The Old City in Istanbul is almost entirely tourists, but still very much worth a visit. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia are stunning sites of architecture, history, and grandiosity, and if you appreciate craftsmanship, the tilework, painting, and patterns that are integrated into the fabric of the buildings is just stunning. It's further stunning when you realize the Blue Mosque was first built in the early 1600s and the Hagia Sofia was built in the 300s -- in fact, first a basilica and then later a mosque (and now a museum). Topkapi Palace, the royal residence of Ottoman sultans for many centuries, is also grand, but i'd say it's one of the "must sees" you can actually skip. It's flooded with tourists and many of the treasures and artifacts of the space are behind glass walls and in cases.
Good general first-time tips for Istanbul travelers:
- Be prepared to walk. Streets are narrow, windy and hilly so you'll want comfy shoes. Cabs are hardly useful -- streets are so clogged it's usually faster to walk anyhow.
- Cars take the right of way. Watch where you are walking; mopeds and vehicles and trams will plow through a crowded intersection.
- Alcohol is expensive, but available. Unlike other largely Muslim countries where alcohol is not available, you can get beer, wine + cocktails in Istanbul. But, it's pricey. The gov't puts a hefty tax on drinks, so expect your beer to cost more than your food. Even for bodega-style wine, the cheapest bottle we could find was around $20. Cocktails at restaurants were usually $15-$20.
- Raki is an unsweetened anise-flavored alcohol popular in Turkey. Try it.
- A lot of restaurants add a 5-10% bread + bottled water charge onto your bill. This is not optional, so be mindful when you sit down. That said, tipping at most restaurant is minimal to 5% or so. Nicer restaurants is a bit more -- maybe 10%
- If you're buying anything from a bazaar, bargain.
- There are lots of cats. Everywhere.
Any cuisine that involves heavy usage of eggplant, onions, garlic, tomatoes, beans lentils, olive oil, nuts of all sorts, and copious spices, ranks high in my world, so I was psyched to eat in and around Istanbul. Here are a a few favorites from our trip (not including all the street food, doner, lavash and kebabs we also consumed).
- Gram: Run by Didem Senol, one of Istanbul's top female chefs, Gram is one version of my vision of a near perfect restaurant. Located in Beyoglu, the storefront features gorgeous pastries and sweets for breakfast -- giant billowing meringues and gorgeous raisin muffins and a fabulous ginger cake we tried one morning (cause cake in the morning is actually just a muffin). At noon the restaurant transitions to an open lunch buffet with a large emphasis on Turkish influenced local salads and grains for lunch. The space is closed for dinner (but open to private parties + intimate gatherines). Tables are all communal, and food is mostly self serve, but servers and chefs bring you oven-grilled bread and drinks. There's a general feeling of stopping by your grandma's (modern, sleekly designed) kitchen for lunch as all the cooking happens in an open kitchen. You pay a prix fixe for your choice of 4 dishes. Some of my favorites here were a lentil, bulgar and roasted pepper salad, a beautiful roast celeriac in a lemon sauce, everything with sweet potatoes, and an intense and beautiful pumpkin cheesecake with a tahini crust. [Beyoglu, official website]
- Lokanta Maya: The woman running the pastry counter at Gram also pointed us to Lokanta Maya, offering us scant chance of getting a reservation the day before we left. So, we were psyched to get a table to visit Didem Senol's other Istanbul restaurant in the Karakoy neighborhood, down by the water not to far from Galata bridge. T Magazine has a good write-up from a year or so ago, but to summarize: get the golden zucchini fritters with the minted yogurt dip. In fact, get as many appetizers as you can manage. Try a fish dish (any of them). I had a sea bass with pomegranate glaze and grilled persimmon and chard. (Exquisite). This place is modern Turkish cuisine at its best. Karakoy is also a great neighborhood with some galleries, cafes, old auto shops and warehouse spaces that's fun for walking around.
- The best simit in Istanbul: I'm going to make a bold claim and say that Galata Simitcisi makes the best simit in the city. Bold because that's like putting your stake on the best bagel or pizza in New York. But, this old school bakery near the Karakoy waterfront does simit and simit only. Their simits seems perpetually warm from the oven with a deep, nutty, slightly crispy crust, and a chewy, rich interior. Turkish folks eat simits for breakfast, like a bagel, or as a snack. Follow suit and treat yourself to one of these at any point in the day.
- 9 Ece Aksoy: J and I walked past this restaurant a half a dozen times, peering in the window for slightly creepy, stalkerish amounts of time at least twice, before we decided to go for dinner. The front room (main dining room) is small and intimate -- maybe 12' x 12' -- and features two long family-style tables with high stools. Any way you cut it, you're going to be sitting very close to your neighbor, so get cozy. Ece Aksoy is eponymously named after its chef, a woman who hangs around the dining room and checks up on you like a kind aunt. The food is Turkish homestyle, and I recommend the appetizer plates, which mix and match all the beautiful mezze that are often associated with Turkish dining: eggplant dips and saffron carrots and minty yogurt sauces and chick peas and grape leaves. Ece Aksoy's take were inventive and aromatic variations on traditional mezze, made from ingredients she sources from the local markets. For main dishes, Ece Aksoy has beautiful seafood and is famous for their meatballs.
- Mardin Kebap: The best kebap shop we visited was on a side street off of the Grand Bazaar, which I couldn't point you to if I my life depended on it. But, it's near the "leather" section of the bazaar. A casual, bustling grill shop with a straightforward grilled meats and lavash menu. But, portions are big, everything is incredibly tasty and it's cheap to boot.
A few places that were recommended to us (and we would have gone if we had more time):
- Yogurt is consumed in many forms, both sweet and savory, and all worth trying.
- Borek are common pastries made of layers of a thicker version of phyllo dough called yufka and filled with cheese, parsley, spinach, ground meats, spices and sometimes sprinkled with sesame seeds. Find a borek bakery you love and commit yourself to it.
- Drink a lot of tea, especially when offered by a potential friend or when you're working a deal.
- Turks love desserts, so sweets are ubiquitous and often incorporate nuts, dried fruit like pumpkin, fig and quince. Turkish delight, halvah, baklava and dozens of phyllo-based sweets in the baklava family are sold at shops everywhere. Karakoy Gulluoglu is a great old school bakery with a late-night diner feel. Also try sutlac, a Turkish-style rice pudding (my favorite).
- Gozleme, which we didn't actually eat in Turkey but love to get at the farmers' market in Berlin, are like Turkish-style calzones made on a specialed drum-style griddle. They have a thin lavash-like dough, and are filled with various vegetables, cheese and meat, cut into squares and topped with yogurt sauce.
- Istanbul Eats and Delicious Istanbul are great food guides to the city.