Turkish Delight?
February 7, 2013 4:23 AM   Subscribe

It's my birthday this weekend (hooray!) and I've just found out from my wife that my present is a trip to Istanbul. Tomorrow morning. Ordinarily I'm kind of an obsessive travel planner but since I only just found out I haven't spent the past month digging around and I'm fairly clueless about the city. I know MrsPerkins has done a lot of planning so I'm not worried about being stuck for things to do but I'd love to hear any general advice, suggestions for things we really shouldn't miss and anything else about the city it would be cool to check out (restaurants, cafes, aquariums, bakeries...that sort of thing).

Some further details in case they're useful; we're going to be there from Friday to Monday, we're reasonably experienced travellers neither one of us has been anywhere in Turkey before and we're interested in all sorts of experiences but I'm definitely very interested in food (the one thing I've already looked up is recommendations for baklava). Specifically, I'm a student of what my wife calls 'cookie tourism' which involves experiencing a destination through the consumption of any crisps, chocolate, biscuits, sweets and junk/fast/street food of all varieties endemic to the region.

Finally, bonus points for suggestions of anything nice I could arrange to express my gratitude for this frankly awesome present bearing in mind that I'm at my desk at work for the rest of the day and leaving first thing in the morning (so planning over email/internet is better than phone) and I don't know what else we're up to while we're there so I can't really commit to specific times or locations. Basically something I might be able to acquire or arrange opportunistically while I'm there if/when I get the chance.

Thanks in advance.
posted by VoltairePerkins to Travel & Transportation around Istanbul, Turkey (32 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: What you want, if you haven't found it already, is this (other review here.) Is it ABSOLUTELY the best of every kind of baklava? No, but what fun to try everything! I believe you can also take baklava on planes, though I would double-check that; make sure you bring extra ziploc bags if so. That's good, because there are basically 29394934 types of baklava, and it sounds like you'll be interested in learning about all of them. Pop into a Turkish grocery store-- there are indeed many exciting treats and crisps!

Also of potential interest: the Kapalı Çarşı and the Spice Market. (These are not off the beaten path, so she probably has them on her list.)

Drink endless amounts of tea; expect it to come with endless amounts of sugar.

(Just be careful about street food. Fruit juice and various meats are maybe not the best idea in terms of health souvenirs.)

If you are interested in museums and/or antiquities and/or extravagant tiles, you're in luck! The downside is that going through those and Topkapi palace could take weeks, so if you just want a taste of the archaeology of Istanbul, I would say drop by the Basilica Cistern. It used to have a cafe, if you'd like tea in extremely different surroundings. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is substantially calmer and substantially smaller.

Does she like any particular kind of jewelry or fashion item? You could certainly get her a killer Turkish rug, ceramic object [just be careful in terms of leaded glazes], or other handmade craft/fashion item. I have the coolest lambskin jacket in bright red from Turkey, though unfortunately I bought it in Izmir. There are several upscale hotels with rooftop bars or other views of the city as well, if you wanted a romantic interlude.
posted by jetlagaddict at 4:52 AM on February 7, 2013

It's fun to buy cheap sausage to feed to all the litters of stray kittens. Good grief, there are so many stray cats there.
posted by HotPatatta at 5:01 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

The Grand Bazaar is amazing! You could spend all day there.
posted by lungtaworld at 5:19 AM on February 7, 2013

The Istanbul Eats folks have some great info on their website. They also run street food tours that are awesome but are probably too much time for a quick jaunt.

Also consider taking the ferry over to the Asia side to walk through the market in Kadikoy and eat at Ciya.
posted by JPD at 5:24 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me Istanbul is about history, so that's what this will focus on. They're the obvious tourist places, but seeing Istanbul without seeing any of the old mosques/churches would be silly. Definitely see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. They're close together in the old part of the city and definitely worth your time. Topkapi Palace is big, it's probably a full day unto itself, but it's also really fantastic.

Another historic site worth visiting is Chora Church although you might be short on time for that. It's further away from the other historic sights, but it's not inaccessible (I think we took a cab, but I can't really remember). It's the better restored of the old Byzantine Churches in the city and it's got some really beautiful mosaics. It's also fairly easy (if I recall) to combine a visit to Chora with a visit to the Theodosian Walls which are worth the trip in my opinion.

There's also a mosaic museum if you find yourself really wanting to see as many mosaics as possible (I wholeheartedly endorse this approach).

On a food side, definitely hit up the Bazaar and get some Turkish Delight; I didn't love the Delight, but it was fun to buy it in that environment. While you're there, find something trivial and haggle over it. Make sure to spend at least one night sitting outside at dusk listening to the different muezzin from the different mosques. Where our hotel was you could hear probably six of them; we had a rooftop cafe at the hotel and we spent most nights sitting up there listening to the calls to prayer, then playing cards, drinking tea, and enjoying the breeze.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 5:44 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Chora is a cab ride, unless you want to blow your day, which given your timeframe seems like a bad idea.

Also, they have a lovely light-rail system that's limited but still handy and frankly I rather enjoyed simply riding from one end to the other watching the city change.

Don't buy the ice cream near Hagia Sofia unless you're in a cheerful mood and ready to play around a bit.
posted by aramaic at 6:02 AM on February 7, 2013

I live in Istanbul. I wholeheartedly recommend Istanbuleats for food suggestions. I'd also suggest not spending all your time in Sultanahmet (the old city); the touts there won't give you a good impression of how warm, friendly, and open to foreigners the rest of the city generally offers. It's relatively warm out right now; taking a trip up the bosphorus and wandering around on the north European side to see some of the old wooden mansions might be enjoyable. It's worth going to Taksim, the nightlife/most central area of town and walking down Istiklal Caddesi (avenue), maybe checking out the modern art museums on that street or nearby.

For street food, be sure to eat midye dolma (stuffed mussels) and ciğ köfte (sort of a spicy bulgur wrap). For what it's worth, I've never gotten sick from the street food here; hygene standards are pretty good. I can give you more specific recommendations if you post what sort of activities/food you're after.
posted by Theiform at 6:05 AM on February 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

n-thing the obvious from above and surely below to come as I find istanbul's "obvious" tourist stuff is just amazing.

hagia sophia: YES!! so amazing we almost named our second daughter after it!
Blue Mosque: YES!! (right across the street from hagia sophia)
cisterns: YES!

and for dinner some night definitely go to istiklal area

lastly, a cruise down the bosphurus so you can eat dinner with half your body in europe and half in asia.
posted by chasles at 6:05 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try the balık ekmek (grilled fish sandwiches) under the Galata bridge - I was a bit dubious about eating something caught in the Bosphorous, but it didn't upset my tummy at all. My Turkish sister-in-law dragged us there specially.
posted by sarahdal at 6:07 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

For a nice sit-down meal, try Hacı Abdullah Lokantası Taksim, which I visited on the recommendation of a Turkish friend. Everything there is delicious. Also, ride a funicular! The one from Kabataş to Taksim Square is over quickly, but it gets you up to the restaurant I mentioned.
posted by knile at 6:27 AM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: If you are near Taksim square try the wet hamburger (islak burger in Turkish) at Kizilkayalar. There are also other places nearby serving the same which are probably good too, but I can personally attest to the garlicky goodness of the Kizilkayalar burger. (Taksim square itself is maybe not so exciting, but if you're already walking down Istiklal Caddesi—a wide pedestrian street in Beyoglu good for people watching and more snacking—then it's worth heading to the end just for the burger.)

On one corner of the Spice market (on the outside wall of the market on the side closest to the water) there is a sweets seller that has a interesting version of Turkish delight which is apparently made on a giant spit similar to a kebab and he shaves off slices for you. I tried some which was pomegranate flavored with pistachios studded throughout... delicious! But I personally prefer any of the pistachio turkish delight varieties to the typical rose water flavor. And a little crunch offsets the chewiness well.

I will third the endorsement of Istanbul Eats—the tour, the website, and the book are all great and never led us wrong.

Oh, and just a note that the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts is currently closed for renovation. We'd hoped to visit on our recent trip and weren't able to.
posted by heliotrope at 6:43 AM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: Kalem böreği!
posted by lungtaworld at 6:48 AM on February 7, 2013

lastly, a cruise down the bosphurus so you can eat dinner with half your body in europe and half in asia.

I second that.

Also, you can get the boat early, go far far north up the Bosphorous to Andalou Kavagi on the Asian side, climb a (steep) hill to Yoros Castle which overlooks the Black Sea, go back down, have a delicious seafood lunch at Baba Restaurant, on the river, far left of the dock, cruise back south and be in Istanbul well in time for dinner.

Get a tour bus to Çamlica Hill in Asia to watch the sun set in the west over Europe with Istanbul in the foreground. Amazing.

Plus everything everone else said.

I adore Istanbul.
posted by Hugobaron at 6:59 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nthing the wet hamburgers on Istiklal Ave. They're fantastic and I think only 3 Lira each. I recommend walking over the Galata bridge from Sultanahmet, taking the furnicular, then walking down Istiklal. The hamburgers are sold at the end of Istikal in Taksim square. On the way, check out the stores down Istiklal and go to the top of the Galata tower for an awesome view of the city.

Bear in mind the Grand Bazaar is closed on Sunday. However, the spice market was open when I went there on a Sunday.

Haggling is generally reserved for big ticket items (like rugs). If you try to negotiate something small, you'll generally be disregarded unless the merchant has nothing else going on.

Stop at a cafe for a cay and baklava, and try to chat up the proprietor. Most Turks are incredibly friendly and will happily sit and talk with you, despite how busy they may look.

However, be wary of people being overly friendly or chatty on the street in Sultanahmet (near the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia), especially at night. There are a lot of scam artists working the area. Just ignore them and keep walking.

Istanbul is fantastic! Have a wonderful time!
posted by azathoth at 8:01 AM on February 7, 2013

Omg we do ist on weekends from washington dc and love it. Ideas:

Spice bazaar (cheapest turkish delight in the city and where the locals shop). Also get nuts, dried fruit, famous turkish coffee and cooking equipment (pots pans etc) there.

Grand bazaar -meh. Tourist trap snd overpriced even after bargaining.

Basilica cistern, blue mosque, the palace and hague sophia-YES.

MUST MUST MUST go to cemberlitas hamam. The attendants bathe you-soap you up, scrub you down, wash your hair, give you massage after. All on a hot stone slab in a steamy room. God i love that place. And the whole treatment is like $80. We always go twice if we can.

For food and hotel: seriously consider staying in kadikoy at the hilton moda. Cheaper than staying in historic district and the food choices in the neighborhood are plentiful and so so so good. The breakfast buffet at moda is fantastic. Its just a 10 min ride on the ferry for 3 lira and you can pick up the ferry across from the spice market.

The original baklava place where it was invented is in ist. Google it. And go. Turkish kebaps are so damn good-served like fajitas are here and pretty cheap. Try salep (google it) sold everywhere. God i can't wait to go back to turkey. Btw with 5 whole days you have time for a daytrip to ephesus. Cheap $30 rt pegasus flt to izmir then go w a tour group or rent a car for the day like we did last month. Or you can fly to capadoccia cheaply spend the night in a cave hotel, go hot air ballooning in the morning over love valley and visit the gorem open air museum before flying back to ist. We fit all these kinds of things in and we usually only go for a 3 day weekend so you can easily get out of ist proper with 5 days. While in ist you can take public transportation everywhere easily.
posted by TestamentToGrace at 9:41 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's stretchy ice cream! My mind was blown. It is pulled like taffy. However, I almost slapped the man who sold it to me. Keep that in mind.

Also, they have a pudding that includes chicken breasts that have been like, blended at a high speed. Sounds gross. Tasted great!
posted by amicamentis at 9:58 AM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: There's a tiny kofteci, a literal hole in the wall, near the Nuruosmaniye Gate to the Grand Bazaar. I believe it is simply called "Nuruosmaniye Kofeci".

You go there.

You eat as many kofte as you can manage without becoming the human equivalent of fois gras.

You are happy.

Other food to eat, in general:

My favorite Turkish breakfast is kaymak with honey. Kaymak is usually translated as "clotted cream". It's like greek yogurt, but with the consistency of cream cheese. And obviously creamy full-fat satisfying, because yeah, it's cream.

Very few things are more delightful than eating a simit early in the morning as you wander through Gulhane park on your way to Topkapi palace.

Tantuni are delightful little wraps sold all over the place.

If you dig pizza, there are two things to try. One is pide, which is basically pizza with a more Mediterranean flair. It reminds me a lot of "California style" pizza. Then there's lamacun, a cracker-like flatbread spread with a sauce of tomato, lamb, and herbs. My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

Warm up with a thick, hot, kind of weird beverages made out of orchid roots called Sahlep. (It's spiced with cinammon and tastes a little like eggnog.)

Things to know overall:

I found that eating in relatively posh restaurants was surprisingly cheap. I'm not sure if this is an exchange rate thing, or just that restaurants are on the whole fancier with better service than I was used to as someone living in New York (where usually it's the grittier the better unless you can afford to really splash out). But don't be afraid to wander into relatively posh looking places, especially in Beyoglu and along Istiklal Avenue around Taksim Square.

It will be cold. I was there this time last year, and I ended up not doing a lot of the typical Turkey vacation stuff because it was just too fucking cold to sit on a ferry across the bosphorus, or go romping around archaeological sites. I don't know what the weather is like this year, but definitely keep your outdoor activity expectations low.

In terms of language, especially for reading signs and pronouncing things on menus. The letter c = the english "j" sound. So lamacun is pronounced "lamajoon". A kofteci is a "kofteji". Etc.

This might depend where you are from and what you look like, but visiting Istanbul in February and staying near Taksim Square, everybody mostly assumed I was Turkish (I am the whitest white girl who ever whited). I thought this was really cool, but I can see it being a thing for some people. It made the language barrier a little harder, for sure.

The language is fucking HARD. I'm a language nerd and pride myself on picking up at least a few phrases wherever I travel. I was barely able to get beyond "hello", "thank you", etc. in Turkey. Cut yourself some slack here, for sure.
posted by Sara C. at 10:46 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Chora is a cab ride, unless you want to blow your day

Eh, I took the bus. It took maybe half an hour each way? It was not wasted time, either, since the people watching gets really interesting once you get out of the touristy Old City and the very trendy modern secular Beyoglu/Taksim area.

If you're packing it in to the point where losing an hour on a bus is going to be a huge problem, you're doing Istanbul wrong.

The only thing to be aware of for Chora is that it has relatively limited hours. That was the one sight I had to really plan to visit at a certain time, because it turned out it was going to be closed for a lot of my trip.
posted by Sara C. at 10:51 AM on February 7, 2013

Oh, and all the recommendations for ice cream and dinner cruises on the Bosphorus? Unless the weather is a lot warmer and drier than last year, or you guys are visiting Istanbul from the Arctic Circle, I would not bet on doing stuff like this.
posted by Sara C. at 10:53 AM on February 7, 2013

Speaking of lahmacun, and its sister food pide, EAT AS MUCH OF IT AS YOU CAN. It's delicious, and I don't find that Turkish restaurants in America quite pull it off the same way. (When they even serve it, which is only about half the time.)
posted by like_a_friend at 10:53 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, I was there this exact weekend last year--it'll be chilly but not unpleasant at all, I don't think. 40s and 50s, scarf and jacket weather. We took a Bosphorus cruise and were only slightly uncomfortable, plus they do let you down into the covered part of the ship if you want.

Be forewarned: a combination of mainlining strong Turkish tea and coffee, plus jet lag, could mean some sleepless nights. If that's really going to bother you, bring something that knocks you out. I used dramamine that I'd bought for the flight there.
posted by like_a_friend at 10:56 AM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: I haven't eaten there myself, but ever since I read this article I've wanted to go back to Istanbul and eat at Çiya Sofrasi. Some cow-orkers were in Istanbul a couple of years ago and ended up having several meals there, they liked it so much.
posted by asterix at 11:33 AM on February 7, 2013

Response by poster: Awesome, thankyou all
Wet burgers, kofte, pide and turkish delight carved off a spit are pretty much right up my street and I forgot to mention how much I love breakfast so kaymak is something I'm really excited about.
I'll be spending the rest of the evening following links and salivating over my keyboard
posted by VoltairePerkins at 11:37 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

How about Istanbul Modern?
posted by golden at 12:12 PM on February 7, 2013

At Ciya I had a candied green walnut that was texturally the most interesting food item I've ever eaten.

I don't know the name of it, but on IE food tour of the spice bazaar and the areas near it we were taken to a Kebab shop that sold a Doner made up of lamb layered with eggplant, onions, peppers and tomatoes then cooked on a vertical spit, sliced and made into a sandwich that was no joke maybe the best sandwich I've ever had. Unfortunately I don't know the name of it, but damn was that good.
posted by JPD at 12:31 PM on February 7, 2013

I don't have much recommendations for food. I would avoid eating in the Old City and the places where there's someone trying to rope you in. In my experience, it wasn't very good and incredibly expensive compared to the good food I had.

Also, I don't see any recommendations for Dolmabahçe Palace and I urge you to go. You get a tour in English when you go, and it's so pretty. It's also a great contrast to Topkapi Palace and really fun for comparison and learning.
posted by cyml at 12:59 PM on February 7, 2013

Best answer: Ooooh, I have a good recommendation for a restaurant in Sultanahmet near all the touristy stuff (Blue Mosque, Ayasofya, the Islamic Art Museum, and walkable from Topkapi)!

Tarihi Sultanahmet Kofteci

It looks touristy from the outside. Also, like I said in one of my posts up there, it looks a little too posh to be a good idea for street food fans and budget travelers. But get inside and it's just damn good food. It's pretty kofte centric, but I remember them having other stuff on the menu, too.

This is your best bet for lunch on the day you visit the big touristy monstrosity that is the Ayasofya and Blue Mosque area. It's not the best restaurant in Istanbul or anything, but if you find yourself in that part of town on successive days, go back again. What the hell? At least it's good.
posted by Sara C. at 1:09 PM on February 7, 2013

I also took the bus to Chora and I didn't feel like it wasted the whole day, and I think after I walked down to the water and took a ferry (Turkish for ferry-boat: feribot!) back to Sultanahmet. This was in May, YMMV.

The only disappointing food I had in Istanbul was the roasted corn. It looked so tasty! But it was not. Simit (sort of in the bagel-pretzel family), on the other hand, were always pretty good everywhere.
posted by mskyle at 1:28 PM on February 7, 2013

Temporary Exhibition: Maps of Piri Reis Exhibition has opened to visit at the Topkapý Palace Museum between the dates January 23th 2013 -Ferbruary 11th 2013. But that could just be personal preference. (Also, cherry sorbet! Yes, it's winter, but idiot foreign tourists can buy icecream whenever they like, and cherry sorbet is yummy).

If there are any major museums you definitely want to visit, you can buy tickets in advance here. The other option may well involve queueing outdoors (definitely for the Topkapi Palace, I think also for the Cistern, don't know about other places) in weather that may not be horrible, but will definitely be some variety of winter. The Topkapi Palace generally involves quite a lot of outdoors, if that will affect your decisions about what you do (don't know about the harem though, I think that's a lot of indoors?)

Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) is closed on Mondays.
posted by Lebannen at 1:59 PM on February 7, 2013

What timely info -- I'm headed there tomorrow!
posted by femmegrrr at 2:03 PM on February 7, 2013

In February you will have no problem getting tickets to anything, and will likely not have to wait in any lines.
posted by Sara C. at 2:51 PM on February 7, 2013

Response by poster: Just popped back in to mark some best answers although to be honest this all seems like good advice so I've just marked the ones that we were able to experience in three and a bit days. Definitely going back though so there's still stretchy ice cream and bosphorous cruising to look forward to.
In short, Istanbul's awesome, you should go there (and eat as many things as you can) if you get the chance.
posted by VoltairePerkins at 3:07 AM on February 12, 2013

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