Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The New Constantinople

Last year, despite my full time McDonald’s employee salary, I somehow managed to save a little bit of money. Given the economic crisis and all, I thought the most sensible thing to do was spend it of course; I wanted to help America by buying American-made. I took one for the team, if you will. So I decided to buy myself a pretty little plane ticket… to Turkey.
I spent 10 amazing days in Istanbul, the city that never… ends? No really, with 12.5 million inhabitants it is the 4th largest city in the world, about half of it lies in Asia and the other half in Europe. There are parts of Istanbul where it snows and others where it doesn’t. People will have different accents and racial features across different areas of the city.
I was there with M, world famous mixologist and photographer. He was there on photography duty, I decided to hire him so that he could document some of what I consider are going to be the better years of my life. We never had a difficult time communicating, many people, especially young people, speak English and the ones who didn’t where witty enough to speak in some form of sign language.
We stayed in Sultanahmet, the most tourist friendly area. Our hotel was called Osman Han and the staff was super friendly to us and helpful anytime we had a question about the city and things to do. They all spoke English and the room was big, clean and with a view. They served a modest breakfast of yogurt, dried fruits, cheese, eggs, tomatoes and bread every day. Also included are fresh orange and pomegranate juice and coffee or tea.
Sultanahmet is dense with world renowned historical sights: the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Yeni Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar come to mind. I also recommend taking a boat tour of the Bosphorus and getting off at any one of the stops to see a different part of the city.

We went to see the famous Whirling Dervishes do their thing. Their twirling is a form of meditation in remembrance of God and if you are into that kind of thing, you will love it. I personally thought it was a bit boring and quiet and I sorta fell asleep. But afterwards I caught it on youtube so it was ok. If you want to see the REAL thing, since there are other similar displays around the city, you have to go to Mevlevi Lodge in Istiklal on a Sunday and buy your tickets for the 5pm show. There is another show at 7pm, but it is on a train station somewhere else, and I can’t remember how to get there.
The Grand Bazaar was a little too overwhelmingly huge for my taste, but they have fun things for gifts. More notoriously nargiles (water pipes), jewelry, lamps, clothes, scarfs, rugs, underwear, hats, shoes, well… just about anything. The Spice Bazaar was wonderful and I ate the best dates of my life while there. M bought some tea, and after he got home he claims he was ripped off, since his apple tea didn't taste the way it did in Istanbul. My theory is that they must prepare it differently. Istiklal is the happening place in Istanbul and you can also do lots of shopping there.
Eat anything and everything you can find on a stick. Kebab means it comes on a stick, Shish means it is grilled, and Döner is the kind of meat that is stacked up high and sliced while it is rotating against a slow fire, really similar to gyro meat. Sometimes they take the food on the stick and put it inside bread, this is delicious too. Being near the water, in Istanbul you can find lots of fish (balik) and seafood to eat. Very popular are the Balik Ekmek or fish sandwiches you can eat on the street. In Sultanahmet, across from the Yeni Mosque there is Galata bridge, if you go to the north side of the bridge, you’ll realize that none of the tourists are there, and this is where locals go get their fish sandwich fix. They cook them and serve them from boats! The most common drink everywhere is Ayran, which tastes a lot like a watered down yogurt, but it is kind of its own thing. M called it sour milk.
Another one of my favorite dishes was Lahmacun, pronounced “lach-ma-jun”, some kind of pizza with minced meat that you roll up like a crêpe and eat with your hands. Turkish coffee and Turkish tea are a must! Note: you do NOT drink the bottom of your Turkish coffee, this is how you tell who’s a tourist. For beginners I recommend you ask for a coffee with medium sugar. The tea is amazing, we definitely drank several cups of tea every day, particularly apple tea, pronounced “Alma Chai”, which tastes like a delicious and warm sour apple juice.
Things to do
Smoke nargile. Again and again and again. I had tried nargile in the United States before but never thought of it as anything special. Let me tell you that the Turkish got it right. I highly recommend two places for this: First, Erenler Nargile, it is so special because it is hidden, there’s rarely ever a tourist in there, and they provide you with a never ending supply of tea. Smoking , chatting and drinking tea is simply the cheapest and most enjoyable material pleasure known to me. Boy do I miss it. The other place is underneath Galata bridge on the south west side of the bridge. It is called Aruna Café and the top floor has a spectacular view of Istanbul and the Bosphorus at night.
When going out for drinks, Istiklal is the place to be. There are bars everywhere but I have to say my favorite ones where located near the end of the avenue all the way south.
You absolutely HAVE to go to Babylon. They are frequently hosting live djs and shows, they are always playing the sickest electronic music and they served the best caipirinhas I have ever had in my life. Right around that corner near Babylon you will find other cool bars to either sit down for a glass of wine and conversation or to listen to good music, unfortunately I don’t remember the names of many of them. On a different side of Istiklal (ask or google for directions) there is another bar called Araf where they played pretty cool music, more upbeat but not necessarily mainstream, there were some people dancing! don't order caipirinhas there, just settle for a beer.
Turkish bath! Also called Hamam. Do not leave Istanbul without one, it is truly an experience and you feel reborn. Try to go midday on weekdays as to avoid crowds of people. We went to Cemberlitash Hamami, somewhat touristy but with tons of locals.
Getting around
You really need to take a minute and put some minimal effort into figuring out the public transportation system. There is tram, metro and buses that will take you anywhere for a flat fee of 1.40 tl (1 turkish lira ~ US$0.65), these run as late as 1am. You can pay on the bus without going through the hassle of buying tickets. Some taxi cab drivers will try to rip you off by taking the longest way possible to your destination. The majority of them don’t speak English so it’s not like you can complain.
When you get tired of Turkish food, why not go for some Indian? We found excellent online reviews of Dubb Indian Restaurant in Sultanahmet, we tried it and the reviews came short on how delicious the food was. Not to mention the top floor has a terrace with a wicked view of the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus.
We found that Turkey Travel Planner was a really useful source of information, however do not hesitate to ask for information from the locals. For some sweeeeet photos of Istanbul and the world in general, please visit M’s photostream.
Last but not least, I wanted to thank M for helping me write this blogpost and who went through the trouble of making the pretty map of 'things to do'.

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