Eating and Strolling through Istanbul, Part Two
Updated: Jul 30
As promised, here’s Part Two, wrapping up our time in Istanbul.
And, in a shameless plug for the city, most Turkish Airways flights fly through Istanbul with an option for a 24-hour layover. You need to buy a tourist visa online, but this gives you plenty of time to shoot into the city, catch a Turkish bath, and throw back some baklava and chai!
Visiting a (Non-Functioning) Harem
To be completely honest, (fairly ignorant) Chipp was pretty sure that a brothel and harem were basically one and the same. Turns out, that’s not quite accurate.
In the Ottoman era, the Sultan’s harem served as a separate living quarters for his wives, female and eunuch servants, female relatives, and concubines. Still not exactly sure what the difference is between a third wife and a concubine, but regardless, the harem we toured was absolutely beautiful.
The Ottomans built Dolmabahce Palace - a stunning estate along the Bosphorus - in the mid 1800s, so pretty late into their rule. And, in the transition to the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk - founder of the secular state - actually died in the harem portion of the palace after spending the last, deteriorating days of his life there.
From the tour info at the palace, building the entire complex cost the equivalent of about $1.5 billion in today’s dollars, so yeah, a pretty serious place. And, these massive costs were definitely on display in the harem portion, which is really like a palace in and of itself.
We unfortunately weren’t allowed to take pictures in there, but it’s a sprawling, two-level series of eight interconnected “apartments,” all of which retain their original furniture, art, and fixtures. For an idea of scale, it took us about an hour to tour, moving at a leisurely pace along the guided path.
Ignoring the inside of the palace, strolling the grounds was worth the price of admission - incredible gardens, views out over the water, and peacocks!
And, in a minor segway, here’s a cool source of Ukrainian pride. Hurrem Sultan (a.k.a. Roxelana) was a young Ukrainian girl, captured by Tatars and sold into slavery in the Ottoman Empire. Through intrigue, intellect, and demeanor, she rose from slave girl to chief consort and legal wife of Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent - and one of the most powerful women in Ottoman history. Pretty badass.
A Cruise up the Bosphorus
Had to look this up, but the good ol’ Encyclopedia Britannica confirmed - the Bosphorus Strait is 19 miles long. Connecting the Sea of Marmara (and old town Istanbul) to the Black Sea and separating the European and Asian sides of the city, Istanbul now sprawls all the way up the strait.
As with most coastal cities, some of the most stunning places in Istanbul (like Dolmabahce above) are along the water, so taking a ferry is a pretty awesome way to see some incredible views. And, with the dollar as strong as it is (historic high relative to the Turkish lira), for about $5, we bought round-trip ferry tickets for a day-long cruise up the strait to Andolu Kavagi, a town in the shadow of a medieval castle passed through the hands of multiple empires.
Aside: Chipp took this same trip with a good friend back in 2012, but that one included an accidental incursion onto a Turkish military base, something we fortunately avoided on this trip.
Castles are cool and all, but fresh fish and drinks overlooking the water are sometimes better. Our priority in this neat little town was finding the first balik (fish) restaurant we could, ordering (guessing?) a massive, grilled sea bass, some Turkish mussels, and some drinks - perfect afternoon.
We did take the steep hike up to the castle after lunch to “check the culture box,” but not without some serious post-booze/lunch wheezing (and a little complaining) - worth the view, though.
Hipsters… and Their Coffee
Chipp’s already basically admitted he’s a hipster, so hopefully you’ll appreciate the appeal of hipster neighborhoods. We found an awesome one on the Asian side of Istanbul.
Towards the end of our time there, we realized we hadn’t spent much (any) time across the strait from the Sultanahmet portion of European Istanbul, so we took one of the city’s municipal ferries across to Kadikoy, a young, cafe- and bar-filled neighborhood directly across the Bosphorus from Sultanahmet.
On a little peninsula, the bustling Kadikoy neighborhood on the northern side gradually makes way to the more relaxed, residential Moda neighborhood on the south. While strong, traditional Turkish coffee is known throughout the world, young Turks (not the Young Turks) have started making a name for themselves with their own, hipster-esque take on coffee shops, and Moda appeared to be the epicenter of this movement.
Posting up at the Fat Cat (more on cats later), we sat on the patio, drank delicious coffee, and pretended we were really important, deep-thinking college kids in the middle of a we’re-going-to-change-the-world-type conversation for a while.
Dripping with sarcasm/cynicism? Maybe just a little, but it was an awesome place to hang out, and Moda’s definitely an area where we’d live if we ever moved to Turkey.
Having grown up watching European soccer with her dad, Jenna had a leg up on the pronunciation of this Istanbul neighborhood (famous club there, which, naturally, Chipp had never heard of).
Anyway, awesome college neighborhood. Just north of Dolmabahce Palace, Besiktas starts on the Bosphorus and winds its way up a hillside, filled with open-air markets, street-side cafes, and bars. Like Moda, this area just had an awesome feel to it (and would be a close second - if not outright tie - in terms of places to live in Istanbul).
But, as a college town, it also caused some tremendous cognitive dissonance while wandering through its streets. Istanbul’s certainly a place of contradictions. On one hand, you can’t throw a stone without hitting a mosque, and it’s most certainly a Muslim country. On the other hand, it’s a modern, European city.
With that as background, it’s strange strolling through Besiktas, hearing the call to prayer, seeing the occasional woman in full burka, but mostly seeing college kids dressed as if they were hanging out in Venice Beach, beer* and cigarette in hand, laughing and chatting without a care in the world.
*Note: Chipp will, until the day he dies, be on the record that America is the greatest country in the history of the world. But it’s absolutely ridiculous that we’re not allowed to walk around with an open beer in the States - as you can in essentially the rest of the world. Okay, off the soapbox now.
Van Kahvalti Evi - A Turkish Breakfast Feast
Turkish breakfast is a thing. More specifically, Turkish breakfast from Van, a city in eastern Turkey, is a thing (worth checking out Anthony Bourdain’s episode from Turkey for far better sensory details than we can provide here).
But, keen to avoid Syrian rebels, Kurdish separatists, and Iranian intelligence agents, we settled for a Van-style breakfast while in Istanbul. Jenna did some stressing/planning, and found Van Kahvalti Evi, a restaurant on the slopes of Beyoglu serving traditional Turkish breakfast.
Kahvalti - the Turkish word for breakfast - literally means “before coffee,” as Turks place that much emphasis on the meal. And, what a spread it was - about a dozen tiny plates of cheeses, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, spreads, hummus, sweet jams, and delicious things we couldn’t even identify (but definitely ate!).
Serious gluttony - and a tremendous waste of food if you’re not hungry - but we got our money’s worth and definitely left stuffed.
Okay, this one’s for Jenna, a self-professed cat lover (cat lady?). Istanbul’s absolutely full of cats on the street. But, they’re not really street cats, per se. Suppose that’s kind of mincing words, but people actually take care of these cats. Yes, they live outside, but it’s more like they’re just the city’s pets.
All over the city, you can find little gangs of cats, and there are always some piles of food nearby, with a local shopkeeper or old lady making sure to keep topping it off. Under cars, on top of cars, on ledges, in construction sites, and just sitting on cafe chairs like they own the place, cats are everywhere.
And, Chipp, despite not being a cat person himself, had an interesting cat-related epiphany. In all our time walking around Istanbul, we didn’t see a single rat - causation, not correlation. Cat person or not, cats are better than rats every day of the week and twice on Sunday…
Next stop, Ukraine.