After dating Bugra for 7 years, I finally made it to visit his home country, Turkey, in his home city, Istanbul. Having read and heard many times the experience of so many people I know, how they loved their visit to Turkey and how fabulous Istanbul was, I could now confirm that it's true. My visit was a little unlike theirs, since it was the first time both of us came as a couple and me meeting his big family, having the New Year's Eve celebration on top of that, I get to experience being part of a Turkish family, and that means besides the amazing tourist spots I got to visit, I also got to enjoy the home cook meal, the never ending served cay, the conversations I had no idea what all about but ended up learning a good deal of the language myself by being forced to keep up, and the attaching warmth and kindness of his family.
Let me put it this way, life in Turkey seemed more laid-back, things are a lot cheaper than in the US, outstanding preserved historical spots, cute little knick knacks every here and there, and of course the best Turkish food you could find is in every corner and in each home.
Here are the name of places I visited for those of you who need recommendation. Bear in mind that these are just a few as the city is huge and I wasn't there long enough to explore the whole;
~ Galata Kulesi (tower), a medieval stone tower built in the 14th century by the Genoese. It allows you to go all the way to the top where you can enjoy the magnificent view of the city and Bosporus. Has a nice cafe too up there.
~ Galata Koprusu (bridge), a whole different thing with the tower, though close in distance. Famous for their cafes and fishermen. The bridge leads you to Eminonu.
~ Eminonu / Misir Carcisi / Egyptian Bazaar, the famous market where you can shop pretty much everything about Turkey. Beware of the bargaining process there, merchants won't hesitate to raise the lira just because you're a tourist. Shopping with a local is recommended.
~ Aya Sofia / Hagia Sophia, a museum that was previously a church during the Roman and Byzantine empires and then turned into a mosque during the Ottoman empire.
~ Sultanahmet Camii / The Blue Mosque, the famous blue tiles mosque built during the reign of Sultan Ahmet I. Still an active mosque. You may get inside to see the spectacular interior design outside of praying hours though you must remain quiet and respectful.
~ Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul. A glistering street of restaurants, shops and hotels. Main events usually take place here. Also where the famous red trolley is.
~ Ortakoy. Try the delicious Kumpir they sell by the Bosporus while enjoying the water scene with the bridge backdrop.
~ Istanbul Sapphire, the tallest skyscraper in Turkey and the 4th tallest in Europe. I recommend going there at night to see the glittering city light of Istanbul, bird eye view.
~ Yerebatan Sarnici / Basilica Cistern, an ancient cistern built in the 6th century during the Byzantine era. You would enjoy the soothing feeling of water and perhaps take a few snaps of photos with the famous Medusa column bases.
~ Topkapi Sarayi (palace), a museum that used to served as the main residence of Ottoman sultans. You can see the preserved chambers and collection of the palace, as well as the Islamic Sacred Trust that contains religious pieces sent to the Ottoman sultans such as the keys to the Kaaba and Prophet Muhammad's mantle and sword.
I didn't get the chance to visit the famous Dolmabahce Palace and Suleymaniye Mosque, if you do go there I've heard you won't be disappointed.
Right, this section got its own title just because. Unfortunately, unlike other foodies I don't have many pictures of the food I ate because it was always served - eaten - gone. Bugra's mother, Anne (means mom) like a good Turkish mom she is, cooks so good. During my stay there in the sharp cold of winter, I was so fortunate to be able to come to a warm home-cooked meal. They often start with soup, then on to the 1st and even 2nd entree. The must cay follows at the end, together with the never-ending snacks; variety of nuts, fruits, Turkish delights, baklava. They just kept feeding you. Bugra's father, Baba (means dad) cooked us really good fish dish one day. He was the one who loved to go outside for a walk or doing whatever he was doing and came back with lots of bread, groceries, and munchies.
One night on our way back home in Gultepe from sightseeing, Bugra and I crossed path with a street food vendor, selling Pilav Tavuk (chicken and rice) on his cart. It was really a simple white rice and shredded chicken altogether, but boy was it delicious. Cold as it was outside, it became a comforting food on the street. We didn't find him the next day as it snowed so hard and the cold was unbearable. Poor man was probably stuck at home, imprisoned by the weather, unable to bring home some bacon. I was filled with joy to see him again after a few days when the weather got better, and yes I just had to get another cup of his unforgettable Pilav Tavuk :)
We don't eat out very often as I learned along the way that Turkish people in general prefer to eat at home. Here are the few places I've tried during my stay;
~ Oba Restaurant and Cafe, the food was okay. I remember I liked their bread pudding. But that's not the reason you go there. You want to enjoy a meal exactly by the Bosporus water, jaw-dropping view with the bridge backdrop.
~ Adana Yuzevler Kebap, a fine dining restaurant with the most delicious Adana I've ever tasted. They said famous Turkish athletes / soccer players like to go there to dine.
~ Cicek Pasaji, an open space group of several restaurants inside one of the buildings of Taksim. We ate amazing food in there. Can't recall the name of the restaurant but I assume they're all equally good. From sheep brain to fresh fish, yes, they bring a plate full of freshly caught fish to your table for you to choose. The musicians wander around singing and playing instruments. The oldie fashion of the building brings you the feeling of being both in Europe and Asia, perfectly describes Istanbul.
~ Gumus Et, the best meat shop and restaurant right by our home in Gultepe. Really good meat. Love meat? Go there. While in Gultepe, if you're a fan of eating funny parts of the cow, try also Kokorec and Iskembe, they should have these in many places across Istanbul as well.
~ Dursun Emmi, also in Gultepe. Famous for its Doner. Good Doner. Simple as that.
~ Medi Sark Sofrasi, inside a small alleyway within Taksim. Bugra said he used to come here all the time with his buddies back in the days. Cute little joint where you can sit outdoor next to cute plant decor. Warm comfort Turkish food and cozy feeling inside. They made their own delicious ayran served with that cute copper Turkish cup.
~ HD Iskender, more like the bigger chain than others on the list. You'll find them almost everywhere. Do not eat your iskender right away after it put down in front of you, because they need to pour some sizzling melted butter on top of it first. Yum!
~ Kumpir (stands), in Ortakoy. First they will open up this baked potato and mix the inside with butter until it became soft and creamy and then you build it up with the various selection of topping. Go eat and sit by the water.
~ Deniz Yildizi, floating boat selling famous fish sandwich. They're right by the Galata bridge in front of Eminonu.
Tip: Do NOT eat any food other than Turkish food in Istanbul. I went to Popeye's because a girl gotta have her fried chicken sometimes, but it was real bad. Flavorless, overcooked, tiny fried chicken. Completely unlike the Popeye's we love right here. However, they were busy! I felt like climbing up a table, grab a microphone and announce to them that this Popeye's here does not represent the real Louisiana chicken we have back home.
I also couldn't help being Asian who craved Asian food so bad. I was up to pretty much any Asian dish. Sushi, wonton soup, ramen, fried rice....bring it. Then we found this really nice looking Japanese restaurant (don't remember the name but we won't need it, you'll find out why). I ordered my noodle and sushi. Just imagine that dry flavorless sushi you buy at Safeway, serve them on cute plates, eat them at a nice restaurant. Not worth the crave.
Turkish food everyday it is.
Perhaps, there is a good Asian restaurant somewhere in Turkey. When I asked Bugra and his family they didn't even know any. That place I went we found online. Not like here where people would easily recommend you that good Mexican joint or that newly open ramen place. I learned that the Turks are really true to their own tradition and culture. It's Turkish everywhere. That's why they nailed it. Everything is good because everything is original.
Real quick here. When you're in Taksim walking down, as you go further, when the road narrows and splits in two, before you reach Galata tower, there's this small costume photo kiosk on the left where you can snap a pic dressing as sultans! Like us below :D
A little extra: right next to it is the little shop where I (so far) have bought about 15 pieces of Turkish hammam towels, hehe. Do I need them all? No. Are they hard to resist? Yes.
Have a great trip in the city of the sultans!