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Allahaısmarladık, Istanbul

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It didn’t seem possible. Had our 91 days in Istanbul really come to an end? I couldn’t believe it, so I opened my journal and counted the pages. Although it felt as though we’d just arrived… although we were still in the process of settling into the city’s rhythm… that was it. Our time in Istanbul had reached its conclusion.

Goodbye Istanbul

Having taken a couple months off after an action-packed 91 days in Idaho, we were unusually well-prepared for our time in Istanbul. We’d read books about the city and watched a few movies set on its streets. We had pored over guidebooks, compiled lists of things to do, and even learned some of the language. Istanbul was the largest city we had yet tackled, and we wanted to hit the ground running.

Over the course of three months, we barely rested. Every day was occupied by a visit to another museum, mosque or church. Taking another ferry ride, exploring a different neighborhood, meeting a new acquaintance, trying out a restaurant or bar… usually a combo of at least three such activities. “No time, no time!” soon became our motto, as we shuffled breathlessly from one sight to the next. Mosque, museum, bar. Ferry, mosque, cafe.

I won’t lie: Istanbul wore us out. In our final weeks, we started to strike things from our list (apologies to Belgrade Forest), in favor of a few more leisurely hours in our favorite hangouts. But the quieter memories will be among those which most endure. Sitting across from the Maiden’s Tower, a light rain tapping onto the umbrella above our heads. Discovering a tea garden in Kadiköy and joining backgammon-playing students in hours-long nargile sessions. Relaxing in Gülhane Park with a simit and a view of the Bosphorus. Listening to the calls to prayer while sipping rakı at a rooftop terrace.

Istanbul is an amazing city, completely unlike any other place we’ve been. There’s so much history here, so many stories. And as we were reminded in our final weekend, Istanbul is not all about the past — it’s vibrantly alive. The Gezi Park protests awakened in us a new respect for the city’s citizens; a liberal, secular minority often at odds with the rest of Turkey. Clearly, this is a people determined to defend their city as a haven for tolerance, environmentalism and modernity in an increasingly conservative and capitalist country.

So, we leave exhausted, but with the knowledge that we’ll never forget our time here, nor look back on it with anything other than warmth. These were three of the most entertaining months of our lives. We learned so much, met so many wonderful people, ate such incredible food, and visited sights which rank among the world’s most amazing… Istanbul has enriched our lives in ways we’ll probably never fully understand. And for that, we can only say “Thanks”.

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July 13, 2013 at 7:21 pm Comments (13)

Istanbul By Night

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Cihangir At Night

After the sun goes down, the usually lively neighborhoods of Istanbul undergo a transformation. Gone are the simit sellers, the shouting schoolkids and the turbulent traffic, leaving behind empty streets, silhouetted minarets and decrepit houses which look all the more haunting by moonlight. Striding down the cobblestone alleys in search of a stiff drink, with your collar up against the wind, you’ll wish you wearing a fedora: Istanbul at night would be the perfect backdrop for a classic film noir.

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July 13, 2013 at 2:57 pm Comment (1)

A Final Batch of Photos from Istanbul

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Istanbul Look

Istanbul is a photographer’s paradise. Both colorful and gritty, beautiful but deteriorated, and filled with people who always seem happy to have caught the camera’s eye. We’ve had a fun time browsing through the tens of thousands of photographs we’ve collected during our 91 days here, and have selected some which show off the many facets of Istanbul. It’s probably impossible to define a city with a few images, but this is our best shot.

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Homeless In Istanbul
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July 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm Comments (4)

The Cats of Istanbul

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It was a common sight in Istanbul. You’d be standing in front of some amazing building like the Hagia Sophia or the Galata Tower, and all the tourists would be completely ignoring it. Their cameras were trained on something cuter than some ancient old structure: a playful pack of mewling kittens.

Istanbul Cat Blog

Istanbul’s street cats are a phenomenon. They’re everywhere in the city; balancing on windowsills, cowering beneath cars, slinking between gravestones, sunning on benches, even relaxing in churches. And despite yourself, despite having sworn that, today, you would not be taking any more cat photos… that the 50,000 pics you’ve already snapped are quite enough… and that, to be honest, your cat picture obsession is starting to alarm you… you see another! And it’s chasing a butterfly, or making a grumpy face, or wrestling with its equally cute little sister, and you just can’t resist.

The city loves its cats. Almost as frequently as the animals themselves, you’ll find little plastic containers of food that people have set out for them. You’ll run across tiny cat houses built to provide shelter during storms. In many other cities, they’d be considered a pest and “dealt with” in some nefarious way, but Istanbul focuses its efforts on caring for them.

During our three months in the city, we must have photographed hundreds of cats. We got to know our neighborhood crew fairly well… there was Stink Face, Whitey and Scab Licker. In May, kittens started appearing, and we even rescued a baby who’d been abandoned by its mother. We have so many cat pictures, we started a Tumblr photo series called Daily Cat Istanbul.

The cats were an unexpected highlight of our 91 days in Istanbul. If you’re in the city, make sure to play with a few… and if you swing by Çukurcuma, say “hi” to Scab Licker for us. He’ll be the one licking his scabs.

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July 12, 2013 at 11:13 am Comments (21)

Addicted to Döner

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Before our arrival in Istanbul, we had no idea how much döner we were about to eat… Ach, who am I kidding? We knew exactly. Scarfing down plate after heaping plate of delicious döner meat was our plan from the very beginning. It’s part of the reason we chose Istanbul in the first place.

Iskender Döner

We had become addicted to döner during the five years we lived in Berlin. Packed into a bun with salad, and slathered with sauce, the German variation of döner makes excellent hangover food. But in Istanbul, it’s served completely differently. Over the course of our 91 days here, we’ve had to open our minds and mouths to unexpected new döner horizons. Oh, how we have grown!

The vertical, spinning cone of meat is found on nearly every corner throughout Istanbul. The apron-wearing cook slicing off thin strips of meat is a beautiful sight, and just might be the quintessential image of Turkey. If you listen attentively, döner falling onto a plate sounds suspiciously like a chorus of angels. Or like the joyful laughter of children.

Usually, the meat on a döner cone is lamb, but you can also find beef and chicken. The standard plate, a porsiyon, is nothing more than slices of meat served with a bit of salad. You can also get it piled on top of rice. My favorite, though, is the İskender variation, which is a specialty of Bursa. This is döner meat served atop heavily-buttered pita bread, and then drenched in yogurt and tomato sauce. With a helping of french-fries mixed in. I just heard your stomach growl! Don’t be ashamed, mine is growling, too.

Çağ Döner

Another interesting variation is the Çağ Döner, where the meat cone has been laid on its side, and is being rotated over a pit of coals. The cook pierces the meat with long skewers, and then cuts the döner slices directly onto them. This is usually served with flatbread and salad.

For a quick bite, we frequently ordered Dürüm Döner, which is like a döner burrito. Just wrapped up meat with salad and tomato, these cost less than the porsiyon, and provide a good fix when you’re in need.

Ah, döner. I love you, but to be honest, it will be good for our relationship if we take a break for a while. It’s not you, it’s me. I can’t control myself when I’m around you, and fall into fits of violent jealousy when I see others eating you. I want you all to myself. And when I look in the mirror, I don’t like the shivering, smear-mouthed mess staring back at me. So for my own good, farewell. But despair not… I doubt it will be long before we meet again.

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July 7, 2013 at 1:07 pm Comments (4)

Public Transportation in Istanbul

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In a city the size of Istanbul, public transportation isn’t just a nice option, but an absolute necessity. So it’s lucky that using Istanbul’s transportation system can be so entertaining. Whether riding a funicular, subway, ferry, tram or gondola (anything, really, except the bus) we almost always had a great time getting around the city.

Tünnel Istanbul

But yes: we hated the bus, and only used it when absolutely necessary. Traffic in Istanbul is horrendous, and riding the bus does nothing to alleviate that. One foggy day, when ferry service had been suspended, we were compelled to take a bus to Eyüp, and sat in traffic for 90 minutes. For five kilometers! On the Bosphorus buses to Emirgan or Arnavutköy, we’d often get so fed up, we’d ask the driver to just let us out. And walking down the coast, we’d easily outpace the bus.

Otherwise, public transportation in Istanbul is great. We loved the trams; both the antique model which taxis up İstiklal Caddesi, and the modern one which connects Kabataş to Eminönü, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. And the metro from Taksim was an excellent way to get to the city’s modern neighborhoods like Sisli and Levent.

We also made frequent use of Istanbul’s two funiculars, or tünels. The underground car which connects Karaköy to Beyoğlu has a cherished spot in the city’s history. It was built in 1875, making it the world’s second-oldest underground metro system (after London’s). Historical and extremely practical. Stepping off a ferry or the tram at Karaköy, you can save your legs a whole lot of stress by tüneling up the hill instead of walking.

A more modern funicular connects Kabataş to Taksim Square, and is just as useful. Our house was only 15 minutes from Kabataş, but we almost always chose to take the Tünel up to Taksim Square and walk down the street back home, even though it added at least ten minutes to the total time. As our stay in Istanbul wore on, we discovered ever more ways to avoid climbing hills.

Gondola Istanbul

We also enjoyed the tiny gondola which stretches over Democracy Park, north of Taksim. Although we had no reason to cross the park, we couldn’t resist sitting down inside one of the antiquated cars. You get a nice view of the Bosphorus and Beşiktaş’s Inönü Stadium during the quick transit.

But our favorite way to travel within Istanbul was definitely the ferries. We hopped on the boats whenever possible. There’s just no better way to see Istanbul than from the rail of a bobbing boat. On longer trips, we’d order a tea, or join locals in throwing bits of simits (Turkish bagels) to the flocks of seagulls trailing behind.

If you’re in Istanbul for any longer than a few days, make sure to invest in an IstanbulKart. It costs a bit more at first, but you save cash on every journey, and the cards are extremely practical. Just swipe at any of the transport options we’ve written about here: ferry, tram, metro, bus, tünel. To recharge the card, look for kiosks that advertise “Akbil”.

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July 7, 2013 at 11:11 am Comments (0)

Modern Mosques

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We visited a lot of mosques during our time in Istanbul, most of which were centuries-old architectural masterpieces built by the Ottomans. But Islam is very much a modern religion, so we felt compelled to check out a couple of the city’s contemporary mosques, one in Kadiköy and the other in Umraniye.

Şakirin Camii

Kadiköy’s beautiful Şakirin Camii, completed in 2009, has the distinction of being the first mosque in Turkey whose interior was designed by a woman. And Zeynep Fadillioglu made sure that the female debut in the world of mosque-design would be something memorable. The Şakirin’s blue mihrab and asymmetrical chandelier are unlike anything we’d seen in other mosques, and the whole place is just lovely. There’s an elegant fountain in the courtyard, and the large cemetery behind the mosque supplies a mournful backdrop.

Hight Tech Mosque

In the neighborhood of Umraniye, across a busy street from Istanbul’s IKEA store, is the defiantly modern Yeşilvadi Mosque. Most reminiscent of a small IMAX theater, this spherical mosque is probably the strangest we visited in Istanbul. A lot of mosques have domes, but this is the first time we’d seen a dome-shaped mosque. It’s just a shame about the location; the Yeşilvadi was completely empty during our visit. Apparently, a trip to IKEA doesn’t leave a lot of time for prayer.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Şakirin Mosque | Yeşilvadi Mosque

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July 7, 2013 at 11:07 am Comments (6)

Smoking Nargile In Istanbul

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A hookah pipe is called a nargile in Turkey. It’s a surprisingly popular activity among Istanbullus of all ages, and we partook in quite a few smoking sessions ourselves. You can order tobacco in a variety of flavors, and spend hours lounging around, smoking and drinking tea.


The nargile has long been a prominent part of Turkish culture, although the introduction of cigarettes led to a serious decline in its stature. Lately, though, it’s been making a comeback among young people. It’s completely different to smoking a cigarette. You take your time with a nargile, and usually smoke with a group of friends. It’s social, and a lot more tranquil than hurriedly puffing down a cigarette as you rush off down the sidewalk.

Besides which, it tastes great. Apple is the mainstay, but you can try cherry, banana, coffee, orange or melon flavors, in addition to many others. Our personal favorite was a mix of a apple and mint, and we had a few favorite places in which to smoke it: the Perla Kallavi rooftop cafe off Istiklal Caddesi, the cafes at Tophane, Erenler Nargile near the Grand Bazaar, the courtyard of the Re Cafe in Kadiköy, and the Ağa Kapısı near Süleymaniye, which has a view over the Golden Horn. But in just about any corner of the city, we could find a good spot (and invent a good excuse) to sit down for a couple hours with a pipe.

Locations: Perla | Tophane Cafes | Erenler Nargile | Ağa Kapısı | Re Cafe

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July 7, 2013 at 9:24 am Comments (5)

Orhan Pamuk and the Museum of Innocence

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Orhan Pamuk, recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature, is easily Turkey’s most famous contemporary author. And one of his books, The Museum of Innocence, is more than just a novel. It’s a real museum, designed to exactly replicate the imaginary museum described in his story. A fascinating project which begs the question: does a thing cease to be fictional when it actually exists?

Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk (Source:, Murat Türemiş)

Orhan Pamuk may be loved around the world, but he’s a contentious figure back home. Born into a middle-class family in the wealthy neighborhood of Nişantaşı, Pamuk belongs squarely to the European, secularist side of Istanbul. His books can be overtly political, and he’s been accused of insulting core Turkish values. In fact, this was exactly the charge leveled against him in 2005 under Turkey’s controversial Article 301, after he had acknowledged the Armenian holocaust in an interview with a Swiss newspaper.

Although his books are wildly popular in Turkey, he’s had a rough time in his homeland. In 2011, he was ordered to pay 6000 liras to five men allegedly insulted by his words. There have been Pamuk book burnings throughout Turkey and several attempts have been made on his life. He’s spent years in self-imposed exile, and is currently in New York working as a professor at Columbia University.

I read three of his novels while in Istanbul, and enjoyed them so much that I’ll probably continue working through his canon. The first, Istanbul: Memories and the City, is a haunting memoir in which Pamuk recalls his youth and shares melancholy impressions of his hometown. It’s probably best appreciated after having spent a few wintry months in the city.

Next, I tackled 2004’s Snow (Kar). A thrilling investigation into modern Turkish culture, Snow tells the story of a poet named Ka who finds himself trapped in the eastern city of Kars. It mixes suspense, humor, politics and romance and offers a boldly honest examination of both Islamic and secular values. It’s the kind of book you’ll be unable to dislodge from your mind, and which you’ll immediately want to discuss with others who’ve read it.

But so far, my favorite Pamuk novel is 2008’s The Museum of Innocence, which tells the agonizing story of a love so intense that it turns into obsession. Kemal falls in love with neighborhood shopgirl Füsun, and allows his entire world to collapse as a result. Over the course of a wasted lifetime, Kemal gathers Füsun-related mementos and, by the end of the book, eventually opens his collection to the public as The Museum of Innocence.

Here’s the thing, though. The Museum of Innocence actually exists. It’s in a red house in Çukurcuma — the same red house which the novel depicts as Füsun’s family’s home. And you can visit it. Inside, exactly as described in the book, are the treasures and keepsakes which Kemal has so assiduously collected. Each of the book’s 83 chapters merits its own display (except, oddly, for the novel’s longest and most important chapter).

Chapter 32: The Shadows and Ghosts I Mistook for Füsun

Visiting the museum after having just read the book is a surreal experience. We were able to immediately identify almost everything on display, and the fact of these items’ physical existence blurs the line between fiction and reality in a disconcerting way. For example, in Chapter 68 (4213 Cigarette Stubs), Kemal describes his insane collection of Füsun’s stubbed-out cigarettes, surreptitiously gathered over the course of seven years. But I never expected to see 4213 cigarette butts, pinned onto a wall, separated by year, some smeared with lipstick and others extinguished too early… and many with handwritten notes next to them. So deeply did Kemal worship Füsun, that anything she handled became a treasure. To him, even a discarded cigarette, one among thousands, was laden with meaning.

And then, just as you catch yourself almost admiring the manic obsession represented by this wall of cigarette stubs… just as you’re starting to get emotional and melancholic about Kemal’s ill-fated love… you remember. It’s a work of fiction!

I would encourage anyone to read Pamuk’s books, and if you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, definitely pick up The Museum of Innocence. In the final chapter, there’s a ticket which will get you in for free. Reading the book and then visiting the museum is a one-of-a-kind literary experience.

Of course, you could visit The Museum of Innocence without having read the book, but you’d just be confused. And we saw a few bewildered tourists inside the museum who had apparently done exactly that. There’s no way they could have appreciated any of it! They couldn’t possibly have understood the significance of Füsun’s butterfly earring, for example, nor why the sight of it was nearly enough to reduce me to tears.

Location on our Istanbul Map

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July 5, 2013 at 8:10 pm Comments (4)

Rumeli Kavağı and Sariyer

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The two northernmost towns on the European Bosphorus are Sariyer and Rumeli Kavağı. Sariyer is more developed and wealthy, trapped between a dense forest and the water, while Rumeli Kavağı is a quiet seaside village with a convivial atmosphere.

Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer
A Pier in Rumeli Kavağı

Rumeli Kavağı is easy to visit as part of the city-run Bosphorus Tour. The long ferry ride up the strait pauses for three full hours at Anadolu Kavağı, allowing you plenty of time to catch a local boat across the strait to Rumeli Kavağı. This picturesque little town is intimately connected to the sea, with boats, fishermen and fish restaurants dominating life and commerce, and is almost completely skipped by tourists.

The boat also stops here on its way back to Eminönü, so if you want, you can re-board. We, though, decided to instead walk two kilometers down the Bosphorus to Sariyer. This is a bustling neighborhood which, despite being so far from the city center, is well served by public transportation and has become a popular place for retired Istanbullus to settle down.

Locations on our Istanbul Map: Rumeli Kavağı | Sariyer

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Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Pier
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Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Fish Restaurant
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Fish Restaurant
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Fish Restaurant
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Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Fish Restaurant
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Fish Restaurant
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Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Rent A Boat
Rumeli Kavagi and Sariyer Rent A Boat
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Allaha?smarlad?k, Istanbul It didn't seem possible. Had our 91 days in Istanbul really come to an end? I couldn't believe it, so I opened my journal and counted the pages. Although it felt as though we'd just arrived... although we were still in the process of settling into the city's rhythm... that was it. Our time in Istanbul had reached its conclusion.
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