Our arrival to Istanbul was less than ideal. Just after stepping out of the airport after about 30 hours of travel and getting into the queue for a taxi almost everyone started to pull out their cigarettes. Ugh. And then there was the hair -raising cab ride to our Airbnb apartment. (Sean leaned over and confessed, “I didn’t want to tell you about the cab drivers here – they’re crazy”). After about half an hour of swerving, honking and angry gesturing, we were safely deposited at our apartment. And were treated to this view.
Before traveling to Istanbul I had heard from quite a few people that it was their favorite city in the world. I expected that it was going to be crowded and that there were going to be some areas that were grittier than others. Clearly, we had found the grittier side. So after a little regrouping and a good night’s sleep, interrupted a few times by the calls to prayer and honking horns, we were ready to find out the things about Istanbul that made people rave about it.
We did this by doing what has become our standard operating procedure for getting to know a new city. We joined a walking tour lead by a local. In this case, we tagged along with Context Travel and opted for the Market and Food Walking Tour that would take us through the famous Spice Market and across the river to explore that Asian side of the city. As it turns out, this was a very good decision.
The Istanbul Spice Market
We met our guide outside the market, known to locals as the Egyptian Spice Market. The place bustles with activity and is filled with wonderful smells from the countless stalls selling coffee, Turkish sweets, spices, soaps, locally made cheese and cured meat – you name it.
Our guide explained that she has been coming to the spice market all of her life, as with many other locals, despite it taking on more of a touristic atmosphere over the years. She guided us past shop owners beckoning us to come in and sample their goods. Having a guide was very helpful because I’m sure I would have missed many of the things that she pointed out.
Istanbul Food Tour – Sampling Our Way Through the Spice Market
We sampled our way through the market, tasting various things from stalls along the way. We tried Turkish Delight with pistachios – this famous Turkish candy is a sweet gel made with sugar or honey, flavored with various fruits and nuts, pistachio being the local favorite. We nibbled on cheese, red pepper paste, and pastrami – another local favorite. We also tried Turkish teas and sampled a variety of spices.
While admittedly the place was on the touristy side, it was at the same time a party for the senses. I felt myself starting to warm up to Istanbul. And what came next convinced me a little more.
Say Cheese, and Butter!
Our guide told us that she has been working in the food industry in Istanbul for years. She said that she cooks the next dish we were going to sample at home, but the one we were about to try was one of the best in the city. Carsaf Boregi is a noodle-like dish of phyllo dough layered with butter and a sharp cheese. It’s common for people to eat it any time of the day.
The secret to this restaurants superlative version? Extra butter. It was comfort food at its best. And as a huge fan of macaroni and cheese I was quite enthused to be introduced to this dish. Maybe Istanbul and I were going to get along after all.
Exploring Istanbul’s Asian Side
We wandered off in the direction of the ferry with a quick stop to pick up what was the most unusual dish of the day (see below). The ferry ride over to the Asian side was relaxing and breezy and it offered up some beautiful views along the way.
The snack we sampled along the way was a stretchy pudding like dessert made with…..chicken. Not kidding. And I’m also not kidding when I say that it tasted pretty good: sweet with a the distinct flavor of, well, chicken.
The Asian side of Istanbul was less crowded and the pace seemed slower. The streets we wandered down were lined with shops and vendors selling various things like fresh vegetables and fresh fish. Interesting that each one of the fish vendors had at least on cat lurking underneath – wonder why?
On the Asian side our sampling deliciously continued. We started with fried mussels served with a walnut sauce.
Then another mussels preparation that you can find all over the city – mussels stuffed with rice. I think we’ve had one of these every day since we arrived – they are that good.
And then, of course dolmas – grape leaves stuffed with rice.
And another Turkish favorite – pickled vegetables.
And last but not least, more Turkish Delight.
Embracing Istanbul’s Grit, Spice and Delights
Our guide left us feeling very full and armed with recommendations about things to do and places to eat in Istanbul. We strolled off to take in the afternoon on the Asian side, relaxed and happy. It was a really wonderful day and my head was full of ideas about things I might be able to cook in our apartment with the spices we bought at the market. And, as you can probably guess, I decided I was going to like Istanbul just fine.
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Here are some related posts about travel to the the cuisine of Turkey that can help plan or inspire your Turkish vacation.
A special thank you to Context Travel for hosting us on this tour. As always, our opinions remain our own.