If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.Alphonse de Lamartine
August 16-23 2017
The last stop while traveling solo before meeting back up with Maggie in the States, Istanbul was an amazing and awe-inspiring place; I could have done an entire post on just the cats that roamed the city, treated as a part of the community, or the delicious food sold by street vendors and at the cities bazaars, which I will touch on further below.
It’s one of the best large cities I’ve been to thus far, made up of many unique and interesting neighborhoods full of enticing streets, breathtaking architecture, and some of the warmest, most genuinely hospitable people I’ve ever met on my travels. It’s a plce I could visit again and again.
The Sultanahmet neighborhood is home to the city’s most well known attractions like Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue and Suleymaniye Mosques. No first-time visit to Istanbul can be complete without visiting all these places. I was most impressed with the fascinating underground cistern full of arches, some with the sculpted carvings of Medusa’s head at their base. The Suleymaniye Mosque was another highlight, especially for the views that it offered towards the northern part of the city.
Also in Sultanahmet are the Grand and Egyptian Spice Bazaars. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with over 3,000 shops, you can buy all sorts of things at the Grand Bazaar like leather goods, jewelry, carpets, clothing, furniture, ceramics, and souvenirs. Considerably smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar is home to around a hundred shops selling dried fruits, nuts, spices, tea, Turkish Delight, and other goodies. Traveling light as I move around the world, I didn’t purchase anything, but it was still fun to browse and take in the atmosphere.
Home to the iconic Galata Tower and Dolmabahce Palace as well as the city’s most fashionable boulevard in Istiklal Caddesi, the neighborhoods across Galata Bridge provide an interesting mix of old and new that’s different in feel to the time-honored charm of Sultanahmet. If you enjoy shopping, good food, and perhaps a taste of Istanbul’s nightlife, then this is where you need to be. I personally enjoyed this part of the city the most, especially the neighborhoods of Cukurcuma and Besiktas.
Cukurcuma is where I stayed and it was a quiet neighborhood full of antique shops and little cafes, just off the beaten path where most tourists travel, there was a lot of small charms to be discovered and it felt like a real neighborhood. Besiktas is a blue collar part of the city, centered around a large park with a lot of local activity taking place in the streets and squares.
Sailing across or taking a tour on the Bosphorus is one of Istanbul’s greatest pleasures according to many. They’re right. I opted to save some money and take a ferry across to visit the Asian half of the city, I also spent a couple of evenings walking both sides of the Bosphorus shoreline, taking in the many markets and families enjoying dinner in the parks that line the waterway.
With the majority of tourist attractions located on the European side, most travelers to Istanbul don’t venture into the Asian side of the city. Home to a maze of cafes, bars, restaurants, and some trendy neighborhoods, the Asian side has much to offer and is well worth checking out. The commerical streets of Beylerbeyi and Cengelkoy were like stepping into small villages within the big city, while Kadikoy offered some amazing street art and interesting architectural sights.
As far as some of the street food highlights, my favorite were the Midye dolmas, mussels stuffed with herbed rice, pine nuts, and currants. They’re sold as a street food and spritzed with lemon. Though not as ubiquitous as roasted chestnut or simit carts, you’ll find streetside vendors selling midye dolmas throughout Istanbul.
I also enjoyed trying the Balik ekmek, which translates to “fish bread”, which is exactly what it is, a fish sandwich. It consists of a grilled mackerel fillet with onion, lettuce, tomato, and a spritz of lemon. On either side of Galata Bridge in Istanbul are several restaurants and stalls selling balik ekmek.
Of course I had to have some Dürüm as well, which means “roll” and refers to sandwiches or wraps commonly filled with kebab ingredients. The dürüm is arguably the most beloved of all Turkish street foods and can be found everywhere. One of my favorite things to eat in Turkey, I enjoyed it on multiple occasions.
Of course Istanbul is while known for its sweets. I’ve always wondered where baklava comes from and it’s interesting to find out that it may have its origins in Ottoman cuisine. Its current form believed to have been developed in the imperial kitchens of Topkapı Palace, baklava is a rich, sweet pastry made with layers of filo dough packed with chopped nuts and held together with syrup or honey. You can find baklava pretty much anywhere in Turkey.
And finally, arguably the most iconic dish on this list, Turkish Delight or lokum refers to a family of gelatinous confections commonly flavored with rosewater, mastic, bergamot orange, or lemon. It’s often cut and eaten in small cubes dusted with powdered sugar to prevent clinging. As you can see below, premium varieties have other ingredients bound to the gel like chopped dates, pistachios, hazelnuts, and walnuts.
Moving on from the food and neighborhoods, was my favorite thing about Istanbul, the cats and how they are all cared for.
Istanbulites often place bowls of food and water on the sidewalk in a communal effort that lets cats roam free. The money in the tip box at some restaurants go toward the veterinary bill for sick or injured animals. Walking along the shores of the Bosphorus the fisherman let cats sample the tiny anchovies plucked from the sea. People often feel duty-bound to care for the animals that hang around their home or workplace, and I even saw an area of a park that was built just for cats, with custom built shelters for sleeping and an area with colorful wooden structures for them to play.
Why are the cats treated so well? In predominantly Muslim countries cats are honored for being considered ritually clean animals as a part of Islam. In the hadith, the collected sayings and actions of Muhammad, there are numerous examples of the Prophet’s fondness for cats.
The cats are wild and yet they do not behave like feral animals. Instead, they coexist peacefully alongside Istanbulites and make a fascinating addition to the city that stretches across two continents.
Leaving Istanbul, I headed back to California to meet up with Maggie, and then traveling together to my childhood home of Cleveland where we will spend a few days as she gets ready to purchase her first rental property. After that, I will be traveling solo once again and spending a week in Havana, Cuba. We will then reunite for the next part of our adventure in Mexico. We are quickly coming up on the one year mark of our around the world travels, and at this point it couldn’t be going better.