– Teşekkür Ederim, he says to me.
– … Techek ….huh? I reply with a foggy mind, having not slept for the greater part of the last two days as I commuted between Bangkok and Istanbul via Oslo.
– Just remember this: tea, sugar and a dream. Teşekkür Ederim. That’s “thank you” in Turkish.
And indeed that’s pretty much what I will remember of Istanbul. Cup after cup of “çay”, Turkish delight by the bucketful and a dreamy city filled with wonders (and people, lots and lots of them!) – a transcontinental city that is the confluence of East and West and a place I wished I’d had more than a week to visit. I kept busy exploring and admiring everything I could lay my eyes on during my short stay and wanted to share with you what I discovered.
I am usually not one for organized tours, but giving the short time constraints, having someone show me around the main points of interest seemed like the most productive thing to do. I spent a few days with my private guide Hasan from Travel Shop Turkey and absolutely loved it. It was like having a local friend showing me around.
Sultanahmet Cami is known to tourists as the Blue Mosque and is a grandiose piece of architecture with six minarets, a beautiful courtyard and impressive interiors. To snap the best shot, go to the Four Seasons Istanbul Sultanahmet Restaurant (I learned this tip from Memo at Second Home Hostel afterwards!)
The best known tourist attraction in Istanbul – and with reason – Hagia Sofia was once a church, then a mosque and is now a museum. It is a grandiose Byzantine masterpiece that is nearly 1500 years old. It’s worth spending a few hours inside exploring the small details as well as the greater ones, such as the magnificent dome.
Don’t miss navigating the blue waterway separating East and West. The shores of the river are lined with old wooden villas, marble palaces, fortresses, and small fishing villages as well as the Dolmabahce and Yildiz Palaces and the Bosphorus Bridge. A fantastic day out.
For a taste of bustling streets filled with yelling locals and to find absolutely everything that exists on the planet, visit the Grand Bazaar, but be ready to haggle. For mouth-watering Turkish delight, dried fruits, nuts, baklava, soaps and spices, visit the Spice Bazaar.
Whatever you do and however long you stay, absolutely plan a couple of hours to visit a traditional Turkish hammam. You’ll strip naked, lay down on a hot slab of marble for a while then get scrubbed, washed and massaged under a mountain of suds. It is truly heavenly and such a unique experience. I visited Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamami and it is a gorgeous place with amazing service that I can’t recommend them enough. You can read my full review here.
Kahve 6 quickly became my favourite breakfast hangout spot both for the food, the friendliness of the staff and the coziness of the environment. The hidden garden is a lovely place to hang out and there are a lot of vegan-friendly and local/organic options to choose from. A gem.
They do only one dish here, called falafel poppers but, boy, do they do it right! The poppers are filled with various things such as mushrooms, eggplants, spicy tomato, hummus, cabbage and spinach and are served either in a wrap or in a plate with salad and hummus. Everything is vegan and yummy. C’mon, pop a popper in your mouth!
Volunteers offer free vegan food on Wednesday to address issues like hunger, consumerism, violence against animals and state oppression. Cooking starts at 4 pm. Everyone is welcome. Food is served at 7 pm. Donations are welcome.
Nice animal-friendly and colorful café located five minutes from the ferry harbor in Kadiköy, serving vegan version of traditional Turkish food, borek, hummus and cakes. Lovely.
Located on a quiet street in the hip district of Karaköy, Bi Nevi offers a whole-foods plant-based menu that is influenced by both seasonal ingredients as well as unique fruits, vegetables and superfoods that are not typically offered in restaurants in Turkey.
VEGAN STREET FOOD
There is a lot of vegan food to be found at every corner of Istanbul. Here are a few cheap bites you can find all around.
This very ubiquitous bagel-like pastry is sold in every bakery and in little carts all over the city. Buy them fresh in the morning because they get a little tough as the day progresses and always make sure they don’t contain cheese as some of them do.
The Turkish lentil soup, or chorba is nothing like dhal and quickly became a daily staple during my time in Istanbul as it is cheap, filling and delicious with a squirt of lemon juice.
It literally means “raw meatballs” and admittedly looks like it a little, but since the use of raw meat was banned from Istanbul a few years ago, those little nuggets are now made with bulgur and ground walnuts and are the bomb diggity! They are generally served with lettuce, lemon juice, parsley, pomegranate molasses and durum (flat bread) that you can make into wraps or eat however the hell you like. Absolutely do not leave without trying those!
Literally just a baked potato loaded with a bunch of toppings of your choosing – it’s a great, cheap, filling snack. Beware that they usually start by mixing the potato flesh with copious amount of butter and cheese, so make it clear with them that you don’t want that part.
You can also find a great selection of local sweets and breakfast food such as Turkish delight (make sure you are buying the one without honey), baklavas (again, make sure no honey or butter were used), halva (try the walnut halva caramel! It has nothing to do with halva really and it is delicious), dried fruits and nuts, tahini and grape molasses mix (yummy with simit!), pişmaniye (halva candy floss) and chestnuts everywhere.
BUDGET: SECOND HOME HOSTEL
This homey hostel is centrally located to explore all the sights and a great little place to call home at the end of the day. It’s is in a perfect location, within walking distance to all the sights and is super clean. The restaurant is a great place to chill out with a cup of tea around the great breakfast and meet other travelers as well as Memo and Can, the resident managers who are just awesome. I stayed in a private double room with shared bathroom and they even had storage for my bike. The rooftop terrace affords great views and is a great place for yoga and meditation in the morning and meeting with other travelers in the evening. A perfect base from which to explore the city! Beware that they have two websites going, the old one is here and you can also book easily through the new website right here.
MIDRANGE: BANKER HAN BY THE SOFA
A newcomer in a very up and coming area of Karaköy, this midrange boutique hotel is located in an old refurbished building that was once abandoned and used as an underground street-art exhibition center with plenty of exposed bricks, concrete columns and urban touches. There is a resident artist on the first floor giving a cool vibe to the restaurant and incredible views of the Bosphorus and the old town from the rooms.
SPLURGE: SUMAHAN ON THE WATER
If you are up for something really special, Sumahan on the Water is a 5-star boutique hotel located in an Ottoman-era alcohol distillery repurposed into a stylish, warm and intimate boutique hotel right on the waterfront – as you’d expect from the name! — in the Çengelköy neighborhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. Expect plush beddings, magical views and an extremely delicious breakfast.
Directions // Facebook // Booking
A huge thanks to Travelshop Turkey, Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamami, The Banker Han Hotel and Sumahan on the Water for making this trip possible. As always, all opinions remain my own.