Istanbul: My Quick and Dirty Recommendations
We spent about a month and a half in Istanbul last spring and summer — working, exploring, and eating a whole lot. But it took me just a couple hours to fall in love with the bustling, chaotic city. I’ve gotten a lot of requests for recommendations of things to do and places to eat since, which I’ve compiled here. Full credit goes to Culinary Backstreets for their fantastic food discovery app (download it, use it, love it). Keep in mind that I barely scratched the surface here; you could spend a lifetime exploring Istanbul and still find hidden pockets to discover.
Don’t avoid the ‘tourist traps.‘ In terms of sites, the big “tourist” spots on the Golden Horn (Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Basilica Cistern, Spice Bazaar, Grand Bazaar — you can see the minarets of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia in the skyline photo up top) are all pretty amazing… they will be crowded and touristy, but you should definitely see them if you can.
Take ferries. You can do a ferry tour (I’d do the short over the long; the long is a huge time commitment); but just taking the ferry to the Asian side is wonderful. Try to time it around sunset if you can. Kadikoy (on the Asian side) is a really great area to wander around, too — there’s a crazy awesome fish market with tons of restaurants and bars (and my favorite Turkish coffee place, see below).
See art; lots of it. I loved the Istanbul Modern. It’s a really amazing modern art museum (clearly), with really cool, interesting video installations, diverse art work, etc. There’s also a cafe there with an incredible view, as long as it’s not blocked by cruise ships! The Pera Museum in Beyoglu is kind of a gem, too — there was a great Andy Warhol exhibit going on when we were there. It’s right near the Istanbul Culinary Institute, too; we had a great lunch there, and they have pastries etc. to go as well.
Go to a hamam. We went to this coed hamam which was nice since we got to hang out together for part (we went our separate ways for the massage parts), and, it’s right near the best Turkish breakfast place in the world (below), which makes for a nice morning of relaxation and eating.
Go to markets. The Spice Market and Grand Bazaar are cool, but even better are the countless local markets frequented by farmers, fishermen, and other vendors. We lived around the corner from the weekly Tarlabasi market — held on Sundays, it was one of the best fresh food markets I’ve ever been to, full of gorgeous produce, fresh cheese, olives, olive oil, nuts, spices, honey, and much more. The fish markets in Kadikoy and Uskudar (both on the Asian side) are fantastic, too.
I relied heavily on the Istanbul Eats app (from Culinary Backstreets) — their recs are right on, and they’re all about finding the cool hidden durum shops and meyhanes where you can hang with the locals. Very worth it to download, and the location-based stuff works even without service/internet. But, some of our favorites:
Siirt Seref Buryan Kebap. Whole sides of lamb roasted in a pit over coals (photo above). Yes. This spot’s in a really cool part of Fatih (conservative neighborhood that runs up against the touristy part of the Golden Horn), too — surrounded by awesome cheese, spice and nut stores, and butchers, and old men drinking tea next to the ancient Roman aqueduct (which you can climb on if you go to the other end, pay a gypsy kid a lira, and haul yourself up on a rope. Istanbul!!). The lamb on the bone is UNREAL, if you’re lucky enough to be there when they still have some left). That, plus perde pilavi (rice studded with chicken, currants, and pine nuts, and baked in a cylindrical mold with a crisp, thin outer layer), an order of yogurt, and an order of ezme equals the best meal ever (we actually stopped there on our way to the airport when we were leaving!).
Yeni Lokanta. This is the trendy, chic restaurant in Beyoglu I would have rolled my eyes at for being “so San Francisco” if it wasn’t so interesting and delicious. Cocktails are crazy expensive, but the food is pretty reasonably priced and excellent. The eggplant manti and octopus were my favorites by a long shot. Reservations are a good idea, though we got seats at the bar on the late end on a Saturday, so not 100% necessary.
Zubeyier Okabasi . The BEST kebab spot we went to. You can sit right next to the grill, the meats are amazing, and the meze is tasty as well. Adana kebab (spiced ground lamb and beef) isn’t listed on the menu, but we ordered it anyway and it was the highlight every time we went. The liver and chicken wings are great, too.
Cukur Meyhane. Meyhane means tavern, and this is one of the best. It’s in a basement, is super no frills, and is totally delicious. They’re one of the few places that grill hamsi (it wasn’t in season when we were there, unfortunately), and the liver, and other seafood we had was quite good. One of the best things about it — they have a fridge in the back with bottles of raki (anise-flavored spirit, similar to ouzo) with people’s names taped on them… so you can come back for your bottle! Really, one of our biggest regrets was figuring that out too late to take advantage.
Asmali Cavit. Another great meyhane, this one’s a little classier, and usually, a lot more packed. It’s more touristy but still super, super good — I still dream about the grilled calamari, pureed eggplant, and pickled red peppers. And the owner is totally awesome, and worked as a sommelier on cruise ships back in the ’80s.
Furreyya Galata. Super cute fish restaurant in Galata. It’s a charming place to hang out and have a meal, but the best move we made was getting their balik durum to go and going and sitting by the Galata tower with beers for a dinner picnic.
Van Kahvalti Evi. The best best best Turkish breakfast spot. The medium spread (which includes fresh vegetables, garlicky yogurt dip, hard-cooked eggs, fresh breads, and sweet spreads, described below), plus menemen (eggs scrambled with peppers and onions), plus gozleme (thin, crepe-like pancake filled with delicious thing; the spinach one is great), is a whole lot of food, but it’s SO good. This was also where we first tried kaymak (fresh clotted cream with honey… pure heaven) and tahin pekmez (tahini mixed with grape molasses; look for it in grocery stores), which was something of a life changing experience.
Near there is Kronotrop, a super hipster aeropress coffee shop straight out of Brooklyn; and Datli Maya, an amazing looking place for pide and durum that we didn’t make it to. In Karakoy, we had a lovely lunch at Karakoy Lokantasi, and heard great things about Lokanta Maya. Fazil Bey in Kadikoy was our favorite spot for Turkish coffee (their lokum, or Turkish Delight, are the best in town, too!), and we randomly went to an amazing chicken place in the Uskudar fish market the name of which I unfortunately can’t remember — look for sword-like skewers of chicken wings. This bar was a couple blocks from our apartment, and quickly became one of our favorite spots to hangout (outdoor seating, great music, good place to drink too much beer late into the night). It was right across from this durum place which was so, so SO good (double adana x10000).
A Couple of Drinks-Related Tips
Drink wine, a lot. Turkish wine is wonderful, and while not cheap (taxes on alcohol make drinking an expensive pursuit), we found some serious gems (Solera Wine Bar in Beyoglu is a fine place to make some discoveries of your own). Emir from Turasan remains one of my favorite white wines. Look for red wines with Turkish grapes like okuzgozu and bogazkere; we had great versions from Turasan, as well as wonderfully interesting wines from Urla Winery (the Urla Vourla is a solid red blend, and the Nero d’Avalo & Urla Karasi is an interesting mix of native grapes from the Aegean region and Cavalo Negro from Sicily).
Drink raki, too. People order massive bottles of it (for two!) with dinner and polish them off — we’d stick with the small ones and still get pretty giggly by the end. It’s dangerously drinkable, particularly mixed with water and ice (per tradition), and goes wonderfully with any and all grilled meats and fish. Beer is mediocre, and completely dominated by Efes, but it’s drinkable (as most things are). Cocktails are, unfortunately, horribly expensive and rarely worth it. Bring your own duty-free bottle of whiskey and make your own (or, make your own raki drinks!).
Some useful food terminology (apologies for the lack of accents):
Adana kebab, ciger, and tavuk at Zubeyier Okabasi.
cay (pronounced chai): Tea. Drink it all of the time. And always say yes if a friendly shopkeeper/barber invites you in for some.
kebab: Grilled meats. You know this. Doner kebab (huge meat tubes sliced into pita) was never the most exciting; we preferred durum (see below).
durum: Meat wraps. These feature a thinner flatbread than doner (which usually has a pita), and fresh-grilled meats. Kind of like a Turkish burrito.
balik: Fish. Balik ekmek are fish sandwiches, which are sold in force down by the banks of the Bosphorus.
hamsi: Small, locally-caught anchovies. These are fantastic fried whole. They’re in season in the colder months, but are available many places all year round.
pide: Turkish-style flatbread. The best ones are baked fresh, and are often loaded with butter. Toppings include cheese, meat, egg, and more. My favorite places for pide were this spot in Tarlabasi, and this one right near Taksim Square. Lamahcun (pronounced lah-mah-choon) is pide’s thinner, meat-covered cousin, and wonderful with a squeeze of lemon and fresh herbs (particularly at Halil Lamahcun in Kadikoy)
meze: Small plates that precede most meals. Sometimes you order them, sometimes they’re brought to your table on a tray (you point at the ones you’d like; keep in mind that the ones you’re being shown are smaller than the portion sizes you’ll end up with).
et: Meat. Refers to beef.
kuzu: Lamb. Just say yes.
ciger (pronounced chee-ehr): Liver. Consistently delicious, and usually grilled with cubes of rich fat.
patlican (pronounced paht-le-jahn): Eggplant.
salatasi: Salad. Patlican salatasi is one of the very best meze out there.
ayran: A savory yogurt drink. Delicious and refreshing.
sarap (pronounced sha-rap): Wine.
hunkar begendi: Literally, the “Sultan’s Dish;” it’s eggplant pureed with béchamel, mild cheese, and topped with slow-cooked meat and charred vegetables.
ali nazik: Literally, “the Good Boy,” this is eggplant mashed with garlic and yogurt, similarly topped with slow cooked meat and vegetables.
manti: Little ravioli-like dumplings filled with meat. Wonderful topped with yogurt and spices.