8 Ways Turkey Is Nothing Like You Expect

A Mosque at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

With the recent protests in Turkey the country has been launched into the news for the second time this year.  As many of you may recall Turkey was previously in the spotlight when a female American backpacker was murdered.  These events have built upon existing misconceptions and stereotypes about Turkey which are grossly inaccurate. They lead a lot of tourists to rule both Istanbul and Turkey out as a viable travel destination.  A year and a half ago I booked a ticket to Istanbul.  I had no clue what to expect. All I knew was what I had heard from trusted friends, travel bloggers, and my brother. Each insisted it was a must-visit destination. I was anxious. It was my first Muslim country.  I was nervous about what to expect and torn about booking the ticket even after I locked in my flight.  Boy oh boy did I have Turkey pegged wrong!  Not only did I enjoy Istanbul, but I fell in love with it. So much so that this past March I returned for my second visit.  If you’re like most western tourists, what you know about Turkey is flat out inaccurate. So, let’s dive into eight of the common misconceptions I hear most often.  I’ll focus mostly on Istanbul, but this information holds true across western and central Turkey.

Women Relaxing - Istanbul, Turkey

1. Turkey: The Extremist Muslim Country

For many westerners who have lived in countries dominated by Judeo-Christian tradition, the thought of visiting a Muslim country is a bit unnerving.  Especially in light of the tensions that have arisen between Islamic groups and Judeo-Christian groups over the last two decades. Tell someone that a country is Muslim and automatically images from movies like Aladdin merge with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – all weighed within the context of terrorist hostage videos, Al Qaeda, and suicide bombers.  Other stereotypical imagery that comes to mind is that of streets filled with burka-clad women, and entire cities coming to a complete halt five times a day to bend knee and pray towards Mecca.

While things are changing (perhaps for the better, or perhaps for the worse) in Turkey, one thing is certain.  Istanbul and large portions of Turkey, while Muslim, are nowhere as extreme as most of us have been led to believe.  You will find women in burkas, true, but you will also find women in burkas here in Copenhagen. In practice, I was shocked by how few women were actually wearing hijabs or burkas. While it varies depending on the part of Istanbul you’re in, the number of women dressed in burkas was only slightly higher than what I am familiar with in the Norrebro neighborhood where I live here in Copenhagen.  It IS more common to see women with head scarves of some sort, but these are often moderate Muslims roughly as spiritual as your typical American Christian.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, is deeply respected and holds a George Washington like status for the Turks.  The Turkey he established was structured to be a secular and democratic nation-state.  The Turkish Government has, as a result, actively worked to discourage fundamentalism and religious influence on government. Turkish currency features great scientific minds and scientific subjects.  The 10 Lira note features a mathematics equation, while the 5 lira note features the atomic symbol and a strand of DNA.  This level of secularism and visible declaration for science is something that puts even the US to shame and offers insight into the compelling contrasts that define Turkey.

When re-framing my understanding of Turkey and the Turks, I like to take a historical look at the origins of Istanbul.  It is easy to forget that Istanbul, formerly Constantinople and before that Byzantium, spent the majority of its formative years as the capital of the prosperous Eastern Roman Empire. It was not until the 1400s with the Ottoman conquest that Christianity took a back seat in Istanbul to Islam.  While Istanbul is predominantly Muslim there are still more than 120 active churches and around 20 active synagogues in the city.

Religion in general, and Islam more specifically has and continues to play an important role in shaping Turkey.  It is not, however, something that tourists should be concerned about or feel endangered by. Just remember that when you treat people as individuals matters of faith, nationality, or race tend to be far less divisive.

The Maiden's Tower and Lighthouse

2. Turkey Is An Arab Country

One of the things that frustrates Turks is the common misconception by outsiders that Turkey is an Arab country.  Turkey is not, in any way, an Arab country.  In reality out of nearly 79 million Turkish citizens only 2% are Arabs.  Compare that to Brazil where 3% of the population is Arab or France where a full 9% of the population is Arab.

Turks have a strong national identity.  They speak Turkish and associate more closely with Europe and European culture than with the Arab world. The country also has a very complex power dynamic and somewhat difficult national identity due to the massive geographic area it covers and its historic position in the center of one of the world’s greatest cultural crossroads.  This clash of cultures is a fascinating subject which can be a topic which necessitates tactful discuss with Turks, and which makes for incredible reading and a rich culture.

Best Friends - Bodrum, Turkey

3. You Can’t Drink Alcohol

For many of us, understanding the relationship between Muslim countries and alcohol is a bit confusing. At the end of the day, we don’t really care about the specifics. We just want an affordable drink that doesn’t get us arrested, thrown in jail, or force us into doing something illegal.  Many of you have no doubt heard horror stories about trying to get a drink in Saudi Arabia, about booze delivery services in Iran, or about how locals and tourists have different rights of access to bars and booze in Dubai. I had no idea what to expect in Istanbul, so it was with quite a bit of surprise that I learned upon arrival that alcohol is readily available in Turkey.  While it is quite expensive by local standards it is still affordable very affordable. Beer is readily available in most cafes, particularly in tourist-oriented areas. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Turkey has several national breweries. Of these, the largest is Efes Beverage Group. You also have a vibrant club and bar district situated around the Taksim area just off Istiklal Avenue in downtown Istanbul.  You may recognize Taksim from news articles about the current protests.  It’s one and the same and while this has impacted the immediate area surrounding Taksim it has done little to stifle the greater tourist experience.

The Taksim area at night is a fantastic mixture of hip bars, restaurants and night clubs.  I was shocked to see that young folks would often walk from bar to bar with an open beer in hand. While not strictly legal enforcement seemed to be minimal.  You’ll also find beer, wine and hard alcohol readily available across the rest of Turkey.  When visiting Cappadocia we had several lovely local red wines and in areas like Antalya or Bodrum a few beers on the beach is an absolute must.

Tulips in Bloom - Istanbul, Turkey

4. People Are Rude

I was expecting the people to be rude, pushy, and constantly trying to take advantage of me. In particular I was dreading the shop vendors and street merchants. I wasn’t alone.  I’ve heard time and time again that people have avoided Turkey out of a fear of dealing with the merchants.  Boy was I wrong.  The Turkish people are incredible.  They are warm and the culture revolves around hospitality. You’ll drink more tea than you can bear and while occasionally merchants have an agenda – they’ll saddle you with a steaming hot cup of chai and then try and convince you to buy something while it cools – most are just happy to have a conversation with you in the hopes you consider their products.  They also tend to be very curious about you, your family, and how you are enjoying their country. Similarly, most of the merchants are respectful and nowhere as aggressive or high pressure as you might fear. The exception to this is in the extremely touristy areas such as the Grand Bazaar where high pressure sales are slightly more common. Even there though, they were nowhere near as pushy as I expected. You can read about my first intro to Turkish hospitality here.   I’ve found that many open and friendly folks tend to be members of the Kurdish minority.  These individuals in particular are extremely friendly to the US and Americans.

The Grand Bazaar - Istanbul, Turkey

5. Turkey Is Dangerous

Turkey is quite safe. There are some subtle cultural differences that people should keep in mind, women in particular, but those considerations are quite similar to many other parts of the world. When you consider Istanbul’s size – 13.5 million officially, 18 million unofficially – and compare it to other major metropolitan areas I felt as safe, if not safer in Istanbul than I do in Los Angeles, Phoenix, New York, or other large American cities.  The rest of the Turkish cities you’ll likely visit as a tourist: Cappadocia, Antalya, Bodrum, Izmir, etc. are all extremely safe.  Even now, in the midst of the turmoil and protests, the majority of the tourist areas are unaffected and I would not hesitate to plan a trip back to Turkey.

Church of the Holy Savior in Chora

6. Turkey Lacks History

Istanbul is, in effect, Rome’s sister city. It is, without question, one of the world’s greatest historical cities.  Yet, somehow, it is largely overlooked. The combination of ancient history, Roman history, and Ottoman history combines with Turkey’s central position to provide a spectacular assortment of historical, culinary and cultural attractions. You need at least 5 days to see Istanbul properly. Visits to other parts of Turkey will require a similar amount of time as there are incredible Crusader castles, historic Greek ruins, and wonderful Roman artifact collections scattered all over the countryside.

Busy Turkish Streets - Istanbul, Turkey

7. It Is Primitive

Another misconception a lot of people have is that Turkey is poor and/or relatively primitive. Many assume that the country has more in common with developing nations than fully developed ones.  While this holds true in the country’s most rural areas, and on the outskirts of some of its larger cities, it is grossly inaccurate when discussing the country’s western half.  Istanbul has a vibrant transit system, and is every bit as modern a city as those you’ll find across other parts of Europe. They have a prolific number of state-of-the-art shopping malls, new theaters, international airports and a thriving business center.

The Turkish Spice Market - Bazaar, Bodrum, Turkey

8. Squat Toilets Are Everywhere

While it sounds silly to say, there are a lot of tourists who avoid countries out of concerns over their bathroom conditions. The good news is, you’ll very rarely find a squat toilet in the modern parts of Turkey.  What you will find periodically are water hoses to supplement the toilet paper for those who have a preference one way or the other. The handicapped stall which is present will also always be a traditional western-seated toilet. So, have no fear, Turkey is a western-friendly toilet destination.  Just make sure you pack a little backup paper just in case.

Istiklal Avenue - Istanbul, Turkey

Turkey is an incredible destination.  I now find myself recommending Turkey in the same breath as places like Scotland’s Isle of Skye, Prague, Central Italy and Budapest. It will defy your expectations and leave you breathless.  Don’t wait to head to Turkey – I can promise you, it is far less of a heart palpitating adventure than you might expect.

While these are eight of the most common concerns and misconceptions I hear, there are many more.  If you have a question of your own, or have something to add, please share it in the comments.

The Busy Bosphorus – Weekly Travel Photo

Waiting Ships at Sunset - Istanbul, Turkey

The Bosphorus has served as one of the world’s great maritime thoroughfares for thousands of years.  One aspect of Istanbul that always captures my imagination and fascinates me is the long cue as ships rest moored at the mouth to the channel while awaiting the green light to pass through the heart of the city.  This photo was captured at sunset from the Kadikoy ferry as we left behind the docks of Istanbul’s Asian side and steamed across the Bosphorus, ducking and dodging large tankers and cargo vessels, back to the European side where our hostel was located.

Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Weekly Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Turkey’s Riviera and the City of Bodrum

Bodrum Fortress and Harbor - Turkey

As the tepid water runs across my extended fingers in the bathroom in my small Pensiyon in Bodrum I find it a fitting parallel.  The shower head is in need of a soak with most of its nozzels obscured by calcium deposits. The water itself is slowly warming to the touch, though I can’t truly tell if it is just my flesh adjusting to the luke-warm water, or if hot water has finally made its way up to the third floor of the building and to my room.

Masts in Bodrum Harbor - Turkey

The room itself is unremarkable.  Despite a higher than normal number of errant black hairs on the sheets, it is clean enough.  After a sniff to confirm that the sheets are, in fact, freshly washed (they are), I settle in.  It’s nothing special – but then again, it’s a Pensiyon in a beach town.  That’s what you would expect. At 40 Turkish Lira a night, the private room with a small Queen sized bed is a decent alternative to the local hostel, which boasted one of the lowest ratings I’ve ever seen on HostelWorld and HostelBookers.  The bed is comfortable enough, though too short for me to sleep in it normally. Luckily, I’m not sharing the bed with anyone which allows me to sleep sprawled diagonally across it.

Turkish Butcher - Bodrum, Turkey

My room seems the perfect parallel for my time in Bodrum.  I go through phases where my opinion of the city is stone cold, then others where it warms slightly, and then the occasional moment, albeit brief and fleeting, where I am hot for the city and feel tempted to advocate it and the surrounding area.  It’s not really Bodrum’s fault.  As with oh-so-many relationships it’s more that we’re just not an ideal match and that my timing is off – in this case by a matter of a few days.

The Shipwreck - Bodrum, Turkey

This city and those on the rest of the peninsula are resort cities.  They consist of overpriced restaurants  gimmicky nick nack shops, sprawling harbors full of gorgeous yachts, specially designed tourist boats, and a smattering of local fishermen’s multi-colored one-man boats.  It has a smattering of pebble beaches that ring crystal clear water that is so inviting it’s easy to forget that summer hasn’t quite yet arrived. Unfortunately, this time of year the beaches are littered with old construction materials, debris, and unattractive flotsam.

Colorful Fishing Nets - Bodrum, Turkey

The challenge is, I don’t like resort cities.  I’m not an all inclusive resort type of guy.  I also don’t like gravel beaches. I grew up on the golden sand beaches of northern Mexico and am perpetually spoiled.  I go stir crazy if i’m supposed to just sit by the pool (or seaside), drink, eat, and do nothing.  I’m a history and stimulation junky.  I need old streets to explore, pristine natural beauty, and rich culture that smacks of authenticity – not postcard-poised tomfoolery.   As a result, all of Bodrum’s greatest assets are things that I’m disinterested in and apathetic about.

Boat Sailing Sea of Flowers - Bodrum, Turkey

When deciding to head to Bodrum, I failed to realize just how new the whole area is.  It’s a resort peninsula and it is fairly obvious that most of the construction has occurred in the last 30 years.  Even today there is heavy construction to be seen everywhere.  The hills are blighted by massive white and beige scars where new developments are being dynamited into the side of the hills.   The architecture that has been used and marks the area reflects modern Turkish design which revolves around ugly squares and rectangles.  It’s an odd mash up between old soviet architecture, the nightmarish cement architectural movements in the 60s and 70s and an almost Asian influence.   On the upside, the use of whitewash on almost all the buildings does help offset their lack of character. Yet, this is far from unusual.  It’s the same in heavy resort areas all around the Mediterranean and reminds me of parts of the Costa Del Sol in Spain. It’s also perfectly in line with what a lot of people want and are drawn to.  There’s a reason Bodrum is a huge tourist destination and for what it is, it really does have a lot going for it.

Sailing at Dusk

If you peruse a history book, you’ll find that Bodrum has a rich history spanning back thousands of years.  The city sprawls around the base of an impressive, and extremely attractive crusader castle which is highly unusual and the city’s defining landmark.  The streets in the city center are white marble and boast a fair amount of greenery.  They’re not unattractive, and have a clean feel to them.  There are even a few winding alleys and old side streets that cut between them and which tease of the historic city that Bodrum is built upon.  Yet, unlike Antalya which still boasts a fairly robust old city, Bodrum’s is more or less non-existent. Its main attractions can be seen in a matter of hours, and despite boasting the ruins of one of the ancient 7 wonders of the world, all that is left is a smattering of column chunks…most of the ruin was carted off by archaeologists and by the Crusaders who built the Castle.  Bodrum knows what it is, and seems to have committed to that identity fully focusing on the water and all that is connected to it.  There are a line of old windmills that overlook the city – the type of thing that the Greeks have leveraged to great success and which could be a not-insignificant tourist attraction.  Yet, only one of them is restored, and even that is in dilapidated shape.  The rest are more ruin than windmill and in such a sad state that they’re barely worth the visit, let alone a photograph.

Castle Peacock - Bodrum Castle, Turkey

And yet, I came to Bodrum largely for the sun and it has delivered. The moments I’ve enjoyed most here have been, perhaps unsurprisingly, when the sun was out.  The sunsets are beautiful, the food is delicious, and the water…well, the water is its own attraction, even if it is still too cold to swim.  I’ve entertained myself by day wandering the city, eating, and then relished the late-afternoons which I’ve spent at small beach-front cafes enjoying a beer, smoking my pipe, watching people, and the gradual shifting shades of Aegean sunsets watched against the backdrop of castles and sailboats.  It is a fantastic way to recover and recharge after Denmark’s long and dark winter. Forcing myself to slow down and to just relax also has its benefits.  It may bore me slightly, but it is no doubt good for me.  I can feel myself finally catching up on sleep, and that my mind is sorting through and planning things that have been pushed to the side as more pressing needs draw my attentions.  I’ve even managed to finish the latest Game of Thrones book and to do some recreational reading.

Bodrum Windmills - Turkey

At night the city’s fish market turns into an intertwined and charming combination of fresh fish stalls and chaotically organized restaurant tables overflowing with Turks, Russians and Germans.  The official tourist season started April 1st – the day after I departed – which meant that all of the secondary attractions (the hamams, some restaurants,  the ferry to Rhodes, etc.) were all shut down.  The city’s nightlife was also much less than I imagine it might be during high season.  Despite how quiet the town was, I did manage a day-trip to the nearby Island of Kos which was charming, if equally sleepy. At some point I’ll have to re-visit Bodrum during high season and with friends or a romantic partner in tow.  I suspect that if I do, I’ll enjoy the city in a whole new way.  So, Bodrum – I bid you farewell … until next time.

Turkey at Sunset and the Hoboroll – Weekly Travel Photo

A Ship at Sunset in Antalya

In celebration of my recent return from Turkey, here’s a flashback to last year’s trip.  I’m in the process of editing more than 20gb of photos from this year’s trip, so you can expect to see new shots later this week.

This photo was captured in the storied city of Antalya along Turkey’s southern coast as the last rays of sunset cast a golden shadow on the peaks across the bay.  As luck would have it, one of the local sailing ships was in the midst of a sunset cruise, and in so doing lent its silhouette to this photo.  The colors were incredible, especially as the rays of light cut between the mountain peaks and filled the valleys with a plethora of different colors, all filtered through the slight haze brought about by the cool ocean air mingling with the warm afternoon sun.

The Hoboroll – Product Review

Just before I left for my Austria and Turkey trip, the folks at Gobi Gear reached out to me and asked if I’d try out a complimentary version of their Hoboroll product after seeing a piece where I talked about using plastic bags to help organize and separate clothing inside my backpack.  Somewhat skeptical that it would be significantly better than my trash bags, I decided to give it a try on my most recent trip.  The Hoboroll is basically a lightweight fabric tube with cinch cords on both ends and which is divided into a series of interior compartments. It also has several straps around the outside and reminds me a bit of the bag you put a sleeping bag into.  In short, it’s a simple and clever idea and a great solution to the problem most of us have.  Especially those of us using backpacks that only open at the top.

After using the Hoboroll on my 23 day trip, I’m happy to say that it’s a great product.  I kept and used it throughout the trip, and found it made life easier.  Especially when it came to getting access to the bottom of my pack.  I was able to pull the Hoboroll out, and then access large and less used items such as my snowboarding pants,  sweater and spare jeans without needing to re-pack my entire bag.  It also made sorting and separating things like shirts, underwear and socks much easier.  I’ll definitely use it again on future trips, and the light weight nature of it and study construction makes it durable and backpack-friendly.

While it’s not a necessary purchase -you could, after all, continue to use plastic bags – it is a much cleaner and more efficient option.  Depending on how you use your backpack, it may make sense as an addition to your packing list.

You can find out more about the product on the GobiGear website.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

A Harbor Guard Dog in Antalya – Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo

Guard Dog in Antalya Harbor

Along the Turkish Riviera the coastal city of Anatalya is home to resorts and ancient monuments. The city is awash in history, luxury, poverty, and its own special charm.  A regional powerhouse for thousands of years, it also has a wonderful old harbor surrounded by cliff top fortifications.  Still, the fortress walls aside, one of the local fishing vessels had its own security system.  This girl – on what appears to be the “Heya” was rather anxious about the absence of her owner/captain.  While I’m sure she was no-doubt friendly, she was also quite attentive and made sure that those of us lining the harbor docks did’t so much as consider trying to step onto her master’s boat.  I can only imagine that she was quite the intrepid fisherwomandog.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon G11 Camera.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Traditional Construction

Goreme at Night in Cappadocia

On a frozen winter night I found myself walking the streets of Goreme in the Cappadocia region of Turkey.  It’s an unusual place.  A city that has literally been carved into the rocks.  Built in a series of valleys, the rocks have formed natural spires. Some are small, many are not.  Over hundreds of years humanity has slowly hollowed many of those spires into homes, hotels, restaurants, storage buildings and even car garages.

As we walked the city just before midnight, the ice crunched loudly under our boots. It had to be at least -10 Celsius.  Luckily the wind had stopped and the clouds had parted offering us a wonderful view of the city in the moon’s pale white light.   This photo is of a small construction site on the outskirts of town.  It’s hard to know what they were building.  Perhaps a small storage facility.  Perhaps an expansion to the hotel located next door…or who knows, it might be nothing more than a place to store dog food.  Either way, the tools they used offered a special ambiance that was lost in time.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Three Fantastic Places To Eat in Istanbul


Istanbul is a vibrant city full of surprises. One of those surprises is the food. With a decent exchange rate for most North Americans and Europeans it is possible to eat like a king in Turkey on a relatively reasonable budget. As a budget traveler visiting from Denmark where food is ridiculously expensive I decided to splurge a bit. Luckily for me, I was able to connect with a good friend who had already scouted out the city. He introduced me to three restauraunts which were absolutely delightful!  Prices for these meals averaged between 20 Turkish lira ($11 USD) and 30 Turkish lira ($17 USD) with a drink. While far more expensive than the 3 lira ($1.70 USD) kebabs which were available, for what we got, the price was a bargain compared to other European destinations.

Ciya - Great Eats

Ciya Restaurant – Asian Side

Pronounced Chia, this delightful restaurant is located on the Asian side of Istanbul about five minutes from the main ferry dock.  A series of several restaurants, Ciya‘s claim to fame is its amazing regional delicacies from throughout Turkey.  Concerned that traditional foods were being lost, or were unavailable outside their native region, the founder of the restaurant set out to catalog and share Turkey’s rich (and incredibly diverse) culinary palate with Istanbul’s natives and visitors alike.  The relatively small restaurant’s walls are decorated with articles from many of the world’s top food columns offering high praise for the freshness, variety and flair of the Turkish food the restaurant offers.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Despite displaying food in a semi-buffet style format it is all extremely fresh and cooked on the spot in an open kitchen located right as you enter the eating area. Situated across from the stoves and a wide variety of warm foods the staff has set up a cold food buffet with a wonderful mixture of fresh greens and rich Turkish deserts.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

In addition to being fresh, all of the food is awash in color and well presented. Eager to dive in we cast off our jackets, scarves, gloves, hats, and gear (It had been snowing all day) and started to make the difficult decisions about what to eat. The way this restaurant works is based on weight. You pick what you want to sample from the wide variety of choices available, and then a waiter or waitress will weigh it before delivering it to your table.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

As our selections arrived at our table Galen and I quickly realized we had run out of room. The only solution? To dive in and start eating! Despite the time of year (February) ingredients were fresh, the veggies were crisp, and each dish offered distinct flavor and a wide variety of tastes from the sharp sweet-tartness of pomegranate seeds mixed with green olives to the smoother taste of stuffed eggplant. The restaurant boasted a great mixture of local business people and tourists which maintained its relaxed and enjoyable ambiance.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

We rounded out our meal with a complimentary spiced tea with crushed almonds.  It had a rich sweet flavor and absolutely intoxicating aroma. Drinking it was a little bit of a challenge as is usually the case when drinking something with a bit of a crunch – but it served as the perfect preparation before we suited back up and dove into the arms of the waiting snow flurries.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Istanbul Culinary Institute

Located just around the corner from Galata Tower, Istanbul’s Culinary Institute is an absolute delight.  With a very clean/modern design and layout it has a fun but quirky ambiance.  We ducked in for dinner and despite my initial apprehension over what I expected to be expensive food and tiny portions, I was pleasantly surprised.  Be forewarned that the restaurant has limited seating so grabbing a table in high season may be difficult. While the individual plates were reasonably priced, the wine tended to be expensive by city standards.  They also offered a set menu which looked fantastic, but was also more on par with the pricing you would expect in this style and genre of restaurant.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Did I mention that the decorations were entertaining?  Perhaps I should have said slightly disturbing.  While we got a good laugh and solid head tilt out of the artwork on the walls, it may be a bit over the top for some diners.  Especially those who lean towards a vegan disposition. As an interesting side note, all of the diners in the restaurant appeared to be American.  I heard the gentlemen at the table next to us (what appeared to be a group of American politicos from Washington DC) declare that he had been told the trip to Istanbul was worth it for the food at the Institute alone.  High praise indeed!

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

I honestly don’t recall what exactly I ordered.   If memory serves, it was a mixed stew that combined lamb and chicken.This is what arrived and I can tell you that it was delicious, if not earth shattering.  The broth was delicious, the potatoes wonderful, the onions sweet as candy.  The chicken was tender and flavorful, however the lamb was nowhere to be found.  Given it was one of the specials they were offering that evening I’m unsure if it just didn’t make it onto the plate or I misunderstood and the offering was lamb OR chicken stew. Regardless, I obviously was happy enough with what arrived that I couldn’t be bothered to seek clarification.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

This was one of the evening’s other specials.  It was an interesting mixture of tortilla, fresh fruit and meats. The combination was the type you would never expect to work well when read aloud on paper, but which makes for a delicious combination in practice.  As an interesting and random side note – I tried putting a banana in a stew once (similarly inspired), unfortunately that didn’t turn out anywhere near as well as the succulent treat the Culinary Institute prepared for us. Perhaps that’s why I’m a travel blogger and not a world class chef.   But to get back on topic – portions are as shown in the pictures so plan accordingly.  For those looking for a fun and tasty evening on the town – definitely consider Istanbul’s Culinary Institute as an option.  That said, I don’t think I’d fly all the way from D.C. just to try it out – the hole in the walls around Istanbul have much more enticing culinary surprises for those with the time and energy to ferret them out.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

Ficcin – Istiklal Avenue

Located on one of the many side streets that splinters off of Istiklal Avenue, Ficcin is an interesting restaurant that occupies a series of small store spaces along the street. Waiters duck in and out moving from one restaurant location to another.  As you can see in the photo below the small location we were in only had room for three tables and a small bar.  The kitchen was located just around the corner. This added quirk definitely ads to Ficcin’s charm.  As far as I can tell there’s no real difference from room (location?) to room, so find one that has a free table and have at it!

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

The food was largely traditional Istanbul cuisine. The menu was in Turkish so deciphering just what exactly was offered was a bit of a challenge, but there seemed to be a wide assortment of options conveniently priced so that you could easily combine several  into a meal that perfectly suited your mood.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

One of the things I absolutely love about Mediterranean countries is their usage of rice.  While plain rice with a touch of salt and butter is great, mixed rice or flavored rice served as a stuffing is something I can eat until I lapse into a food coma.  I opted for a mixture of stuffed vegetables, though which vegetables I ended up with I’m not exactly sure.  I believe one was a tomato, two were eggplant, and as for the third? No idea.  They were delicious and every bite was loaded with flavor.  The biggest problem I ran into was forcing myself to take small bites.

Turkish Cuisine - Istanbul

For a bit of added substance I accompanied my stuffed surprises with a bowl of beans and lamb.  Apparently beans are one of the things that Istanbul is famous for.  As a result, you’ll find varied been dishes on many of the menus around the city.  It is even possible to find restaurants that specialize specifically in bean dishes.  A bit unusual as a flagship food, but after sampling a variety of different bean plates, one I’ll happily look forward to on my next visit.  This particular dish had a slight kick to it which spiced up the flavor of the beans and highlighted the lamb chunks which were tender and melted apart at the light touch of my fork.

Istanbul is a wonderful culinary city with a wide variety of ethnic foods and flavors.  The prices are reasonable, the food is almost always brilliantly presented and awash in flavor. It is also an extremely lactose-intolerant friendly city.  So, if like me, you have trouble with moderate-high levels of dairy don’t fret!  You’ll find lots to eat!  I hope you enjoy your visit, and that this post has ignited your curiosity – or dare I say hunger – for Turkish cuisine.

Have a favorite place or dish you discovered during a visit to Istanbul?  I’d love to hear about it!

An Unexpected Introduction to Istanbul


I swallowed hard with an expression that was no doubt a mixture of delight and annoyance as I suppressed that small lump clawing its way up into my throat as the airplane descended the final few thousand feet before bouncing down onto the runway. The view out the window was unusual.  What I had initially thought to be part of the city’s sprawl clarified into a veritable armada of dozens of merchant vessels all anchored in line, waiting their turn to traverse the Bosphorus.

Before long the thick rubber tires of the Turkish Airways flight were rumbling along the tarmac soon to be replaced by the high pitched squeak of my shoes on the polished marble tiles of Ataturk International Airport.  Laden with my front and back packs – in total weighing just under 15kg – I wound my way through the airport’s serpentine complex of tunnels, halls, and checkpoints in search of the metro.  It was relatively late. My flight landed just after 9:30PM. Darkness had long since fallen.  I was experiencing that familiar feeling of slight anxiety over finding my way to my hostel, at night, through one of the world’s largest cities.  As usual, I hadn’t bothered to pick up a guide book or a map.  I softly chided myself and wondered – as I often do – if it had been a mistake.  No time to dwell, I eventually found a metro map and paused just long enough to trace my route and take a photo on my phone.  With a map to reference it was time to take the escalator down and into the nearly abandoned metro station.

I didn’t know what to expect.  In a conversation earlier on the flight I’d learned that contrary to the 8-13 million person population I had expected via Wikipedia, the locals all placed the actual figure closer to 19/20 Million.  Nearly double the size.  Guides, tweets, and other travelers had warned me that locals were friendly, but could also be obnoxiously pushy sales people and were prone to running scams.  I had a mental image of the Hollywood versions of the markets in Morocco or Mumbai, filled with in-your-face sales people, large throngs of humanity and more pick-pockets than tourists.    I was on my guard.  Shoulders rolled forward. Thumbs stuck in my front pockets.  I didn’t expect trouble, but I was also dead set on making sure I didn’t find any.

As I waited for the train on the largely deserted platform, I repeatedly checked the map trying to figure out which side would take me in the right direction.  Most metro systems are similar, but there are always subtle differences that take a while to figure out.  Is it a zone system or does it work on a per-line ticket basis?  Does the train stop at midnight or run 24 hours?  How are the signs laid out?  Do they announce stops on the train or do you have to watch each station carefully?  As I worked to figure out each of these key pieces of information, I eventually approached a lone man standing near me and asked to confirm that I was in the right spot, for the right line, in the correct direction.

Luckily he spoke English and was eager to strike up a conversation while we waited, answering my questions and gesturing that we should sit down.  The seats were in one of the darker parts of the station, towards the end of the metro line’s tracks. He chatted away cheerfully and asked me questions about my visit. He seemed friendly and open.  I wasn’t.  I was cautious and guarded, though still striving to be friendly.  But, I followed him the 10 steps or so to the benches and then stood making sure I had an easy route out and away if I needed it. I didn’t.  As we chatted more and I got a better read on him, I grew more comfortable and eventually sat down – still paying close attention to my surroundings.

Eventually the metro arrived and we boarded. He asked me again where I was going and I gave him the general station and route suggested to me by the hostel.  He asked what hostel.  I told him I didn’t remember.  My notes said to transfer a few stations in.  He suggested taking the metro with him to the end of the line, then walking about 150 meters to the tram and mentioned it would cut about 20 minutes off my trip.  I glanced at the metro map.  Both seemed to make sense.  He had been helpful and friendly so far – so I agreed.

We chatted about travel, women, and a taste of politics. All the while I stared out the windows taking in a late night view of Istanbul’s strange mishmash of modern, semi-modern, and ancient architecture.  While my concern over being robbed or mugged had subsided he seemed a bit too friendly and too helpful.  In retrospect, I have to say my perception and reality had been poisoned by the stories I had heard before my trip that biased my expectations.   My new concern was that he’d approach me for money or a tip in exchange for helping me get where I was going. An annoying routine I’ve run into all over the globe.  So, with this concern in mind, as we reached the end of the metro line, and he offered to show me along to the tram station/my hostel if I needed help I resisted saying I was fine and could find it/didn’t want to be an inconvenience.

He insisted on walking me to the tram station at the very least, told me we were in his neighborhood and asked if I wanted to get any food or a beer. I thank him and told him I’d eaten and needed to check into my hostel as soon as possible, as it was already nearly 11:30PM.  As we walked through the snow he gave me his number and told me to give him a call if I had any issues or wanted to connect for a tour around the city.

As we came up on the street tram he explained how it worked.  I expected that this was when he’d hit me up for some sort of tip, as he asked me one more time if I was comfortable finding my way the last leg to the hostel.  I nodded and thanked him graciously for all his help and the delightful conversation, and then fumbled in my pocket for one of the tram tokens I’d purchased at the airport. Before I could find it, and to my complete shock and surprise, he pulled out his metro pass and swiped it for me, and motioned for me to enter.  I was stunned.  Not only had I not been hassled and hit up for money, my first encounter with a local was friendly, engaging, and helpful in every way. I was grinning from ear to ear.

This wonderful experience confirmed once again why it is important to always travel with an open mind…to be friendly to the people you meet and evaluate each situation on its own merits. For my part, I’ll strive to pay his kindness forward and return the favor as I see other travelers struggling or in need of a helping hand.   Remember, you always hear horror stores about a destination, its people, or the experiences you might expect to encounter but, the reality is often vastly different.  For many of us, the nature of our experiences is based on a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Choose to give people the opportunity to surprise you, and quite often they will in wonderful ways.

The remainder of my trip to my hostel was uneventful.  I arrived a bit after midnight with a smile on my face and with my perception of what to expect from the Turks completely re-set and re-framed. Despite the snow falling outside, my mood was as bright as a summer day.  Istanbul and adventure called…but first, I needed a good night’s rest.