Istanbul 2015: Food!

Perhaps the most memorable part of Istanbul was the food, with lots of nuts, honey, olives, etc, and much of it grown or produced domestically.


Eric found two great breakfast options near our hotel and we went to each place twice.

Konak Cafe –  I went super simple both mornings and filled up on a cheese toast (basically a grilled cheese sandwich) and a fancy coffee. Eric had the cheese omelet and a peach juice the first time and copied my cheese toast order on the second visit. And you simply cannot beat the view from the rooftop terrace at this spot, encompassing Sultanahmet, the Bosphorous and the Galata Tower.

Istanbul (Emınönü)

Turkish flag

Marmelat Cafe – A local cafe that was packed every time we walked by so we figured we should give it a try. The first time I ordered the Edirne cheese (pretty sure this was the same white cheese on my toast at Konak), mixed olives and smoked salmon, Eric ordered two jams: cherry and raspberry. The cherries were intact and rather hard, like a maraschino and sweet, but the raspberries were quite tasty. Also, the orange juice was really good, definitely freshly-made. As with every meal in Istanbul, a bread basket was also provided. Our second breakfast here wasn’t as good but we each wanted to order something different, so… Eric’s scrambled eggs were a bit too runny and I did not like the classic menemen at all as the texture just felt all wrong. Sticking to the marmalades is the better plan for us.

breakfast - smoked salmon and jellies  breakfast


Unter – Our first meal in Turkey was a bit on the unusual side. Both of us ordered an item and were surprised when the plates arrived. Eric had the summer meatballs on flatbread, which was more like a panzanella salad with parsley, partially-flattened grilled meatballs, and flatbread croutons, while I had the duck confit which came out like little pancake sandwiches with meat in the center. That said, both items were tasty and there was a good selection of wines by the glass available so we left happy.

Karaköy Lokantası –  This tapas restaurant is so popular it took two days to get a reservation, and we were not disappointed! We each ordered a few items of the mezze menu, plus a bottle of rose to split, and dug in. The wait staff brings an endless supply of bread, so you don’t have to ration it. I had the Terrama (fish roe paste) and stuffed mussels while Eric had the Muhammara (walnuts and spices) and Topik (chickpeas with potato and onion) spreads. Highly, highly recommended!


(l-r) terrama, muhammara,  stuffed mussels, topik

NOLA – This charming restaurant was just a few minutes walk from our hotel and featured a large patio with a nice view of the Galata Tower. All their wines were Turkish, and many were available by the glass, so it was a great way to try a variety of grapes without committing to a whole bottle. I was pleasantly surprised by the roses I had but eventually branched out to reds.

After visiting for drinks on two evenings, we returned to try their dinner menu on our last evening. I ordered the stuffed grape leaves and meat stuffed pastries while Eric was delighted with his choice of manti (Turkish ravioli) – a little spice, nice tomato and pepper flavor, that was his favorite meal of the trip!

The wines: most of the whites had a mineral nature.

  • Ozel Kav Emir (white), similar to a pinot blanc with lots of flinty mineral, tasty.
  • Suvla Kinah Yapincak (white)- lighter, less mineral, wasn’t very memorable.
  • Isa Bey Sauvignon Blanc (white) – nice tartness, white peach and apricot.
  • Suvla Sauvignon Blanc-Semillion (white) – Lt fruit scent, med mineralness, Lt body and finish, this was one of Eric’s favorites.
  • Sonnet 5 Bornova Muscat (white)- Muller thurgau like with light mineral and fruit.
  • Sonnet 18 Grenache (pink)
  • Kalecik Karasi Guney (red)
  • Okuzgozu Magnesia (red)

last dinner in Istanbul  mixed nuts

Sweets and Snacks

While exploring the city we also tried a few different take-out and street foods including chicken and beef doner at Semazen Cafe, simit (with nutella is best), kestane (roasted chestnuts), lokum (Turkish Delight), baklava from Koskeroglu and various cookies from Cigdem Bakery. Yum.

baklava!  simit and Hagia Sophia

Istanbul 2015: exploring & shopping in Istanbul

Besides the big mosques and museums we also visited several other spots around Istanbul in the course of our explorations.

Galata Bridge is a key connector between Galata and the famous tourist attractions, but locally it is very popular as a fishing spot. There are hundreds of fishing poles lining the top deck here, and we even saw a few catches. As you might imagine, the aroma is rather fishy, but the breeze off the water helps it from being overwhelming.

Galata Bridge

Just across the bridge is the imposing New Mosque. This may have been our favorite mosque for the combination of beautiful tilework and carpets, plus the surprisingly quiet interior compared to the bustle on the other side of the walls. Definitely recommended.

Yeni Cami (New Mosque) Yeni Cami (New Mosque)

Directly across a plaza is the Istanbul Animal and Flower market, where we saw some clever pigeons sitting in the bird food bins!


The pet market is connected to the famous Spice Market. On Saturday, our first trip, we walked through briefly, then returned to explore on two occasions. We returned on Sunday to find the outskirts mobbed with clothing sales, much of it counterfeit, while on Monday the interior of the spice market was busier.

dried fruits @ the spice market spice market booth
spices @ spice market

It is quite difficult to decide where to purchase anything given the large number of competing stall, plus people are constantly trying to get your attention since it’s clear you are a tourist. Of course you don’t want to be completely ripped off either… To get some perspective, we started checking the prices of a few common items like dried apricots, where the prices ranged from 20-80 lira a kilo. Around 30 seemed to a good price for the apricots that looked and tasted good, and stores that had a good price on those also seemed to be reasonable about spices too.

With this in mind Leandra stopped at Malatya Pazari and tried a few of the spice selections. She made several choices, and we were pleasantly surprised when they vacuum sealed the spices for her, making travel home much easier. In all she purchased a total of 4lbs of spices!

baazar2  spices
shopping street; vacuum-sealed dried pepper flakes

East and south of the spice market is a massive clothes area, with storefront after storefront selling wedding dresses, suits, socks, etc. It is truly amazing how much commerce is squeezed into these blocks. I also liked the mix of old and new, stone walls across from bright signage.


closed on Sunday, bustling during the week

North of the spice market is the Süleymaniye Mosque. Located on a hill, all the streets up are rather steep, and there are some handpainted signs to guide tourists. The grounds are enormous with a large grass lawn and mature trees edging the complex, plus a commanding view over the sea and city too. Compared to some of the other mosques the interior was a bit simpler.

Süleymaniye Cami

Süleymaniye Cami interior

Süleymaniye Cami

From the Süleymaniye Mosque we walked through the Istanbul University campus, then sat on their steps with a view of the Beyazit Mosque. We listened to a call to prayer and enjoyed the people watching around the Beyazit square.

Just a few blocks from Beyazit is an edge of the famous Grand Bazaar, closed on Sunday. Outer parts of market were open, but we decided to return to see things in action on Monday. It is definitely large and confusing, but many of the wares were also redundant – how many lamps/scarves/bowls does one need? We were knew it would be touristy, but we couldn’t really find anything interesting inside, so after about 20 minutes we left.

Grand Baazar  baazar1

It helps to make a pass through these areas once or twice before deciding to buy anything, in case you find the exact same item cheaper elsewhere!

Istanbul 2015: Bosphorus

Istanbul is famously split into a European and an Asian side by the Bosphorus strait. Somehow I convinced Leandra to take a 2 hour tour up the Bosphorus, and the views were great!


After pulling away from the Emınönü dock our boat made its way up the coast toward Ortakoy, where we stopped to pick up a few additional passengers. Quite a few hotels and terraced restaurants lined the Bosphorous along here, and I think we’d consider a night or two along this stretch on future trips.


The ferry gave us a great vantage point for the Ortaköy Mosque and Boğaziçi Köprüsü (the Bosphorous Bridge).

Dolmabahçe Mosque

The ship continued toward the Asian coast for the trip up the Bosphorous. Many buildings are clustered along the waterway, from larger apartment complexes to villas.

As we approached the massive Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge we saw the Rumelihisarı, an old fortress, on the European side.


After the second bridge the boat turned around and began the trip back to Emınönü, this time staying closer to the European side. On the way back we saw dolphins playing in the wake of a massive freighter, and quite a few seagulls inspecting the boat for tourists offering (or not protecting) food. Toward the end we enjoyed nice views of Galata, and a beautifully backlit view of the minarets of old Istanbul as we pulled into port.



Istanbul 2015: Asian side

After spending several hours at the Topkapi palace we decided to take the ferry across the Bosphorous and explore Kadıköy, a neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul.

As soon as we exited the ferry, the crowds were intense! This side of the Bosphorous was packed with lots of people completing their shopping and restaurants slowly coming to life.

busy street in Kadıköy
all the screens had the same soccer match playing!

On our list of things to try in Istanbul was lahmacun, a light oven-fired dough with a spicy meat spread. Halil Lahmacun is considered one of the top lahmacun places in Istanbul, so we wound our way through the crowds to make it our first stop. This is a small joint with a few outdoor tables and a handful of  stools inside. After we grabbed two of the stools, one of the kitchen guys handed us a menu which only had two food items on it, lahmacun and pide. A few minutes later thelahmacun came out of the oven and were served with a heaping side of parsley and sliced lemon. They were so good we ordered a third, and we can definitely see why it is so popular!

halil  lahmacun (Turkish pizza)

You could order spicy or plain and we definitely preferred the spicy. To eat, simply fold in half or roll into a tube. If you ordered more than one (which most people did) they came stacked on the plate one on top of the other.

After eating we decided to see more of the district, along the way picking up dried apricots from a nice fruit and nut market and some shortbread cookies from a bakery.

fresh fish gills  busystreet

We had spied Tarantula, a bar that seemed to have a decent beer selection, on our first pass so as dusk fell we made our way back and grabbed a table with a nice view of the avenue, excellent for people watching. I started with the Turkish-made Gara Guzu blonde beer while Leandra had a Leffe Radieuse. The crowds were slowly building at restaurants, so we decided to stay for another round – this time I went for the Leffe Radieuse, while Leandra ordered the Meantime Coffee Porter.

night time bar views

Afterwards we made our way back to the ferry terminal, this time catching the Kadıköy-to-Karıköy ferry. Twenty minutes later we were back in Europe!

catching the ferry back to the European side

Istanbul 2015: The Topkapi Palace Museum

The Topkapi Palace grounds are immense, so we prepared to spend several hours exploring. Photos are not allowed inside many of the buildings, though rule enforcement varied from not at all to loud nagging depending on the guard. Many of the guards were glued to their mobile phones, so we did manage to sneak a few shots here and there.

entrance to the

palace entrance

After entering through the gates we turned right and started with the kitchens. These turned out to be surprisingly interesting, as it must have taken a lot of work to feed the several thousand people that inhabited the palace grounds in its heydey. The imperial kitchen had first choice at the markets and docks, and they made everything from meals to medicines on the grounds. Serving the sultan was a big deal, and upwards of 14 servants attended him at each meal!

The imperial jewels were close by, but the line was long so we continued through the receiving room into the heart of the palace grounds, the third and forth courtyards. We explored the calligraphy museum which included the first word portraits we’ve experienced – a detailed description of Muhammad in beautiful calligraphy with gold overlay.

There was beautiful tile and woodwork everywhere and we enjoyed exploring many of the large decorated rooms.

Topkapi Palace
  Topkapi Palace  Topkapi Palace

After about two hours elsewhere we ended up back near the (still) long line for the jewels, so we joined it. The crowds made it hard to really enjoy each piece without getting jostled, but they had some amazing pieces. Just next door was a second room with other imperial accessories, and since it was uncrowded with no line, we gave it a try and really enjoyed the beautiful clocks and other timepieces.

The Harem was our last stop, which was recently included in the Museum pass. Unfortunately, several sections are under restoration. However, the rooms we did get to see were opulent and beautiful with amazing tile, wood, and carpet work; even the ceilings were gorgeous. This part was our favorite section of the palace, largely due to the reduced crowds.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace Topkapi Palace tile  Topkapi Palace  Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace is on the must-see list for good reason and we felt that four hours was enough time to see everything without rushing around.

Istanbul 2015: Cooking class

Several weeks before we left, I emailed the Istanbul Cooking School to see if there were any openings during our trip. Although Oguz couldn’t confirm anything until about a month before, everything worked out in the end and the later start time enabled Eric and I to explore both the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque before my class started at 4pm.

We started out with brief introductions to get acquainted then a walk through the flower passage and samples from a variety of local vendors including smoked fish (yum), Turkish Delight (surprisingly good, the rose was my favorite), various pickles and fresh strawberries. Oguz even got us all the popular evil eye charms to help ward off bad thoughts.

spice shop  pickles!
a very crowded spice shop; pickles of all sorts

balikadam  fresh fruit
smoked fish @ Balik Adam; fresh fruits

The market tour was very informative — we learned that nearly ALL of the fish found in Istanbul is local, don’t eat the mussels from the myriad of unlicensed street vendors (likely a given), Ottoman spice mix is not something used in Turkish cuisine despite seeing it in every spice shop, and beware of fake Iranian saffron. We were all starting to get peckish, but before we started cooking, Oguz gave us the option of purchasing a bottle of wine or beer to enjoy with the meal at a convenience shop near his place. I made sure to select one with a screwcap so I could easily get the rest home to share with Eric!

the finished product (I ate only about a third of this)Here is the complete menu:

  • Classic Turkish Humus – made with cumin and a chunkier texture than the middle eastern version
  • Kisir – a spicy and tangy wheat bulgur dish, lots of fresh veggies and pomegranate syrup
  • Çerkez Tavuğu / Circassian Chicken with Walnuts – shredded chicken with a thick walnut sauce
  • Peynirli Sigara Böreği / Smokin’ Cheese Pastry – fried phyllo dough filled with cheese and parsley
  • Irmik Helvasi / Semolina Halva – cooked semolina with milk, sugar and pine nuts

We had a German woman who was allergic to nuts (good luck in Turkey!) so the instructor also added a roasted eggplant dish for her.

kitchen scene  frying
spices and shredded chicken; frying phyllo pastries

The group did most of the chopping and prep work while Oguz’s assistant replaced our utensils, fried the cheese cigars and cleaned up after us in general. My favorite part was learning about food traditions in Turkey — kebob, fish culture and ottoman cuisine — including what spices to bring home!

The 5-hour class went a little long, by the time everyone left it was nearly 10pm(!), but I found the course to be great value for the money ($65USD) and would highly recommend Istanbul Cooking School if you want an informative and entertaining introduction to Turkish cooking.

our class!
our class photo – American, Australian, German and Dutch students

Istanbul 2015: Friday at the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque

Our pre-trip research indicated that a museum pass would be our best bet, so despite the touts out front trying to guide us in around the line, we waited for the box office at the Hagia Sophia. The automated kiosks weren’t working (though we later found out there were more on the south side of the square) but it was still only a 10 minute wait, and they took credit cards (not common in Istanbul). Once we had our pass all we had to do was scan it for entry to each site with no more lines.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is quite large, but not quite as ornate on the outside as I had anticipated. Internally it feels even larger given the openness (no columns like most of the large European cathedrals). The center had a large scaffold for restoration that marred some of the view, but it is still a magnificent structure.

Hagia Sofia details  Hagia Sofia dome

Hagia Sofia (under construction but still beautiful)

Hagia Sofia mosaic  Hagia Sofia

After wandering around the ground floor for several minutes attempting to get some photos without a ton of people in the way, we made our way to the upper floor, not by stairs but via a wide switchback ramp instead. Views upstairs were better and included some uncovered mosaics. Combined with the smaller crowds we definitely enjoyed the second floor better.

Leaving the Hagia Sophia we walked around the corner to the tombs for various sultans. Leandra donned her scarf as a head covering, and we were in for free after a quick trip through a metal detector. The tile work and wooden details in each building were quite ornate, and the crowds were substantially smaller than most of the other sites on our trip.

Tombs of Hagia Sophia
Tombs of Hagia Sophia

Just a few hundred yards from the Hagia Sofia is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, aka the Blue Mosque, so we walked over there next. In the middle is a small park with benches and lots of lounging canines (places seem to be either occupied by cats or dogs, never both).

Sultan Ahmed
main courtyard of the Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Since it was Friday, the mosque was closed to visitors until 2:30p. Around 2:15p we got in line, and about 20 minutes later they started letting people in again. Our clothing passed inspection (yeah!) and a few minutes later we were in the visitor section. Indoors is massive with lots of lights on very long cords and miles of carpet.

Sultan Ahmed
ceiling detail

Sultan Ahmed

Later that evening I stopped in at Sent Antuan Kilisesi, the Orthodox Christian church, then continued to the Archeology Museum. Due to renovations only parts of the museum are open, but entry was included with my museum pass. There were some interesting artifacts (pottery, funeral pieces, etc) but I wouldn’t go out of my way for it.

inlay  blue tile

sarcophagus detail

Since I was nearby I also returned to the Blue Mosque when it was, well, blue.

Blue Mosque at night

And so concluded a day where I walked ~7 miles, tired but happy.