in the sense that we both enjoy this type of travel, just wandering and exploring. Our first day in Istanbul my friend and I were off on an adventure to check out the Asian side of Istanbul. Since we stayed in the main tourist area we walked around 20 minutes to get to the ferry terminal, confused ourselves and some very nice Turkish people trying to find the proper ferry to Kadiköy, not to be confused with Karikoy, which, for the record, sound the same when you say them in your American accent to Turkish people. On our way to the waterfront we stopped and got fresh fruit juice–something that is all over Istanbul and that I wish we had more of here in Florence.

IMG_1497

All of the public transport in Istanbul (or at least all that we took) operates on a token system; careful that you don’t put a twenty in the machine because it will give you change all. back. in. coins. The ferry arrived and boarded quickly and we were off. Below you can see the ferry terminal from the water and the view behind.

IMG_1501

So I know it’s a little confusing to envision the city, so check out this map. We stayed in Sultenhamet, which is a part of the bottom left section of land and close to the Topkapi palace, Blue Mosque and Haggia Sophia. Kadiköy is the land mass on the right, labelled. And the top section we’ll touch on next week, so keep this map in mind.

istanbul02

The ferry ride to the Asian side is only about half an hour, and it was really pleasant. Since it was a Sunday morning most of the ferry was unoccupied and we got to enjoy the view in peace. Below, you can see the view of another area of Istanbul, including the Galata Tower. Refer back to the map above; the top section actually marks the Galata Tower so you can get an idea of the geography.

IMG_1503

We walked from the ferry stop at Kadiköy, intent on our destination. Along the way, we encountered some interesting things, such as these super creepy crows (below) and were lucky enough to meet some people that could direct us to the Starbucks, which was close to the apartment we were searching for.

IMG_1508

The reason that we were on the Asian side on this particular day was to hit the Istanbul Breakfast Club, something I stumbled across while doing research on all things Istanbul. Olga, who hosts the Istanbul Breakfast Club, runs a blog called Delicious Istanbul, full of helpful articles about where to shop (and where to avoid) in the major and minor markets and I read through some of her articles and noticed a box at the top of the page advertising the breakfast, so I checked it out. Olga is Russian but prepares a huge Turkish feast, only one a month, the last Sunday of the month, and it just so happened that my friend and I would be in town for the event. We finally found her apartment (luckily it was basically across the street from Starbucks) and were actually the first to arrive.

IMG_1509

Olga was very welcoming and chatted with us while she finished cutting cheese and arranging things from the brunch and answering the door. Around 15 people were attending the breakfast club and we got to chat with quite a few of them before the breakfast started and then throughout the meal as people sat, rearranged and departed, shifting conversational partners. The brunch was incredible, and all the food that Olga had made was so delicious. On the left is homemade strawberry jam and several sauces (a peanut sauce and some others) and in the back are savory biscuits that she made and in the front a type of cookie type thing and sesame seed candy.

IMG_1511

She made flatbreads at one point and there was a ton of fresh cheese including one similar to a ricotta in the bowl, vegetables, and this amazing pepper dip that we had tasted the night before at dinner and were thrilled to indulge in again.

IMG_1512

We filled our plates and Olga served everyone traditional black tea and we chatted with everyone while we ate. The brunch was mostly travelers so everyone had really interesting stories to share and swapped tips on what to do in Istanbul. We sat with someone who was originally from Istanbul and he gave us some great recommendations for the city. I’d highly, highly recommend the Istanbul Breakfast Club if you’re in town on the right day. If not, Olga also does foodie type tours, so be sure to check out her website!

IMG_1513

When breakfast wound down we ended up walking into town with a couple other people from the brunch. One was the local I mentioned before, who now splits time between Istanbul and San Francisco and the other two were a couple who had been living in another area of Turkey. We wandered back towards the ferry area together, grabbed coffee and stopped by a store in town that I had asked about to buy something for my brother. They headed back to take the ferry afterwards but we weren’t finished exploring the Asian side so we stayed over, wandered around the small streets behind the ferry station and opted to have dinner somewhere they had recommended to us earlier, one of their favorite spots in Istanbul. They have a self-serve appetizer dip bar, but I wasn’t too impressed with the main course we had, so I’m not sharing it with you here.

The Asian side of Istanbul doesn’t hold a ton of tourist sites, and I’m sure that most tourists gloss over it. For me, though, it felt every bit as much a part of the city as the other areas, and it was great to be out and about among mostly locals enjoying a calm Sunday. I imagine it’s probably a quieter area during the week, but I highly recommend getting out from the main tourist zones of Istanbul and checking it out if you have time. If you are able to, be sure to give Olga my best!

We took the ferry back across the Bosphorus (for the record, the cheapest ‘river tour’ you could possibly get) at sunset, the end to a perfect Sunday.

IMG_1536

Istanbul: where histories meet

This past weekend I went somewhere completely new to me that I am so excited to share with you over the next couple of weeks. Istanbul encompasses so much more than I could possibly say to you in one post, and I hope you’ll stick with me to get to know a city that is truly deserving of a spot on your bucket list. There are so many things that I could say about Istanbul, but none would truly describe the city. It’s really a place that you have to experience yourself, and I couldn’t speak more highly of it. I have been wanting to visit Istanbul for some time, but it’s more complicated to tack onto a Eurotour because it is further away, making flights more limited and train access longer and not as accessible. To top that off, I had heard mixed things about Istanbul and I just wasn’t sure about exploring the city on my own.

This year I was lucky enough to meet someone else who had an interest in traveling to Istanbul, and we were able to get the same week off work so a couple of months ago we booked five days in the city of Istanbul. I did a ton of research in advance because there are just so many things to see that with limited time we didn’t want to miss, but even so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I had a vision in mind, and in some ways, Istanbul was exactly how I imagined it; in others, it was so entirely different. The whole city has a really unique feel, and I attribute that to the unique history of the city that has created a completely diverse culture. Istanbul was part of the Roman Empire and the seat of the Ottoman Empire, two completely different empires that contributed greatly to the establishment of much of the modern city. It is both Europe and Asia, ancient and modern, Islamic, Christian and secular. All of this contributes to such an interesting feel when you are walking around the city– almost like you have been transported to the past, with the amenities of the present. It’s hard to describe, but it’s entirely unique and very peaceful.

We hit many of the big tourist sites while exploring Istanbul, including the Topkapi palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Süleymaniye mosque, the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia). There were so many other things we could have seen; in particular we really wanted to go to the archeological museums but we simply didn’t have time; we weren’t willing to compromise on other things to squeeze it in, so mark that down if I make it back to Istanbul someday. Istanbul is a bustling metropolis and in most ways is very similar to any other major city: there is a metro, buses and a tram system. The teens on the metro are just as giggly and annoying as the ones in the US. Still, there are marked differences as well. The call to prayer resonates throughout the city during the day, and in the wee hours of the morning as well, before sunup, defining the day. Personally I found it very peaceful, and very different and yet similar to the clanging church bells that can be heard on the hour all over Italy.

IMG_1485

Did you have any idea that there would be an Egyptian obelisk in Istanbul? Yeah, me either. There is a surprising number of things imported into Istanbul, from ancient pillars to the notably more recent Shake Shack. Still, the ancient history is what the city is noted for and what enabled it to become what it is today. Below you can see the inner courtyard of the massive Topkapi palace, seat of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans ran most of their business out of the palace; meeting rooms were next to the harem and were actually damaged in the harem fire that occurred, but you can still see much of the buildings. Many of the rooms have been converted to display artifacts belonging to the Ottomans, but some, like the meeting rooms and the harem, were left as they were to be seen as the rooms they were at the time. In the display rooms you can see a wide variety of historical objects, including weapons the Ottomans used over the course of their reign, clothes the Sultan wore, and items such as vases and jewels that were either gifted to the Sultan or taken as spoils of war.

IMG_1548Below you can see some of the ceilings within the meeting rooms. Do you think they painted the ceilings so intricately in case they got bored when someone was droning on? Just kidding… maybe…

 

The harem was particularly interesting because it was where many women and the Sultan lived during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. When you first enter the harem and go inside a bit more, there are three doorways: one leads to the concubines, one to the head wife and one to the Sultan. The tile work is incredibly intricate throughout the palace and leans toward blue and teal tones.

IMG_1579

And the view isn’t bad from the palace either…

IMG_1577

The frescoes throughout the harem were quite intricate and beautiful.

IMG_1585

And surely the Sultan couldn’t complain about this bed…

IMG_1600

Learning more about the Ottoman Empire’s home was really interesting, but for our next stop we completely switched tracks and went to see something Roman left in the city… one of the aqueducts. Below you can see some shots of the aqueducts including the famed Medusa head. It was pretty dark underground so I didn’t have a ton of photos that turned out, but it was SO cool, definitely a must-see when in Istanbul.

Perhaps the most interesting things we saw in terms of big tourist sites, however, were the contrasting Ayasofya and Blue Mosque which face each other in the heart of the tourist district of the city. They are such a contrast to each other and both have such interesting history. The Blue Mosque was built to counter the Ayasofya and is known as the “blue” mosque because of the blue tiling on the balcony level of the mosque (not that, as a tourist, you go that high. You stay on the floor, so the blue didn’t seem as predominant, at least to me). It was really stunningly beautiful. We had visited the Süleymaniye mosque the day before, and it was much more intricate than that mosque, but they were both really beautiful. Below in the gallery the Süleymaniye mosque is shown above and the Blue Mosque below it.

Below you can see some photos where I tried to zoom in on the infamous blue tiles.

The Ayasofya is probably one, if not the sole most interesting historical building in the city. Built as a church, it was converted to a mosque under the Ottomans before eventually being secularized by Ataturk and made into a museum, which is how it stands today. There are still some who would prefer it be returned to being a living mosque, however, so occasionally there is debate around it. Because it has such an interesting history, it is a really interesting building to explore. For example, when it was converted into a mosque, the mosaics of the Byzantine church were covered in plaster. Some have been uncovered; in parts of the building you can see areas where the plaster has been pulled back just enough to view that there is something else beneath; there are also many mosaics still beneath the plaster that have not been uncovered yet. Side by side in the same building you are able to see these Byzantine frescoes and the sweeping letters of the Islamic art and it’s a little surreal. Below you can see a bit where the plaster is pulling back to reveal what lies beneath.

IMG_1669

 

The interior of the church is really interesting and really beautiful. The combination of Christian and Islamic themes is so interesting.

DSC07366

DSC07369

The light messed with the picture above but you can see the mosaic of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child next to the Islamic script. You can clearly see the influences from the Ottoman Empire in the photos below. The lowermost shows the box where the Sultan would sit if he came to prayer.

DSC07370

DSC07371

There are so many truly amazing things that I could show you images of, but the truth is you will only capture the essence of the city if you see it for yourself. Tune in next week when I share more off the beaten track treasures from Istanbul– I hope you are enjoying hearing about this amazing city as much as I enjoyed exploring it.