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Turkey Travels: Exploring Istanbul Part 2

Typically when travelling to Turkey, if you’re doing multiple cities via internal flights, travel agents will advise you to stay a night or 2 in Istanbul before moving on to Cappadocia or elsewhere. This is just in case there are flight delays on the international flights which does happen and then you end up missing your internal flights if you’re travelling the same day. I would further say, break up your trip into staying in Old Town for the first part of your stay and then a few days in Taksim for the latter when you return to Istanbul.

Taksim is on the European side of the Bosphorous. As the heart of modern Istanbul, it is home to Galata Tower, Taksim Square and the famed Istiklal Street. We took the Metro from Old Town to Taksim to visit Galata Tower.

The Metro runs underneath the Bosphorous from the European side to the Asian side of the city, and is a better option than the tram, which has change-overs on this route. The metro is a quick 20-minute ride straight to Taksim and cost us about R15 each. A big difference from the car taxi we took from Taksim to Old Town on a different day which cost us R150.

We emerged from the metro straight up onto Taksim square. A huge and busy intersection of commuters, hotels and restaurants dominated by the new Taksim Mosque which is still under renovation. The square forms a hub from which narrow roads fan out into the rest of the city. One of these roads is Istiklal street, a busy pedestrian boulevard lined with 19th-century buildings, home to shopping malls, cafés and boutique stores. You can walk all the way down Istiklal street which will take you right to the Galata Tower.

The walk down Istiklal street is a treat. There is a great vibe and much to see. Branded clothing shops are everywhere and there are always sales happening. So if you’re that way inclined you can get your brands on the cheap. Though I am told Cevahir Mall Istanbul and 212 Power Outlet (Istanbul’s Access Park) is awesome for shopping original brands at low prices.

We spotted maybe 3 Hafiz Mustafa dessert shops along this boulevard. A must-do for Turkish desserts. There’s also Mado which is known for desserts. We stopped at Hafiz Mustafa and had chocolate Kunefe and a variety plate of pistachio and walnut baklava. While the chocolate Kunefe was yummy, I still prefer the traditional version. We chased this with deep dark Turkish coffee and I tried a one with Gum Mastic. It had a very interesting flavour, like a cross between vanilla, mint and anise.

Just before we got to Galata Tower, we stumbled upon one of the new #Saltbae franchises. Different from the original Nusr’et restaurant this one is more casual serving only burgers but the food is no less delicious. Breakfast felt like a long time ago, so lunch it would be before we headed to the Tower.

It seemed small inside with a typical fast food joint feel but it actually goes up 3 levels. A huge mural of the famed Instagram sensation and chef dominates one wall sprinkling salt over the table below. The size of the mural seems to echo the size of the ego of an otherwise physically diminutive man. Though kudos to him for building an empire around his social media fame.

We had the Vaccine Burger which is dramatically injected with a cheese sauce through a huge syringe at your table, the Saltbae burger in a charcoal bun and the steak sandwich. While the New York branch has gotten terrible reviews we thoroughly enjoyed everything at this branch. The burgers were generous and full of flavour. The gimmicky black gloves that come with every meal were a fun aspect and we just went with it. No need to wash hands afterwards. Prices were not bad at all though we were expecting something outrageous based on what the original Nusr’et charges.

Entrance to Galata Tower was about R175. It’s not as impressive a structure as you might expect but the views from the top are amazing. You have a 360 deg view over the entire Istanbul. There is a lift that takes you up where you can read up on some of the history of the tower. Then you brave the tourists and Instagrammers on the viewing platform to get your own Insta-worthy pics before heading down the stone cavern-type stairs, stopping on each flight for snippets of history and eventually souvenirs.

No experience of Istanbul is complete without tasting the spiritual side. You cannot walk a block without encountering a mosque, a Khanka (or Tekki) as it’s known, or the mausoleum of a Sahaba or Saint. Prior to us leaving for Turkey, hubby learnt about a zikr group that meets on Thursdays. It was just a few blocks from our hotel so off he went before Eshai at 10.30 pm. The zikr was attended by hundreds of people at the Jerrahi Halvati Tekki in Fatih district. A memorable evening to say the least.

This tekki has South African significance as the same place where Dr Imtiaas Suleman was instructed by the Sheik Muhammed Safer Dal Effendi to establish Gift of the Givers. After the event he walked back to the hotel around midnight along streets still busy with people shopping or having late-night meals on the sidewalk.

Princess Islands was part of the tours we booked via our agent. As a full-day tour I would not recommend this excursion. We were part of a tour that included a large group of Arabian people. The boat trip from the mainland to the island was over an hour and this tour seemed to have a DJ and entertainment as part of the package. Pretty soon, the Arabian music was pumping and a group of people were on the dancefloor pulling out the Arabian dance moves. It was very high-energy and fun to watch. Even little children and some older people got into it.

The island itself is picturesque, but there is no real beach. The main waterfront where we docked was a busy hub teeming with tourists, restaurants and souvenir shops. If you’re looking for a tranquil island experience which we were told it would be, this is not quite it. Perhaps off-season it gets a bit quieter. You have about 2 or 3 hours of free time on the island to wander around and see the sights. We soon needed to find facilities and found public toilets are available at the waterfront for a small fee.

Lunch was provided on the boat itself, canteen style. The fresh fish lunch I was expecting was in fact more typical meaty Turkish food. I would recommend you rather book a shorter tour where lunch is provided at one of the island restaurants or you have the option of getting your own lunch on the island. Unlike me, make sure you ask a lot more questions about your tours.

One of the street foods you will find in Turkey is fresh mussels sold on the shell with rice. We got to try this on the island. If you enjoy mussels or oysters you will enjoy this, sprinkled liberally with fresh lemon juice and eaten straight off the shell. 

I’ll end off my Istanbul round-up with our rather strange hunt in the dark for Nusr’et restaurant. We left trying out the famed Turkish chef and restaurateur, Nusret Gökçe, better known as internet sensation Salt Bae’s restaurant for the latter part of our stay as it was near our hotel and located inside the Grand Bazaar. We knew the Grand Bazaar closes at around 6 pm but the entrance closest to Nusr’et usually remains open till late. So we took a walk down the road at about 9 pm, no reservations needed as they don’t take any. But the Grand Bazaar’s main entrance was closed. Upon calling the restaurant they advised us to use the entrance nearest the Nuruosmaniye Mosque but were not very helpful with directions. We put it into Google Maps and started walking.

Now bear in mind the Grand Bazaar has 22 entry gates. And every time we reached a gate, it was closed and we would have to re-calculate. After about 15 minutes of this, tensions got the better of our moods and some grumbling and snapping ensued. It was dark, and the narrow roads just seemed to get more confusing. Sometime later we passed a homeless woman and gave her some money. Our sadaqah seemed to do the trick. We must have looked lost, for she asked us if we were looking for Nusr’et restaurant, and pointed us in the right direction, which happened to be just around the next corner. At last!

The restaurant is huge. Dramatic open spaces with a cave-like stone finish, triple volume ceilings and enormous glass chandeliers set the tone. I think because it was the night before Eid, we did not have to wait in a queue. We were seated straight away on the mezzanine, allowing an eagle’s eye-view over the impressive space below. The atmosphere is slick and fast. The waiters are efficient and serve meals with flourishes that emulate Saltbae’s Instagram style. It’s what most people are here for after all.

The menu includes gold leaf covered steaks and even dessert at eye-popping prices as well as regular steaks without gold leaf at slightly less eye-popping prices. It’s all meat, so don’t expect a variety of anything but meat. We ordered the Fillet medallions and Nusr’et Burger and I wanted the Dallas steak which they sadly did not have. The other steaks were very large portions so I opted for the Veal Entrecot, which I have never tried before. We had the onion flower and sauteed mushrooms as a side to share.

The fillet and burger were both perfection. The veal for me was a disaster. I don’t enjoy fatty meat. The veal had ribbons of fat running through it and was way too rare for my taste even though I requested in medium. The onion flower was a visual treat and a perfect pairing to the steaks. This modest meal hit us in the pocket at about R1800, but we now have the proverbial T-shirt.

Please note that Nusr’et restaurant is not fully halaal as they serve alcohol. I had been wondering if I needed to ask when dining out in Turkey whether the food is halaal. I was told early in my trip that all the meat in Turkey is halaal. It is possible to find things like pork but it is in the more remote, or rural parts of the country. However, alcohol is served at many of the restaurants and I did not spot halaal certification at any of those that didn’t serve alcohol. At one or 2 restaurants there were menu items described as bacon. When I enquired about this I was told it was beef or lamb. The wording is used to make it familiar for tourists I guess.

There’s so much more to see and do in Istanbul. If you have kids, there’s also Legoland and the Aquarium. Make sure to incorporate some kid’s stuff as all the sightseeing and history will only amuse them for so long.

Next week you can catch another instalment of my Turkey trip. I’ll tell you all about Cappadocia and what you can expect in this unique landscape of cave homes and hot air balloons.

Related:

Planning your trip to Turkey

Turkey Travels: Exploring Istanbul Part 1 (Old City)

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