For the last couple weeks (July 4- July 16, 2008), we’ve been on the most fabulous vacation. Neil and I took a trip to Turkey (Antalya & Istanbul), with a short stopover in Rome (b/c Neil had to appease me). I have never been so depressed to return to the States! Turkey was the highlight of our trip and we can’t wait to return and experience more of its beauty, life, and food! Check out my slideshows below and write-ups. Rome was our first stop on the trip. Since I already posted on Rome in my Italy post, I’ll skip that part. After Rome, we next went to Antalya for 3 nights, and Istanbul for 5 nights. Sadly, the time in Turkey wasn’t enough...and of course Neil keeps pointing out that we didn't "have" to do Rome since we've done it before. I'll suck it up and admit that he's right...only on this blog :)
About a mile from the beach is the picturesque old town of Kaleici. It is a very quaint town with narrow winding streets, old houses, and ancient walls. This area also has a number of boutique hotels and traditional Turkish restaurants. I'd compare it to the Plaka District of Athens. This is also the area that people go for market shopping (Turkish rugs, jewelry, spices, etc). The markets are abundant, and they tend to harass you when you are walking by, but not in a bad way. They are extremely friendly and no harm is done if you don’t wish to buy their goods. Bargaining is a requirement and a part of the experience! Near Kaleici, is a beautiful marina on the Mediterranean. We took a short 1 hour cruise of the Mediterranean from this area. Again, this area is lined with restaurants and is very lively, day and night. Our days in Antalya consisted of spending the daytime in Kaleici and the Marina. We’d get a delicious doner kebab on the go for lunch. Doner is a seasoned cut of lamb/veal that they wrap in a thin pita or bread. The literal meaning of doner is ‘turning roast’. Stands can be found everywhere. Before making our trip back to the hotel, we would stop at one of the various cafés that overlook the sea for a drink. I'd get my daily ice cream fix...Micky D's ice cream cone dipped in chocolate! Now why don't they do that here? We’d then head back to our hotel and lounge at the pool or beach park. Then we’d have to figure out a dinner venue which was a big task, b/c the possibilities are endless. Dinner is an experience of pure enjoyment in Turkey. Food is a huge part of their culture, and dinner usually lasts a couple of hours, complete with an assortment of mezes and main dishes. The mezes are mostly vegetarian, but the main dishes heavily consist of lamb, veal, beef kebabs with chicken options as well. Turkish food is incredible and I’m still craving it! We ended up at the below dinner venues. Our favorite was the one we found all on our own. The other two were “safe” hotel recommendations (not as good as the one we found). But, you’re guaranteed better than average food at any Turkish restaurant. My rec is not to listen to a chain hotel like the Sheraton b/c they are very cautious of giving venues where the locals go. Boutique hotels do a better job of this.
- Taraca Restaurant- Located along the beach park. Our favorite restaurant in Antalya, and one of our best meals in Turkey! The mezes were excellent. The kebab meat was also perfectly spiced and delicious. This was one of the few places in Antalya (and Turkey), that serves fresh Turkish flatbread as well.
- 7 Mehmet Restaurant- Located past the beach park; suggested by hotel and I read about it in my own research. Beautiful views of the Mediterranean, so try to go before dark. Mezes and kebabs were decent. No Turkish bread here..just regular sliced baguette bread which you can ask them to toast.
- Kral Sofrasi Restaurant- On the marina; suggested by hotel. Again, no Turkish bread here. The mezzes and kebabs were decent. They really try to push the fish on you here since it’s on the marina. It’s very heavily priced, and when they displayed their offerings of the night to us, we weren’t very impressed.
We absolutely fell in love with the city of Istanbul during our short 5 nights. The city is simply magical and alive 24/7. I’ve never seen anything like it. The city will never give any indication as to the time or day of week…the streets are always packed with locals and tourists alike. And this city is lined by the Maramara and Bosphorous seas, so the views from almost every point/venue of the city are breathtaking. The people were very welcoming and extremely helpful. They love Americans (they just hate BUSH). I can write forever about our experience in Istanbul, but I’ll keep this post to the major attractions and good eats. We stayed in a boutique hotel, Hotel Niles, located in Beyazit (old town Istanbul). It was a little bit away from some of the major areas, but we were right next to Istanbul’s very efficient tram system that we used everyday. We loved the hotel and would recommend it to anyone. It’s very affordable, clean, and the staff is excellent. They entertained all of our questions in detail, and trust me Neil can get pretty annoying with questions. There was a new concierge that started the day we arrived (such a cutie 22 year old), and he was given the most challenging week ever w/ Neil. Towards the end, he pointed out that Neil taught him a few things about the city. As you can see, Neil put him to work...so embarrassing!
The hotel also has a rooftop terrace, providing a great way to unwind after touring the city. Oh, and it has an EXCELLENT kebab house right next door! That was our dinner one night. The hotel plated the food for us on the terrace. It was one of the best meals we had in Istanbul! The only negative to the hotel is that it has smaller than average rooms, but we managed just fine. Here is how we spent our trip:
Major Attractions/ To Do-
- Hagia Sofya, Cisterns, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace are all must sees. I loved the Hagia Sofia especially. Topkapi Palace was also beautiful. Topkapi palace has an additional charge to see the Harem (the actual home of the Sultan). It’s really cool and worth seeing, so pay the extra 10 Lira. You can do the Hagia Sofya, Blue Mosque, and Cisterns in one day. Save Topkapi for another long morning. If you have more time for sightseeing, check out the museums.
- Grand Bazaar & Spice Bazaar- Both of these markets are worth seeing. But, as I mentioned with the shopping in Antalya, be prepared to be harassed, and it’s vital to bargain! Most don’t know what a good price is for anything, and there’s almost no way to know. If bargaining’s not your style, determine what you think it’s worth and decide not to pay more than that. It can be a time consuming and draining process though, especially if you start comparison shopping. Somehow I got sucked into a two hour ordeal w/ a vendor trying to sell me a turkish rug, and mind you, I had no intention of buying! I took Neil on quite an adventure on our bazaar day!
- Bosphorous Tour- This can be done by ferry, and most take a half day (6 hours), as they go to the Asia side where you can get off and tour. We didn’t want to spend half a day out on sea, so we found a 45 minute tourist ferry that goes from the nearby town of Ortakoy. It hits the major sites along the Bosphorous.
- Ortakoy- it’s not a must do, but we enjoyed this town. It’s very quaint and it’s where the locals go to getaway and unwind. This town has the best Potato (“Kumpir”) stands in Istanbul. It’s basically a massive potato bar with all sorts of weird toppings (cheese, sour cream, olives, peppers, couscous, spicy spreads, and even a potato salad topping!) It’s a must try. Ortakoy is also known for having the best Waffle stands. The waffles are stuffed up with any sweet fillings you desire and rolled up like a burrito. Such an awesome idea!
- Istiklal Street (“Caddesi”)- Located in the area of “Beyoglu”, this was the most amazing pedestrian street I’ve seen. Its runs from Taksim Square to the tunel square and is the pulse of the city. It’s the only place to soak up the true flavor of the city. We went almost everyday. It’s almost a mile long and lined with shops, cafes, eateries, restaurants, and side streets that reveal even more endless restaurants. It’s a wonderful place for people watching and to spend the day. You’ll find the locals stopping for Turkish tea and playing backgammon at the little tables on the walk. Backgammon and tea is a huge pastime in Turkey. There’s something for everyone on Istiklal Caddesi, and it’s pumping from the entire day and late night hours.
- Galata Bridge- This is a nice walking trip. You’ll see tons of locals fishing off of the bridge. Be sure to get a Balik Ekmek (fish sandwich) near there. Get it from one of the vendor stands and not from the restaurants directly under the bridge. It’s so much better.
- Meyhanes- You cannot visit Istanbul without experiencing a Meyhane or two for dinner. This is the local’s spot for gathering, having mezes, and drinking raki. The atmoshphere is complete with music, fun, and laughter. Don’t be surprised if the people at the table next to strikes up conversation. It’s just a big party and everyone is family. The best area for Meyhanes is on the Asmalmescit Sokak (a side street off of Istaklal Street). You can just shop around a choose one, b/c there are many, and I hear all are good. Our favorite meyhane was Yakup 2. It’s fun even if you don’t drink, and other drinks are offered besides Raki. But if you want to try Raki, a meyhane is definitely the place.
- Turkish Delight & Baklava- Can’t do Turkey without trying these. Koska Bakery had the best Turkish delight. It’s located right on Istaklal, and there’s a couple shops in Beyazit also. I didn’t even like the stuff before I tried it in Istanbul. It grows on you. Baklava was pretty incredible everywhere. We enjoyed this at the Koska bakery as well.
We ate most of our lunches from street vendors, b/c they had the best doner sandwiches and pides (Turkish pizzas!). But you can find many sit down places for lunch and cafes for drinks/snacks. Istaklal street has endless options for all cravings. Like Antalya, choosing a place for dinner is always a dilemma. This city loves to eat and it has restaurants galore. We stuck with all Turkish restaurants, although eclectic/international cuisine is abundant. Be sure to ask prices before going to a restaurant (they are use to this), and also ask if alcohol is served. There’s a minority of venues that don’t serve alcohol. But, these are usually located in more conservative sections of Istanbul. Also, be aware that any restaurant with a view of the Maramara and Bosphorous seas are going to be more expensive and sometimes not as good food as other restaurants. But, the views alone are worth it. In terms of restaurant pricing, you’ll pay quite a bit to drink alcohol, but food is generally priced fair. Here goes:
- Hamdi Restaurant (Tahmis Cad. Kalcin Sok. No:17, Eminonu; phone: 0212 528 03 90 – 512 54 24; web: www.hamdirestorant.com.tr)- Located in the old city and very popular. Make reservations in advance (even before your trip), so you can get a table on the terrace. The views are incredible and so is the food. Service is a bit rushed though due to the popularity. This place also serves fresh Turkish flatbread as opposed to just loaf bread. The pistachio and spicy kebabs are a must. Be sure to get the spicy meze made of ground nuts, cumin, and spices!
- Yakup 2- Asmali Mescit Street in Beyogul (off of Istaklal Street); This was our favorite meyhane. We didn’t even order a main course here. We just ordered a bunch of delicious mezes and raki. Must try the fried eggplant with yogurt here. Fried shrimp with peppers also delish. No fresh Turkish bread.
- Sofilya 9- Asmalmescit Sokak in Beyogu (off of Istaklal Street); Another meyhane. The food was cheaper that Yakup 2, but I didn’t find it as tasty. The boregis (cheese/meat filled Turkish pastries) were excellent though, and it was still a fun experience. No fresh Turkish bread.
- Fenir Fish Restaurant- In the Kumkapi area. This is a really fun area to dine and has all fish restaurants. It’s complete with dancing, live music, and tons of people. However, be wary that it’s very pricey for so so food. The fish wasn’t anything better than we get in the states, which I was surprised by. If you go, it’s more for the overall experience instead of the food.
- Leb-i-derya (Kumbaraci yokusu, 57/6-7 Tunel, Beyoglu; phone: 0212 293 49 89/0212 243 95 55; web: www.lebiderya.com). Right off of Istaklal, this restaurant is a must visit for a pre-dinner drink and some mezes because the views are spectacular. Be sure to go to this one and NOT the one in the nearby Richmond Hotel, b/c you won’t get the same views. It’s a very trendy place and the food is eclectic. The menu looks great, and we’ve heard great things about the food, but we decided to just do drinks and a couple apps before our real dinner. We wanted to stick to traditional Turkish cuisine on the trip. You have to get a seat on the terrace for the views….although the inside views are nice too. It is truly an amazing experience.
- 360 Istanbul- Next to St. Antoine church on Istaklal Street. The name says it all…panoramic view of Istanbul. The food is not good and pricey. So go for pre-drinks or after dinner. We went after dinner and thoroughly enjoyed the views.
- Nupera/Nutera- This is a rooftop bar/restaurant in Beyoglu off of Istaklal. Again, not great for food, but you get a beautiful view of the sunset and the city. We went for drinks.
We didn’t hit up a lot of the major afterhour venues, as we were out during late hours on our Meyhane nights. Note that alcohol is pretty pricey at all the bars. We joined some locals we met at a meyhane to an 80’s rock bar called Mojo (on Istaklal). They had a pretty comical turkish coverband singer who was singing tons of 80s and Turkish songs which the crowd went nuts for. Needless to say, it was right up my alley! For euro/techno music, you can check out 360 Istanbul. Other places are Reina, Sortie, and Angelie (Reina being the most popular). They are the trendiest, exclusive, most pretentious nightclubs in Istanbul, and drinks can cost you up to 30- 40 lira easily. They also serve dinner, but I hear the food is super expensive and horrible. These clubs are right on the water along the Bosphorous, and people say that it is a must do just for that. We never made it, b/c we were too tired to deal with the ordeal, and were having too much fun just on Istaklal street. If you decide to go to Reina, Sortie, or Angelie, make a reservation for food, and just get a few drinks/apps. Then proceed to the club. If you don’t, it'll be a pain to get into the club later. I know I missed a lot of vital info, so please don’t hesitate to contact me with specific questions. We are definitely going to return to Turkey in the future and check out some of its other magical cities such as Ankara, Izmir, and Bodrum. Turkey rocks!!!