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Why Now Is the Time to Visit Istanbul

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Two days after I booked my flights to Istanbul, the news broke of a military coup that left 300 dead and over 2,000 injured. In the 48 hours that followed, I contacted KLM to see if I could cancel, but they refused to refund my money or let me change the flights. “Screw it,” I decided; “we’re going anyway”. When I thought about it rationally, there seemed to be as much danger of a terrorist attack in Amsterdam as there was risk of violence in Istanbul; and if there’s one thing these troublemakers want it’s to disrupt people’s lives. I wasn’t going to let them.

And so I got on with my usual travel preparations: researching where to eat in Istanbul, booking a food tour, finding somewhere nice to stay. It was business as usual. And when we arrived, that’s exactly what we found in Istanbul too: ordinary Turks just trying to get on with their lives and make enough money to pay the bills. Only it’s pretty tough here right now. In a country that relies on tourism for a significant chunk of its GDP, the diminishing visitor numbers are taking their toll.

6-reasons-now-is-the-time-to-visit-istanbul

Restaurants were half empty, their owners more than happy to see us. I started off making reservations in advance, but quickly stopped bothering when it became apparent we didn’t need them. Prices in shops were lower than usual to try and persuade us to buy more. Some shopkeepers even thanked us for visiting their country during tough times. A gorgeous 40 m2 suite in a hotel in upscale Cihangir only cost us around €100 a night. A situation that’s been pretty disastrous for Turkey is – ironically – a blessing for the budget-conscious traveller. Despite all instincts to the contrary, this is nothing short of the best time to visit Istanbul.

So that’s why now’s the moment. But why visit Istanbul?

…Because breakfast really IS the best meal of the day

I’ve always been more of a strong-coffee-and-go kind of person in the morning, preferring to delay eating until elevenses or an early lunch. The idea of endless cereal and toast bores me to death (people seem to be content to eat the same things for breakfast every day, whereas that monotony would be unacceptable at any other mealtime – why is that?). But breakfast in Turkey is a whole different affair. The Turkish word for breakfast, “kahvaltı” literally translates as “before coffee” – a substantial meal to line the stomach before drinking the so-strong-you-can-stand-a-spoon-up-in-it (literally) Turkish coffee. Breakfasts range from cheese and olives to eggs and tomatoes to yoghurt and honey – with a lot more in between, including the ubiquitous simit – a ring-shaped piece of dough that’s been dipped in molasses and sesame seeds and baked. Here are just a couple of the different Istanbul breakfast options I discovered:

Van Kahvaltı Evi

Located dangerously close to our hotel was this well-loved breakfast spot: Van Kahvaltı Evi. We headed here for brunch on Sunday morning, and ordered a plate of Turkish cheeses, a sort of stuffed and griddled spinach pancake, a sizzling pan of eggs with tomatoes and cheese, and various spreads for bread – from the spicy red pepper paste (biber salcası) that recurs frequently throughout the city’s restaurants, to a cooling cucumber, mint and yoghurt number. Everything was fresh and full of flavour – a perfect start to a day’s sightseeing.

Just part of a full Turkish breakfast at Van Kahvalti Evi
Just part of a full Turkish breakfast at Van Kahvaltı Evi

Lades 2

According to local sources, Lades 2 is the place to go for menemen – scrambled eggs with tomatoes and green peppers. I ordered mine with Turkish sausage, but I’m not sure it benefited from the addition of meat; order the simpler version and mop up the juices with fresh bread for only 7 lira (just over €2). This place is nothing fancy, but it hits the spot in the morning.

Cihangir coffee houses

We didn’t know it when we booked, but Cihangir is the neighbourhood where the celebrities come to hang out – it has a very hipster vibe to it, which is reflected in the prices. A coffee here will set you back around 9 lira (€3 – arguably more expensive than Amsterdam!). However, if you can afford it (and right now is your best chance), it’s a lovely area to stay in. As a digital nomad, I was on the hunt for places I could drink decent coffee, use fast wifi, and perhaps order a croissant or a bowl of fruit and yoghurt for those days when I was determined the resist the full Turkish breakfast. My recommendations go to Norm for their cappuccino (which is actually closer to a flat white), Pur for their fresh fruit and oatmeal breakfasts, and 1 Kahve for their freelancer-friendliness.

…Because you can hop over to Asia for dinner

Istanbul is unique in many ways – but one of its most unique features is that it spans two continents: Europe and Asia. Most tourists stay on the European side (as we did), and the sheer scale of the city means that many never take the time to make it to the other side of the Bosphorus. If you do, however, it’s well worth the journey. I was keen to take one of the ferries over to the Asian side, but the ferry terminal we walked via on Google Maps had recently closed down (I believe temporarily), so we ended up taking a taxi over the Bosphorous Bridge instead. The bright scarlet of the Turkish flag billowed over the side of this monolithic steel structure as we hurtled through the traffic to Asia. Once there, we only had one evening to explore, but we made the most of it…

Çiya

Çiya is familiar to locals as possibly the best restaurant in Istanbul, but it’s unknown to most visitors. I’d got a tip from a friend plus the Culinary Backstreets guidebook, and didn’t regret my choice. Çiya has become so popular that it now spans three different restaurants – each a stone’s throw from the other – and we sort of hopped between them, trying different food in each. We started in the main sofrasi (restaurant) with a plate of self-service mezze. It was all excellent, but the olives with za’atar were some of the best I’ve tasted; fava bean purée was buttery and fragrant with dill; and aubergine salad was warm and smoky from its charred skin. After the mezze, we switched sides of the street to Çiya’s kebab house and ordered an open lamb kebab which came with chopped up pita, whole roasted aubergines and grilled green chillies that were so hot they made me high. Not quite full, we then headed back to the original restaurant where we tried two hot dishes from their buffet: runner beans in a minty sauce, and more lamb with aubergine – this time with a rich, garlicky tomato sauce. I could eat there every night. Seriously.

Hope over to Asia for dinner at Ciya!
Hope over to Asia for dinner at Çiya!

Kutu

While in the cosmopolitan Kadıköy area, we also stumbled upon a short pedestrian street (Ziya Bey Sk.) full of colourful parasols hanging from washing line-type structures strung up high between either side of the street. We stopped at Kutu – a bar serving beer, wine and cocktails – for a bottle of the local Bomonti beer. Our night out in Asia was complete.

…Because taking a food tour here lasts six hours

(and you still barely cover one neighbourhood!)

Before I left Amsterdam, I got in touch with a well-reputed food tours company called Culinary Backstreets and told them I planned to write a guide to Istanbul’s food scene. They generously gave me a 50% discount on my booking for their original, flagship tour: Culinary Secrets of the Old City. We met our guide at 9.30 am, knowing we’d be eating together for the next six hours. Although the meeting point was close to the famous Spice Bazaar, we spent very little time there and instead delved straight into the cobbled alleyways of Istanbul’s Old City – rich with the exotic scents and sounds of a neighbourhood coming to life on a Saturday morning.

I cannot begin to tell you all the places we visited – not least because the streets were laid out in the kind of labyrinthine way that makes it very difficult to retrace your steps. Some of the stalls we stopped to eat at didn’t even seem to have names – let alone street signs or websites that would allow me to find them again. We ventured far from the tourist chatter of the Spice Bazaar, into hidden tearooms for breakfast, across the neighbourhood favoured by the Syrian refugees who live and work to send money back to their families, and up the hill into the area known for its East Turkish cuisine and frequented almost solely by Turks from that region.

Culinary Backstreets introduced me to this fabulous cag kebab seller
Culinary Backstreets introduced me to this fabulous cağ kebab seller

This tour is a must. But I can recommend a couple of the places I managed to find again a few days later: Osmanli Kebapçısı is a kebab stall specialising in cağ kebab – pieces of lamb skewered horizontally onto a spit and roasted al fresco, served in a warm wrap with onions, tomatoes and pickles. Order it with a copper mug of ayran (a thin, slightly salty, yoghurt-based drink – probably one of those things you either love or hate!) for the full experience.

Secondly, for the best pide I tasted in Istanbul, head to Mavi Haliç Pidecisi where a lovely gentleman rolls his own dough right in front of you. Request whatever filling you like (cheese, meat, veges, or the lot) and watch him curl up the edges into a boat-shaped vessel that’s quickly baked in his word-fired oven. Just don’t call it a pizza!

…Because this place is a Mecca for mezze (and beans)

I’ve already mentioned mezze in relation to Çiya – which was quite honestly probably the best we had. But of course there’s mezze to be found everywhere on the European side of Istanbul too. You can’t go too far wrong wherever you go – many restaurants bring out a huge tray full of small dishes for you to take your pick from. It’s handy because you can see what you’re ordering and don’t have to rely on dodgy menu translations. But what’s less well known as an Istanbul speciality is their fasuli – beans. Hearty, cheap and almost wintry, there’s something comforting and moreish about a bowl of sauce-heavy beans with plenty of bread to mop up the juices.

Aliye Mehane

Aliye was one of several places we ordered mezze – and one of the ones I enjoyed the most. (Possibly also because they serve a decent glass of wine to go with it!) Go for the smoky aubergine in yoghurt (as you can tell, I’m a little obsessed with aubergine) from the cold selection. Try too the shrimps in tomato sauce with cheese – it’s a bubbling-hot pan of juicy deliciousness, a lot like a fish stew.

Bubblingly cheesy shrimps at Aliye Mehane
Bubblingly cheesy shrimps at Aliye Mehane

Fasuli Lokantası

I only had time to try one restaurant specialising in beans whilst in Istanbul, and Fasuli Lokantası came highly recommended by Istanbul Eats. The fasuli came in a bright orange, butter-rich sauce peppered with a few chunks of beef. Bigger and much less sweet than their American baked-bean counterparts, these beans may have been better suited to mid-winter than a 30-degree day in early September, but I’m glad I made time for them in my foodie itinerary.

…Because eating well on a budget is easy

Yes, it’s possible to spend €3 on a coffee in celebrity-spotting Cihangir. But it’s also possible to get a baguette filled with chicken doner for 2 lira (less than a euro) if you know where to look. Plus, if you’re really on a shoestring, you can always opt for the ubiquitous simit (that ring-shaped bread that’s like a cross between a bagel and a pretzel I mentioned in the breakfast section) to fill your stomach for a lira. If you have just a few cents more to spend, however, try these:

Halil Usta

Not more than 100 metres from Taksim Square, you’ll find this no-frills restaurant serving kebabs, pide and lahmacun. The latter are particularly good value: for 4 lira (just over a euro), you can order a plain lahmacun (again, don’t call it a pizza!) with a tangy, oniony salsa, salad and pickles. The idea is to roll the whole lot up together for a tasty, healthy, budget lunch.

Lahmacun - just don't call it pizza!
Lahmacun – just don’t call it pizza!

Café Feride

Down in lower Beyoğlu, you’ll find the all-female run Feride: a buffet-style café that’s thronged with locals who work in the area at lunchtime. The menu changes daily, and you simply point at what looks good while one of the women piles your plate high with Turkish vegetable salads, meat-stuffed squash, bean-based bakes and the occasional pasta dish. At the end of the counter, they make an estimate of what your plate is worth, and you pay somewhere between 10 and 25 lira (€3-8) at the till. Tasty, tasty, very very tasty… especially their carrot and yoghurt salad and their tabbouleh-style herb and chilli salad.

…Because Turkish wine is actually pretty good

Well, some of it is. Yes, some Turkish wine tastes like cheap, oxidised plonk, and it certainly feels a little expensive compared to food in the city. But if you know what to order and where, you can pick up some gems. I particularly enjoyed the Suvla range of wines – the Karasakiz rosé was reminiscent of a bottle from Provence, palely blushing and crisp. I’ve brought a bottle of the Suvla Karasakiz red to drink back home. Plus, there are a couple of nice wine bars in which to enjoy a glass (or a bottle) of your favoured Turkish tipple:

A chilled bottle of Suvla Blush overlooking the Bosphorous from Urban Suites
A chilled bottle of Suvla Blush overlooking the Bosphorous from Urban Suites

Otto

In the heart of downtown Cihangir, Otto is a buzzing spot for a glass of wine (go red, not white), some bar snacks, music and a hipster vibe. With a large outdoor terrace, it’s perfect for those balmy Istanbul evenings.

Parantez Deli

Just off Taksim Square, Parantez Deli has a good selection of Turkish and other wines at prices that aren’t extortionate, especially for the area. Try too their octopus with aubergine starter – the latter comes in a cheesy paste that’s weirdly similar in texture to the filling of bitterballen!

Cezayir Sokağı

Actually a street, Cezayir Sokağı runs down a steep slope between two roads, with bars perched every few steps down the hill. With coloured lights, live music and a young crowd, it’s a fun spot for a boozy night out – especially on weekends.

Watch the video! A Journey through Istanbul’s Food

For more information on the Istanbul restaurants and bars featured in this post:

This is neither a restaurant nor a bar, but I really liked the place we stayed: Urban Suites – worth a click too!

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