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Istanbul, Turkey

Hey, do you like stray cats?

Well, if you visit the former capital of Turkey, you are in for a f***ing treat. Maybe even a Fancy Feast (if they paid me for saying that).

Really though, Istanbul is legitimately the stray cat capital (catpital?) of the world, since thousands of those fur balls have been hanging out in its city streets for thousands of years.

I'm not a huge cat person myself, but they're surprisingly pretty chill and the local residents make an effort to look after them so they're not really nasty or threatening.

When I last visited, my buddy and I even played a game (or rather, I played a game while he begrudgingly tolerated it) on our walks called, "Try to get an unsuspecting street cat to go through your legs." I succeeded at this game once and only once but I was proud of myself.

Anyway, Istanbul is the most populous city in all of Europe, and I can't tell if that should truly count or not because I don't know if it includes (the cats, jk) the Asian side of the city. Either way, it's still super neat (at least to me) to see a place with so much cultural diversity and historical influence while straddling two continents at the same time. Very unique.

Here's my guide to Istanbul.

Getting in:

Istanbul has two plane stations and they're both inconveniently far away from the city center. This sucks for a couple of reasons, but mainly because taxis are expensive, and even if Uber were a thing in Turkey (which I'll explain in a second), it would still be a 45 minute ride minimum before traffic.

Uber seems to go back and forth between being prohibited and not prohibited in Turkey, but when I was last there in 2022, the app was only useful for hailing taxis. That's still pretty useful if you need a ride, but it's recommended by locals to choose cash as the payment method for Ubers because of an apparent scam where they will show you that the card payment was declined, demand cash, and then charge your card after you've gotten out. I was able to avoid that while paying by card a few times and keeping an eye on it, but who knows, your mileage may vary, and it always seemed easier to pay with cash either way.

Anyhow, if you fly into the new Istanbul Airport (IST) on the European side, it's not that difficult to get to Taksim Square, which is a main touristic landing spot on the northeast side of town in a neighborhood called Beyoğlu. You can take a bus marked Havaist directly from the airport to this location in about 90 minutes, and it costs around 4 euro/dollar or less. There's also the metro option, which requires a couple of transfers and arrives in an hour and change for a cheaper price, so it's up to you how adventurous you (and your luggage) want to be.

Over on the Anatolian/Asian side is the Sabiha Gökçen Airport (SAW), and things are roughly the same here as well. (Give or take, because if you're heading to Taksim Square it may take two hours.) If you're flying into this one, hopefully you're heading to Kadıköy, a neighborhood along the water and main landing spot on this side. The metro to get there takes an hour, as does the bus marked Havabus that takes off right in front of your face outside of arrivals.

Pro strat: if you need a SIM card here, this is a great time to get familiar with international eSIMs like Dent rather than having to deal with the local, often far more expensive physical SIMs. I've done both and there's no competition.

Getting around in Istanbul:

Istanbul has a good public transportation system with plenty of metro, railway, tram, bus, and ferry lines to get you from A to B. You'll need to buy an Istanbulkart and load up that mad dog with some Turkish Lira because most machines don't accept card payments for top ups. I know it sucks, but you'll survive. Or you won't and none of this will have mattered anyway. It's in god's hands now.

Anyway, Google maps is usually good enough to spit out a route for you, but you can also download an app called Trafi if you want to add some spice to your life.

Where to stay in Istanbul:

Hopefully you picked up what I was putting down earlier about getting in from the airport and concluded that in order to cut back on costs you should either stay somewhere within reasonable distance from Taksim Square on the European side (but beware because: touristy) or somewhere within reasonable distance from the Kadikoy station on the Asian side.

On the European side, most of the good sloptions alongside Taksim are Karakoy, Galata, and maybe Besiktas (but I would probably only recommend this one for a second or third visit to Istanbul rather than a first). All of these are in the general district of Beyoglu, which is where you'll find a lot of restaurants, shops, bars, etc. You'll also be situated close enough to get out of this area and explore everything else across the bridge/water.

I don't particularly recommend staying in the Sultanahmet area of the Fatih district where all the Old City historical sights and famous attractions are, mainly because you'll most likely be spending time there anyway, but also because you can probably knock out all of your tourism for that area in a single day if you want.

Now, all of that said, I think I still recommend staying over on the Asian side in Kadikoy instead. It's just cooler in my opinion, and a lot less hectic.

What to do and things to see (and things to do and what to see) in Istanbul:

Istanbul is one of those cities where it's very clear what is touristy and what is not, and I think it's safe to say that its lineup of major attractions hasn't changed much over the years. (This means that this particular destination guide is going to be fairly heavy on the beaten path, for better or for worse.)

One of the most popular tourist moves in Istanbul is to visit the Grand Bazaar in the Eminönü area of Fatih. This is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, often being called the world's first shopping mall. Here you'll probably do more sightseeing than actual shopping, but it's a total classic.

If fabrics and jewelry aren't your bag, well then I hope you like dried fruit, nuts, herbs, and spices because the Spice Bazaar is where you're going next. This is another flustercuck kind of place if you try to show up anytime between 11am and 4pm, but it's pretty fun to look around. Depending on what you're interested in, you will probably be able to try some free samples before you buy.

While you're still in this part of town, the other down-the-middle tourist move is to knock out the major sights in the Sultanahmet hood, including the famous Hagia Sophia Mosque, the Topkapi Palace Museum, and the Blue Mosque.

I also recommend the Istanbul Archaeological Museums and the Basilica Cistern, which reminds me of where the basilisk lived in the Chamber of Secrets from Harry Potter, and not because I get the words basilisk and basilica mixed up. That sounds like a 'you' problem.

On the north side, the Dolmabahçe Palace Museum is a good compliment or alternative to the Topkapi one if that's too busy. This one is the largest palace in Turkey (45,000 square meters) and it was the residence of the sultans between 1856 and 1924. It's also as fancy as fancy gets.

It's now time to check your Turkey Tourism Bingo cards for Galata Tower. This watchtower is arguably the most famous structure within the entire Istanbul city skyline (which means it won't be in the pictures you take from it, ya goof), and the narrow streets filled with shops and restaurants that you'll pass during the walk up to it can be just as enjoyable as the view from the tower itself.

This area is also home to the Tünel, the second-oldest fully underground subway line in the world, which is coming up on its 150th birthday (about 12 years behind the London tube). This old gal has just two stops, connecting Karakoy to Beyoglu and back. Perhaps that's convenient enough on its own to warrant a visit, but there's also a mini museum at the station that may justify a small detour if you're curious.

Honestly, Istanbul has at least two full weeks of tourist material that you could go through before running out (of patience), but if you want to get out of town for a nature break, Belgrad Forest is a solid escape. It's named after the Serbian settlement that was deported to Constantinople (Istanbul's former name that's way more fun to say) around the year 1521 when Suleiman the Magnificent (the longest-reigning Sultan of the Ottoman Empire) sieged and seized present-day Belgrade.

Anyway, something else I can recommend doing in Istanbul is thrift shopping. It might actually be my favorite place in the world for it, if not for Alaska (which is a goldmine for thrifting because of all the island hoppers that leave things behind when they go from one to the next).

There's a street in Beyoglu (where the the Tünel drops you off) called Istiklal Caddesi, which is a long and crowded shopping area filled with tourists, souvenir stores, and this thrift shop where I found the Lederjacke ('leather jacket' in German) that I'll probably be wearing at every Oktoberfest that I go to for the rest of my life (which I hope is zero more times).

You're probably going to find yourself on a ferry at some point during your time in Istanbul, but if that's not cool enough for you, there are tons of little 'yacht' rides along the Bosphorus Strait that you can do as well. If you show up in this general area, you'll encounter a tiny mafia-like band of men shouting "Bosphorus," and with one of them you can negotiate a ride on one of their boats that leave every 90 or so minutes.

(Hot tip: if you negotiate a price that's lower than what they're used to scoring from other tourists, they'll ask you not to tell the other groups on your boat about your discount.)

Once you've taken the ferry over to the Asian side, you can check out the Kadikoy Produce Market where the prices are far more fair and the fish market is a must-see. Dudes be huckin' fish like they do in Seattle.

While in Kadikoy, definitely check out the seafront district called Moda. Great area to hang out, stroll around, and get a coffee.

Finally, one of the most "when in Istanbul" things to try out is a hookah. There are so many hookah bars in Turkey so you might as well see what all the fuss is about.

Where to go out in Istanbul:

The first important thing to know is that a very significant portion of Istanbul's bars/clubs/whatever have door policies under which men are required to have some women with them in order to get in (lol), and they will not accept stray cats as a peace offering.

That said, it probably means that the following list will be even more unreliable than usual, but don't worry, it'll also be fairly limited to the Beyoglu and Kadikoy areas I mentioned earlier, so that means we're good since multiplying two negatives results in a positive. (Except for when you're two dudes tryna get in da clurrb. That results in a no.)

On the European side, Geyik is a small and cozy cocktail bar that spills out into the street of a pretty nice neighborhood called Cihangir, and I am all about places that spill out into the street, so I like the vibe there.

Another chill spot that's not too far away from there is called Flekk, which is a good pick for folks who like custom house cocktails.

If you're looking for an international and/or touristy crowd with a bit more activity, Arsen Lüpen Taksim has an assortment of events and/or music going on depending on the day of the week. It's one of the most well-known spots in the area.

My location history from my most recent visit suggests that my buddy and I spent an hour or two at a bar called Kiki, which had been fairly hyped up to us before going. It ultimately wasn't that memorable on the Thursday night that we visited, but I can definitely see how a venue like that could be popping on a weekend, so it makes the cut.

Though I haven't personally been there yet, the next area on the European side that I would want to check out at night is probably the Arnavutköy neighborhood. It's far, but I hear there are a few decent spots within walking distance of the ferry terminal out there. (There's also the neighboring Bebek area as well, which I'd want to see.)

As for the rest of the European side, my apologies to Beşiktaş and Galatasaray for not mentioning anything about them.

Over on the Asian side, you'll find a lot of hip bars and late night food spots on a road called Kadife Sokak, which means 'Velvet Street' in English.

The big well known spot on this end is Arka Oda, which has a patio/garden on the outside with a DJ setup on the inside.

You don't have to go too far from there to find Dunia, which is another cool spot just across the street.

Still, if that's too far for you, Karga is about 4 meters away from Arka Oda since it's next door.

Of course, there's definitely more nightlife to mention on the Asian side than just that street, but I'm getting hungry.

Where to eat and what to eat in Istanbul:

The first time I visited Istanbul I did a food tour with a local. I don't always recommend doing this, but when a city has so much to see and do (and eat), this can be a pro strat for getting two birds stoned at once.

(Side note: that particular 'Ricky-ism' about the birds has been one of my favorite eggcornisms for so long that it's now a mumpsimus in my writing, which you can learn about in Chapter 21 of 100 Flights the book.)

Anyway, yeah, I recommend finding a food tour to do in Istanbul right away, especially if it takes you from one side of the water to the other. That way you'll learn a lot, you'll eat a lot, and you'll already be sorted out for how to get around the city and on the ferries.

When it comes to the food, there's a straight up laundry list of things to try in Istanbul (which is why this not be including anything other than Turkish food and restaurants).

Pide is a kayak-shaped pizza that comes in all kinds of savory flavors. The best ones I had were at Kuveloğlu Han.

Lahmacun is a thinner, pan-shaped pizza topped with spices and ground meat and/or vegetables, which you roll up in your hand to eat. A nice cost to taste ratio of this dish is achievable at Kadikoy Lahmacun Dukkani.

Simit is a ring-shaped bread resembling a pretzel that's typically topped with sesame seeds and cream cheese. You'll find this being sold by the carts on the streets near most of the tourist spots in town.

Hamsi tava (fried anchovies). This is the kind of thing that you gotta try for fun (just because you're in Istanbul) whether you like fish or not. You can find these at a restaurant as a full-on appetizer platter with other sides, or if you're bold enough you can get them straight from street vendors and eat them with nothing but a squeeze of lemon juice on top.

If that's not appetizing enough for you, there's always the tried and true döner kebab, although here at 100 Flights we all know that the best döney balöneys are found in Berlin (where the Turks brought and perfected them).

Meanwhile in Istanbul, they've seemingly been focusing on perfecting the art of Turkish coffee-making, which is a complete way of life. There are several different varieties and styles of preparing it (with or without spices and/or other ingredients such as roasted and crushed almonds), but the traditional method for brewing pure Turkish coffee requires the use of a small copper pot called a cevze. Could be a good souvenir for destroying your kitchen back at home in a science experiment.

When it comes to restaurant fare, most menus will include a variety of traditional small-plate dishes called Meze, which are kinda like Turkish tapas. A good place to try these is Asmalı Cavit.

Many meze are served cold, such as the eggplant and tomato based shakshouka, or the stuffed vine leaves called dolma and/or pazi sarma, while some of them are served hot, like the Turkish meatballs called kofte, and the all-time classic şiş aka shish kebab.

(Side note: In Turkish, 'shish' means skewers while 'kebab' means to roast or to grill meat, so they're not kebabs, they're shishes.)

By the way, despite the meat dishes being among the most well-known outside of Turkey, a lot of this meze stuff is vegan and/or vegetarian, so it's fairly easy to find those options around town with minimal effort. Babel Cafe is a good one, and they even have kunefe (a sweet cheese pastry dessert), which is certainly not vegan, and I didn't try it at Babel, but the fact that they have it reminds me to say that I did try kunefe at Asi Künefeleri, which has a few different locations around town.

Another solid recommendation for vegans is Wegain, which even offers vegan baklava (the famously sweet filo dough pastry).

All in all, (in my experience) it's pretty hard to go wrong with the food in Istanbul. I mean, I'm not someone who particularly likes super sweet foods, but I liked the baklava with pistachio. I'm also not someone who particularly likes pickles, but I liked what I tried at Özcan Turşu (Ozcan Pickle).

Having said that, there is one thing I would recommend to stay away from (or to have different expectations about), which is the Turkish delight, which is a starchy jelly candy that they sell pretty much everywhere. I feel like calling it a 'delight' is a bit of a misnomer (like how Greenland is mostly ice), and the host of my food tour said it's pretty much impossible to find a good one to take home despite how they all come in souvenir boxes.

Some other places I recommend include Aheste is a really cool spot for a dinner on the fancier end of things. The interior is especially neat because it's in an really nice old building with exposed stone walls. It's pricey here but reasonably worth it.

Çiya Sofrasi in Kadikoy has a rotating variety of small daily Turkish appetizer/tapa dishes (called Meze) with some real winners in it. The head chef was apparently featured on a Netflix show that I haven't seen, but the fangirl who took a selfie with the owner when I was there must have.

Speaking of celebrity chefs, the infamous Salt Bae has an insanely expensive restaurant in Istanbul where he made all those viral videos. That guy has milked his fame for so long that I bet he could feed, like, a thousand stray cats with all that milk.


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