Sunday, 20 March 2011

Eating, Drinking & Sleeping in Istanbul

Balik Pazari (Fish Market)
The White Stripes are a band that many musos love, but for some reason I've never really got into them. I have a couple of their albums but other than a few tracks, I might press skip more often than not on my iPod.

To me, Turkish cuisine is the culinary equivalent of The White Stripes. I think Turkish food is OK but I don't worship it with the same devotion as others. Would spending five days on holiday in Istanbul change my mind?

Well not really. I didn't have any shocking meals but there wasn't that definitive meal that changed my overall opinion. That's not to say there weren't a few gems so here follows my guide on what to eat in Istanbul thrown in with some travel tips on this most beguiling of cities.

My number one must-eat is the mighty lahmacun. I'd never heard of this Turkish pizza, until I read about it on this blog. I just couldn't get enough of this lamb mince topped ultra thin pizza. Served with lettuce, parsley and a squeeze of lemon – it's heavenly and cost only TL2 (just less than £1).

The hamsi man
My other must-eat is arguably the city's signature dish, hamsi or Black Sea anchovies. Look out for the plumes of smoke and you shall find the hamsi man.

Hamsi aka Black Sea anchovies
These bad boys are deep-fried, served with salad and the biggest bread roll that you've ever seen in your life. They're quite unlike anchovies in oil and are more like whitebait. The damage? A mere TL5 (£2).

Kofte & chips
In fact you can't go wrong if you're a lover of fish and seafood, and I enjoyed it nicely grilled both on and off skewers. My favourite was grilled octopus. Ah the grill. You can't get away from it in Istanbul, and if you don't want anything too challenging then stuff like kofte & chips really hits the spot. However, if you find that boring then sucuk, beef sausage seasoned with various spices including cumin and sumac, is a more intriguing option.

Other stuff I sampled included meze, many variations of kebab, and some nice sweets but there was something missing. I couldn't quite put my finger on it but then it dawned on me at the end of the trip. I missed pork. Now obviously for cultural and religious reasons, pork is off-limits in Turkey but that didn't lessen my yearning. And I guess that's probably why Turkish food will never be one of my favourites.

Finding Your Feet
The main areas of town are on either side of the Golden Horn. To the south lies old Istanbul with its blockbuster sights like the Topkapi Palace, Haghia Sophia, Blue Mosque, and the Grand Bazaar. To the north, over the Galata Bridge, lies Beyoğlu where you'll find shops, restaurants, cafés and bars – mostly on and off the main pedestrianised thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi. To put it another way, spend your days in old Istanbul and your nights in Beyoğlu.

Going Out
With the exceptions of a couple of bars, I'm not going to recommend any specific places but instead focus on the lively parts of town. As I previously mentioned, Beyoğlu is where it's at and there's always loads going on. Plenty of bars and meyhanes (meze and grill restaurants) can be found on the side streets just off Istiklal Caddesi such as Cicek Pasaji, Nevizade Sokak, and Balik Pazari (Fish Market). My perception is that the Cicek Pasaji is a bit of a pricey tourist trap and that better value can be found on Nevizade Sokak and Balik Pazari, where you can also find some hamsi stalls.

Back on Istiklal Caddesi is the Richmond Hotel, home to a stunning restaurant and bar called Leb-i-Derya. This is definitely the place for cocktails with arguably the finest views of Istanbul's unique skyline. Sadly the food didn't pass muster and I expected better for TL350 (apx £140) for dinner for two (three courses, a bottle of red and a tip). Don't get me wrong; there wasn't anything wrong with the signature forty-spice beef fillet or any of the other dishes, it just lacked any wow factor. Service was also hit and miss although they did redeem themselves with a complimentary hazelnut vodka to round off the meal.

The other bar worth a visit is on Nevizade Sokak and is simply called '27'. There's no signage other than a red painted number 27, and once the doorman lets you in, you should head up the stairs to the top floor. Located there is a bohemian looking bar with battered armchairs and sofas, where a DJ plays some top tunes. My only fear is that its hipster credentials have been irrevocably destroyed by the presence of my mate and me. I didn't help matters when I asked the DJ whether she had any Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, or New Order. In case you're wondering, she did have some New Order but she pointed out that she doesn't do requests.

The other area that's good for nightlife is at the end of Istiklal Caddesi near Tunel Square. Check out the cobbled side streets for a selection of cocktail bars and meyhanes. This area is also home to quite a few 'international' joints serving burgers, pizzas and pasta. These places seemed inexplicably popular with young Turks. If you carry on walking from here toward the waterfront then you'll hit Karakoy Square, where there is another fish market, from where you can pick up more hamsi.

Old Istanbul isn't half as lively but it is more than likely that you'll be there during the day. Beware of the obvious tourist trap restaurants (you can identify them by the touts and the mixed Turkish-International menus) near the blockbuster historical sights. It's worth walking 10-15 minutes away back along the tramline towards Galata Bridge to eat at places with a more local feel.

Staying In
Due to a mix-up by hotel management over the dates on my Expedia booking, we stayed at two hotels, our original choice, Mia Pera, and our back-up for two nights, Gezi Hotel Bosphorus. Both are fine boutique hotels in Beyoğlu, and whilst the former is better located for nightlife, I preferred the latter. That said, the rooms we stayed in at the Mia Pera were enormous, as we were upgraded after the initial mix-up.

By the way, I was very impressed at how Mia Pera's management handled the situation. They apologised profusely, arranged alternative accommodation, and loaded our luggage into a waiting hotel car before we managed to finish our complimentary coffees.

Other Tips
For a guidebook, Time Out is pretty good, especially for eating and drinking tips. However, I dislike some of the pretentious prose and right-on attitude. If anyone from Time Out is reading this, we don't need to know the favourite haunts of Istanbul's left-wing intellectuals, literati and thespians.

To get around, it's easier to walk or take the tram rather than get stuck in traffic in taxis. The tram is part of the Metro network and is very easy to use with jetons or tokens costing a flat TL 1.75. Look out for the jeton machines in and around tram stops.


  1. Thought u might like to know, if u ever want more lehmacun, Greenwich market have a stall that does this and other dishes all weekend. It's my favourite place to get food on a Sunday!

  2. I'm also not a huge fan of Turkish food... but I don't think I know enough of it to really understand what it's all about. I hear Istanbul is beautiful and a lot of people have recommended it as a holiday destination. One day, one day! The list is LONG!

  3. Ah, lahmacun! Wikipedia says it's the same as pide, but I don't think they are the same, are they? I've only had pide in London (not Turkey), but they were narrow things with the sides rolled up, and lahmacun seem to be much bigger and flatter.

    Eating Asia had a lovely post on hamsi recently.

  4. Hehe, I too was going to link to that post on hamsi - really got me drooling.

    I do like Turkish food but I don't think I've explored it enough. There's a great Turkish grill near our house but I'd really like to get over to Dalston and try the restaurants there. That lahmacun of yours looks fantastic! Did you have any gozleme?

  5. Kt - welcome! Thanks for the heads-up. I don't often head out Greenwich way but I just may have to, if lahmacun is on the table.

    catty - I did leave thinking Turkey thinking the same thing. I could really have done with some local knowledge to guide me onto more interesting fare. And yes, you must visit Istanbul - it's a really cool place.

    kake - lahmacun and pide are different, and your description pretty much hits the nail on the head. Having said that, the size of lahmacun is deceptive as it's really thin. Although smaller in surface area, pide is more filling.

    Su-Lin - alas I didn't try any gozleme, which is a shame as it looks very similar to murtabak. I wish I did more research on Turkish food before going away but my holiday was a very last minute thing.

  6. Oh, am I jealous. I love Turkish food, and Istanbul has long been on my must-visit list. I think to love Turkish food you must really enjoy grilled meat (particularly lamb) and aubergine. They do these almost better than anyone else in the world (although the Chinese seriously rival them on the aubergine front). But there is a distinct lack of pork...

    I love the sound of the lahmacun and the hamdi and if I ever get there will be sure to look out for the hamdi man.

  7. Two of my most memorable meals, ever, were in Istanbul!

    On the high end: Muzede Changa:

    On the low end: Furran Balikcilik (though I see you had your fill of fried anchovies):

    Overall, I loved the great mix of food, history and shopping to be had in Istanbul. I also remember going to one of those clubs near the Bosporous Bridge, which was a lot of fun (cheesy, but a unique location).

  8. Gworm - never mind the Topkapi Palace, the hamsi man is a one of those boxes that needs to be ticked off if you ever visit Istanbul! I did enjoy the grilled stuff as well as a fantastic aubergine meze (I've forgotten the Turkish name). What was missing for me though was that next level of brilliance, although as my mate pointed out, perhaps my expectations of Turkish food were too high!

    A-in-L - it looks like your high end gaff was a damn sight better than the posh place I went to. Who knows that could have been the restaurant that changed my mind about Turkish cuisine! We'll never know unless I return to Istanbul!