Eating and Strolling through Istanbul, Part One
Updated: Nov 5, 2020
From the delicious meals - formal, streetside, and everything in between - to the aimless strolls through new neighborhoods, we couldn’t have asked for a better city to kick off our year on the road.
Full disclosure, while this is a bit of a catch-all post from our stay in Istanbul, it’s just too cool of a city to not cover some of these experiences. And, as you can see from the “Part One” above, midway through writing this it became clear that one post just wouldn’t suffice, so “Part Two” will wrap things up for Istanbul next week.
Here are some of the highlights!
Taksim, or Not Taksim?
Our first major decision - before even arriving in Istanbul - came down to where to live during our time there. While Chipp had logged a little time in the city, minus a cursory overview of a couple neighborhoods, we were basically Istanbul newbies, not yet possessing an intimate feel for the cool nook-and-cranny neighborhoods scattered throughout the massive city.
Sultanahmet, the historic heart of the city, was out - overwhelmingly filled with tourists (though stunningly beautiful) and everything there pretty much closes early evening.
The only other major neighborhood we knew anything about was Taksim Square. Splashed on newspaper covers during 2013 protests throughout Turkey, Taksim is both a cultural and commercial hub of the city. In addition to being the site of political gatherings (authorized) and protests (unauthorized), Taksim Square is home to the 5th Avenue-like Istiklal Caddesi, one of Turkey’s most famous streets - and a high-end commercial mecca.
Having only a sense of these two neighborhoods - and not wanting to commit to the tour-bus feel of the former or the pedestrian-traffic chaos of the latter - we split the difference, finding an apartment in the Beyoglu area of the city.
Wedged between the hilltop area of Taksim and the body of water known as the Golden Horn, Beyoglu consists of miles of windy hillside alleys, universities, foreign consulates, homes, streetside cafes, restaurants, and beautiful architecture. It’s the perfect mix of quietly-residential-with-plenty-to-do. Whether we wanted to duck out to our local kebab joint for a bite, go grab drinks, sit down for a cup of Turkish coffee and some baklava, stroll through neighborhoods of stunning architecture, run to the local market, or catch a metro to any other part of Istanbul, we could do it in about a 10-minute walking radius.
After a week and a half in Istanbul - and miles walked - we found other neighborhoods where we may want to live in some alternate reality, but as for places to stay on a visit, it’s hard to beat Beyoglu.
Hagia Sophia... Kind Of
Background: the Church of Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) was built as a patriarchal cathedral around 537 AD when the Eastern Roman Empire sat in Constantinople. Nearly a thousand years later, when the Ottomans sacked the city in 1453 and assumed (now) Istanbul as their capital, they converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, which it remained until 1935.
In 1935, Ataturk - president and founder of the secular Turkish Republic - transformed the Hagia Sophia into a museum, which it remained until 2020. But, earlier this year, President Erdogan reestablished the building's mosque status, and it's now the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, an active house of worship.
With this wealth of history, the Hagia Sophia serves as one of the major attractions recognizable to people who’ve never been to Turkey. Growing up, it's just one of those places people from all over the world read about in school (ourselves, included).
Test it out: tell someone you’re going to Istanbul, and the first question/comment you get will likely be something along the lines of make sure you tour the Hagia Sophia, or, isn’t that where the Hagia Sophia is? It’s just that integral to the city.
With that background, it was strange arriving in the Sultanahmet neighborhood to tour the building and hearing the midday call to prayer echoing out of the newly-converted mosque’s minarets, especially for Chipp, having been there as recently as 2014 when it was still a museum.
Talking to local Turks, politics here remain as contentious and divided as the States. And, depending where you fall on the political spectrum, President Erdogan’s decision to make this change was either A) a political stunt and betrayal of the Republic’s secular nature meant to pander to his religious base, or B) a long-overdue restoration of the Turkish people’s former religious leadership in the Muslim world.
Who knows? At the end of the day, mosque or not, visitors can still tour the first floor of the Hagia Sophia outside of prayer services. So, for Jenna - who’d never been - she at least had a chance to see the building’s stunning interior in between prayers.
Don’t Swim in the Toilet
Most days, when we headed out for some exploring, we had a destination, but not necessarily a specific route. Most of old Istanbul - extremely hilly - has a street system defying grid-like logic, instead conforming to the natural curves, slopes, and valleys of the local terrain.
As such, if you’re not too OCD about following an exact route, picking a general direction to meander your way through these neighborhoods towards some ultimate direction leads to tons of pleasant surprises (and the occasional dead end).
On one such stroll, we’d been out for an hour or so and passed a cool-looking, terraced coffee shop. With some quick yeah-there-are-a-bunch-of-college-looking-kids-drinking-coffee-and-smoking detective work, we decided this would be a pretty solid place to stop for a quick pick-me-up. Spoiler: it was. Absolutely delicious coffee, and our table up on one of the cafe’s terraced seating areas had a great view down to the Bosphorus.
And, a bathroom stop before leaving added another item to our countless list of, oh wow, what does that picture mean? linguistic/cultural misunderstandings.
In the picture above, you’ll see what we’re talking about. Naturally, Chipp’s first thoughts were, wait, are they telling me that I’m not allowed to swim in the toilet? Surely that’s not a significant enough problem in Turkey that cafes need signs forbidding it?
With some quick Google Translate work (and just some basic common sense…), it became clear that the sign told patrons not to throw trash into the toilet, as it would pollute swimming waters elsewhere, not in the toilet. Makes sense.
Fish Wraps on the Water
Fresh seafood’s a funny thing. If you love eating fish, you’ll likely love strolling through a local fish market - smells and all. If not, these sorts of experiences must be the stuff of culinary (and sensory) nightmares. Fortunately, as Istanbul is surrounded by water (and fish), we both love seafood.
With over 15 million people in the city, Istanbul certainly has plenty of fish markets to serve this massive population. But, we happened upon one a 15-minute walk down the hill from us - and conveniently located right on the way to the ferry station.
Taking up about a city block along the water, this market had dozens of fish mongers, each with their own iced-down, fish-filled racks. Young kids would shuttle back-and-forth, keeping the fresh fish covered with new ice as older guys hawked their goods to passers-by.
En route elsewhere, we weren’t in a position to buy fish to cook at home, but we were definitely hungry (even if we hadn’t been immediately before entering the market). And, for situations like this, an outstanding symbiosis exists at these sorts of markets - where there’s fresh fish, people are going to be cooking fresh fish to sell.
Crammed between the fish mongers, a handful of little sandwich counters sold fish sandwiches to anyone so inclined. For the equivalent of about $2.00, we bought a fish wrap - seared fish fillet just grabbed from the stall next door, fried potato slices, vegetables, spices, and that ubiquitous Turkish white sauce - that more than fed both of us. Absolutely delicious.
As a rule, anytime we stroll through a neighborhood fish market now, we look for the locals selling that fish, ready-to-eat, to hungry pedestrians.