Istanbul Part 3: A Love Letter to Istanbul (+ Cats)

This is the third part of a three-part post about spring break in Istanbul. Check out Part I (where to go, what to see) and Part II (food) as well!

Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish best-selling writer and Nobel laureate, wrote the book sitting in my backpack on the flight to Istanbul. It was my so-called “spring break reading,” and despite the fact that I had tried to start reading it a number of times before the break, all the italicized words and places meant so little to me that it was hard to stay invested. I was dreading opening it again.

Anyway, fast-forward ten days. For the most part, I explored Istanbul alone. I was lucky enough to be staying with some incredible hosts (who took me to their country home for the first few days of my stay and who I could speak to about my adventures in the evening) but for the majority of the time I was by myself.

What surprised me most about traveling alone was the fact that it was hard to get lonely. Part of the reason for this is the sheer wonderful frenzy of the city. Often in between trudging up the winding, cobbled roads inclining what felt like perpendicularly (Istanbul is a hilly city), or figuring out where lunch was going to be, or desperately hoping that the dolmuş, or mini-bus, was going in the direction I needed it to (a mini-bus is a strange cross between a bus and a taxi which picks up around ten people going in the same general direction and drops them off… whenever they feel like getting off), I didn’t have the time or energy to feel lonely.

The first day in the city, amid figuring out how mosque etiquette worked, I found this lovely scarf for only about $2 at a local market. Ladies, either bring a good scarf with you or buy one there (there are innumerable places to get a scarf in Istanbul) for mosque entry.

I interacted with people more than I thought as well, in small moments scattered throughout the week. At the Basilica Cisterns, I met an old Korean couple who proclaimed Istanbul the “best city in the world” and told me where the best place to get kimchi would be. On transit on a ferry back to the European side, a couple with a young nine-month old son asked me to hold their baby, who apparently would not stop fussing until I did.

Taken by the lovey Korean couple at the Basilica Cisterns.

Hectic as the city was, I also came across a few invaluable quiet moments. Istanbul is not in general a quiet city. Easy counterexample: there are lots of cars and the drivers tend to be very free with the horn. But taking the ferry to the Kadiköy neighborhood on my last day in Istanbul was one such moment to myself. Away from the Historic Peninsula, the tourists are few and far between, and that cloudy morning I was alone on top of the ferry, sipping çay (Turkish black tea) and listening to the call to prayer echo over the indigo Bosphorus.

A quiet tea on the water.

I loved Kadiköy. One of the few places I went on the Asian side, the neighborhood felt deeply authentic with both an honest-to-goodness market (with actually cheap and good produce/dried goods/sweets unlike the more touristy markets) and cafes that were unabashedly cool. When the morning showers came, I hunkered in one of these cafes and finished the Mediations while sipping another cup of çay– one of my fondest memories in the city.

The market early in the morning, before it got busier.
Beautiful produce later in the morning.

Undoubtedly just walking around the neighborhoods of Istanbul and taking in the atmosphere was a highlight of the trip. I averaged about 10 miles a day of walking, and finished the week with just over sixty miles under my belt. Besides Kadiköy, my favorite walks included the route from Galata Tower across Galata Bridge (and through Karaköy, another cool neighborhood) to get to Eminönü; the park and glitzy neighborhoods of Nişantaşı; and the beautiful neighborhood of Bebek. Bebek was one of the few places I went to in the city where I could walk by the Bosphorus (along a beautiful boardwalk) without feeling like I was in the way of cars on a major thoroughfare or trespassing in cafes hogging up all the waterfront.

Taken in Karaköy near Galata Tower.
A view from Galata Bridge.
The beautiful view by Bebek.
More Bebek! I honestly was very lucky the day was so beautiful.

Walking around, it’s impossible not to notice all the cats. I was confused at first about how such masses of stray cats could be so well-fed and groomed before my hosts informed me that the municipality vaccinates them and the locals in Istanbul all do their parts to take care of the cats, leaving cat food, opened cans of tuna, and little cardboard shelters on the side of the road for any passing cat to use. If you’ve ever seen the documentary Kedi… well, it’s exactly like that.

Without further ado, a slideshow of all my best kedi shots (there are plenty more than this on my phone; pruning through them is my gift to you).

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If I had to sum up the trip, the glorious, long, lovely, hectic, amazing trip in one word, it would be this: lucky. I was lucky to have had the opportunity and resources to go, lucky that the weather was so good for most of the trip, lucky to have stumbled across the people, restaurants, cats, streets, etc. that I did. But most of all, lucky to have had the opportunity to stay with my fantastic hosts, to get a good sense of Istanbul as a city and not as a tourist destination. I really can’t thank them enough for their hospitality.

My last day in Istanbul was Easter Monday, and after shopping for traditional Greek Easter bread, bittersweet and aromatic from the mastic and mahleb herbs, we died eggs in vinegar and had a last dinner of meze.

An Easter shot. The eggs and tsoureki are in the background.

On the plane ride back, I took out the Orhan Pamuk book again. I had been too busy (um… exploring) to give it much thought over break, but the seat in front of me had no monitor, and my backpack with laptop was stowed away in the overhead bin, so I had no choice but to try to start the book again. In the first two pages, I read: “… the rumble of a passing car, the clatter of an old bus, the rattle of the copper kettles that the salep maker shared with the pastry cook, the whistle of the parking attendant at the dolmuş stop…” Suddenly, it felt somewhat familiar.

I smiled, and kept reading.

Istanbul Part 2: FOOD FOOD FOOD

FOOD FOOD FOOD! The food, if you can’t tell already, made a big impression on me.

This post is part of a three-post series about spring break in Istanbul! Links to Part 1 (attractions) and Part 3 (love letter/CATS).

Turkish food is fantastic. Tons of seafood for the seafood lover (me), tons of meat for the meat lover (also me), tons of fresh veggies for the veggie lover (me me me), and all of it fresh and well-prepared (and super cheap!). My hosts said that Turkish food emphasizes the actual flavor of the food, which is why you’ll never have a spice like cumin or curry powder overpowering the ingredients. Anyway, enough talk, here are some great pictures of food.

Turkish Breakfast

Oh my goodness, the miracle that is Turkish breakfast. I’m pretty sure when God made Turkish breakfast he asked himself what all of my favorite foods in the world would be in order to put them together in one fabulous meal. Fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, various types of hard cheeses, cured meats, olives, sour cherries, honey, hard-boiled eggs, WALNUTS, and, a Turkish phenomenon that I have come to adore, SIMIT. Simit is a kind of crusty, sesame-seed encrusted bread that is absolutely divine toasted (or not toasted, really. It’s just divine). I was lucky enough to have experienced three of these marvelous breakfasts at the country house.

From farthest to closest we have: cucumbers, cured meat/beef tongue, bowls of [walnuts, honey, sour cherries, olives], cheeses, tomatoes, lettuce, simit on the left and bread on the right.

These are small plates eaten with bread before the main meal. Again, I was fortunate to have experienced an incredible spread of meze at the country house. Honestly, the stuff is good enough to replace the main meal in my opinion. My favorites included fish egg paste, lentil patties, and a kind of marinated sea kelp sort of thing.

From top to bottom we have: lentil patties, caramelized onions covered in chickpea paste, cured meat (so good), stuffed artichokes, the sea kelp-esque dish, and fish egg paste. Not pictured are the stuffed peppers, which is a shame because they were very good.
A beautiful spread of meze in a shop near Nişantaşı.

Black Sea Food

The Black Sea region is apparently known for its seafood, and I had plenty of it here. I highly recommend the restaurant Hayvore. Super authentic food, great location (off Istiklal Street) and great service. I also had some Black Sea food near the actual Black Sea after taking a cruise on the Bosphorus.

Main dishes at Hayvore: fish soup, fried anchovies, and corn bread.
Dessert at Hayvore: Kabak Tatlisi, or pumpkins soaked in syrup and topped with walnuts. Have I not mentioned that I think Turkish food was made for my consumption??
Lunch at Anadolukavağı: fried mussels, pickles, salad.

Adana Kebab

Not wanting to appear basic and go with the ubiquitous Döner kebab, I decided to try Adana Kebab, which is a different style of grilled meat. Slightly spicy and served with pickled onions, roasted tomatoes/chilis, and pita, I started eating this way too quickly before I realized I needed to snap a picture. Highly recommend Adana Ocakbaşı! They grill the meat right in front of you.




Now, I’ve seen pide places scattered all around Istanbul, but honestly, I’ve been spoiled by the fact that I hand-made pide at the country house and had it fresh out of the wood-fire oven. Good Lord, it was delicious.

It’s like a beef stew bread bowl and a pizza had a baby and dehydrated it (no soup). Yummm


Really nice to have for breakfast with Çay, or Turkish black tea, this is a flaky pastry made with either meat, cheese, or potatoes and found in cafes all over the city in the morning.

I had the cheese kind, because I love cheese. Lots of other people were getting meat, though.

Street Food

You’ll see red-and-white striped carts everywhere in Istanbul selling all sorts of street food (including simit and roasted corn). Here is some of the food I got off the street:

Roasted chestnuts by the water in Anadolukavağı
Balik Ekmek, fish bread, is a fish sandwich with roasted mackerel inside. You can find vendors floating on the Bosphorus grilling and selling these right in front of you beneath Galata Bridge.
Baklava at the Grand Bazaar.


Loaded baked potatoes where the potato base is whipped with cheese and butter. I may have over-topped mine (it was a little salty) but once I hit the base potato layer I was happy.



I probably should have gone to a less touristy place to have this dish (read: NOT Taksim Square) but I wanted to try it, so there you go. It was very, very good (exactly the type of dessert I like: lots of toppings, and a grain-y, bean-y, pudding-y base). If it were a little less sweet it would be perfect. I think I will try to make this one at home.

This is apparently an ancient dessert (aka Noah’s pudding) because it was first made after Noah got off the ark from all the grains and beans from the journey.


This is known as “Turkish pizza,” but in reality it’s a phenomenon of its own. An ultra-thin, crunchy crust topped with meat, spices, and parsley (optionally chili flakes as well), this delectably light treat is best enjoyed with a cup of ayran, or salty yoghurt drink. It cuts through the meat and spice deliciously.



You can often find this treat in places that serve lahmacun, and to be honest it kind of stole the show for me. Kunefeh is essentially melted cheese covered in a thin, noodle-like pastry soaked in sugar syrup and sprinkled with pistachios. I can’t even express how insanely delicious this was. By FAR my favorite dessert.


Technically a Lebanese place but still good: HUMMUS AND FALAFEL 

I went to this incredible falafel place by Istiklal street called Falafel Koy and found the most delicious hummus/falafel/tabbouleh platter for only 20 lira. It was absolutely delicious and a real steal. HIGHLY recommend.



And that’s a wrap for food! Make sure to check out Part 1 (attractions to see and not to see) and Part 3 (love letter/CATS) as well!

Istanbul Part 1: Where to Go, What to Do

Note: THIS BLOG HAS MIGRATED! Read this post and all future posts at the new website:

A (spring) break of ten whole days from math requires drastic measures: and for me, that meant spending the entire time in Istanbul, the allure of the Bosphorus too compelling to ignore. Not to mention, I had the good fortune of having some incredible hosts who let me stay with them for the week in their home!

Istanbul is a trip too big to contain in one post, so I’m breaking the tale into three exciting parts:

Part 1 (you are here): my review of major activities + things you MUST do + things I thought were overrated


Part 3: My love letter to Istanbul: thoughts + CATS



Istanbul is what some would call a “world-class city” and as such, there’s plenty to do. Even with ten days I had to prioritize what I wanted to spend my time on and what I thought I could skip. Below you’ll find the top three things I did while in Istanbul, a few other great things to do, and a few attractions I thought were slightly overrated.


1. Staying in a country house

Okay, ironic, the first thing on this list is not technically in Istanbul and not technically something available for everyone. But I do want to flex a little that I had the incredible experience of staying in my hosts’ beautiful country home outside of the city to soak in the nature and have some incredible meals.

This is the house: it overlooks some beautiful rolling hills- and that field right there? Lavender!

It was absolutely wonderful to hear nothing but the birds and breathe in some fresh air, and the countryside around Istanbul– rolling hills, lots of wheat fields and fruit trees– was absolutely beautiful in the spring.

I had the experience of helping to make pide (failing miserably to roll out the dough). You can see the finished product here 

2. Topkapı Palace**

It’s one of the major destinations in Istanbul, and probably the most expensive place in terms of entrance fees (95 lira for the palace + harem), but I thought it was by far the coolest tourist attraction on the Historic Peninsula.

Notice I starred the name: I’ll use this to denote a place that you want to visit as soon as it opens in the mornings to minimize tourist overflow. The historic peninsula (as I quickly discovered) becomes saturated with tourists starting from mid-morning all the way until the attractions close around four or five, which is a huge headache and (at least for me) ruins lots of the appeal of the attractions themselves. Every day I was in the city, I got up early to try to get to a single tourist attraction before it opened to be one of the first in the building. Then, I could leave the historic peninsula right as it got busiest around mid-morning. This worked really well for me and as a result I had a few precious moments to myself in these beautiful attractions.

Anyway, Topkapi was the residence of the Ottoman sultans (as well as some Biblical relics- you can see the alleged staff of Moses and sword of David, as well as various body parts of the prophet Muhammad, e.g., his beard and a box containing his tooth!). Not to mention the palace is filled with examples of beautiful, intricate Islamic art and architecture, for example, in the sultan’s primary residence:


Or in one of the many pavilions in the third or fourth courtyard:



It was also super fascinating to see relics of the lives of the harem (women in the royal circle) and of the many servants in the palace (there is an entire wing devoted to the cooking staff, including an entire confectionary– sultans like their sweets!).

Tile on the royal hamamı (bath-house). I loved walking through these old baths. The rooms formed a brightly-lit labyrinth that I managed to sneak into before the tourist hoard and for a good half hour had all to myself to wander around.
What I have to assume is an old toilet for the servants. Little things like this about daily life hundreds of years ago I think are the coolest things to see in the palace.


3. Şehir Hatları Tour of the Bosphorus

I pinned a day of the week when the weather portended to be beautiful and spent the entire day on a ferry on the Bosphorus headed straight for the Black Sea. That’s right, for only 25 lira you can board a municipal ferry that takes you on a six-hour cruise (2 hours sailing there, 2 hours break, 2 hours coming back) to Anadolukavağı, a small, remote neighborhood of Istanbul right by the Black Sea.

Charmed by the old-timiness of the tickets. WARNING: don’t be fooled, make sure you get the tickets for Şehir Hatları and not for some more expensive touristy ferry. The ferries all leave from Eminönü by Galata Bridge. Make sure you find the right pier!
Pretty cloud

When we arrived at our destination, all of us disembarked and pretty much immediately did two things in an order that depended on how hungry we were: 1) Hike up a small hill to Yoros Castle and 2) get seafood at one of the many restaurants by the pier. I did Yoros first.

The walk up is short and pretty easy.

Spring was in full swing, and beautiful wildflowers abounded. There’s a good-sized highway that goes directly to Yoros, and on the way down I took an alternate route through town which got me some beautiful photos:


This wall had a bunch of Evil Eyes embedded in it. All staring into your SOUL

After a lovely lunch by the sea, we returned home. A beautiful day, highly recommend!!



Aya Sofya** 

This is an obvious must-see, and the most popular tourist location in Istanbul. And it’s spectacular– a melding of Byzantine Christian mosaics and Islamic art unlike anything I have ever seen before. And Viking graffiti! Just make sure to go in the morning, right when it opens. I showed up an hour early and there was still a bit of a line!

When I first arrived in the mosque, a lone black cat was there to greet us early-morning arrivals.
It is a BEAUTIFUL building.

Galata Tower** 

I actually love the neighborhood around Galata, but the tower itself has some great views of the city. Make sure to go when the weather is nice (and in the morning, so it’s not so crowded).



Dolmabahçe Mosque

Okay, so technically Dolmabahçe PALACE is the attraction that people want to visit. But every single time I was there, the line was too long for me to even think about going in. However, adjacent to the Palace is a tiny mosque on the banks of the Bosphorus. When I was there, this mosque was absolutely empty and quiet, which immediately made it one of the best mosques that I saw while in Istanbul (and I saw quite a few mosques). Highly recommend for some peace amid the hectic tourist attractions.


Suleymaniye Mosque

This was another of my favorite mosques in Istanbul (probably because it was the first one I visited). Overlooking the Bosphorus, the mosque also features several mausoleums with the graves of Sultan Suleiman I and his family, which I thought were beautiful. It was also slightly less crowded than its sisters the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya.



Okay, you should still visit these places. But due to high tourist activity and general tourist-trappiness, I was not super impressed.

Grand Bazaar/ Spice Market

So in general I DO NOT appreciate when people heckle me to come into their restaurant/ buy their wares and I WILL NOT engage if someone tries to heckle me in this way. Unfortunately, in these markets (and in the historic peninsula in general) this sort of heckling was really aggressive, which really put me off.

The spice market in particular was kind of disappointing. It’s in a very new building, which though decorated nicely has lost the kind of historic charm that the Grand Bazaar, at least, has. The shops (which are all pretty much identical) are pretty overpriced and cater exclusively to tourists, which kind of got on my nerves.

Later I had the opportunity to go to what I considered a “real” market and enjoyed that much more.


Basilica Cisterns**

This place SHOULD HAVE been cool, but unfortunately I went at a bad time and it was absolutely chock-full of other people, which made the entire experience kind of awful (save for a few friends I made along the way LINK). Would definitely recommend going when it’s not as crowded.


All right! That’s the end of Part 1! Check out Part 2 (FOOD) and Part 3 (love letter/cats) for more about Istanbul!

A Quick Dip in Dubrovnik

An adventure to the sea: that was what we were after. And when we decided to take the plunge last weekend and head down to the Dalmatian Coast in Croatia, fifteen hours on a night bus (two night buses, accounting for the transfer) seemed like a tiny obstacle.

We boarded the bus on Friday night in high spirits- the first leg to Zagreb was empty and we all took two seats each and played hearts in the aisle. At the midnight transfer, the coastal bus was another story.

First bus good vibes!
Second bus… sad vibes…

We rode all night and tried to doze in the crowded bus, our knees pushed up against the seats in front of us. At 3 am the lights flared on and we groggily handed over our passports at an absurd border crossing into Bosnia because for some reason there’s a mile long chunk of Bosnian land that bisects the Croat coastline. But it wasn’t all bad. Poets with wavy hair like to say the night is darkest before the dawn- in this case, we woke up to see the sun rise along the Adriatic.


And a mere few hours later, the views of the sea only becoming more breathtaking, we arrived to our destination:

Dubrovnik- a UNESCO world heritage site and home of some of the most beautiful sets from certain fantasy dramas on HBO, is a walled city perched on indigo seas and adorned with terra-cotta roofs. It’s a city from a dream, to be slightly dramatic about things.


We spent all of Saturday and Sunday in Dubrovnik, and some higher power must’ve been smiling down at us because in terms of excursion choices, lodging, and food our experiences were pretty darn spectacular. Not to mention, the forecast was for rain all weekend and the weather turned out to be perfect. Anyway, some advice:

1. Go in April.

Obvious advice, but it was crowded in Old Town even in very not-peak season. I shudder to think of how many more people will be visiting in June/July/August. The weather may be nicer but is it really worth it if you’re fighting for elbow room? At that time of year, I think I’d rather stop in one of the many villages along the Dalmatian coast architecturally similar to Dubrovnik and hopefully a little less hectic.

2. Do the stuff you came to see, but be quick about it…

Even if it’s expensive and hot and crowded, ya gotta walk around the city walls and ya gotta explore Old Town. We spent the first few hours in the city doing exactly that- the walls are one of the best places to get any kind of view of the city and surrounding ocean.


But don’t spend all your time doing the generic things because…

3. Go swimming!

Not going to lie, it was probably too cold to swim (in the high sixties). But the sun was beating down on us and we were hankering to get inside the beautiful turquoise water. We headed to Bellevue Beach, which was absolutely empty save for a few sunbathing locals. The more adventurous of us scoped out a cliff-diving spot, and eventually every one of us crazy twenty-something-year-olds could say that we’ve jumped off a cliff in Croatia. To show Avicii we were cool, I guess.

That cliff on the back to the right was the cliff-diving candidate.

4. Bring your own food (and NEVER go in a restaurant with hecklers stationed outside)

We brought a grand total of five loaves of bread (and other accoutrements) which combined with occasional gelato splurges lasted us four meals. We ate out twice, both at fast casual places. Barba was a seafood place with great salads and fried anchovies. But I’d recommend Preša for the budget traveler. Portion sizes were great, food was hearty and tasty, and price was stellar for the area. I remain deeply suspicious of the street-side cafes with aggressive hecklers. Seem like textbook tourist traps.

5. See the sunset.

This I can’t recommend enough. We scoped out a little rocky peninsula (which jutted out of a park outside of Old Town) that had a good westward facing view and watched the sun set over the ocean. I’m not sure how touristy this place gets in peak season, but we ran into our Airbnb host who seemed surprised (and kind of proud) that we had “discovered” the spot.


6. Wake up early.

I wasn’t a fan of the hard water from the taps in the Airbnb (which, if I haven’t mentioned, is twenty feet from the gates of Old Town for $10 a night per person!) so early on Sunday morning I trekked into Old Town to hit up a grocery store (warning: most of the big grocery stores outside of Old Town are closed on Sundays). The inner city was deserted. I was absolutely alone walking through the narrow alleys and cobblestones, and after I had gotten my water I sat by the sea, utterly secluded with only the chittering of the ubiquitous swallows and the dull roar of the waves to distract me… romantic stuff. The takeaway here is that I guess most tourists are not super early morning people (also the tour buses take some time to get there from the cruise ships) so if you have it in you to set your alarm a few hours early, it’ll be well worth it.

Early morning on the water. This little bay (Kolorina) is right outside of the Old Town gates, with views of the city and the fortress.

7. Go to Lokrum Island (on a government ferry) and hike as much as possible.

Lokrum has some vague historical buildings (a fort, a ruined castle/gardens, etc.), but these all paled in comparison to the island’s natural beauty. By far the most beautiful things to see were the Dead Sea (not sure why they call it that- all those annoying peacocks strutting around trying to steal our food were alive enough) and the views along the southern edge of the island.

The Dead Sea. It’s a calm, secluded bay in the island that turns turquoise in the sunlight. Probably among the calmest waters you’ll see in Dubrovnik, home of rocky rugged beaches and coasts.
These pigeons got really aggressive. We concluded that they’ve gotten fat and lazy from the lack of natural predators and the omnipresence of tourists with food to feed them.

Pro tip: if you hike due east from the Dead Sea for about half and hour and brave unmarked paths and rough white rocks and scratchy pines (it won’t be too bad, the foaming indigo vistas will be worth it) you’ll stumble upon Pigeon Cave and will get to walk around the perimeter of the sheer cliffs there. It was breathtaking.

The rocks may be rough and the path may be nonexistent… but soldier on! There’s a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow.
Pigeon cave, the absolute enormity and awe-inspiring-ness I was positively unable to capture with my wee iPhone.
Believe it or not, the water down there was actually this color.

8. Make sure to have a 3-hour-layover in Zagreb at the most inconvenient possible hour.

Our trip winding to an end, we took the night bus from Dubrovnik once again on Sunday night. Right before we got on the bus, we realized that our layover in Zagreb this time was about three and a half hours instead of an immediate transfer. So when we awoke at 3 am in Zagreb (starving, too, I might add) we trekked into the city to find something, anything open with food.

Luckily for us what seemed to be the only 24-hour joint in the city was only a 30 minute walk away, and turned out to be a pleasant pizzeria in the heart of town. I cannot tell you how delicious the four-cheese and mushroom pizzas were at four in the morning steaming between my fingers. Five stars to the owners for making fresh pizza for us at such an ungodly hour.

Okay, so this is a bad picture. But it was 4 am and all I wanted to do was eat this pizza.

Afterwards, we decided to walk around the city a little bit as it shook itself awake. We were dead on our feet (except I guess for Kevin and Daniel, who had reserves of energy from I-Know-Not-Where) but gosh darn it, we saw the capital of Croatia.

Here we are, waiting for Zagreb to wake up and posing next to a giant egg which had the word “Zagreb” on it to prove to ourselves later that we have, indeed, seen the city.

At 7:30 am we stumbled back to the bus station and took the last leg of the journey back to Budapest: when we arrived at Kelenföld, the afternoon sun was shining and we were positively dripping with what I like to call “bus grease.” So with the remains of salt from the Adriatic sea still clinging to our hair and faces, we parted ways to head home, shower, and get some much-deserved sleep!