Istanbul is a city best nibbled. Like Mumbai and Hong Kong, it’s more like 17 very different metropolises under one name, so dense and sprawling and diverse you risk total sensory overload. (A population of 13 million is a conservative estimate.) If you try to experience everything, you’ll remember nothing. After visiting a year ago, I went back last July because I realized on the ride to the flight home that I had seen only the tiniest sliver in a full week of trekking through mosques and museums and Princes’ Islands.
Narrow your itinerary to food and wine and you can pack a lot into 24 hours. You will, however, have to make some tough choices. The city straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, and you need at least a taste of each. Plus, Istanbul has so many exceptional eating and shopping and drinking opportunities you have to be selective. Just make sure lamb is on the list. It’s normally among my most hated meats, but in Turkey it’s so fresh and flavorful and cooked so beautifully even I will order it.
The first difficult decision: The Spice Bazaar or the open-air Kadiköy market? The former, built in the 1600s, is one of the most famous food halls in the world; it’s in Sultanahmet (the old city) not far from the dazzling Topkapi Palace and Blue Mosque, on the European side along Cami Meydani Sok. The cavernous space is lined with vendor after vendor after vendor displaying spices and honeys, cured meats and caviar, dried fruits and nuts. Maybe because it felt so touristy, though, my consort and I managed to get out of the “mall” without dropping a single Turkish lira (about 53 cents) and had much more fun walking among the shops in the crowded streets outside, trying and buying cheeses and Turkish delight and pistachio baklava and generally marveling at the array of food.
Or you could jump on a ferry for a quick ride across the Bosphorus Strait to the Kadiköy district, on the Asian side, and spend a splendiferous morning wandering from cheesemonger to fish shop to butcher to baklava baker, pausing to snack along the way. It’s the kind of market you expect in a city like Paris, although the eggs are sold individually from straw-lined crates. The vendors are so friendly you may stop in a shop for a whiff of pickles, get tempted to try one, and be sent on your way with a free cup of fresh lemonade.
With luck, a vendor on the ferry back to the European side will sea-leg through with a stack of simits, sesame-encrusted breads that are a cross between a bagel and a New York street pretzel, for less than 1 TL. They’re excellent for snacking, but you can also tear them up to toss off the back of the boat to attract seagulls like all your fellow ferryers do.
For lunch, the ferry will leave you only a quick walk over the fishermen-lined Galata Bridge and up the Tünel tram to Beyoğlu, the liveliest section of the city. Sultanahmet is where most travel articles suggest basing yourself, but Beyoğlu is where the young Istbanbullus are these days, drawn by cafés and shops and art galleries along and off the main boulevard, Istiklal Caddesi, a moving mass of humanity 18 hours a day. (No car or bus traffic is allowed, but a “Nostalgic Tram” runs through it.)
Meyhanes are the traditional taverns of Istanbul, and Sofyali 9, in Beyoğlu, at Sofyali Sokak 9, is an ideal example. A waiter will bring over a platter of mezes from which you choose four or five: a hot pepper spread, say, plus garlic-yogurt cacik (similar to tzatziki), maybe fresh anchovies and roasted eggplant, all to eat with baskets of sliced baguette. For your main course, try the unadorned grilled lamb or grilled fish with just a squeeze of lemon. (Word to the fish-wise: The lower the price, the more likely the fish is not wild but farmed, and the feed does affect the flavor. Avoid sea bass and sea bream and stick to swordfish and barbounia [red mullet].)
Or you could just wedge your way into Helvetia, a tiny, always-busy café specializing in Turkish home cooking, at General Yazgan Sokak 12, in Beyoğlu (212-245-8780). Order by pointing at various dishes at the counter and they’ll be delivered to a communal table. Meatballs in rich tomato sauce, stewed baby okra, and cauliflower salad strewn with strands of dill are all equivalent to eating at Antatolian Mom’s, at a price not much higher than she would charge.
Or you could take some culture with your lunch. The Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, in the Karaköy neighborhood, has a huge café with a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus and the famous mosque skyline seen in so many paintings (and, too often, a huge cruise ship parked right in front). The menu mixes global accents with Turkish standards, and you can’t go wrong with lamb kebabs or a salad topped with breaded-and-fried cheese. But the Santralistanbul museum is worth a journey. It’s in an old power station a free 20-minute shuttle bus ride away from Taksim Square, and it has three restaurants, the most enchanting of which, Tamirane, has a deck where you can eat a big salad with greens, lentils, chickpeas, and local cheese plus bread with good olive oil while listening to jazz recordings as you drink an excellent Turkish rosé and kittens gambol around your feet.