The Great City of Istanbul, from A – Z

I just spent an amazing, jam-packed three days in the wonderful city of Istanbul. It was my second trip there, the first being three years ago with my parents, and I dare say I’m in love! I’m even toying with the idea of trying to teach there for a year after my Master’s. Who knows? Perhaps Wrap Me in Phyllo Dough will go Turkish in two years!

Asia – Yes, that’s right! I went to Asia! Istanbul is divided by the Bosphorus river. One side is European, while the other is officially located in Asia. On our last day, Carrie and I took the ferry across the river, and suddenly found ourselves on a new continent.

Blue Mosque – The Blue Mosque is my favorite building in the whole world. I find it so architecturally fascinating and incredibly aesthetically pleasing. It has really come to be the symbol of Istanbul for me.

The Blue Mosque from the outside.

Worshipers washing their feet outside the mosque in the traditional Muslim preparation/purification.

Istanbul is the most photographically inspiring city I've ever been in, and I think some of that appeal comes from the combination of domes with minarets. The two are seen so often together in Istanbul, and besides typifying the remarkable architecture of the city, the contrast creates some really cool images.

The ceiling around the covered part of the Blue Mosque's courtyard is covered in decorations and carvings.

I'm also a calligrapher, and the old Arabic calligraphy all over the city is another of my favorite things about Istanbul. This design is in the courtyard of the Blue Mosque.

Once inside (with my scarf over my shoulders--interestingly, I was told to cover my shoulders only, even though I was wearing a t-shirt and have bright red hair, so I naturally assumed that of all women I would certainly be told to cover my head!), we were able to admire the beautiful decorations covering every square inch of the celing and walls of the mosque. I also love the hanging lights throughout the building.

Only worshipers are allowed past a certain point inside the mosque.

Cousin – Cousin? Cousin? Oh yes. Cousin. My travel buddy Carrie’s cousin, in fact. You know, the one we ran into inside the Grand Bazaar. If this is not proof that we live in a small world, I don’t know what is. To really appreciate this, you must also take into account that Istanbul has an unofficial population estimate of 19 million, and the Grand Bazaar itself is a huge maze of 4500 stands!

Dolmuş – The dolmuş is a form of public transportation in Istanbul. It’s a shared minibus; and I wish I could tell you more than that, but even though I rode on one, I have no idea how it works. We hopped on while trying to get to a different neighborhood on the Asian side, and since we couldn’t communicate at all with the Turkish drivers who didn’t speak English, we only wound up much further from our destination; but, that said, we had a total blast bumping along in the old-fashioned minibus to the beat of blasting Turkish pop, and still managed to engage in seriously giggle-worthy nonverbal communication with our charismatic drivers.

Our dolmuş drivers! They insisted we take a picture while parked precariously sort-of-to-the-side on the road. This was when we still thought we were going in the right direction.

Taken inside the dolmuş, this is one of my very favorite photos from the whole trip.

Efes – Efes is a Turkish beer (seemingly the only major Turkish beer?). And you know what? It was great! It complimented every meal I had it with, and I’d describe it as generic in a good way. It’s not very distinctive, but it goes well with Turkish food and sure helps beat the heat!

Something cold! Yesss!!

Fountain – The fountain located in between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque is one of the coolest fountains I have ever seen! It’s beautiful in the day, but truly spectacular at night, as it lights up in different colors.



Grand Bazaar – How could G not be for Grand Bazaar? The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. With what seems like a million booths and a million ridiculously ostentatious vendors to match, the Grand Bazaar is not to be missed. Make no mistake; you gotta get your game face on. It is packed with tourists and locals to the point where you can hardly move at times, and with so many shiny, colorful things and noisy racket going on all around you, I’d describe it as sensory overload on crack. That said, once you let yourself indulge, it’s a blast! I myself really get into haggling, and I dare say I got some steals with the comeback “But sir, I’m just a poor teacher…” The vendors certainly have their own arsenal of lines, some more business-based than others. Though “Hello my angel, how can I help you spend your money?” and “Darlings, come look at my rubbish!” got us giggling, this year’s grand prize goes to, and I quote, “Come back to my heart, meow meow!”

Braving the crowds on my quest to find the perfect scarf!

Hammam – The hammam is a public bathhouse, known worldwide as “Turkish baths.” You go in, strip down to whatever level of nakedness you feel comfortable with, and get yourself washed and seriously scrubbed by someone else. (If you can think of anything further outside the American comfort zone, please share.) This was my second time at a hammam, and it certainly did not disappoint. Stay tuned for a whole post on my hammam adventure!

Istanbul Is Constantinople – That’s right, They Might Be Giants (and whoever it was who originally wrote this song?); the name “Constantinople” is not exactly a thing of the past. In fact, here in Greece, it’s still called Constantinople (Konstantinopoli, to be exact). Between that and the whole FYROM controversy, my brain is seriously confused with all these dual names!

Jewelry – If you are in the market for some jewelry, Istanbul is the place to go! Everywhere you look, gorgeous necklaces, earrings and bracelets are being sold. In general, Istanbul is a great city in which to buy gifts for friends and family!

I bought earrings for some of the new friends and colleagues I have made here in Greece. ...Ok, and some for myself, like these ones! (I switched them to clips myself, as I don't have my ears pierced.) The styles on the right are really widespread, and sold for only 2-3 lira (1-1.5 euro!).

Kate & Carrie – My friend Carrie and I met here at the American Farm School, as she’s a student life intern here for the year. Together, we’ve been to Kavala, Xanthi, Drama, Corfu, Athens, Halkidiki, Ioannina, Pilio, Santorini, and now, Istanbul. She’s become one of my best friends, and we are perfectly suited as travel buddies! Though she lives in the eastern part of the States, I know we will keep in touch (including many text messages in Grenglish, I’m sure!) and–who knows?–maybe even come back to Greece together someday!

Carrie and I on our horse cart ride (see below!). The matching aviators only make us cooler, don't you think?

Lanterns – These glass lanterns are sold all over the city, and I just love them! With my usual moth-to-a-light attraction to shiny, brightly colored things, I can’t get enough of them. I bought one on my first trip to Istanbul, and had to exercise some serious self-restraint in order to not buy another one, as I already have too many glass things in my suitcase!

Just gorgeous. I could take pictures of these things all day.

Medusa – Inside the Basilica Cistern, there are two massive stone carvings of Medusa’s head. The whole site is the very best in eerie delights–dark, dank, and complete with ghostly fish swimming through the spotlights in the water, the place will give you the shivers in the best possible way! This was one of my very favorite sites of the whole trip.

So creepy-cool!

The inside of the basilica, brightened by my camera's automatic setting.

Another of my favorite photographs from the trip. This is closer to what it actually looks like down there, instead of the brightened-up version above.

Night bus – I got on a bus on Friday night, and 9 hours later, I was in Istanbul. Not too much happened in the meantime, except for getting out of the bus for passport control once on each side of the border, and “Serenity Now”ing my way through the thunderous snuffling of a small, round child with a nasty cold and poor social judgment on how loudly one should speak when on a bus at 3 AM. You know how in some horror movie scenes, all you can hear is the characters’ terrified heavy breathing? Yeah. Like that. For nine hours. Serenity now!! (By the way, don’t you think this qualifies as an Adventure Face?)

Carrie and I at the start of our ride on the night bus, from Thessaloniki to Istanbul! Naturally, this was before Darth Vader Jr. boarded the bus in Xanthi.

Orchids – Why orchids? Because I drank some! Sahlep is a traditional Turkish drink made from ground orchid roots. It’s sweet, thick and filling, and is served hot with cinnamon on top.

My sahlepi once I mixed in all the cinnamon. Yum! See how viscous it is on the spoon?

Prince Islands – The Prince Islands are a small set of islands off the coast of Istanbul, about a fifty-minute ferry ride out from the Kabataş station. The best part about these islands? Cars are illegal! Carrie and I chose to go to Heybeliada, one of the larger islands. We found a tranquil island with a lovely pine grove, where we spent most of our time while on the island. It was so nice to get out into nature for a bit after the hustle-and-bustle of Istanbul. Even better, it was a prime glimpse of local life, as several families were having a Sunday barbeque in the woods. We even got to see a few women in full black hijab, with only their faces showing, playing with a soccer ball with their kids!

Two little girls helping to prepare the barbeque in the pine grove on Heybeliada, with a view of Istanbul in the distance.

Queue – Or, that is, a lack of one when boarding or disembarking from the ferry. This is common in Greece, too, but it was out of control in Istanbul. Carrie and I had to hold hands to avoid being separated while trying to get seats in the mad rush to board the ferry, and I was nearly trampled while trying to go down the stairs to get off!

Ride – In a horse-drawn carriage, around the island! Y’know, there are some touristy activities that are a total waste of money, and some that are legitimately fun and useful. This was one of the latter. We were able to see much more of the island than we would have on foot in our limited time frame, and I was shocked by how much fun it was!

A view from inside the carriage.

Carrie and I inside the carriage, enjoying the heck out of our short foray into the world of shameless tourism!

Spice Market – The food-based little sister of the Grand Bazaar, Istanbul’s Spice Market is a foodie’s dream. With mountains upon mountains of Turkish sweets, spices, dried fruits and other goodies, I could have spent hours in there (especially because of the free samples!).

Entering the spice market from the Bosphorus side.

Piles of Turkish delight, in flavors like rose (my favorite), pistachio (ooh... my other favorite!) and pomegranate (are they still favorites if there are three of them?).

Various other sweets are heaped at every stand, in towering jumbles of color.

A spice stand. Yet another favorite picture from this trip! (As a side note, I'm not sure what "chicken spice" is, but it seemed to be very popular.)

Turkish coffee – As an avid coffee drinker, I was in heaven sipping a few Turkish coffees during my trip. This one I drank right outside Hagia Sophia.

Hot, rich and... uh oh, please no jokes about how I like my men?

Umlauts are funny. Even the word itself makes me giggle. And Turkish words are full of them: among Istanbul’s neighborhoods are Eyüp, Karaköy, Tünel and the double-whammy of Eminönü.

Vast – The city of Istanbul is 5,343 square km (2,062.9 sq mi) in size. With an official population density of 2,481/km2 (6,425.8/sq mi), you can imagine just how crowded this city is, and just how many people call it home.

Water – Istanbul is a city very connected to its water. Carrie and I remarked again and again how central the Bosphorus seemed to the feel of the city, and just how much of its life is found on its waterfront(s). We even saw dolphins every single day we were there!

The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque skyline at sunset, from our vantage point on the ferry.

Taken on the ferry ride to the Prince Islands.

On our standing-room-only ferry ride back from the Prince Islands.

Yemek is Turkish for food! I know, I’m so mean–I made you wait all the way until the Y’s for all my food photos! Get ready for a big ol’ droolfest, as we did not skimp on the good eats on this trip… in fact, one night I ate so much I very nearly threw up out the window of our taxi on the ride home!! In my defense, Istanbul drivers are crazy, but I definitely overdid it. Whoops. Who wouldn’t with all this lamb?!

Grilled corn is a popular street food snack. It tasted just like popcorn!

My stomach says to taste ALL THE THINGS!, but my brain remembers the taxi ride. I hate my brain. By the way, does anyone else read Hyperbole and a Half? My stomach seems to speak in Hyperbole-and-a-Half comedy now!

Ayran is a salty yogurt drink. It's very salty, but I liked it! We had it right after our Turkish bath adventure, and it was a great way to beat the heat--very cold and refreshing.

Dessert one day (at Ciya--see below!) was a series of unusual savory-gone-sweet preserves--tomato, walnut, some unidentifiable citrus fruit, eggplant, pistachio cream, pumpkin and olive. They all tasted sweet, and were delicious no matter how strange it sounds! We washed it down with thyme-oregano tea.

The inside of the walnut preserves, served with clotted cream.

When we arrived at Çiya Sofrasi, on the Asian side, we got to choose from all these incredible concoctions by simply looking and pointing. This was hands-down the best meal we had. A trip to Istanbul without a meal at Çiya would be a mistake--trust me!

The dishes we chose! From right, a dish with beef and cherries, an incredible stuffed swish chard dish, lamb with chickpeas in a yogurt sauce, a stew with lamb and eggplant and tomatoes, and a very minty lamb and snow pea dish. It was all absolutely excellent. Our favorite was the stuffed swiss chard, but their felafel (not pictured) was the best I've ever had!

Dessert another night--poached quince (the most underrated fruit of all time!) with pistachio and vanilla ice cream.

Lamb kebab!! The surprise here was the white puree on the far side of the plate, which turned out to be eggplant with cheese, milk and nutmeg. It was delightfully sweet and creamy--I'm not a huge fan of eggplant, but I sure would eat it prepared like that every time!

This was one of my very favorite dishes from the whole trip. Spiced lamb was wrapped in a sort of crepe, and then baked with cheese on top. I am making it my mission to try and find a recipe and recreate it when I get back to the US!

This find was a total surprise. Two Turkish friends recommended that we go to the Galata Bridge and try what they called simply a "fish sandwich." It did not disappoint! With fresh bread, mackerel and crunchy cabbage, and optional chili flakes and lemon juice, these little puppies are a great cheap lunch at 4 lira (2 euro) a pop. I liked mine so much I bought one for the night bus ride home!

A very happy Kate and her fish sandwich!

Zaborowska – As in Magdalena J., who wrote James Baldwin’s Turkish Decade. This would have been my side research project if I had wound up in Turkey for my Fulbright, so I decided to do it anyway: I read James Baldwin’s Another Country (which I loved) and then traveled to Istanbul to see more of the city in which he finished it, while reading Zaborowska’s work about his time spent there. (Amazingly, after ten years of struggling with the novel, he finished it on the kitchen counter of a Turkish friend’s house in the middle of a raging party!) The research project would have ultimately been a comparison between Istanbul and the Harlem of Baldwin’s youth (and may still be, if [when] I live in Istanbul!). Her book is adding a whole new dimension to my understanding of Baldwin. As a black queer author writing during the Civil Rights Movement, James Baldwin was a thoroughly complex writer; but his attraction to Turkey, the Turkish friends he found, and the American public’s reaction to his being there (Zaborowska writes that one person she encountered assumed he had gone solely for the seemingly homoerotic experience of the Turkish bath!) all provide key insight into this profoundly interesting literary figure. I highly recommend both Another Country and Zaborowska’s work.

Phew! That was a whopper! If you made it this far, raise your right hand in the air. Are you doing it? Really? Really? Good. Now give yourself a pat on the back from me. You’ve just read my novella about Istanbul. I hope you know the city much better now, and I hope even more you’ve been inspired to travel there yourselves!

And now, back to my regularly scheduled enjoying the heck out of my last week in Greece. Pame! (Let’s go!)

Στην υγειά σας,



About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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6 Responses to The Great City of Istanbul, from A – Z

  1. I always love seeing your travel photos. I love the architecture and the picture of the glass orbs, lights? And you know me. I love seeing all the food and spices.

  2. Spiros says:

    The word Istanbul derives from the Greek phrase “Εις την Πόλη” (Es ten pole) means “To the City”.
    The City ( H Πόλη) (with capital C) was the casual name of Constantinople during the Byzantine times (395-1453) and later until on 1930 the Turkish Postal Office officialy change the name to Istanbul (pretty recent huh?)
    To the city (es ten pole or is tin poli -> istanbul) is the common answer to the Where are you going to? question of those times.
    So dear Kate no need for confusion! Both names are Greek anyway, The first was the official one and the other was the casual reference to the city of Constantinople or just the City. Use the one you like!
    Kisses! S & P!

    The Skopian is a whole different case. Imagine this. How about tomorow the Canadian province Alberta change it’s name to a more appealing one let’s say Montana! Wouldn’t that be nice? How about declare themselves autonomus territory and have thoughts of increasing the infuence their homeland the mighty Montana! Weird huh? well for us this is a reallity!

    PS2: Hot cupcakes are w8ing 4 you!!

  3. thirdeyemom says:

    Wow, your photos look amazing! I went to the Hammam in Morocco and it was unbelievable. I’d love to go to Istanbul. I dream of climbing Mount Ararat.

  4. Pingback: The Wrap Me in Phyllo Dough 100th Post Spectacular! | wrap me in phyllo dough

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