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The 6 Least Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul

Many people could visit Istanbul and never leave Sultanahmet – the tourist hotspot. And with good reason: there are so many incredible things to see and do that, during a shorter visit, it might not even be necessary to begin to explore the rest of the city (See The 6 Most Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul).

However, if you have exhausted the typical Istanbul check list, or if you are a traveller that like to venture off the beaten path and experience the locals’ Istanbul, consider this list of the 6 least touristy thing to do in Istanbul.

1. Get a Haircut

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YES.

You bet it’s on my list. Istanbul barbers and hairdressers are amazing. Both my and Joel’s best haircuts were in Istanbul. Barber shops are like corner stores in Beyoğlu, Istanbul – they are everywhere. And most hairdressers are older men – guys’ whose families have been dressing hair and shaving beards for generations. These guys are serious about hairdressing. They don’t F around.

So when one of my South African friends visited from Belgium, I decided to bite the bullet and chop my hair, as she needed a haircut too. I went to this guy that our landlord’s sister recommended to me, and I was so impressed. He’s name is Bulent Öner, and he’s the best, AND I found his Facebook page so you can go there too.

BONUS: His English is okay. But take a picture of the hair you want, in case everybody runs out of words.

Our before and afters. Not too bad?

Our before and afters. Not too bad?

There he is! We got our hair did by someone who looks like Ron Swanson from 'Parks & Rec' in more ways than one.

There he is! We got our hair did by someone who looks like Ron Swanson from ‘Parks & Rec’ in more ways than one.

2. Lose track of time in The Museum of Innocence (Masumiyet Müzesi)

The museum is located in the neighbourhood of Çukucuma, in the old house of one of its main characters.

The museum is located in the neighbourhood of Çukucuma, in the old house of one of its main characters.

So of the ‘least touristy things to do’ on this list, this is probably the most touristy thing to do. We lived right next to the museum and whenever I saw tourists in our street is 90% guaranteed they were looking for the museum.

The museum was created by the Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, at the same time that he was writing a novel of the same name. The museum is fitted out with display cabinets, each cabinet representing a chapter in the book, holding objects that epitomise the relevant chapter. It tells a love story between a wealthy young man and his poor cousin, twice-removed, and it is set in the latter half of the 20th century, and in the neighbourhoods surrounding the museum. Besides narrating this love story, it also provides a glimpse into life in Istanbul when in the transitioning period of changing from a Caliphate to a republic and mixing Western customs with its own ancient traditions. It talks not only about love, but also about class-issues, womens’ rights, traditional Turkish customs, and the peculiar position that Istanbul takes being both Western and Eastern. With its authentic 20th century objects, collected from the neighbourhood that the museum stands in, the museum occupies a wonderful space where reality and myth come together to convey a moment of the human condition specific to Istanbul.

Also, you do not need to have read the novel to appreciate this museum!

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Two of my favourite displays: The dogs of Istanbul, and the cigarette wall in the foyer, containing thousands of cigarettes smoked by one of the book's characters.

Two of my favourite displays: The dogs of Istanbul, and the cigarette wall in the foyer, containing thousands of cigarettes smoked by one of the book’s characters.

PRO MUSEUM TIP: This should be on your All-Time-Museums-To-Visit list

PRO MUSEUM TIP: You need to get the audio tour, regardless of whether you have read the book or not. The audio is really well done and it gives insights on the creation of the museum.

3. Thrift Shopping and Antiquing in Çukurcuma

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Çukurcuma is an area that is known for being riddled with junk shops, antique joints, thrift stores and, every now and then, the more expensive gentrified boutique (like the uber cool suit-tailors at Civan). Find old wedding photos, kitch vases, real antique chandeliers, fur coats, and a cat catching some sun under an antique glass table.

Mind the cat!

Mind the cat!

You could spend hours going through other people’s things and get a whole new understanding of İstanbullus (fyi: someone who is from Istanbul is called an Istanbullu. You’re welcome.) It’s a fascinating venture – stop for tea along the way at the tea shop on the corner of Çukurcuma Road and Yazıcı Street and top it off with some lunch at Cuma at the top of Çukurcuma Street. Alternatively start your day at Cuma with some Turkish breakfast – they serve some of the best Turkish breakfasts there – and work your way down!

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Pretty things at Civan

Pretty things at Civan

4. Feed your local four-legged friends

Istanbul is like the world’s stray-cats-Headquarters, and the greater area of Beyoğlu is where you would want to end up if you were a stray cat in Istanbul. Cihangir, specifically, is known for its well-looked after, fat, sometimes even glossy, stray street cats. (For the most part). If you were to explore the streets of Cihangir, you would find countless makeshift cat homes, water buckets, and random cat food pellets that survived a feeding frenzy. The locals don’t mind the cats unless it minds their customers, and most treat them kindly and feed them often. In fast, this is where I saw a real-life cat lady for the first time – and if you hang out in the area long enough you’ll see them too! These are old ladies (and men) walking around with their stroller-bags filled with cat food, just dumping some as they walk up and down the streets.

Serving breakfast to this lady.

Serving breakfast to this lady.

So if you like animals and you really want to feel like a local, pick up a small bag of cat food (kedi maması) at a market (they sell them nearly everywhere), take a stroll around Cihangir and feed some local pretties. If you look normal enough (aka you’re nor clad with large cameras, patagonia gear, hiking boots, or blonde hair) someone might even come up to you and start talking in Turkish.

I only ever saw this cat two or three times - but it was massive, weirdly strong, super heavy and very hungry, so to save my own life I fed it.

I only ever saw this cat two or three times – but it was massive, weirdly strong, super heavy and very hungry, so to save my own life I fed it.

Alternatively, adopt a cat for an afternoon (if your landlord doesn’t mind/know!) and give it some solace away from the streets. We found a friendly, needy cat who became our sometimes-pet.

To answer your question: Yes, it does feel like you’re cheating on your own cats a little bit.

This guy kept me company on rainy days when my husband was out of town on business trips

This guy kept me company on rainy days when my husband was out of town on business trips

Here he is snuggling with my friend who visited from South Africa.

Here he is snuggling with my friend who visited from South Africa.

5. Try and complete the Maze Up challenge!

I came across this Escape Room company called Maze Up while we were living in Istanbul this year. I nearly lost it, because I used to LOVE playing the point-and-click escape room games on my computer, so to imagine actually being in a real-life one was just too much. I convinced Joel to do it with me, so one rainy day we made our way to maze up to be locked in an Ottoman-era styled room, fitted with secret locks, magnetic tricks, and riddle-like clues, so that we can find the diamond before the authorities catch us.

I can not adequately express how fun this was.

We had so. much. fun.

It was so exciting – the room was styled to a tee, there was this exciting, movie-like, Ottoman-ish music playing in the background to rev you up as you go through drawers and rummage through ancient-looking chests in order to find clues as to where the diamond is hidden.

We didn’t actually make it – we ran out of time before we found the diamond, but it the whole thing was so great! The only thing that sucks about it is that you can’t do it all over again, because when we were done all I wanted to do was to do it again.

It’s only 60 minutes, and you can do it in groups of 2 and up, so if you are tired of going to mosques and palaces and bazaars, GO DO THIS.

I CANNOT recommend this enough.

GO GO GO!

We look like idiots here, but we don't even care. That's how much fun we had.

We look like idiots here, but we don’t even care. That’s how much fun we had.

P.S. It’s a great way to spend some time on a rainy afternoon.

6. Play some pool at your local billiard place

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Grab some tea, place some bets, and then chalk it up before you take a shot at the pool table. This was one of our favourite low-key, non-touristy things to do in the evenings before or after getting dinner. It’s just something different to the normal activities that are geared towards getting the most out of you and your friends’ pockets. We came upon this billiard place about 5 minutes walk from our home, and you could play pool, checkers, cards, and table tennis while waiters took your (non-alcoholic) drink orders. Sometimes we would just go for a quick 20 minutes of pool and a sweet apple tea after dinner before heading home.

Joel trying to look cool while I kick his ass at pool.

Joel trying to keep his cool while I kick his ass at pool.

BONUS – Go to Heybeliada to get away from the buzz

Heybeliada is an island part of the Princes’ Islands group just off the coast of Turkey. You can easily and cheaply get there with a ferry, and unlike ‘Big Island’ (another of the Princes’ Islands) it’s not swarming with tourists. In fact, this is an island rather frequented by locals. You can spend a day, or spend the night even – it’s great way to experience a very different, MUCH quieter Istanbul (no cars allowed on the Island. Only bikes and horse-and-carriages).

Wanna know more? Read about how we escaped the city by going to Heybeliada that one time.

The Heybeliada harbour

The Heybeliada harbour

We only lived in Istanbul for a few months before we had to leave with heavy hearts, and these are just some of things that you could do without feeling too much of a kodak-moment, patagonia-wearing tourist. However, there are SO many things to do, places to explore, and amazing sites to see that aren’t necessarily on Lonely Planet’s top 10 list. But whatever you end up doing, do it fully, and just enjoy yourself and the ‘Turkish hospitality’ that the Turks are so proud of.

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The 6 Most Touristy Things To Do in Istanbul

We lived in Istanbul for a couple of months in the beginning of this year and it was some of the funnest and most interesting months in our lives. We got to make friends, learn some Turkish, and as each day passed we felt less like tourists and more like locals. But every now and then we would look at each other and say ‘what is the most touristy thing we could do today?’

Istanbul can be a total tourist trap – but for good reason. Most of the most touristy things are incredibly amazing or just lots of fun. So if you are one of those travelers that squirms at the thought of being ‘touristy’, try and suck it up just long enough to do and visit these following six, not-to-be-missed, total tourist attractions. Istanbul is a destination city after all. [However if you absolutely refuse head on over to The 6 Least Touristy Things to do in Istanbul ]

1. Hit up Sultanahmet – Istanbul tourist hotspot.

This is where everyone understands English (don’t be surprised when restauranteurs greet you in your own language either); where the salesmen are uniquely aggressive; where you can see that ‘East meets West’ phenomena that many people associate so closely with Istanbul, since it is not only the most touristy area, but also the religious hotspot for Islamic travellers (and Saudi bachelorette parties). You could visit Istanbul for three days and never venture out of this area. It includes:

The Blue Mosque (aka Sultan Ahmed Camii), est. 1616

This is the one COMPULSORY THING you must do when you go to Istanbul. Because it is free, and you can spend anything between 10 minutes and an hour (depending on how much of a photographer you are). Also because this is the mosque of mosques. It is absolutely stunning inside, with individually crafted tiles adorning all of its 73x65x43m interior (240x213x141ft). It’s a massive structure that fits 10,000 people – fitted with red carpet, glittering lights, one crazy dome with a diameter of 23.5 meters, and two security guards yelling at lady-tourists who try and step into the men’s prayer area.

DRESS CODE: It is a practicing mosque so you have to wear a long skirt or pants (NO JEGGINGS, LADIES!), a head covering, and no shoulder action. Also, as mentioned above, it is a site meant for the practicing of a very fundamental religion so do not go into the men’s prayer section (even if you are a man, unless, of course, you are Muslim, then pray away) – but be sure not to miss the women’s prayer corner, squeezed into one back corner of the mosque.

…Ugh. Religion.

#NoFilter

#NoFilter

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Basilica Cistern (akaYerebatan Sarayı, which means ‘Sunken Palace’)

Istanbul is one of the oldest modern cities in the world – it was first inducted as the capital of the Roman empire in the year 330. That does not even compute with me. Anyways, it’s really friggin’ old and as such, it has a network of cisterns underneath the city. They are essentially ancient underground reservoirs and the Basilica Cistern is the largest of these. It is nearly 10,000 sqm, and capable of holding a gazillion cubic meters of water. It is filled with row upon row of ancient pillars varying in style and lit up in a magical, almost eerie fashion. It is just beautiful in a fantastical, unbelievable way. Which is why you’ll have to brave the guaranteed line outside to get in.

basilica

DON’T MISS: The two ‘mysterious’ medusa-head pillars right at very back, and the large koi fish swimming circles in the dark water.

TIP: It’s really cold underneath the earth surrounded by all that water, so be prepared if you are visiting in winter.

DON’T use your flash. It’s really really very annoying for everybody else, and it’s going to be terrible photos.

No one knows how or why these heads have been placed here

No one knows how or why these heads have been placed here

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Hagia Sophia (aka Aya Sofya)

Man. This place. My feeble words will not be able to describe the majesty of its structure. It is decidedly not free, but it is absolutely worth it, in my opinion. The Hagia Sophia was one of the first major church structures of the Greco-Roman empire, built by Constantine the Great and his successors and written about by Socrates. It was a Greek Orthodox church from the year 537 – 1204, then it was converted to a Roman Catholic cathedral until 1261, after which it became a Greek Basilica again until 1453. After the Ottoman army seized Istanbul in 1453 it became a mosque until 1931. It has since been converted to the neutral space of a museum, taking on the mammoth task of conserving the structure.

It has been the central point of the Greek, Roman (Latin), and Ottoman Empires. It has served as a point of conflict and contention, as well as power and religion over millennia, and houses the finest material of the ancient Roman empire – from tits thousands of tiles to its gold mosaics. I can not recommend going here enough.

TIP: If you don’t want to pay for a guide, just shuffle closer to a guided group to hear some fascinating facts and stories. But be cool about it.

2. Smoke some Sheesha and watch a Whirling Dervish

This is the ultimate touristy night out, but it’s also really fun. We took all our friends who visited us to do this to get the ultimate Istanbul feel. We went to this restaurant by the Arasta bazaar in Sultanahmet (very close to the blue mosque) which is super, ultra touristy. But just go with it. You get a Sheesha, you order tea (and they bring you the really crazy sweet apple tea), you listen to some live Turkish music, and you wait for this one guy to come up and work his Whirling Dervish magic. Seriously, it’s the same guy every night.

TIP: keep an eye on the band. Sometimes the drummer drums and texts at the same time. What skill.

The 'let's do something crazy touristy tonight' activity

The ‘let’s do something crazy touristy tonight’ activity

This guy is looking straight at me, and if you play your cards right, he could be looking straight at you too.

This guy is looking straight at me, and if you play your cards right, he could be looking straight at you too.

3. Go on a Bosphorus Tour

The Bosphorus is a channel that runs between Europe and Asia, connecting the Marmara Sea with the Black Sea. It’s just really nice to be able to get a look at the city from the outside, and a bizarre feeling to not only see, but also be in between two continents at once. You get to see some harbours, fancy wooden Yalıs (riverside vacation homes), and many palaces. There are usually little kiosks on the boat where you can buy orange juice, tea, and snacks.

TIP: You can also entertain yourself by buying a simit and tossing bits of it up to the sea gulls accompanying your boat.

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Sipping tea between Europe and Asia

Sipping tea between Europe and Asia

4. Go see at least one palace

There are many, and all of them are spectacular. These are the two you mustn’t miss.

Topkapı Palace

Fine, if you had to go to only one, it should be the Topkapı Palace. It’s claim to fame is that it was the Sultans’ residence for 400 years of the Ottoman Empire’s 600+ year reign. It was a royal residence and administrative site, so it gives really interesting insights into the inner workings of the Ottoman Empire. It is decked out in marble, gold, precious stones, intricate metal work, Persian rugs, and it is all layed out on beautifully landscaped grounds, hugging the banks of the Bosphorus. It is really a half-day event, or potentially even full day. There are multiple sites spanning many courtyards, and you can buy extra tickets to go into the Harem (where the family, the concubines, and the eunuchs lived).

The meeting hall for all the ambassadors. The Sultan appears behind the golden griddle upstairs and doesn't say a word. When he taps his finger on the bars, meeting's over. Some guy.

The meeting hall for all the ambassadors. The Sultan appears behind the golden griddle upstairs and doesn’t say a word. When he taps his finger on the bars, meeting’s over. Some guy, that Sultan.

The Palace Grounds

The Palace Grounds

DON’T MISS: Some of my favourite rooms (I’ve been there multiple times) are the wonderfully curated armoury exhibition and the room housing the clocks, many of which were especially made for the sultan or gifted by other leaders (don’t miss the mother-of-pearl, floor-to-ceiling grandfather clock gifted by Queen Victoria!)

Faberge clocks all over the place

Faberge clocks all over the place

TIP: Try and go on a day with nice hot weather. lots of walking through gardens and the rooms are also chilly.

PRO MUSEUM TIP: Don’t tire yourself out. When you get a little over it go grab a tea and a snack at the museum café, situated on the riverbank with beautiful views of the Bosphorus, before you carry on with the exploring

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Dolmahbaçe Palace

If you have time for one more palace – go here! It is another lavishly built palace, but with an interesting and obvious West vs. East tension. The Empire’s 31st Sultan ordered its construction as he felt that Topkapı Palace was starting to lack the fashion and grandeur of other newer European palaces. Its construction nearly ran Istanbul to a bankrupt end, costing the equivalent of $1.5 billion dollars (you can bet people were pissed). It was home to the last six Sultans until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s successful coup abolished the Caliphate in 1924. As the first president, he used it as his summer home and moved the country’s administrative centre and official capital to Ankara. Its 285 rooms and 46 halls have strange mixture of a Versailles-like palace-feel, and Oriental tradition.

Prepare to wait a while

Prepare to wait a while

TAKE NOTE: You can’t wonder around in the palace by yourself. Tours are conducted regularly in Turkish and English and you don’t have to book in advance.

DON’T MISS: The gardens are beautiful and I highly recommend not saving this for a rainy day. Take a leisurely stroll and don’t miss the aviary tucked away in a back corner, still stocked with exotic birds. It is not really advertised or marked out so it’s very quiet back there. I even saw some guinea fowls – African birds that, where I’m from, still run around freely in the suburbs trying to evade neighbourhood cats.

The aviary, and some lazy afternoon-napping guinea fowls

The aviary, and some lazy afternoon-napping guinea fowls

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I got lucky with the weather that day, and I welcomed some winter sun and a garden stroll

I got lucky with the weather that day, and I welcomed some winter sun and a garden stroll

5. Enjoy 360-degrees panoramic views of Istanbul atop the Galata Tower

The first time we approached the Galata tower we scoffed at the 25Lira entrance fee and the queue of tourists outside, and said ‘forget about it’. However, after our friend who assured us that it’s SPECTACULAR, we showed up, paid up, went up, and it was SO WORTH IT.

TIP: Go at sunset or sunrise to get them beautiful hues. Those are the most busiest times but, trust me, this is when Istanbul is at its prettiest.

Timing is everything - try and make it for that golden hour

Timing is everything – try and make it for that golden hour

Istanbul at sunset

Istanbul at sunset

Our home was somewhere in that denseness!

Our home was somewhere in that denseness!

6. Get faded on Istiklal Avenue, Taksim

Kidding!

Or not. You decide.

Istiklal avenue is like the Times Square of Istanbul. Sort of.

It’s a long, broad avenue that’s unbelievably busy at lunch and at night. Part fun, part crazy (I’ve witnessed many a fist fight in some of the streets off of Istiklal, but also many a communal dance circle). On many Sundays it is also the general protesting-site (Turkish people loooove their protests), as well as acoustic guitar nights. Alternatively this is where you might find alcohol and restaurants that sell something other than Turkish food.

We trudged through the rain to find this Mexican restaurant and have some tequila - it was our 'escape Turkish food' date night

We trudged through the rain to find this Mexican restaurant and have some tequila – it was our ‘escape Turkish food’ date night

TIP: Lookout for the Balıkpazarı Alley (Fish Market Alley) – besides the fresh fish market, there are amazing seafood restaurants there. 

TIP: Massive markups on Turkish merch for tourists (buy your scarves elsewhere), but good sales on European name brand shops

TIP: Keep your eye on your pockets. It’s really busy and their are lots of little hands looking for extra cash at night.

Istiklal Avenue

Istiklal Avenue

BONUS – Got some hours to spare?

Go to the Istanbul Archaeological Museums

I’ve sufficiently expressed how ancient Istanbul is. One can only imagine the kind of artefacts held and exhibited at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums (a group of three museums on the same site) – it rightly has one of the biggest and most important collections of Middle Eastern archaeological treasures. Take a stroll back in time through the displays, or just take regular stroll on the amazing grounds.

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Well that should keep you busy.

However, Istanbul is cray cray. So if you get a little bit tired/frustrated of all the tourists and tourist traps, or if you are more of the off-the-beaten track kind of traveller, or if you’ve already checked all the above mentioned places off your Istanbul-list, take a look at the 6 least touristy things you can do in Istanbul! 

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Your Guide To Turkish Food – Eat This, Drink That

“Dear Diary,

I am so fat. At least I’ve still got a great personality, though…? Oh, there’s the pastry cart! BRB.”

…is what I my diary entries would have looked like in Istanbul if I were to keep diaries. I constantly tell people that I still feel like I ate the whole entire Istanbul. I picked up so much happy-kg’s, but if I had to do it again, I would eat every single piece of Turkish Delight, every spoon of rice pudding, every bite of juicy döner that I had before. No, wait. I would eat many bites more.

The thing is:

Lamb, eggplants, onions, garlic, peppers, paprika, oregano, thyme, mint, olives, saffron, pistachios, hazelnuts, cinnamon, pomegranate, yogurt, olive oil – should I keep going? These are all the things heaven are made of. Coincidentally, they are also the ingredients of Turkish food.

If you go to Turkey for a couple of months or even weeks, you’ll definitely get the best bit of everything. But if you have just a couple of days – here is my definitive guide to all the best bites – morning, noon and night. And of course, DESSERTS.

BREAKFAST

Menemen – a delicious, cheesy, scrambly egg breakfast. For some inconceivable reason, Joel and I only tried it about two months into living in Istanbul when we went to Heybeliada. This is what I mean when I say I would eat more if I had to do it all over again. More Menemen. Much, much more. I say it’s cheesy because, after this miraculous Menemen discovery, I would always get it with beyaz peynir (white cheese), which is how you should get it too.

Traditional Turkish breakfast, or Kahvaltı – the reason to get out of bed in the mornings. I don’t even know what else to say about it. Turkish breakfasts are supposed to happen late mornings and carry on long with good company and many, many cups of strong, black tea. It’s basically like breakfast tapas – cheeses, olives, jams, bread, honey, cream, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, chocolate and nut-butter spreads, etc. etc. etc.

So WHERE would you eat the most important meal of the day? Well, if you want to go ALL out – there is this place called Café Privato in Galata, where they bring you the plates in waves because they won’t all fit on the table (pictured below). It is also a pricy option, and very touristy. If you want to go more local, there’s this place called Van Kahvaltı Evi (Van Breakfast House) in Cihangir. It’s really popular and there’s usually a line (of locals) out the door on weekend morning. But then there’s also this place called Cuma at the top of Çukurcuma street. It’s not as excessive, just small portions – but it’s like they bring you the best of all the things you would normally get.   

The dream of the breakfast-and-brunch-lover is alive in Turkey.

The dream of the breakfast-and-brunch-lover is alive in Turkey.

LUNCH

Dürüm Döner – juicy fresh meat wrapped up in a soft chewy bread. It’s basically like a tasty mediterranean meat wrap. Döner is the glossy, juicy meat you would see all stacked up on a massive skewer slowly cooking away. During lunch time I would usually run out to the guys on the corner where they cook chicken döner and order a half sandwich for a mere 3.5 Lira! What?? That is so cheap! Or if I want to splurge I would walk the extra 5 minutes to the next corner and get the tastiest, most succulent lamb dürüm döner (dürüm is the wrap) for 9 Lira and just devour it while thinking how clever I was for having it for lunch. I would go for the döner (the meat) in the wrap, just because sometimes the sandwhich is too much bread. But get döner anything, really. It’s all good. Scrape that tasty döner right into my mouth, I don’t even care.

DINNER

All meals anywhere – I’m telling you, you can’t go wrong with Turkish food. What usually happens is little restaurants (the non-touristy variety) have certain meals or casseroles pre-made, and you pick things by the look of it. It’s fun. But here is what I would choose if I were you:

  • Moussaka – Huh? In Turkey? YES. (Because, apparently EVERYTHING that people think is originally Greek is actually Turkish, [and vice versa]). I would get the aubergine moussaka if it’s available – it’s a succulent mixture of roasted tomatoes, peppers, and lots of my favourite vegetable, aubergine, in an aromatic stewy sauce that you can dip your bread in. (VEGETARIANS BEWARE: Sometimes Turkish people would say a dish has ‘no meat’, but it actually has pieces of chicken. Because chicken is obviously a inferior kind of meat – more like not a meat at all – this is not dissimilar to the way that small dogs stack up to regular, normal-sized dogs.)
Or, as Ron Swanson from 'Parks & Rec' eloquently stated: "Any dog under 50 pounds is a cat and cats are pointless."

Or, as Ron Swanson from ‘Parks & Rec’ eloquently stated: “Any dog under 50 pounds is a cat and cats are pointless.”

  • Müçver with yogurt – Vegetable and white cheese fritters, best enjoyed with thick plain yogurt. If the yogurt doesn’t come with the fritter, ASK FOR IT. And chuck some dried red peppers on it while you’re at it (Always out on the tables, together with oregano).
Aubergine moussaka with chicken ('no meat') and müçver with yogurt on the side. With the staple oregano and red peppers on the table. This was the simultaneously terrifying and happy moment when I realised how fat I will become.

Aubergine moussaka with chicken (‘no meat’) and müçver with yogurt on the side. With the staple oregano and red peppers on the table. This was the simultaneously terrifying and happy moment when I realised how fat I will become.

  • Dolma – Uniquely aromatic stuffed vegetables. This can be stuffed grape leaves, stuffed aubergine, stuffed peppers, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed you-name-it. It’s stuffed with rice spiced with Turkish saffron. This is different to the regular saffron (the most expensive spice in the world), i.e. it’s cheaper but it still tastes similar, so it’s actually quite a refreshing taste in a dish since saffron isn’t casually used in many dishes. Delish. We ate plenty to many dolma, which my self-esteem is still paying for.
  • Manti – a sweet and spicy Turkish ravioli. Hard to explain, but needs to be tasted at least once.
Some other person's really good photo of manti, Turkish ravioli

Some other person’s really good photo of manti, Turkish ravioli

  • Güveç – a tender meat stew cooked slowly and served in a clay pot. It’s the ultimate heart-warming winter dish.
Someone else's great photo of the meat stew that is güveç.

Someone else’s super great photo of the meat stew that is güveç.

  • Adana kebab – the best kind of kebab. Hot and spicy.

SWEETS

Turkey is filled with all kinds of diet-crippling desserts. But if you had to choose just four, they should be:

  • Turkish Delight – sweet, chewy, ultra-satisfying delights in pomegranate, chocolate, strawberry, pistachio, marshmallow, etc., etc. These are NOTHING like those sad boxes filled with tiny powdery way-too-rosy-flavoured blocks of excuses for Turkish Delight you find in your own supermarket at home, let alone whatever the pink stuff is inside Cadbury’s ‘Turkish Delight’ chocolate slabs. The real thing is ultimately superior.
A box of Turkish Delights - in the front is pistachio-nutella, in the middle: chocolate-marshmallow, in the back the all time fave: pomegranate.

A box of Turkish Delights – in the front is pistachio-nutella, in the middle: chocolate-marshmallow, in the back the all time fave: pomegranate.

  • Dondurma – ice cream so good I got some while it was snowing. It’s ice cream upgraded with the sahlep, flour made from the roots of the Early Purple Orchid, and mastic, which is like a natural (EDIBLE) resin. It’s sweet, and gooey, and chewy and all that.
Dondurma in Sultanahmet , in front of the Hagia Sophia

Dondurma in Sultanahmet , in front of the Hagia Sophia

  • Sütlaç – heaven in a bowl. (Aka rice pudding) Milk. Cinnamon. Sugar. Any other rice pudding that you had up till now was a farce.
The problem really was that the restaurant owner of our regular place would give us rice pudding for free - and it's just bad manners to not eat free food.

The problem really was that the restaurant owner of our regular place would give us rice pudding for free – and it’s just bad manners to not eat free food.

Now THIS is the way to eat your feelings!! *Thumbs up emoticon*

Now THIS is the way to eat your feelings!! *Thumbs up emoticon*

  • Baklava – which is apparently originally a Turkish idea. Who knows.

DRINK THIS

  • Turkish coffee – your average kind of Middle Eastern coffee variety in a small cup. I mean, you have to try it at least once.
  • Turkish tea (Çay, pronounced ‘Chai’) – strong, kick-me-awake, black tea. This is one of the greatest Turkish traditions, and it’s totally patriarchal. There are tea houses filled with stout, moustached-men, cigarette smoke billowing out of the door. Walk the streets around noon and you will see these men sitting outside in the sun on tiny chairs, with their tiny glass cups of tea.
  • SAHLEP – there’s a sahlep-shaped whole in each of us. Its a rich, thick, milky, cinnamon-y winter drink that holds your hand and never lets go. Usually only available in the winter. If a waiter says they don’t have it, just plead. That’s what I did, and they magically presented a cup of it a couple of minutes later.
Sahlep: a steaming cup full of dreams.

Sahlep: a steaming cup full of dreams.

  • Watermelon in the summertimes, sold sliced by street vendors.

Well that’s the basic breakdown of how to eat your way through Istanbul. Turkish people don’t count calories – they enjoy the home-grown ingredients with each other, usually over a couple glasses of tea, Turkish wine or Rakı (alcohol made from aniseed). So forget your hangups, roll up your sleeves and dig in – it’s the Turkish way!

So yes, I got fat in Turkey. Because Turkish food is real f***ing delicious.

Roasted aubergine with cheese and pasta rice: even the hospital food is amazing!

Roasted aubergine with cheese and pasta rice: even the hospital food is amazing!

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Shopping in Turkish, or How Not to Consume Ayran

I love preparing my own food. I plan weekly meals and buy the ingredients that I need so that nothing goes bad and so that I don’t have to sit with the ‘what-are-we-eating-tonight’ problem. I’ve always looked forward to cooking that first meal whenever we have moved or been away on vacation. So, after a three-week trip through The Netherlands, Belgium and France, I was itching to put a pan on the stove when we arrived at our semi-permanent Istanbul home. But first I had to figure out how to shop for groceries in Turkey.

Our first little trial-and-error experience happened the first night when we strolled down to our corner store to pick up a box of cereal and some milk, just so we could get going at breakfast, since I started my internship at The Museum of Innocence the next day. We grabbed a packet of Special K and some chocolate cereal and (what we thought was) a container of milk. Keep in mind, that the bags didn’t say ‘Cereal’ on it, nor did the container read ‘Milk’, we were shopping by pictures. What our milk container did say was ‘Ayran’, which we now know, after spitting out a mouthful of it mixed with chocolate cereal, is a favourite Turkish drink when consuming meat – salty, yogurty, watery, pale-white liquid. We never quite warmed up to it.

Watch out for this guy pretending to be milk.

Watch out for this guy pretending to be milk.

The thing with shopping and cooking in non-Western countries is that your whole cooking repertoire needs to change to adapt to ingredients. Even if you buy all the ‘normal’ stuff it just doesn’t taste familiar. Well, that’s the one thing.

Then you have to figure out where to get the goods. We lived in Çukurcuma, a small area in Cihangir, and there was a Carrefour approximately 15 minutes’ walk from our flat. Carrefour is one of the few large companies with chain stores in Istanbul – most shops and restaurants are family-businesses. Over time I have learnt to buy things like fat-free milk and yogurts, cereals, and canned foods at the Carrefour . For vegetables and fruits I would take the 2-minute walk to the nearest produce vendor, and for toiletries, cheese, honey, Turkish chocolate (YUM), water, and cat food I would go next to him to the general market guys. I soon found out that you can buy cat food basically at every single general market store anywhere. This is because locals feed the stray cats, or because some tourists trick a friendly stray cat into their homes and pretend its their pet. Hypothetically, of course.

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We bought tea at the same store where we got our Turkish Delight, where we became regulars way to fast. (One of my favourite memories is on our second to last day in Istanbul when we visited the shop for the last time, hanging around and being allowed to stuff our faces with all the dried fruit and turkish delight we could handle, while we waited for our friend Mahmoud to help the poor tourists feeling intimidated by his charisma and all the choices to be made.)

A dazzling array of flower teas

A dazzling array of flower teas

Teas, Turkish Delights, Dried Fruits, Nougat

Teas, Turkish Delights, Dried Fruits, Nougat, and Mahmoud

Rather than buying bulk like I would at home, I shopped often, since it was so close and the (local) fruit and veg are replenished daily. That’s the thing with Turkey – I found very few imported products in stores – Turkey would pretty much be able to self-sustain if it had to. The other thing is that general market stores, fruit and veg vendors and family-run restaurants are EVERYWHERE. I could almost guarantee that there will be a general market, a vegetable guy, and a restaurant within five minutes‘ walk of your hypothetical Istanbul apartment. So if you ran out of water or oranges at 10pm, you could leave (in the dark by yourself) and be back with whatever you needed within five minutes. Often I would stumble in the flat with 10 litres of water and Joel would be like, “oh, wow, you’re back!”

It wasn’t long until I realised that that guy yelling some indistinct Turkish word (I’ve even heard a Turkish guy say, when someone else told him what the guy was yelling, “ooohhhhh….THAT’S what he’s yelling!”) in a very distinctive vocal lilt (ask me later, I’ve got the impression down) is selling filled breakfast pastries, which he keeps warm in his little cart, which he pushes up and down all of Cihangir’s windy cobbled streets. Then there is also the grocery truck which makes its appearance every other day. It is basically just a small pick-up truck with some onions, potatoes and whatever else on the back, with a driver yelling some things over a loud-speaker, selling produce to whomever he wants to. There are a lot of very old ladies living in Çukurcuma that can’t always make it to a store and this where the grocery truck comes into play. However, sometimes the driver yells something like “No, I’m not selling to you again, you just cause trouble” up to an old lady who will be pointing her finger menacingly back at him.

Oh and did I mention the fruit and vegetable horse-and-carriage guy?? Ya.

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The thing with these guys is that you’re gonna have to know some Turkish. Which is my biggest advice, because this is true even in stores like Harris Teeter: If you are going to want to buy food outside of Sultanahmet (tourist-central), LEARN TURKISH. Even if you don’t interact with people, ALL THE BRANDING IS TURKISH. This will make your life so much easier. I learnt a fair amount of Turkish (enough to somewhat confidently go to a shop) from sitting with my friend Dilan, whom I worked with, and annoying her by constantly saying “How do you saaaayyyy……?”. But in the beginning I would, instead of English, write the Turkish word for canned tomatoes on my shopping list. Or I would memorise the word for ‘mint’ (nane) or whatever when I go to my fruit and veg guy. Things will work out pretty well for you of you can say and understand ‘Do you have ____’ , ‘Yes I have_____’, ‘That’s gonna be ____Lira’, ‘Do you have change?’, or ‘I want four please’, etc.

For the most part. By the end of our stay there was a national black out (can you say ‘cyber attack’?….!) and I ran down to the market to buy candles. I picked up a bulk bag of tealight candles, pointed to it, and said (in Turkish): ‘Do you have a small bag?’ However, the word for bag that I used is more like ‘plastic bag’, and less like ‘package’, which is what I meant (because I didn’t want 100 tea lights). He looked confused and said, ‘Yes, I do!’ and pulled out a small plastic bag from behind the counter. I shook my head and said, ‘No no, do you have a small plastic bag?’, pointing to the candles. And repeat. I later changed my tactic and said ‘I don’t want many, I just want three’. He pulled out two more plastic bags. I was finally saved by a guy who walked in and told me what the word for candle is (mum [pronounced ‘moom’]), after which the shop keeper pulled out three single candles from behind the counter, whereupon everyone nodded and said “aaaahhhhh!! Evet evet evet!” (yes yes yes).

Shopping is not so straight forward if you can’t speak or read Turkish, which is why you should take your time to look at pictures when you shop and/or learn a bit of Turkish when you’re going to be staying for a while. In the end it’s pretty rewarding when after a couple of weeks the shop keepers stop pulling out the calculators to show you the price and instead just tells you what it is. in Turkish.

TIPS FOR GROCERY SHOPPING IN TURKEY

1. Support your local vendors

2. Go to the same places so that the shopkeepers get to know you

3. Learn Turkish. It’s easy.

4. Do as the locals and feed some cats. Outside in the streets.

5. Don’t pour Ayran into your chocolate cereal. It’s gross.

HAPPY SHOPPING!

Tea shopping was probably my favourite kind of shopping

Tea shopping was probably my favourite kind of shopping

 

The familiar sight of ruby-red pomegranates

The familiar sight of ruby-red pomegranates

My firs home-cooked meal! Pasta with aubergine, spinach and red sauce (made from a can of tomato paste I accidentally bought)

My first home-cooked meal! Pasta with aubergine, spinach and red sauce (made from a can of tomato paste I accidentally bought)

 

Feeding a local pretty.

Feeding a local pretty.

See any English?

See any English? (The answer is No)

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We lived in Istanbul – one of the largest and densest cities we’ve ever experienced – for a couple of months and…Istanbul is crazy. There’s a lot going on all of the time, which is why came up with the perfect way to escape the craziness.

It is not easy to escape this city. With only three bridges spanning the Golden Horn (a channel branching off from the Bosphorus) and bottleneck build-ups at the only two bridges connecting the European and Asian sides, it might take a couple of hours to even get out. UNLESS you make your way down to the Kabataş port and catch a ferry to one of the Princes’ Islands, which is what we did.

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THE PRINCES’ ISLANDS

Princes’ Islands (Kızıl Adalar) is a group of nine small islands just off Istanbul’s coast. Of these nine, four of them can be visited, of which Big Island (Büyükada) is the most popular. That’s where we planned on going until some local friends told us to forget it and rather go to the smaller, less popular Heybaliada. All the Princes’ Islands are famous for their solitude and stillness – there aren’t any cars allowed on any of them, only bicycles and horse carriages. But where Big Island is full of bustling tourists and locals, Heybeliada is a quiet oasis, stirred only by the occasional sounds of a cyclist cruising by, the clomping of horses’ hooves in the distance, and the slight ruffling of leaves in the breeze. It is also home to a beautiful 11th century Greek monastery from which you have a spectacular 360 view of the Marmara Sea, the other Islands, and, in the far foggy distance, Istanbul.

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It is a sleepy town, with a winter population of 3,000 people, but I’m sure nearly twice as many cats and dogs. After we found our cozy little room with a far-off view of the water, we took a leisurely stroll back down to the harbour, admiring the old yalıs (wooden Summer houses) as we went. Heybeliada is a magical place where you don’t have to constantly jump out of the way of cars or defend your personal space – free from noise, tourists, the five-times-a-day-ness of thousands of mosques and the insistent smell of cigarette smoke that I now affectionately affiliate with Istanbul.

Our distant ocean view

Our distant ocean view

We putted around the harbour before we had some delicious seafood at a harbour-side restaurant, armed with a spray bottle, by kind courtesy of the restaurant owner, to fend cats off our laps and table. It seems that we made a habit of eating dessert in Turkey after nearly every meal, so we walked around some more and sat down at a dessert shop to drink some tea and try some new things, which is where we first tasted a trileçe cake, a Turkish cake made from a mixture of goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s milk, and promptly fell in love.

The Heybeliada harbour

The Heybeliada harbour

Ready to stuff our faces with more of the tastiest stuff on the planet - Turkish food!

Ready to stuff our faces with more of the tastiest stuff on the planet – Turkish food!

We didn’t have enough time the next morning to rent bikes and visit the monastery and do all those things we thought we would, but we strolled around some more and made our way to the harbour where we had menemen, a DELICIOUS Turkish one-pan scrambled egg breakfast, while we waited for our ferry back.

It was a wonderfully quiet and slow day-and-a-half, and it was just what we needed. After living in the craziness of Istanbul for about two months, all we needed was a quiet stroll down the middle of a street with no people, a fresh plate of grilled fish out in the open and a spray bottle to keep some cats away. On the way home we tossed some simit to the ferry-accompanying seagulls on the leisurely ride across the sea, and we were ready to immerse ourselves in all of Istanbul again.

Seagulls follow nearly each and every ferry to their destinations, because of passengers tossing simit at them (a type of bread)

Seagulls follow nearly each and every ferry to their destinations, because of passengers tossing simit at them (a type of bread)

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Wide open streets with only horse-and-carriage allowed as a way of transport

Wide open streets with only horse-and-carriage allowed as a way of transport. This was one of the busier streets.

 

The monastery stays tucked away at the top of the hill.

The monastery stays tucked away at the top of the hill.

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Back to Istanbul!

Back to Istanbul!

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