Getting beyond Sultanhamet
Let’s start by getting my bias out in the open . . . I loved Istanbul. So much so I would buy the I ♥ Istanbul T-shirt! It has it all. Water. History. Culture. Iconic buildings. Great Food! It’s safe (seriously for a city this size, it feels very safe). Easy to get around using public transport (see the Istanbul Kart below). Friendly people.
And did I mention the Tulips! While it is bustling, people are courteous, friendly and overall the place has a very relaxed vibe. Turkish people are very social and are always happy for a chat, usually over a tea or coffee (and a cigarette). It might be my new favorite city.
However there is much more to explore than just the museums, palaces and mosques in Sultanhamet, and you will get a better appreciation of Istanbul if you get off this well worn tourist path and head further afield.
This is your key to public transport and getting anywhere quickly. Look for IstanbulKart signs on small kiosks around the city. You can recharge (Akbil) at one of these kiosks or a machine at any of the stations (and yes you can get the machine to speak English).
The card costs 7 TL (April 2015) and you can load as much credit as you want on the card. One card can be used by two people. You just scan the card as you go through the turnstile, then pass it back to the next person to do the same. It will tell you how much you have left on the card each time so you know when to recharge.
The card is good for the ferry, tram, Metro or any other form of public transport. If you have used the Octopus card in Hong Kong or the Oyster Card in London, this is the Istanbul version. You can forget about trying to work out fares or how much it costs to get from point A to B. For two of us, for a week, we spent about 30 TL (but we walk a lot as well).
Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi
Istiklal Cadessi is an unbelievable mass of humanity. Great
Baklava shops (try the Mado shop). Local eateries. And car free.
Zubeyir Ocakbasi, it will be mentioned in the shish kebap recipe post is off Istiklal Caddesi.
Istiklal Caddesi starts at Taksim Square, a large open square with a large Metro station. If you see large protests or gatherings in Istanbul on TV, this is usually where they are. Generally it is a large, open space with a few street vendors selling simits (Turkish sesame bagels) and roasted chestnuts. It runs for about a mile or so and ends near the Galata Tower. If you take the Tunel up from Karikoy it stops on Istiklal Caddesi. If you take the Tunel up from Kabatas it ends at Taksim Square.
Like Karakoy but on the Asian side of Turkey. It’s easy to get to, just hop the ferry from Eminou, KaraKoy or Kabatas. It’s a quick ferry ride, use your IstanbulKart for the fare (when we went it was 4TL one way per person) and you can get some great photos of Sultanhamet and Galata Tower from the boat.
When you get there- very close from the ferry- just cross the busy street toward the Southwest (follow most of the other passengers the bulk of them head that way) you will find a vibrant area full of cafes, restaurants, coffee shops and a great little market.
The Local Market in Kadikoy
This market is an excellent example of an urban neighborhood market (pazar or pazari) featuring a range of FRESH fish, delicatessens, and green grocers. Anything you want or need for cooking, including fresh, beautiful local ingredients:
- The village goat cheese – in the goat skin. We were lucky enough to see one just being opened and the vendor cutting away the “sealed” goat skin to reveal the cheese!
- Sucuk- made at the butcher
- Any kind of olive or olive oil you might want
- Fresh fruit and vegetables that would make any meal really special
- Exotic cuts- including all the offal- lamb’s head, lamb’s feet, beef tongue and the usual liver.
There is a huge selection of every sort- balik (fish) restaurants, meyhanes, kebap shops- the assortments goes on for blocks.
Our choice of restaurant for lunch is highly recommended: Ciya Sofrasi on Guneslibahce Sokak No. 32A . This is both a kebap shop and a lokanta (cafeteria type shop with meals fixed daily so the menu always changes). They had an English menu which made ordering easier for us non-turkish speakers.
We got to try a few things here we had heard about and wanted to try including:
- Sherbet– this is a drink (in imperial times these were stored in fancy urns which we saw on display in Topkapi Palace in the Imperial Confectionery Kitchen). We were able to try two flavors- Green (which was lovely, a hint of mint and maybe cucumber, it was really refreshing) and Sumac (tangy, minor hint of spice, strawberry-color). The flavors vary daily/weekly.
- Olive salad
- Yogurt Soup– Ayran (salty yogurt drink), burglar wheat, a hint of mint and few other things. I was expecting this to be a cold soup but it was warm and quite hearty.
- Mumbar Dolmasi– or stuffed intestine casing- which is really just the same thing good sausages are made with (if you go to a real butcher this is what sausages were traditionally made with andstill are today) stuffed with lamb, bulgur wheat and spices.
- Stuffed swiss chard– a healthy option stuffed with meat, bulgur wheat and spice. Served with garlic yogurt.
This entire meal was outstanding. Nothing special in terms of Turkish food, these are all traditional items, but it was well executed and good value as well. Our entire meal was $24 USD.
And dessert was not too far away, walking down Guneslibahce Sokak (toward the harbor), you arrive at Etabal Honey (28/A). The shop has a very friendly shop keeper and the honey is so inviting – it just glows! The honey is from Danca in the Kackar Mountains of Turkey. For only $2USD you could buy a cup of fresh yogurt covered in honey!
Here you can see coffee being made over open coals, the traditional way. To learn more about Turkish coffee and the rich history of coffee in Turkey, read our longer post about Turkish coffee and tea.
This is where we stayed during our time in Istanbul. It is known as the artist area. Full of little shops, great restaurants and some great coffee shops.
Why we liked it:
- We are coffee snobs, but the coffee here was good enough to keep us happy and there was enough variety for us to try a different shop every day. More on coffee in Turkey can be found in our much longer post on Turkish Coffee
- It was close enough to walk to Sultanhamet and all the major tourist attractions. You walk down the hill past the Galata Tower, over the Galata Bridge, (which offers some amazing views of the Sultanhamet area) and end up right at the Spice Bazaar. Alternatively there is easy access to public transport if you prefer.
- You are also walking distance to Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi.
- There are a lot of options for night life and opportunities to see live music.
- It was also far away from the tourist attractions you could have a break and see how people live in Istanbul.
Some Local Eateries worth trying:
Great little pizza parlor serving delicious wood-fired pizzas. Traditional Italian style with the thin crust. Best pizza we have had in a while.
Selvi is a local lokanta, cheap meals with a wide variety, on Sıraselviler Caddesi. No:6, not far from Taksim Square. (Look for the Ottoman Palace Hotel). There is also a great looking baklava shop on this corner as well.
This was the best coffee we had and the best breakfast. It is a funky little place. It has an English menu. Highly recommended. Our two breakfasts took up the entire table!! You won’t leave here hungry.
This is a nice place for a bottle of wine and a meal. Finding a place in Turkey with a wine selection is a bit difficult as there is not much of a wine culture. There tends to be a choice of red, white or rose by the glass, and a couple of bottles from the big wineries. Mellow was the exception. They have a wine menu and you can select from a number of different wines by the bottle or glass. We had a light snack here with the bottle of wine and the food was excellent. The table next to us had lamb shanks and they looked and smelled great.
Also if it is chilly out, the table has a heater in the middle support, which was very nice in the evening.
This was a bargain! 15 TL per person. It leaves from the Kabatas dock – first departure 12:45pm. The Kabatas Dock is near the Dolmabahce Palace. So you can go through the palace in the morning then hop the cruise. Any of the stops offer good restaurants for lunch.
This boat cruise led to one of our great finds: we visited Istanbul in April (which is a great time- the weather is good, not hot, not too crowded and the Tulip Festival is on)! Earlier in the week we had stumbled upon Gulhane Park when we left Topkapi Palace. We were in awe of the tulips, but that was before we found Emirgan Korusu which is at the Emirgan stop on the boat cruise. I thought the Netherlands was good with the tulips in the spring time, well I think Istanbul gives it a run for its money. More on the tulips can be found in the longer post on the best time to visit Istanbul just to show off the pictures!
Along the way on the cruise you will pass a number of large mansions, palaces, the Rumelian Fortress, and travel under the large bridges crossing the Bosphorus connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Many of the mansions are summer houses for Istanbul’s wealthy.
We also jumped off the boat at the last stop, Beylerbeyi. There is another smaller palace here which you can go through but it closes at 5pm so you need to make your way there without too many stops if you want to tour it. For us, this was our late lunch stop. We ate sitting next to the Bosphorus River and enjoyed the late afternoon scenery. We then caught the last boat back which departed at 7:10 pm which worked out nicely for the evening sun in pictures.
The Whirling Dervishes
The Whirling Dervishes,or the Mevlevi order, originated in Konya, Turkey in the 13th Century A.D. The founder of the order is Jelaleddin Rumi (1207-1273), the poet and Sufi master, he was called Mevlana (our leader) by his disciples. As part of te ufi religion followers seek a close relationship with God, and this is achieved through chants, prayers, music and a whirling dance.
As everything in Turkey and this blog can be related to food, it is interesting to note that for the Follower in the Order of the Dervishes, each novice spends 1001 days of service. When the novice has completed this initial period of service, he is fully “cooked” having reached spiritual maturity and is then able to become a full member of the Brotherhood.
Near the Galata Tower, there is the first and only Whirling Dervish Hall in Istanbul, the Galata Mevlevihanesi, or Galata Lodge. It is not far from the Tunel at the end of Istiklal Caddesi. They perform in other locations around the city, we saw them in the event hall of the Sirkeci train station.
The performance is rhythmic, mesmerizing, and dizzying! They achieve a trance like state through the whirling. It is a religious ceremony that is accompanied by live music.
The whole performance lasts about an hour. 35-40 minutes of this is the actual ceremony. It is amazing to see (and that someone can whirl for that long) and is highly recommended. If you miss them in Istanbul, there is an opportunity to see the Whirling Dervishes in Cappadocia and in Konya, the home of the order.
The largest of several hundred cisterns under Istanbul, that at one time provided the city’s supply of clean water. The Basilica Cistern,is actually in Sultanhamet, but not what you would normally think of as a tourist attraction.
It is pretty quick to see, but makes a nice retreat from the hustle and bustle above ground and is nice and cool.
The cistern, built in the 6th century to provide water for the Palace, features a very symmetrical construction featuring 336 columns. Many of them marble columns salvaged from other buildings and temples, and the whole structure looks like an underground palace. There are two large Medusa heads in the far corner of the cistern, why these heads are here is somewhat of a mystery.