Istanbul has been on the top of my city bucket list since 6th-grade world history. The capital of two of history’s greatest empires—Roman (Byzantine) and Ottoman—it stands at a unique place is time and humanity. Aside from having some of the most spectacular historical monuments in the world, Istanbul has a rich and constantly evolving culture that’s only magnified by its globally lauded geographic position.
There are so many things to love about Istanbul. This list is just my personal favorites.
1. The Food
Yes that is a doner kapab larger than a grown man’s torso. And yes, it was absolutely delicious.
It’s not surprising that I would put food first on any list. And in Istanbul’s case, it’s even less surprising. With Istanbul Eats winning Saveur’s Best Food Blog 2012, Istanbul is clearly a much-loved and highly documented culinary wonderland.
Istanbul’s east meets west dynamic is in no place brighter than in its cuisine. European and Asian flavor profiles and spices collide to create a uniquely Turkish experience. Turkish fair from the north, south, east, and west all flirt daily on the streets of Istanbul. It’s easy to spot specific influences from around the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Look for the best Iranian saffron and caviar alongside incredible olive oils and European-style breads.
Meat is a superfood in Turkish cuisine. The Turks love their meat. Especially if it’s been cooked on a stick. You could definitely do Turkey as a vegetarian, but you’d miss out on some of Turkey’s most famous and tastiest dishes.
If I could only eat at one Istanbul restaurant again, it would hands down be Çiya Sofrasi. Chef Musa Dagdeviren is on a mission to save traditional and “forgotten” recipes from all around Turkey. He has committed his life to the exploration, research, and mastership of said recipes, and brings it all home in a chilled-out, low key environment. Ciya has been verbosely and accurately described as a “”laboratory of Anatolian cuisine,” an “ethnographic museum,” and “the garden of lost cultures and forgotten tastes””.
The food is nothing short of spectacular. Each plate tests your knowledge and grows your respect of Turkish cuisine. There is no other place in Istanbul where you can eat this variety of traditional dishes prepared so lovingly. Any foodie heading toward Istanbul needs to check out Çiya Sofrasi (get there early before the feast runs out). We ate at Ciya Sofrasi and neighboring Ciya Kabob four times in our two week stay and could happily have eaten there even more.
2. That whole East meets West thing
It might be the most cliché Istanbul statement, but clichés exist for a reason. Known the world over as the point where Europe ends and Asia begins (or, depending on your perspective, vice-versa), the is city divided by the Bosphorus River, and its two halves are referred to simply as Europe and Asia. Istanbul has alway been a cosmopolitan city, and today it’s completely integrated from east to west. For example, it’s not more western on the European side and more eastern on the Asian side, it’s just one giant melting pot that, because of its unique geography, population, and place in history, has evolved into an exciting, intoxicating, one-of-a-kind atmosphere that surly couldn’t exists anywhere else.
We spent one week on each side and fell head-over-heels for the Kadiköy neighborhood on the Asian side. To us it felt more “local”, less touristy, and more our style (and we could walk to Ciya Sofrasi). That said, the European side has its charms. It has upscale shopping, good people watching, lots of nice restaurants, a heavily trafficked nightlife scene, and most of Istanbul’s historic monuments, including the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and ancient cistern. If you only have a few days to explore Istanbul, the European side might be you best bet. For us, the Asian side had a lot more to offer in terms of everyday living and cultural discovery.
Young police officers mentally preparing for a long night of “protecting the peace”
Unless you’ve lived under a rock for all of 2013, you’ve probably heard about large-scale protests and civil unrest in Turkey. Mass protests first broke out in June when protesters moved into Gezi Park to protest the commercial development of city park space. Protests cooled over the summer, but tensions came to a boil again in September as college students returned to campus. During our visit, a student protestor fell to his death in the south. His death triggered large demonstrations throughout the country, and in especially student-central Istanbul.
This round of protests was based near our apartment on the Asian side. Part of us definitely wanted to experience the resistance; to witness history in the making, and be able to say “we were there”. We got that opportunity and more, including a face full of teargas on a couple of nights.
The resistance deserves more airtime than I can give it here, and we weren’t part of the resistance for more than a few nights. But that was enough for us to get a feel. What we saw was young, educated, socially concerned Turks taking to the streets to peacefully protest against government infringements on issues like freedom of press, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and, most importantly, continued government encroachment on Istanbul’s long-prided secularism.
Turkey has been the poster-child for multicultural secularism for centuries. Eastern and western cultures and their many religions have existed peacefully and contributed to one another’s cultures for thousands of years. The young people of Turkey do not want to see a militant conservative Islamic (or any other religion) government strip away their individual rights, or the country’s long-held secular stance.
Without at doubt, the energy I felt from the movement in Istanbul made me want to stand up for the Turkish people and stand against any and all oppressive government regimes. Being a very small part of, and seeing the people who were involved with, “the resistance” was a big part of how Istanbul stole my heart.
4. Cruising the Bosphorus
There is nothing more magical in Istanbul than crossing the Bosphorus on a early morning or late afternoon ferry. The route is one of the most important sea ferrying channels in the world, and history has left glamorous sites dotted up and down its famous banks. The views have only gotten more spectacular as time rolls on. Not only is the the ferry a perfect platform to see magnificent city views, but it’s also a very real, convenient, and cheap mode of transportation that unites the great double-sided city.
5. Backgammon, Hookah, and Tea (BHT)
Its the only picture we had with all three represented. Gangsta’
Backgammon (known locally as tabla), hookah, and tea (called çay), are an essential and part of Istanbul (and general Turkish) culture. Luckily all three things rank pretty high my “how I like to spend my day” list. Streets across the city are filled with popular cafes perfect to enjoy a quick game, a bowl of double-apple, and a black tea with as much sugar as you care for.
It doesn’t have to be evening to get your BHT on either. In fact, many BHT aficionados, (especially the oldest and wisest of the breed) start enjoying the lifestyle as early as lunchtime. Who are we not to join them?
The most famous markets in Istanbul are probably the least exciting. The Grand Bazaar is worth a visit for its historical significance, scale and (former) glamour, but be ready to barter hard for everything. It’s part of the culture, it would be weird if you didn’t. If shopping for material things is your bag, you’ll have a field day in Istanbul. Pretty much anything can be found for sale—whether it’s real or a cheap knockoff is a whole different story.
We found the food and produce markets on the Asian side one of the most active and fascinating shopping, eating, and socializing experiences we’d had in a while. Again, the Kadiköy market area was our favorite. We spent a lot of time perusing the streets and aisles, chatting with vendors, and sampling the seemingly endless Turkish delights (not to be confused with the candy Turkish Delight, which we did not care for). It’s a great market to let your gastronomic desires run wild and know you’ll always turn up in a good spot. Some local restaurants cook directly from vendor stands as well, meaning you can pick from the fish monger’s best catch and have it on your plate within minutes.
7. The Call to Prayer
The call to prayer is by no means unique to Istanbul. But something gives this daily ritual a uniquely magical air here. Istanbul mosques are nice. Some are very nice. And some are among the best in the world. A city ordinance delegates the power to broadcast the call to prayer to a few choice mosques.
On paper, the ordinance prevents noise pollution from neighboring mosques shouting over each other in a dizzying array of chants that nobody can understand. But I have a hunch that the heavenly quality of Istanbul’s call to prayer comes down to the fact that Istanbul muezzin—the men appointed to lead and recite the call to prayer—are a competitive bunch. Well played, city council.
8. Street Cats
Yes, this in one of the more quirky reasons to love a city. Istanbul is brimming with amazingly cute stray cats. I’m sure some people view this as a problem, but we just found it adorable. Though they live on the streets, Istanbul’s cats appear remarkably well-fed and healthy. We noticed that a lot of locals look out for them and put out food and water. We helped the cause and made ourselves available for pro-bono cuddles.
On the three-block walk from our Kadiköy apartment to dinner, we counted 47 cats one night! Crazy.
It’s nice to hear a city puuuurrrrrr.