Istanbul is known for its incredible food and before I left, everyone I talked to told me to “eat everything!”
Our first dinner set the bar high. Tired after working all day (and walking all day in my case) we decided to stay on our side of the Bosphorus and by luck of the draw, we found a fabulous seafood restaurant called Giritli, which was walking distance from our hotel, near the waterfront.
A million small dishes, followed by more and more and more dishes of seafood and vegetables and endless wine made for two very full and very giggly Americans in Istanbul.
Next on the list was getting out of Sultanahmet. Hilary had some meetings over in Beyoglu across the Golden Horn so we climbed aboard the little tramway and headed off.
The public transportation in Istanbul is fantastic. I’ve read that locals complain the system is geared more towards tourists, but for my purposes it was incredibly efficient. The tramway took us to the Funicular – the below ground train – which took us directly to Istiklal Avenue where we parted ways.
Every book, article and person I spoke with told me to go to Istiklal Avenue and I’d booked at a restaurant I wanted to try in the neighborhood for dinner that night so I wanted to explore a bit. But after passing Zara, Mango, H and M, and a zillion guys selling roasting chestnuts (in 70 degree weather) I was feeling disappointed.
Istiklal is a massive pedestrian only shopping street, and i imagine at one time it was an interesting place, but now it is a dumping ground for tour busses overrun with massive chain stores. I was scanning the shops for the restaurant where we were going to meet later and after walking up and down the long street twice with no luck something else caught my eye.
Among the sea of chain stores, I saw a tiny shop front with seriously old school undergarments displayed in the window and I had to investigate. Through the old glass door, was a very narrow shop mostly taken up by an old wooden counter and the large man behind it. The man, I soon found out was Named Ilya and we were standing in the ladies lingerie shop that his grandfather had opened 77 years prior.
Ilya told me that the street used to be the Armenian, Greek and Jewish neighborhood and he was pretty much the only vestige of the area’s past. I was curious how his flesh colored garter belts and very sturdy looking bras could keep him in business after all the changes and he explained that they sell Turkish made women’s undergarments and that they had a devoted, if niche following: overweight Arab women.
He went on to tell me proudly that not a week before, he had had an exceptionally large women in the store, right where I was standing – actually she had been sitting – and to make his point, he told me she had taken up both of the plastic chairs leaning against the wall behind me.
But this detail was key – because Ilya said he was able to provide her with the large sturdy items she needed immediately. No special ordering necessary because those are precisely the kinds of things they have in stock. And that, he said is what keeps him in business.
I was intrigued. If women had been buying bras and bustiers here for nearly a century, I wanted to follow suit. I asked to see a black bustier with removable straps. Ilya gave me a sidelong, pensive glance determining my size – and he handed me a very structured garment to inspect. It seemed like the real deal sturdy boning, many many clasps and strong elastic throughout. I told him I thought the back would fit, but that the cups seemed a little small.
He shook his head and said “no, tits out! Tits out! It is for special night. Not for every day.”
The store is called Kelebek and they don’t have a website but if you find yourself in the neighborhood, it is worth a visit. [Beyoglu, Istiklal Cad no. 433 Phone: 293 61 21]
Although pleased with my purchase, I thought I must be missing something so I ducked down a side street and finally discovered what all the fuss was about. The small alleyways and narrow streets off of Istiklal are lined with little market stalls, interesting antique shops and hip bars and as you venture further away from the main road, there are tons of great restaurants and cafes.
We managed to find Cezayir, a stylish restaurant and event space taking up three floors of a beautiful old building. We sat outside in the restaurant’s ground level courtyard patio and it was a lovely setting with dreamy lights strung up everywhere. The food was good too, but it wasn’t quite as spectacular as I had hoped.
After dinner we wandered around the steep streets taking in the lit up city skyline and stumbled across Munferit which turned out to be exactly the kind of place we had been looking for. It was a very cool, low key, and incredibly stylish restaurant with glass walls, interesting low slung furniture and great music playing. We took a perch at the dimly lit bar and ordered some wine when the guy next to us started talking to us.
Maybe it was the fact that I had lost track of how many glasses of wine I’d had by this point, but he was like a caricature of a sleazy American guy abroad. He was telling us he thought he might have gotten a bug bite or something and at one point he managed to get his arm into a perfect bicep curl and while stroking his muscle he asked; “so, do you see anything here? I feel like there might be a mark or something right there.” You couldn’t make it up
One thing we both wanted to do was go to a Turkish bath for a scrub down. I’d read both that it was a silly thing that only tourists do, and also that it was a something not to be missed, but we found a hamam right near the hotel so we figured we’d make up our own minds.
The building was beautiful and although it was mostly foreigners laying on the hot marble slab in the middle of the room, the view of the smooth domed ceiling, the soothing soapy bubbles and strong hands of the cute old Turkish woman on my back were worth it.
The final thing I wanted to check of my list was a ferry trip across the Bosphorus to the Asian side. I just wanted to take the commuter ferry and wander around on my own. But this simple concept was hard to communicate to the helpful locals who kept trying to get me on one of the many guided tours. I finally managed to get on board a ferry to Kadikoy and it was exactly what I was hoping for.
In line with the rest of the stellar public transportation, the ferry is great. It’s about $2 to ride from Europe to Asia and the views are breathtaking. Layers of Ottoman and Byzantine buildings sit next to massive ornate Mosques all framed by crystal clear blue skies and the white cresting of waves below.
I was delighted by the little man walking around with a tray selling hot tea in the curvy glasses and plates of sandwiches to passengers and the 20 minute windswept ride was just beautiful.
Kadikoy is a cool little area with lots of university students and business people rushing around. I saw a quick moving line at a fresh fruit juice stand so I wandered over and ordered an orange juice. And for about 50 cents, it was the freshest, most refreshing thing I think I’ve ever tasted.
A few streets back from the waterfront the streets descend into a complicated maze of markets with people selling giant flat fish, all kinds of spices and olives and soaps and piles of fruit and vegetables.
As I made my way back to the ferry terminal, I noticed my ear feeling a bit hot and my lips felt kind of tingly. I thought maybe it was all the tea I’d been drinking, and ignored it. Then later when Hilary and I were having dinner, the skin on my face felt a bit tight and my lips were inexplicably chapped. I relayed my symptoms and tucked my hair behind my ear to show her. Her eyes got wide and she covered her mouth.
“What!?” I asked.
“your ear is huge!” she said “its like twice its normal size.”
Indeed as the evening progressed, my left ear continued to swell as did the rest of my face. It put a bit of a damper on our last night, instead of venturing out to see all of the mosques all lit up I stayed in our room with a wet towel on my hot puffy face, but even the unexplained swollen face (was it the tea? Something I ate? Some weird bacteria at the hamam?)* didn’t detract from what was essentially the perfect introduction to Istanbul. I just wish we’d had more than a few days. The city is definitely on my list of places to explore further.
* The swollen face is still a mystery. it took a full week for the swelling to go down and I have no idea what might have caused it.