Thursday, 14 March 2013

Istanbul in March

Istanbul in March is the ideal city break. Off-season, you can roam freely without the oppressive swathes of tourists, and experience the city in its natural state. I have been enjoying crisp sunny days, ideal for walking around the city, and chilly evenings that are good few degrees better than London.

This is my fourth time in Istanbul, having fallen in love with it while touring Europe, and staying there unplanned for a month. There was a sense of homecoming about it then, since Elle and I were brought up with three Turkish au pairs over many years who would prepare dishes that their mothers would dictate to them over the phone, this being their first time ‘living out’.

This year I planned 5 days in Istanbul (excluding travel days) and 2 in Cappadocia, which I will blog about later. In this post I hope to tell you where to eat, where to stay and where to shop (the shops are mainly food related though, since I went with my easily bored Mr!). 

Where we ate
Be warned that Istanbul is an expensive city and upmarket restaurants are only a little less than in London. That said, there are some appealing cheaper street food or home cooking style options ideal for lunch on the go or a cosy dinner. Here I give you 2 up/middle market eateries and three cheap options.

Cinaralti Mangalbashi
Altıntepe Mh., 34840 Maltepe/Istanbul

This is on the Anatolian side near the port of Bostanci (where you can get a ferry to the Prince's Islands). Mangal means barbecue and that is exactly what you do: each table is equipped with a pit of burning embers topped by a metal grate on which you cook your own meat. It is a lot of fun and you pick what you want to cook from the in-restaurant butcher. 

We had chicken shish, kofte, lambs heart, cheese stuffed mushrooms and vegetables. Before this we had a selection of mezze chosen from a great big platter that the waiter brings along, and of course, a bottle of Raki. The alinazik (a yoghurt, aubergine, garlic and tomato paste) was particularly scrumptious, as well as our side of gavurdagi salatasi (a walnut crusted salad of pomegranate  tomato, onion, parsley and sumak). 

For pudding we had a baklava-like pudding with melted white cheese in it - sounds strange but it does actually work. The white stuff on top is pistachio-sprinkled curd. The whole three course meal including drinks and coffee came to £22 each. Bargain!

Asmalimescit Mah. Minare Sok. No.21/AIstanbul

Tucked away in a rather trendy bit of Taksim, this tiny restaurant boasts customer service and attention to detail that rivals Tokyo. Their signature chili paste flat breads served alongside everything are replenished before you even near the bottom of their basket and your drinks are assiduously topped up whenever they begin to dwindle. 

The food is equally remarkable since they serve the most tender beef fillet Shish you can possibly imagine, alongside delicious durum (minced meat and salad wraps) and mezze.  All this comes at the price of your average London restaurant and you can easily spend £25 - £30 for shared mezze, mains and a glass of wine. 

The prices seem justified both by the quality of the food and the demand (both times we went there was a queue of Istanbulites waiting for a table!)

Balik Ekmet Salata on Galata Bridge 
(for Fish Kebab)

There are fish kebab vendors all along the Bosphorous but this place is great because you can sit at a table with a perfect view while fish are being plucked from the sea before your eyes, then grilled and stuffed into salad-filled baguettes. The crispy soft fish is delicious with the sweet onion, crunchy red cabbage and salad, and will only set you back 5TL (£1.80)

Beyoglu Ehlitat Lokantasi

Balo SK. 21aIstanbul(Beyoğlu)

This canteen-style eatery may be off-putting in its format (reminds me of school dinners) but the food is far from that, and really, really cheap. For a Kofte (Turkish meatballs), a grilled half-chicken, a plate of ocra, a herby potato dish, cacik (a yoghurt dip) and bread we paid around £3 each.

Otanik Andolu Yemekleri
Istiklal Cad No 170 | BeyoglouIstanbul

This place is on Istiklal Street - the main shopping hub on the European side, making it a convenient shopping stop off or pre drinks fix. It is a one trick pony whose trick (gozleme) is very enjoyable. You can see the Golzeme dough being kneaded and cooked in the window. The mince filled on is the tastiest and only £2.50 or so.

Where we stayed
For first timers I would recommend staying in Sultanahmet so that a lot of the cultural heritage spots are on your doorstep, otherwise around Taksim has great restaurants and trendy side streets.

I booked the Asmali hotel, right in the heart of Sultanahmet for £17 each per night through ebookers. The hotel itself is fine, budget, and with a pretty shoddy breakfast but the best price around by a good way. Even hostels are charging around £30 per person for an ensuite double. 

Where we Shopped

Tatbak Gida Sanayi - Baklava and Turkish delight

Velibaba mah.yakacik cd. no:100 Pendik / STAT

This brand has many branches but we went to the Velibaba one on the Anatolian side. The double stirred pistachio Turkish delight are considered more premium really are divine - chewier than the usual. I also love the rose and the plain yellow ones, as well as a coconut covered dessert made from carrot and orange, whose name I can't remember. Their Baklava is also very good and half the price of any on the European side at 19tl per KG. 


The deli opposite also sells very good quality Turkish olive oil as well as halva, honey, tahini and so on. 

Egyptian Bazaar

This Spice market runs alongside the misleadingly named New Mosque (it is actually 17th century but I suppose everything is new at some point). Spice vendors line the inside of a huge L-shaped building and charge 3 times what a normal spice merchant would. 

However,if you wander down Hasırcılar Caddesi (perpendicular to the market) you will come to a shop with a small selection of spices outside including isot (a type of Turkish pepper with a raisiny taste) priced at 10TL / KG - bargain! On entering, you will see a line of wooden drawers along the left side of the shop containing every spice you could wish for. We bought isot, dried mint, chilli flakes in oil, 10-spice meat marinade, hot paprika, cinnamon sticks and ground pistachio and spent around £10 on big bags of each (more than enough but we were also fulfilling friends' requests). 

Istiklal street - clothes etc.
For clothes shopping Istiklal street is pretty good as is Studio, opposite the Galata tower. There are also lots of vintage shops and boutiques off the side streets.

Sentetik Sezar - vintage 

A little further out is this cosy little unisex vintage shop (with particularly nice business cards) which had some pretty good stuff in it.

Necmi Usta - bespoke dance shoes 

Mis Sokak. Misan Apt
No.7 Kat.5 
Istiklal Caddesi

shoe maker

my old dance shoes

Off Istiklal street, next to a restaurant is a tiny number seven. Through this door is a rusty old elevator which, if you enter and go up to the 5th floor, takes you to Necmi Usta. 

If you dance any Latin dance or Argentine tango this is a dream come true. He makes incredibly well made bespoke dance shoes for just £50. You can design it yourself, choosing the fabric, heel size, style etc. Not only are these only £5 more than regular dance shoes, they last far better and are more secure and comfortable. I got my first pair 6 years ago and I swear by them. This year I have ordered a pair of burgundy suede tango shoes that I will photograph as soon as they arrive. He can deliver internationally so that you get them within a month of ordering.  

What we did
There are tonnes of things to do in Istanbul but some of my favourites are the ancient Cistern with its quirky upside down Medusa heads and 'peacock eyed column', and Istanbul modern which houses a surprisingly good selection of Turkish art from around 1850 up to the present day. 

peacock eyed column
Along Istiklal street there is also Arter, a gallery that often has free exhibitions. We went to one called ‘envy, enmity, embarrassment’ that explored social, cultural and political memory. In the first room is a particularly powerful installation by Hale Tenger: you walk through a passage of luminous blown up photo negatives of wounded soldiers, riots, old women’s faces, posters, policemen and so on. Blood and gun shots glow in their negative whiteness  whereas the bones of decomposed bodies are only to be discovered after looking closely. 

Well on that morbid note - life is short so take a holiday now, in Istanbul, in the low season!