Some recommendations on eating and staying in Turkey. For general info on where to travel in Turkey, see my overview on Turkey, and for hints of why I love it 14 things you’ll get addicted to in Turkey (for Matador Network).
What to eat and not to eat
Turkish cuisine is one of the world’s grand cuisines, after French and Chinese. The sultans are one cause, with the giant Topkapi palace kitchens’ hundreds of cooks trying to impress, and the sultans’ desire to impress visiting dignitaries and harem girls. Turkey also grows a wide variety of food, adapted into all sorts of dishes. Plus, with the Ottoman empire expanding, and traders of all kinds passing through, there were lots of tasty influences.
You can’t go wrong no matter what you choose, as long as you choose a restaurant that is not overly touristy … döner kepap, köfte (ground meat, often in a ball, sometimes on a stick), pilaf, fish and seafood, veggies in all sorts of configurations, dolma (stuffed dishes), börek or gözleme (salty pastry made with a phyllo type dough, like spanakopita), yogurt dips and sauces (often cacik, ie tzatziki). Try pide (“PEE-duh”) — Turkish pizza for lunch. Vegetarians can easily satisfy themselves, particularly by choosing from the wide variety of meze (appetizers).
While I’m a major dessert girl, Turkish sweets generally don’t thrill me. But baklava, rice pudding, and lokum (Turkish delight) please many. Turks (and I) love ice cream, so be sure to sample it at least once (be patient if they insist on putting on the show). And the cherry tarts in cherry season are incredible (see Cigdem Patisserie below)!
Breakfast will most likely be included with the price of your room. Turkish breakfast is typically a baguette-type bread, butter, jam, cheese (often “white cheese”, ie feta), cucumber, tomato, egg, and, of course, tea.
You can get lots of treats on the street, particularly outside the bazaars. Fresh OJ is abundant, it is almost as cheap as water, and it is delicious. Roasted corn on the cob, and simit, sesame-covered bread which looks suspiciously like bagels, are everywhere. Look for kompir shops, where you can get a baked potato with your choice of toppings, and if you’re lucky they may even have a table out front to sit at. If you find the man in Sultanahmet making meat sandwiches from his rolling cart, run after him – they are incredible.
Don’t eat: Avoid coffee unless it is a place that sells Illy (most coffee is powdered Nescafe … it is very hard to find real Turkish coffee). Don’t eat any melon, even in the best restos – it is injected with water which will give you la tourista. Only drink bottled water. And everything else is safe to eat.
You will find yourself in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, as this is where Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and other tourist sites are. Don’t worry – it is not impossible to find a meal that is delicious, authentic, and reasonably priced.
The recommendations below are all in the area between the Blue Mosque and the covered bazaar. The main street connecting these two sites is Divan Yolu Cad – it is the one with the street cars. There are two pedestrian streets to the north (right, walking away from Aya Sofia) filled with restos. My favourite was in the middle, called Masal, where they sent the kitchen boy running down the street for fresh calamari (see below).
Cigdem Patisserie. Divan Yolu Cad 62A. Across the street from the McDonald’s. Good coffee, fresh squeezed OJ, pastries. I died over the cherry tarts — several times…. Go to the counter and order what you’d like (don’t worry, even though prices aren’t shown, you will not be overwhelmed by the bill). Then sit at a table, and the waiter will bring your choices to you. Afterwards, return to the counter and pay. (Turks like to keep as much distance as possible between treating guests to hospitality and the unfortunate reality of customers having to pay).
House of Medusa. Yerebatan Cad, Muhterem Efendi Sok 19. Indoor and outdoor seating. Not spectacular, but just fine.
Masal. Yerebatan Cad, near Mosaic Restaurant (which is quite well known). My favourite. You can sit inside or on a little patio along the street. Extremely courteous staff. Excellent menu, everything made to perfection. If you are there one night and fall in love with the calamari, and ask for it on a subsequent night when they are out, they will send the kitchen boy sprinting down the street to the fishmonger to get some (before you even realize it and can protest!). And it will be delicious.
Kucuk. Aya Sofya Cad, Sultanahmet Mah. No 23. Excellent kepabs.
Picnic. Pick up some picnic food and, on a weekend, wander down to the sea (behind the Blue Mosque, cross Kennedy Cad to the water). Locals gather to picnic on the grass and hang out. You can walk on the “boardwalk” along the water and see gambling games, people shooting balloons or pop cans with guns (pellet??), fishing, and having fun. Check if they have finally agreed who will pay to remove the shipwreck that the kids like to climb on (it ran aground in 1998). Or, take your picnic food on the public ferry up the Bosphorus (skip the tourist boats) for a look around the area (you will be able to buy a few snacks, drinks, and, of course, ice cream).
General travelling tips
Flights are fast and cheap by North American standards, although 10x the cost of the bus (which can often be 12+ hours a trip). Buses are cheap and very comfortable. They have attendants who will bring you snacks, tea and a lovely lemon liquid to wash your hands (all free). The best bus companies are Ulusoy, Bosfor and Varan; and Kamile Koc and Pamukkale are also good. The Rough Guide told us this info (and it was true), and the latest version would advise if anything has changed.
Turkish buses technically don’t allow smoking (thank goodness, because smoking is EVERYWHERE!) although there is some smoking on the smaller buses. Oh – and on the non-smoking buses the driver is allowed to smoke … go figure. So bring eye drops if smoke bothers you. And keep in mind that Turks don’t like drafts, so they only turn on the AC for brief moments, and people will stop you from opening the windows … so dress in layers for the bus!
For bus trips, but also for whenever you’re wandering around, keep some small change handy for the washrooms – most charge about 25 cents to $2 (the more touristy, the higher the price). It is easier not to have to worry about getting change (and many washrooms won’t be able to give you any anyway), and you just want to pass by the attendant quickly, so have some small bills or coins at hand – always! And some WCs you pay going in, and some going out, so keep an eye out for what other people are doing. It is smart to keep some Kleenex or TP with you too, because not all washrooms have it.
When you find a hotel you like, get them to call ahead to another similar hotel in another city (they’ll have a recommendation) and make the reservation for you. Most hotels will also know the best bus company that travels to the city you are going to, and then you can go to the bus station with that name, and be forceful in keeping the touts for the other companies at bay. Many hotels will also pick you up at the bus station. If you at least already have your hotel figured out, you can easily dismiss the hotel touts trying to get your business.
In Istanbul, I stayed at the Side Pensiyon – which was great (pronounced SEE-duh). They have an expensive side and a better-priced side (where I stayed). The room was big, clean and comfortable, with a private bathroom and breakfast included. It is around the corner from the Four Seasons, and a few blocks from the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia etc. In the morning, if you keep your window open, you can hear the call to prayer early in the morning. The person doing it on my last day after a month in Turkey had the most beautiful voice — I stuck my head out the window and looked at the sun rising over the beautiful buildings and it felt like magic.
In Cappadoccia I stayed at the Kelebek Hotel in Göreme, which was the nicest I stayed in throughout the trip. They had good coffee (Illy!), excellent food and were really helpful. They have a dog (Hashmit) who will walk you down to the village centre if you want. The tour guide who worked out of the hotel, Serap, was fabulous (and I generally hate guided tours of all kinds). She took us to one of the underground cities, the valley and the “castle”. It is worth paying for a guide because your transportation is arranged for you, so you save a lot of time and hassle, and most are very knowledgeable.
We also paid for the hammam (in Urgup) through the hotel, because it was our first time and we were nervous, and because we wanted to go at night and didn’t want the hassle of transportation. Next time I’d probably just take the little dolmus bus you can flag down – we did it on other days. Just ask at the hotel for times when the hammam is open to couples v. women v. men. The hotel can also arrange a balloon trip – it is expensive, but you’d pay that much anywhere in the world, and you’ll not find a cooler place than Cappadoccia to try ballooning…
Any recommendations to add?