Month: January 2015


Our trip to Istanbul was for our wedding anniversary in early November. For both of us, visiting Turkey has always been a dream trip. The city is rooted in antiquity, but with 14 million inhabitants and an influx of daily visitors, it is fast-paced, modern, and a chaotic mix of sights and sounds.  It was definitely one of the most stimulating and memorable places we have visited.

Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and it spans two continents, so deciding where to stay was an initial consideration while we were planning.  We hoped to focus on the main tourist sites over our 5-day visit,  so we stayed in the historic neighborhood of Sultanahmet.  Our hotel was a short walk to Topkapı Sarayı, Aya Sofya, and Blue Mosque.  At the end of the block was a main tram stop, so we were able to take the tram (light rail) to Beyoğlu, the busy retail, business and nightlife district of the city.  We were also not far from the ferry connections to the Asian Anatolian side.  As first time visitors, it was a nice place to be.


 Favorite moments from Istanbul

Our first morning we walked from our hotel through Gulhane Park hoping to find the entrance to the Ottoman palace, Topkapi Sarayi.  Instead we found Set Üstü Çay Bahçesi a tea garden within the park that overlooks the Bosphorus. We decided to order çay (‘chai’) and sat watching boats crossing into the Sea of Marmara . Turkish tea has a unique preparation.  The tea is traditionally served in a stacked kettle made of copper.  Water is boiled in the lower pot and a small amount is added to loose-leaf black tea in the upper pot.  The strong tea is served in a tulip-shaped glass, our server showed us how to dilute it with clear water and add sugar to sweeten it.


Our morning by the water was one of those moments when we realized that while it is helpful to plan and prepare as much as possible, sometimes the most memorable travel experiences are the ones that you aren’t expecting. Afterwards, we made our way to the courtyard shared by the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, and Topkapı Sarayı, which I shared more about here.  It was a great weekend for sightseeing: uncommonly warm and clear for November, and the sky was so, so blue.


Two of our favorite street foods in Istanbul were Simit (flat turkish sesame ‘bagels’) and dondurma (icecream). Turkish Icecream is marvelous.  It is made with salep, a flour from the root of orchid flowers. I would describe the texture as part ice-cream, part taffy (and really delicious).


We explored chaotic Eminönü, where street vendors were selling knockoffs and factory seconds of denim, handbags, watches, and sneakers spread out on the curbs.  We walked across Galata Bridge (a crossing that spans the Golden Horn) toward Galata Tower near the end of the afternoon.


Derek just told me that Galata Tower was built by the Romans as a defense tower.  A chain was strung from the tower across the waterway to limit ships from entering the Golden Horn. It is now known for having one of the nicest views of the city and is a trendy place to have a drink or stay the night in Istanbul.

We wound our way to İstiklâl Caddesi, a high-traffic pedestrian street of fashionable stores and restaurants that connects Galata Tower to Taksim Square.  It was impressive lit up at night and at any time of the day is filled with thousands of people. After what felt like endless wandering through a maze of unmarked alleys looking for any of several recommended lokantas, we decided on a Turkish cafeteria.  We ate a hearty homestyle dinner of dolmas – stuffed grape leaves, savory roasted vegetables (the Turks like their cooked vegetables soft), and cheese filled phyllo called börek.


Afterwards we drank Rakı, anise flavored liquor (on the rocks), amidst puffs of Nargile- water pipes filled with flavored tobacco.  We walked home across Galata Bridge and watched lines of fishermen pull in sardines, anchovies, and Istavrit late into the night.



Like many travelers before us, we made a stop at Kapalıçarşı, The Grand Bazaar.  There are modest estimates of  250,000 visitors per day and serious shoppers arrive with empty suitcases. It is a labyrinth of hundreds of tiny shops selling pottery, jewelry, glass, and gorgeous Turkish textiles. The shops spill onto the streets leading to the Grand Bazaar, and shopkeepers are forward and persuasive— bargaining is part of the custom.  Most of the items are similar so it is the personal touch that sets each vendor apart– we were even offered tea.  At one shop, we were shown a dozen kilims, then a dozen more, and finally 30 different rugs!  Between rug hauls, Derek said ‘Alright…If we aren’t buying a rug, we need to get outta here’.  I  complimented the quality of the rugs and made a sheepish apology for being indecisive and we made our getaway. (We did end up buying Turkish Peshtemals near our hotel!)


While planning, I read this beautiful article from the New Yorker, and felt that if there was one thing we had to do before leaving Istanbul, it was eat at Çiya Sofrasi.  Derek was more than content to hop on a boat and spend an afternoon on the Anatolian side, so we took a commuter Ferry to Kadıköy for a late lunch. I wrote a post about our excursion here.

We spent our last day in Istanbul in Bebek, one of the Bosphorus fishing villages, before we met up with a dear friend on İstiklâl Caddesi for meze (amazing Turkish appetizers, similar to tapas) and the aforementioned drink Rakı that is my new favorite , at Duble Meze.  All of the food in Istanbul shared a common thread, but the meze we had that evening was really some of the best food we have ever had. It was also our first time eating ground intestines, served bruschetta style!


A week of traveling is always a whirlwind in retrospect. Looking back it is now two months since our trip, our experience in Istanbul still feels very special. It is an incredible, complex, and fascinating city. We have agreed that if the opportunity ever presents itself, we will happily return to Turkey. We would love to see more of Anatolia, Kayseri, Cappadocia, the Turkish Islands, and plenty more of Istanbul.


And I had a MN sighting! On the 3-hour flight to Istanbul I sat next to a woman who lives near us in Saint Paul!!   Every decade she takes a trip to celebrate her birthday.  She was taking a 3-week bus tour of the country for her 70th birthday.


More of our photos from Istanbul here and here.



Watch Anthony Bourdain take a Food Tour of Istanbul (YouTube)

Watch Rick Steve’s Explore Istanbul   (YouTube)

Istanbul’s New Meze Masters  Food and Wine

How to Make Turkish Icecream

Republic of Turkey Travel e-Visa 


Istanbul: Sultanahmet (Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque)

I began writing about our visit to Istanbul in November here.  In this post are a few more photos and details about the main sites in Sultanahmet: The former location of Constantinople and seat of the Ottoman Empire.


Topkapı Sarayı

We planned to spend each morning focusing on one of the main tourist sites. On our first morning in Istanbul we visited Topkapı Palace.  Topkapı was the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400-years.  When we walked through the imperial gate, it was a moment where past and present collided— the tiles and gilded details of the palace exterior were awash with color in the morning light.

We learned that the palace was nearly the size of a small city;  Within the general perimeter lived a population of 4,000 inhabitants who were at service to the Imperial household. The rooms of the interior are a museum filled with items from the Ottoman Sultans: porcelain, clothing, jewels and weapons.  One memorable exhibit was the kitchen– The palace had 800 cooks who prepared food for the entire population. A specialty of the Ottomans was syrupy Sherbet, made for special occasions.

Below is a view of the Blue Mosque from the Imperial Gate!


Topkapı is many buildings set within a large garden, and each had a purpose for Imperial affairs. The most alluring place might be the panoramic views from the upper terrace (above).  It was easy to see why the vast-ruling Ottoman sultans chose this location at the intersection of the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara.

Below, I am standing in the terrace of the chamber of petitions, Arz Odası. The tiled wall is in the İftar Pavilion. The second courtyard, Divan Meydanı, lined with park benches, was once filled with peacocks and gazelles. Inside was where the Ottoman council met with the Sultan to make all decisions pertinent to the empire.


Afterwards, we ate one of our favorite Turkish street foods, Simit (sesame twists). The preparation of a simit is similar to a bagel, it is boiled briefly before baking, but the lightness and texture is more like a soft pretzel. Pomegranates were abundant in November, and we stopped for a cup of fresh juice.  Since we’ve been home, I haven’t stopped thinking about simits. Thankfully there is a good supply of Turkish food in Germany, and the trusty döner kebap.


Ayasofya Müzesi

On our second day we made our much-anticipated visit to Aya Sofya (537AD). It was formerly a cathedral in the city of Constantinople and later became the Imperial Mosque of the Ottoman Turks (1453).  The interior and exterior were modified to serve the role of a Mosque: Minarets were added and the gold and stone Byzantine mosaics of Christian iconography were covered in plaster and painted in the ornamental Arabesque tradition.  In 1935, Atatürk , the founder of the Republic of Turkey (and first President), converted the space from a mosque to a museum. It is one of the most notable surviving examples of Byzantine architecture.

Aya Sofya is an incredible space: 1500-year old granite and marble filled with natural light and beautiful imagery from the building’s evolution as a sacred architectural space.  Below you can see where sections of the plaster have been removed to reveal what remains of the Byzantine Deësis mosaic of Jesus, Mary and John the Baptist. For me, the juxtaposition of these layers illuminated the vibrancy of these two contrasting periods of early civilization.  It was truly a memorable, beautiful place to visit.




Blue Mosque 

Many museums are closed on Mondays, so we thought it would be an ideal time to visit The Blue Mosque, which is open everyday. The central entrance is for worshippers. Tourists are guided to the side entrance, where there is a place to borrow a scarf if you have forgotten, and to sit and remove your shoes before entering. We visited before the call to prayer for the noon service, and were able to take photos of the interior.

This was our first visit to a mosque, which to some may seem a bit naive considering that Islam is the second most common world religion. Blue Mosque is regarded as one of the most beautiful mosques in the world, and it’s proximity to Topkapı Sarayı and Aya Sofya makes it one of the most visited. We weren’t sure what to expect, fortunately etiquette was posted on signs leading up to the entrance!

The Ottoman Sultans preserved their legacy by building mosques throughout Istanbul.  (We didn’t visit Süleymaniye Mosque, but have read that it rivals the Blue Mosque)  Sultan Ahmed I built the Blue Mosque in 1609, and it is technically larger than neighboring Aya Sofya.  The video below will give you a sense of the amazing height of the interior.

We were staying near enough that we could hear the daily calls to prayer from the Blue Mosque.   Our favorite moments were the calls shortly before sunrise and after sunset, marking the beginning and end of each day.  Similar to church bells in the West, it was a reminder to pause and give thanks.





Ottomania: A Hit TV show reimagines Turkey’s imperial past The New Yorker

How to Make Simit
Delicious Istanbul


Istanbul: Excursions to Anatolia and the Bosphorus

I began writing about our trip to Istanbul here, and mentioned that Istanbul spans two continents. The oldest areas of Istanbul are located in Europe,  and the newest areas are in Asia.

In a city of 14 million people, each district is still the size of a large city.  We spent most of our time in the tourist areas, but after a few days we ventured out to some new areas. We strayed from our usual travel guide , and brought along this book instead.  It was perfect for our short stay in Istanbul, and gave us plenty of ideas and directions to visit a few places outside of the touristic areas of Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu.


Ferry to Kadıköy

During planning, I read this article about one of Istanbul’s favorite lokantas, craft restaurants.   It is not located in the center of the city, but in the neighborhood of Kadıköy — a 20 minute ferry ride.

In Istanbul the Ferry is as common as a bus or subway, and one of the easiest ways to travel between continents. Though we only spent one afternoon on the Anatolia side, it showed us a more residential vibe within the city.

We wandered balık pazarı (the historic fish market) and stopped at Fazil Bey, a coffee roaster in the neighborhood.  Four days in Istanbul and we hadn’t tried true Turkish kahvesi (coffee).  It was thick and heavy and nothing like the coffees we had tasted.  Turkish coffee is ground to a consistency that is finer than espresso and served in a small cup with the grounds, which settle into the bottom. The liquid is sipped.  After a sip of Derek’s coffee, I ordered çay (turkish tea),  and we tried a bite of turkish delight and people watched.

We found Çiya Sofrası, the impetus for the trip.  Çiya is a vegetarian restaurant specializing in regional dishes from the southeastern part of Turkey. Across the pedestrian alley is Çiya Kebap it’s grill-house. The chef and owner collects recipes from small villages with the hope of reawakening some of the ‘lost’ recipes that use seasonal foraged ingredients and are no longer made. I ordered meze style, and tried small portions of Kısır — which is similar to Tabbouleh, dolmas, and salads of dried currents, parsley, beet greens and sumac, and many other flavors that I had never tried!

A friend of mine who lives in Kadıköy suggested that before we depart we walk along the harbour, we found a place on the rocks and watched the sun retreat before taking a return ferry.



Above: Back in Eminönü at dusk, watching the fishermen on Galata Bridge.  At the end of the bridge is Yeni Cami, meaning New Mosque.


 Bosphorus Fishing Villages 

On our last afternoon in Istanbul, before meeting up with a friend for meze and Rakı, we took a city bus to see the villages along the Bosphorus.   We stopped in Bebek and spent the afternoon walking around and enjoying the idle pace of this neighborhood in comparison to everything else we had seen in Istanbul.

After 400 years,  the Ottoman sultans grew tired of Topkapı Sarayı on the peninsula and built modern palaces along the Bosphorus.  It has become one of the most affluent areas of the city, actually it felt a bit like suburbia.   Panhandling, homelessness and stray animals were common throughout Istanbul, but certainly not here.  It felt completely different than anywhere we had been in the city.

Our last day in Istanbul was our wedding anniversary and also the Day of Ataturk: A date that commemorates Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern, secular Turkey and the first president of the republic. Turkish flags were hung throughout the city all weekend!




The Memory Kitchen: A Chef Recovers the Foods that Turkey Forgot  The New Yorker

Get Cultured: Istanbul – A Guide to this Eclectic City and its Hip Neighborhoods The Culture-ist

Making the Perfect Cup of Turkish Coffee

Take a Food Tour of Istanbul Delicious Istanbul

Below is the transit map of Istanbul  (click to enlarge)