TL;DR for our Istanbul Post:
Istanbul was the spot where we finished our (outstanding!) month in Turkey and it didn’t disappoint. But it did re-affirm our feeling that we tend to prefer smaller towns to cities.
Istanbul sits astride the Bosphorus Strait, which means it has a European side and an Asian side. It’s the only place you can take a boat ride and bounce back and forth between two continents every 10-15 minutes or so.
We stayed in the neighborhood of Sultanahmet — a somewhat lazy decision based on the fact that it was the most touristic part of the city.
The little inn we stayed in was far enough away from the core tourist zone (with the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia) that it felt pretty laid back. But in hindsight, I think we would’ve hunted around a bit for a more “local” feeling neighborhood/area. However it was hard to get too upset with nearby views like this:
Istanbul, it turns out, is HUGE. It’s a sprawling city of 13.8 million people, which feels larger because it has the massive Bosphorus splitting it in two. There is an armada of grubby water taxis that can take you here and there for a buck fifty per leg, plus there are a few strategic bridges for (reasonable, metered, no-haggle) taxi rides. There are also trams of various flavors that can help you move around. Compared to many cities, Istanbul seemed quite navigable.
Cities are often our place to drink deeply of the speedier internet (i.e. upload photos and blog posts, download movies/TV, Skype with family and friends), so we certainly burned a few days simply doing that (with a lot of eating in between).
Every morning we’d start our day with menemen at a nearby hole-in-the-wall. For $3, a plate of menemen is a mix of scrambled eggs with a rich tomato/pepper sauce topped with fresh parsley (note to self: more fresh parsley in our cooking regime when we get home!). Once we got our fill of eggs and Internet, we’d explore a few of the neighborhood that caught our eye.
Huge hat-tip to My Traveling Joys, a blogger and ex-pat pastry chef who made her home in Istanbul for a few years. Her (often food-centric) posts armed us well to make sense of Istanbul’s food and neighborhoods. Our two favorites were Kanlica Manzara and Kadıköy.
Kanlica – King of Yogurt
I don’t know why I got excited about Kanlica, a neighborhood/area whose only distinction was a reputation for it’s famous yogurt. It was on the northern part of the Bosphorus on the Asian side, so the visit there gave us an excuse for a long (40 minute) boat trip. If you do this trip during commute times (early evening), it’s cheap (and you could take a taxi or bus back). Mid-day, it’s $12 and mostly for tourists.
Kanlica is a charming town with its waterfront taken up by Ottoman mansions in various states of dilapidation/restoration.
Immediately around the ferry dock are 3 or 4 restaurants selling food and Kanlica yogurt (all at the same price– apparently the yogurt union’s price-fix is in full effect!). The yogurt is served either with a heaping bowl of powdered sugar, jam, or honey (we went with powdered sugar and jam).
The yogurt historically was supposed to be so thick that you could drop it and it’d retain its form. It’s no longer is that thick– it’s only a shade thicker than the greek-style yogurt you can get in the states. But it IS remarkably good. So much so that I only (half-jokingly) declared that I was going to return to Seattle to be a yogurt entrepreneur (you can take the boy out of startup land, but you can’t take the startup land out of the boy!).
I started plenty suspicious, but clearly I was won over.
What makes it so special? Well, the setting and the work that it took to get it certainly has to be a big part. Wine snobs don’t like their favorite wines as much when they drink it out of a cheap bottle in blind taste tests. If a fancy bottle and a beefy price tag can trick your brain into making the wine taste better, no doubt that an exotic adventure up the Bosphorus can make yogurt taste yummy. But, god damn it, it did seem creamier and richer tasting. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s sheep and cow milk or maybe it’s strained thicker. Or maybe it’s the fact that tons of powdered sugar makes everything better. Just go there if you make it to Istanbul!
One of our other favorite parts of Istanbul was the neighborhood of Kadikoy. It featured a lively coastal area (a huge hub for the water busses) and a great path along the water. We hiked from the water bus a few miles along the water to Moda Burnu which featured scattered sidewalk eateries (several of them were waffle-centric!). As we circled back to the docks via a more inland route, we came to the beating heart of the area which felt like a hip cross between an open air market and a restaurant district.
It was pedestrian-only, so all of the restaurants spilled their dining areas onto the street, resulting in a pretty festive vibe. We had mezzes (turkish tapas) by the kilogram and washed them down with 4 types of baklava from a nearby Turkish bakery. If we had it to do over again, I think we’d stay in Kadikoy and only do a foray or two into Sultanahmet to see the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, and the Hagia Sophia.
Oh yeah, what about Sultanahmet?
Sultanahmet was a fine neighborhood to base out of, but I’d recommend staying a ways away from the hustle and bustle of the main area. The main drag is, for all of it’s touristy bits, worth wandering down. Within 500 meters you’ve got the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern.
We wandered around several times in the evenings snapping pictures and getting the lay of the land, with the plan of hitting the interiors on our last day. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Hagia Sophia was closed on Mondays, so we had to limit ourselves to seeing the interiors of the Cistern and The Blue Mosque.
Both were amazing. The Cistern was the royal water supply. Nowadays, it’s a 20 minute tourist experience, featuring an eerie underground column-supported cavern with a few medusa sculptures.
The Blue Mosque was just plain stunning. For just a donation on your way out (not mandatory), you can go inside and snap some pictures when it isn’t prayer time (assuming you’re dressed on the conservative side– no shorts/skirts and cover those shoulders, ladies!). The interior was all grace and beauty– it honestly made most of the cathedrals we’d seen across Europe seem tacky by comparison.
Would we do Istanbul Again?
Absolutely! As far as cities go, I’d rank it up there as one of my favorites. While we tend not to dally much in cities when we travel, I don’t think we could bring ourselves to blow out of Istanbul after landing there without spending at least a few days soaking up the culture and energy that Istanbul has to offer.