Sunday, 8 March 2015

Where to eat and shop in Istanbul

msmarmitelover on the bosphorus, Istanbul

You've got to feel for Turkey. They are stuck in the middle of one of the most unstable regions in the world: Ukraine, Crimea and Russia to the north, separated only by the Black Sea; the unholy mess that is Syria/Iraq to the east, the destination of romantic schoolgirls from London's East End, taking a bus across Anatolia to the border; and finally a border with Iran, never without worry. 

Oh and the injustice of Greece, the economic basket case of Europe, part of Europe nonetheless, with euros, Schengen passports, funding, grants and all the advantages that go along with being a member of the EU. You can hear Turkey fume: we've been good, we are taking in refugees from all the wars, we aren't about to sink the entirety of the Eurozone with our reckless economics, rather we have one of the fastest growing economies. Turkey is Europe's buffer zone, our 'airbag' against the zealous hordes, at least for now.

Arrival in Istanbul

Travellers tend to fall into two camps: those who meticulously plan their trips, like Hollow Legs, who even did an Excel spreadsheet prior to her trip, or people like me, who prefer to travel slowly, to wander about, in the hope of happening upon hidden treasures. I'm a free-form traveller. I do just enough research to get me to my first nights' hotel. I prefer to present myself as a blank canvas, upon which impressions, smells, sounds, tastes can be imprinted. 
The first thing I do when arriving in a new place is go walking with my camera. That first fresh sweep is essential, lest my senses become jaded. Today's marvel is tomorrow's 'been there, done that'.

First walkabout: the nearest landmark to my hotel was the vast, concrete, quasi-Sovietic, Taksim square, where my virgin gaze took in the dozens of torch-lit mussel sellers with their tiny 'stalls', the size of a meze tray perched atop a high stool. I saw one customer, an après-work commuter, hunched over, with the kind of focussed concentration that good food and hunger permits, using a half-shell to excavate the mussel from its dark shellac mooring, which in addition comes stuffed with rice. (The Turks love stuffing things, nothing with a cavity is left unfilled, from whence comes the word 'dolma', to stuff.) He stacked up the empty shells on top of the others, ten or fifteen of them, jenga-style. I have to admit, I balked at eating street shellfish. I didn't fancy spending a night on the tiles, the bathroom tiles that is.
I spent 8 days in Istanbul, which is obviously not enough to be an expert. I can only offer you an account of what I did, albeit I was guided in the latter part of my trip by Aylin Oney Tan, a Turkish food expert.


European side:
artichoke bottoms, istanbul
Modern Ottoman cuisine: I loved my lunch at NAR Restaurant on the peaceful roof terraces of Armaggan, a Turkish cultural and design centre. We had the choice of an à la carte menu or a buffet of meze and desserts. 
Favourite dish: artichoke bottoms with broadbeans, prettily presented. 
Medium priced, near the Grand Bazaar. 

Trendy hipster dinner: DubleMeze is on the top floor of Palazzo Donizetti hotel, currently being refurbished. Being escorted through the grand old style hotel reception to the lift and straight up to the skies, this place has a secretive pop up feel. The lift doors open to a buzzing atmosphere with glam Turk hipsters gossiping at volume. It has bird's-eye views over European Istanbul and a selection of modern meze. I didn't like being seated to eat at bar stools, disempowering for a short woman, swollen tourist feet dangling, trying to have a conversation over the noise. Good for young people though and probably nice for lunch.
The purslane salad, popular in Turkey, was memorable.
Near Tunel area, medium priced.

Best Black Sea food: Hayvore, you can point to what you want in the hot counter. They are famous for their anchovy pilaf. My favourite was the poached quince, black apricot, walnut and kaymak thick clotted cream on top. Very cheap, lovely owner. Beyoglu area.
Best lahmacun: Datli Maya is a folksy little bakery that makes 'Turkish pizza' (a thin bread) with unusual toppings. Friendly owners and a place to eat in upstairs.
Best manti: Mynda manti 
Manti are ravioli from Central Anatolia. Traditionally they are fried until crispy on the outside and covered with yoghurt, lemony sumac or biber (sweet or hot red pepper flakes). I didn't really like them, I prefer the soft boiled ravioli/manti. This restaurant serves both kinds, with different fillings. The owners/service is very nice and your bill will be very small. 
Best traditional Turkish: 
Pandeli is a cerulean-tiled restaurant located on top of the Spice Market. I didn't eat there, just visited while they were boiling platters of almonds in preparation for the lunch. But I've been told that it's the place for a traditional family meal, both economical and with a great location.

Asian Side:

Modern meze:
Award winning restaurant Tapasuma is part of a boutique hotel Sumahan on the site of a 19th century Ottoman distillery. The chef Gökay Çakıroğlu has been part of the restaurant since he was a child, since his dad was chef. I ate beautifully designed meze plates that looked equally good as they tasted: highlights include chard-wrapped bulgar wheat, aubergine salad, fish dishes. You can sit and look at the Bosphorus while you eat. Moderately priced.

Traditional meze with lots of vegetarian options:
I love the food at Ciya where we had za'atar tea and tore up football-sized puffed up breads sprinkled with Nigella seeds, freshly emerged from the wood oven. You can order candied vegetables and green walnuts for dessert. Plus they have a complex dish called Perdeli Pilav traditionally served at weddings (pictured above).
Mackerel sandwich with pickles, several places under Galata bridge: 
A must-eat. You order them, shoving your way through the crowds, from a shouty bloke standing in front of a large golden gondola-style boat. Behind him you can see an enormous swaying hotplate where the fish is grilled on the boat. Mackerel and some salad is pushed into a baguette, then you elbow your way to a tiny stool next to a table. Men with gold braid waistcoats offer jars of pickle juice to go with your sandwich. You pick out the pickles with a fork and drink the juice. A kind of mackerel pickleback. Divine. My kinda food.
Eminonu area, near to the spice market.

Elastic Icecream:
Many vendors of 'dondurma' on Istiklal St, which is the equivalent of Oxford Street in London. They do a whole show, with clinking bells and magic tricks. The icecream contains sahlep, dried orchid roots and mastic, giving the icecream a chewy texture. You buy it by the slice, which is piled onto a cornet.

Not exactly street food, more shop window food, as you usually see it being made by a woman sitting cross-legged in a window, rolling out thin dough over a domed drum. She then bakes it on a low fire next to her and fills it with whatever you choose (I ask for spinach and cheese). 
Wet Burgers:
I didn't partake but this is a kind of steamed hamburger. You know how we eat kebabs to soak up the drink after a night out? Turkey, home of the kebab, uses wet burgers, 'islak burgers', instead. It's a burger bun kept in a mini-hammam. I don't eat meat, but everyone raves about this Turkish phenomenon.
Best drinks:
You'll get good Turkish coffee almost everywhere. Do try sahlep in the winter, a milky drink made from ground wild orchid powder. Another favourite of mine was apple tea, chunks of dehydrated apple in hot water, which sounds strange but is a refreshing drink. And of course, raki, the aniseed drink, is the perfect accompaniment with meze. 

Fes cafe in the Grand Bazaar was particularly good for drinks and good people watching.

Best bar: 
There are quite a few bars around the bottom of Istiklal Street, Beyoglu, Karakoy and Tunel. I went to Public House near Sishane metro, which is quite trendy.
Weird desserts:
I had a strange concoction, 'Kunefe', in a side street next to the spice market: shredded wheat with stretchy salty cheese inside covered with syrup. Kind of liked it but my brain had problems processing this dessert. 


Food shopping is a joy in Istanbul. Here are my tips. The Asian side is less touristy than the European side with the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar, you'll get fairer prices.

Asian side:

Kadıköy market. 
God I loved this place, not only were the shops fascinating but they also had many open air restaurants lining the street.
At the Kovan Firin Bakery, you can try Tahinli Çörek: a bun with tahini inside, a lovely fudgy flavour.  

I bought boiled sweets, rose petal jam and Turkish delight at Cafer Erol. The boiled sweets, called Akide sugar candy, come from a long tradition of candy making, and were stored in large glass jars like an old fashioned sweetie shop, but in unusual flavours such as mastic, liquorice, cinnamon, bergamot, rose, plus an amber honey sweet studded with sesame seeds. Mastic has an interesting pine flavour and is sourced from a particular type of pistachio tree on Chios island in Greece.
Anybody who reads my blog regularly will know that this girl loves a pickle. Oh but the Turks do lovely pickles! Pickle heaven can be found at Özcan Turşu. I bought pickled green almonds, whole pickled ivory garlic bulbs, pickled pink turnips... all the colours of the rainbow. According to this shop, their house made pickles can help with indigestion, cancer, Alzheimers and diabetes.

European side:

The Spice Bazaar, and the small streets surrounding it, is a must-visit in Istanbul.  
Shops to visit there include Doğu Pazarı where I bought two types of Bottarga-Balık yumurtası-kept in the fridge: a dark one and a light one. I now can't remember the difference between them but the dark one was more highly valued than the other and was from the Baltic seas. They were made from grey mullet.
I enjoyed the cheese shop Cankurtaran Gıda, where I tasted the four most common Turkish cheeses: 1. Dil Peyniri. 2. Beyaz Peynir/White Cheese 3. Kaşar Peyniri. 4. Tulum Peyniri
The best spice shop in the Spice Bazaar is Ucuzcular Spices, a family business where I bought various powders and concoctions including saffron, rose petals, something mysterious called 'Ottoman spice' and another similarly red ground spice thingy called 'salad spice'. 

I thought the Turkish women with their colourful headscarves looked very stylish, something they wear when they get married. The women in black hijab are Arabic, I was told. 

Non-food info:

Istiklal street has all the same shops we do, plus a few others. Istanbul is great for shopping and prices are lower at shops like H and M where I replaced my handbag, got a black leather fringed jobbie for 22 euros. I won't spend more than £50 on a handbag but you can get good quality imitations of the designer bags (you pay £200 rather than £8k) in a shop in the Spice Bazaar, if that's your bag. 

Tights (I was there in winter) are a good buy in Istanbul from branches of Penti. The January sales were still on and you can get cashmere tights for instance at a bargain price.

Snail cream:
This is the latest thing for a youthful complexion, a face cream that contains snail slime. Cheaper in Istanbul pharmacies. Rather you than me.

Bulbs and seeds:
You can buy cheap bulbs and seeds at the flower market behind the Spice Bazaar.
As Food Stories mentioned, Istanbul is perfect for her as it's full of cats. I've never seen so many different types of cat food for sale either (above). Adjacent to the flower market.

Buy a local SIM from a branch of Turkcell on arrival, at the airport even. You must take your passport with you to buy.  It took me a few days to put this plan into action, but it cost £30 for the SIM/plenty of data allowance and was the best decision I made. It works out cheaper than roaming because remember, Turkey isn't Europe (£40 for 4 instagrams! Thank you o2); it means you can pretend, if solo, that you have company in the form of your virtual mates on Twitter and, essential for maze-like Istanbul, you can use Google maps.

Buy a travel card: Istanbulkart. You'll find you walk a lot in Istanbul. Buy a fitbit and achieve your daily steps goal easily. After 3 or 4 days I felt a lot fitter.

Hammam towels: I bought a load of these 'pestemal' in the first few days then discovered the best shop for them, at a shop called Abdulla in the Grand Bazaar, not particularly cheap but gorgeous designs and quality. So I had to buy a bunch more.

Best hammams

I talked about my hammam experience in this post. Most hammams are near a mosque. Some have different hours for men and women. You have to go at least once when you are in Turkey. You spring out feeling so clean and relaxed. 
I tried Cemberlitas hammam near the blue mosque and Grand Bazaar. It cost about £45 for a scrub and 30 minute massage. 
I checked out Galatasaray hammam although I didn't go in: it had similar prices to Cemberlitas but looked a little shabbier.
Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami was cleaner, posher, recently refurbished but women can go until 4pm, after that it's men only. It's around £100 for a scrub and massage. 
If you stay at posher hotels, they usually have a hammam, scrub and massage menu but they are much more expensive. I had one at the elegant and historic Pera Palace hotel, formerly the end stop for the Orient Express train trip. This hotel is worth a visit in itself, it has one of the oldest lifts/elevators in the world and you can stay in Agatha Christie's old room. Glass cabinets in the higher floors display original crockery and silverware from the Orient Express train. I have to admit that the 'scrub' at Pera Palace hotel was so painful that I had scabs all over my body afterwards. Is that supposed to happen?

Things to see:

Go on a Bosphorus tour. I was lucky enough to be invited onto a private boat accompanied by the writer of this detailed and illustrated book 'Bosphorus, the ultimate guide'. You get to see beautiful riverside mansions, houses of the rich, while spending a few nice hours on the water. Here is some great advice on which tour to take.

Visit at least one mosque, you must cover your head, so take a scarf, if not they provide one. Also remove shoes. I find the call to prayer, especially when it's not just a recording, but a genuine imam doing his thang, a rousing spiritual vibrational experience, even though I am not religious. 

As people go at dusk to pray, you will see the men wash their feet, legs, arms, even in the freezing weather, with cold water, at taps built on the outside walls of the mosque. I visited two mosques: the Blue Mosque, which was beautiful, six minarets, but not blue. It has some scary looking giant low chandeliers that are precariously hanging on thin wires from the ceiling. Suleyman mosque is perhaps plainer, but seems larger, and is a bit of a climb up a hill. I drank a steaming sahlep from a vendor selling outside. Two beggar children, probably refugees from Syria, stood there looking at the hot drinks with large longing eyes. A man going to prayer bought them some. 

I didn't have time to visit the Topkapi museum and palace, to visit the harem. So much to do... must return.


  1. just fascinating, you've inspired me to go for a visit!

  2. OMG - how long were you there for? I've been to Istanbul twice but didn't experience a 10th of what you did. I love how you distill all the best bits into one vivid post. People are always asking me what to do in Istanbul - now bookmarked to share and for inspiration for when I next visit.
    On your opening paragraph - it may feel like Shoreditch in places but there is a lot under the surface. Last visit was during the anniversary of Taksim and I have never seen so many heavily armed riot police in one place.... however, people treated it as normal and we actually did a 7 hour food tour weaving in and out of the guarded alleyways! Stellar post Kerstin.

    1. Hi Sally, Thanks for commenting. Comments seem to be rarer than hens teeth for my blog nowadays which is a bit depressing.
      Yes, that's what struck me about Istanbul, how they are carrying on as normal but not far away, life is pretty horrific.

  3. Whoa, hang about - I just gather as much information I can before I go on trips so that I'm not stuck in a Leicester-Square-dilemma situation. My spreadsheets are always about giving me the largest range of choice dependent on the location I happen to be in, so in my wanderings I'm not caught short - I certainly don't meticulously plan every minute of my trip.

    1. I've not heard of this Leicester Square explain.
      It wasn't a criticism, I'm in awe. In fact I'd love you to make me a spreadsheet before my trips :)

    2. Leicester square syndrome is when tourists come to London to see the sights and then end up in garfunkels or Aberdeen Angus steakhouse because it's the nearest restaurant and they haven't done any research, and then they go home and tell everyone how terrible British food is!

  4. i am going there next month. thanks for sharing the information. will help me save some money:)

  5. I love istanbul. thanks for sharing these awesome pics. last time i couldn't visit spice bazaar and Topkapi museum and palace but this time i have enough time over the weekend to visit these places. You are right buying a local sim and travel card can you save tons of money.


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