When the aircraft landed to thunderous applause followed by a massive surge of people rushing to de-plane, it was unclear whether the Turkish people feared flying or just SunExpress (the newish Turkish airline). Certainly they couldn’t be in a hurry to get to baggage claim — an average of 4 large suitcases per person meant no one would be leaving any time soon. Maybe they were just hungry.
I’m not sure if it’s all the praying that builds up an appetite, but you don’t have to go far to satisfy your food cravings. Street food is everywhere. And it’s generally amazing and cheap. A good place to start is by the ferry dock on the European side in Karakoy where the smell of fish permeates the air. This may or may not be a bad sign.
Across the bridge are floating restaurants, selling grilled fish sandwiches topped with peppers and lemon juice for about $2. Carts are on hand with trays of pickled beverages (tursu suya) to wash it down. Or you can opt, like I did, to patronize a family run establishment at a portable grill near the dock where a father and son may be selling fish they caught. Here you can also find the midye dolma (mussels stuffed with a rice blend and finished with a squeeze of lemon). Even though they’re delicious and only 1TL per mussel, stick with one even if you’re adventurous. When eating street food, you’ll most certainly get at least mild food poisoning at some point, with the mussels being the most lethal and likely culprit.
Right across from the fish shanties you’ll find the infamous Spice Market. All manner of tea, spices and candies abound, including the “Turkish Delights” — I still think it’s a creepy name. Be sure to pick up some of the extraordinary and inexpensive spices here to use in dishes back home.
When you’re hungry again and in the Taksim area, pick up a Wet or Islak Burger — a White Castle-sized hamburger soaked in a lite tomato sauce. These are all around the square. Tasty, and usually fresh, especially at 2am, they cost about $1. And they shouldn’t wreak havoc on your stomach.
Of course, I went in search of the dürüm place that Anthony Bourdain featured on No Reservations. The hotel refused to give me directions, claiming it was in an unsafe area, and I got a little lost. So I asked a bunch of Turkish guys to help. Unfortunately they didn’t speak English. Eventually, a college student who could communicate with me arrived on the scene to help. He knew the place and offered to take me there. Turns out it was on the opposite side of the street (not sure why this was so difficult). And this was a very populated and well lit area – unlike where I’d been. (I can promise you that Mr. Bourdain’s experience was not nearly as adventurous as mine.) Dürümzade was well worth the effort. Each sandwich is made to order. The bread is light and airy, the meat well-seasoned, and you can get it spicy if you want. At about 5TL (around $3), it’s simply delicious. The Anthony Bourdain Special was twice as much, but I have no idea what’s in it since my new friend would not let me order or pay. Don’t worry, I treated him to a beer.
If you’ve had enough street food and want to sit down and enjoy a meal, avoid the pricy places in the adult playground of Reina and try a meyhane – the typical Turkish tavern. There are a ton of options near the Cicek Passage. Usually there’s live Turkish music and plenty of raki, the local liquor, on hand. A few dishes or a sampler plate of spreads may be enough for one, so go with friends to enjoy more.
In addition to amazing food, there’s no shortage of spectacular sights. I could spend pages talking about them, but here are some highlights: the Grand Bazaar (not open Sundays), the Blue Mosque (smells like dirty feet and watch the 5 prayer times a day when it’s closed), and Hagia Sophia (long lines from cruise ships and stray cats) are all required viewing.
One of my favorites was the Basilica Cistern/Yerebatan Sarnici (Sunken Palace/Cistern). It’s an incredible underground waterway complete with fish and flanked by giant columns on top of medusa heads with red lights to guide the way. Then there’s the harem at Topkapi Palace — simply breathtaking. DO NOT MISS IT. Lovely views of the Bosphorous can be seen from the outer courtyard of the Palace, which is just above a flower-filled park where you can grab a snack.
A few tips: Most Americans will stay exclusively on the European side of Istanbul. But if you fly into the Asian side, you’ll need to get a visa at the airport. Don’t worry – it’s quick and cheap. A “taksi” in traffic might not be though, so give that some consideration. If you fly into the main airport on the European side, you can also take a ferry over to Kadikoy for about $1. It’s a nice alternative to the expensive Bosphorous cruises that you’ll be encouraged to take. Stop at one of the excellent fish restaurants while on the Asian side, which will more likely be filled with Turkish tourists than foreigners. Wherever you eat or drink in Istanbul, you may want to check your bill. Occasionally, you’ll find something you didn’t order. And this even happens to the locals so don’t take it personally.
No matter what you see or do, you can be sure that the Turkish people will try to strike up a conversation. Relax. Most of them just want to practice their English. Talk for awhile and you might end up finding an experience better than any guidebook could recommend. And certainly an adventure!