The large number of stray cats that have their home in the neighborhoods of Istanbul is remarkable. They are well fed and look great for stray cats. How is that possible?
Keeping pets is a foreign concept in Islamic culture, and dogs are considered unclean animals by pious Muslims. Cats, however, can expect care and love because the Prophet Mohammed loved cats.
According to a well-known tale, one day when the Prophet was sitting on a carpet talking with his friends and it was time to attend prayers his favorite cat, Muezza, was asleep on his cloak sleeve. He could not bring himself to disturb his cat, so he decided to cut the sleeve from his cloak. He also drank the same water as the cat and often allowed it to lie on his lap while he addressed his followers.
Therefore, it should come as no surprise that there are always bowls of pet food and water or dishes of milk at the entrances to flats, shops, offices and mosques wherever you are in Istanbul. Being kind to cats is a smart move – the stray cats make sure that there are remarkably few rats in Istanbul. Much less than the number I saw in the metro stations at night in New York when I lived there.
Sometimes I see cat loving tourists who buy food to give it to cats whenever they see some.
Özcan Turşuları is my favorite shop with all things pickled in the neighborhood bazaar of Kadıköy. Look around in this shop and you will be amazed by the huge and colorful collection of pickled vegetables, ranging from gherkins, red beets and white cabbage to garlic, green tomatoes and carrots. Everything here is made using traditional methods, including the chili paste and the olive oil.
The term pickle is derived from the Dutch word ‘pekel’, meaning brine.
Pickling began 4000 years ago using cucumbers native to India. This was used as a way to preserve food for out-of-season use and for long journeys, especially by sea.
Although the process was invented to preserve foods, pickles are also made and eaten because people enjoy the resulting flavors. Pickling may also improve the nutritional value of food by introducing B vitamins produced by bacteria.
Enjoy strolling through Kadıköy and you will find many more hidden gems, when you go with my self-guided walking tours ‘Walking in Istanbul’.
Here are my do’s and don’ts when using taxis in Istanbul. Based on my own experiences and those of friends and other visitors who send me their experiences on my site.
I have met a lot of nice, helpful and friendly taxi drivers in Istanbul. But there are also cabbies in this city who want to make some extra money of the ‘rich’ “yabancılar” (foreigners) in an unfair way. Beware of these ‘cowboys’!
1. All taxis have meters. The meter starts standard at 4 Turkish Lira (TL) and charges 2.5 TL per km. The minimum amount they charge is 10 TL.
2. There is no night rate.
3. Always pay in Turkish Lira’s. Those who pay in euro’s or U.S. dollars always pay at an unfair exchange rate.
4. Almost all cabbies in the city think that they are Michael Schumacher in a Formula One car on a racetrack. They drive like crazy, but cause seldom accidents, as most other Turks drive in the same style. Always put your seat belt on, even if the driver looks at you as if he’s insulted with a macho look of ‘don’t you think I can drive?’
5. Always have enough coins, banknotes of 5, 10 and 20 Turkish Lira in your pocket. If you pay with 50 TL, taxi drivers often try their infamous exchange trick. They act as if you gave them 5 TL instead of 50 and you have to pay again because you can’t prove anymore that you gave him a 50 TL bill.
6. Never open your wallet sitting in the front seat. It often happens that cabbies grab into your wallet to ‘help’ you getting out your foreign bank notes.
7. Step out of the car if the driver is rude and write down his taxi number. Give that to the desk of the hotel. Istanbul earns a lot of money from tourism so it is in the interest of the city authorities to preserve Istanbul’s image as a tourist friendly, welcoming place. So complaints will eventually have an effect. Call the municipality White Desk with your complaint. Call: 153.
8. Take official yellow cabs only, with the logo and the official number of the company on both front doors. Don’t trust friendly strangers who say they will find you a cab. Prepare yourself well. Take a serious look at the city map and find out where your hotel and most important places are located, so you have a general idea of the direction a cabbie should take going from A to B. Take always a business card of the hotel you are staying, so you can show the address to the driver, and he may – if he really doesn’t know the address – make a phone call to the hotel.
9. Use the Google Map GPS function on your smart phone to see in which direction your cabbie is driving.
10. Download the app BİTAKSİ on your smart phone! It is very easy to use. You can see where the closest taxi is and they are all registered. You can see the name of the taxi driver too!
11. Almost none of the cabbies speak English. Those who do are quick to ask personal questions. You’re in charge, don’t feel intimidated. If you’re not comfortable answering those questions don’t feel obliged to answer them.
In February 2018 prosecutors in Istanbul were demanding up to 10 years in jail for a taxi driver who cheated a Saudi tourist extending a trip to the airport in a ridiculous long way. He has been accused of committing “aggravated fraud.”
They started their trip Kadıköy, a district on the Asian side of Istanbul, to go to the Sabiha Gökçen Airport, also on the Asian side.
The cabbie took the victim over the Bosphorus to the European side via the 3rd Bridge, before returning to the Asian side. The tourist missed his flight home and filed a criminal complaint at a police station.
Not in China, nor in the United Kingdom people drink most tea in the world, but in Turkey. No less than 3.16 kg per person per year.
Tea is part of Turkish culture. Offering a glass tea to any stranger and all guests is a traditional token of Turkish hospitality. Most restaurants offer tea for free at the end of a meal.
Turks drink tea all day, every day, but not for centuries, like most people think. Turkey was introduced to the tea culture and tea cultivation only 140 years ago.
The first tea was grown in Turkey in the northeastern city of Artvin in the late 1870s. And the first seedlings were brought in from China.
Rize is now the Turkish capital of tea production.
During the Ottoman Empire Turks drank coffee regularly. But during World War I, when the sultan lost all of the Arab lands, including Yemen where most coffee beans came from, the scarcity of coffee increased the prices rapidly and the Turks switched to their own tea, cultivated mainly in the Black Sea region.
The Turkish word for tea is Çay (pronounce: chay), from the Chinese word for tea, Chá.
Almost all Turks drink black, strong tea. Most sweeten their tea with several cubes of sugar. If you don’t like this strong tea, like I do, ask for açık çay (very weak tea, sometimes also called ‘husband’s tea’).
In supermarkets you can also buy all kinds of herbal tea. Many Turks look down upon herbal teas. Often they have the impression that these are medical teas.
The first thing that struck me visiting Istanbul again in the summer of 2006, after having spent seven years in the U.S., was the fast changing face of the city.
Many squatter’s houses (‘gecekondu’ in Turkish and translated as ‘built overnight’) in shanty-neighborhoods had been destroyed or were gradually demolished and replaced by modern mass-housing compounds developed by the government’s Housing Development Administration (TOKİ).
The Golden Horn, an ugly storage of sewage and industrial waste with a terrible odor when I visited the city in 1983 for the first time, had been cleaned.
More green areas, playgrounds and parks were created. Ottoman mosques, cemeteries, wooden houses and imperial palaces were cleaned and repaired, spurred by a renewed interest in all things from Turkey’s Ottoman past.
The renewed interest in all things Ottoman was a slow process that started during the administration of Prime Minister Turgut Özal in 1983 and gained momentum in the 1990s. The Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), a conservative political party that advocates an Islamic inspired social and political agenda and a liberal market economy, jumped on the band wagon of the growing popularity of romanticizing and idealizing the Ottoman past.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as Prime Minister and later as President, and his ministers, mayors and other party officials started actively promoting this trend. As pious Muslims they identify and are inspired by the era of the great sultans and are proud of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy.
It permeates politics as well. The foreign policy of the governing AKP is often characterized as ‘neo-Ottoman’. Ankara wants to regain as much influence as possible, through soft power (use of economic or cultural influence) in the former territories of the sultans: the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa.
When you walk the streets of Istanbul you will notice that the phenomenon of “Ottomania” is becoming omnipresent. Many shops, restaurants and hotels have been renamed, and have now names from the time when Istanbul was still called Constantinople. You will notice hotels like ‘Les Ottomans’, ‘Sultania’, ‘Legacy Ottoman’, ‘Sultan Palace’.
In the Grand Bazaar, but also in posh neighborhoods like Nişantaşı, Teşvikiye, Osmanbey, Maçka, Pangaltı and Istinye you will find jewelry, clothes and other goods with Ottoman designs and colors. Bookshops sell more books on the history of the sultans. I even noticed a restaurant that offers ‘Ottoman burgers’. And in a bakery they offer ‘Ottoman’ bread!
In 2009 Erdoğan opened the Panorama 1453 History Museum, depicting the siege and conquering of the Christian city of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II.
There is a renewed interest in recipes from the kitchens of the sultan’s palaces. More restaurants offer now dishes from the rich Ottoman cuisine with flavors from the Balkans, Persia, Arab countries and Central Asia. Recreations from the delicious food that was prepared in the kitchens of the royal families from the 15th to the 19th centuries, or traditional recipes that were rediscovered in villages in Anatolia.
Recommended restaurants that offer these kinds of dishes are: Asitane restaurant, located in the Edirnekapi neighborhood next to the famous Chora Church; restaurant Çiya Sofrasi in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of the Bosporus; and restaurant Kiva, close to the Galata Tower.
The historical fiction Turkish television series ‘The Magnificent Century’ that kicked off in 2011, became an instant blockbuster, because it taps into the increased curiosity in the way the Ottomans were living. Nevertheless everybody was astonished by the overwhelming success of the series. Not only in Turkey, but in many countries in the region.
This prime time series and many other Turkish drama series were watched in almost 50 countries, even in Russia and Mongolia. They created a desire by lots of people in the region to visit Istanbul and Turkey.
The number of tourists from those countries increased considerably in recent years.
The Touristic Hotels & Investors Association (TUROB) organized an award ceremony in the Hilton hotel of Istanbul in 2013 to thank the producers, actors and actresses for their contribution to the increase of tourism.
During the ceremony interviews in many countries, from Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece to Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan were shown. In all countries people said they loved Turkish soap operas and mentioned the series ‘The Magnificent Century’ as one of their favorites and the actor who plays sultan Süleyman and the actress that plays his wife Hürrem as the ones they adore.
Around 10 pm the yard of Bomontiada was full with people, drinking, chatting. Some started to dance. At the entrance to Babylon, a popular concert venue where Ilhan Ersahin was going to play, many people were waiting to get in. After a nice and fun concert, we left Bomontiada. Its yard had become more crowded with people dancing despite the rain. The night ended with a nice and tranquil walk back home with Ersahin’s rhythm on my mind.
Bomontiada is definitely a place to visit, if you live in Istanbul or if you are a visitor who wants to go off the beaten path and wants to mix with the locals.
This Ottoman beer brewery got a new life and serves as a cultural hub for Istanbulites since the summer of 2015. It is located in Feriköy, Şişli, in the past home to Greek, Armenian and other non-Muslim communities.
Bomonti, which gave its name to the neighbourhood, was the first beer factory founded in a predominantly Muslim country. In 1890 the Swiss Bomonti brothers started to produce their Bomonti Birası (beer). Its name lives on as one of the brands of Turkey’s largest beer producer Efes Pilsen.
The Turkish state took over the factory in the 1930s and it ceased to produce beer in 1991. Bomonti beer had played an important role in spreading the beer culture in Turkey by establishing beer gardens in and outside of Istanbul.
The hood transformed after most Greeks and Armenians left, but maintained its cosmopolitan nature. Recently it has seen a revival and has become more popular with the hipsters after the opening of Bomontiada and other venues around.
One can chill in Bomontiada, isolated from the noise and chaos of Istanbul. The large yard is serving as a home to many facilities and events. If you seek for crafted tastes, try Kiva, a meyhane where you can enjoy Turkish cuisine with a modern touch and rakı.
In The Populist you can enjoy craft beers and DJ performances at night. Klimanjaro has a popular menu of world cuisine and creative cocktails. You may also experience the cosy yard while sipping your drink in Monochrome, a nice place with a brasserie concept. In Delimonti, which is a marketplace and a restaurant, you can find the traditional tastes from Anatolia.
Aside from Babylon, where you can enjoy concerts by both local and international artists several days a week, there are other venues for enjoying culture and arts. ALT is an arts and dialogue space where young creators from all over the region meet and exhibit their work. In Leica Gallery, you will find photographs of local and international artists. Apart from these, Atölye serves as an innovation and creative hub for individuals and start-ups from different disciplines. My favourite time is summer when you can chill the long nights at the yard, with movie screenings, jazz concerts, performances or simply for a nice chat with friends.
For a cool night out during your trip, or if you want to experience Istanbul as a local, or simply for an adventure in the backstreets of multicultural Istanbul, I strongly recommend you to visit Bomontiada. If you are lucky you may even listen to Ilhan Ersahin as well.
I am sure that the atmosphere of this former Ottoman beer brewery will have a place in your memory of Istanbul (hopefully with Ersahin’s rhythm on your mind).
This Feriköy hood is worth a visit for many other reasons too, but that is a topic of another post.
The first time I saw professional dog walkers was when I was posted in New York City as a foreign correspondent in 1999.
Here in Istanbul I mostly saw stray dogs. Not surprisingly as many pious Muslims consider dogs to be ritually unclean.
The last couple of years I see an increasing number of young Turks in affluent hoods proudly walking with their dog on a leash. Turkish friends told me they want to show off as they have their dog as a status symbol of a modern, western Turk.
But many of those dog owners have busy schedules and have little time to walk their dogs.
What is the solution? Individuals who are paid by dog owners to walk their dogs for them. Some dog walkers will take many dogs for a walk at once, like these ones.
In some countries and jurisdictions dog walking businesses must be licensed and have animal first-aid-trained employees. Not in Turkey.
Wikipedia tells me that in the United States, the first professional dog walker ‘is believed to have been Jim Buck, who in 1960 launched his dog walking service in New York City’.
Most friends look at me with suspicion when I introduce them to an unfamiliar kind of Turkish snack, çiğ köfte, and translate it into English: seasoned raw meatballs.
You see them thinking: ‘no raw meat for me, because that has been sitting around in the sun breeding bacteria; I don’t want to spoil the rest of my stay in Istanbul’. But I can reassure them that eating this traditional snack isn’t risky for their health. The meat version of çiğ köfte has been banned from casual sale since 2009.
The traditional meat version, made out of uncooked beef or lamb that is kneaded together with bulgur, tomato and pepper pastes, herbs and spices, is still offered at several grill restaurants in old neighborhoods like Fatih.
Vegetarian snack at Elazig cig kofte. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec
Close to the mosque and mausoleum of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih in Turkish) I saw an ‘usta’ (cook) starting to prepare his çiğ köfte. He started with finely ground bulgur (durum and other wheat) and covered that with ingredients like mild onions, scallions, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, tomato paste, and mint leaves. Indispensable for an authentic çiğ köfte is ‘isot’, a very dark, almost blackish and special dried pepper that is locally produced by farmers of Şanlıurfa, in the southeast of Turkey.
With the mass migration since the 1960s, of people from the east to big cities in the west, like Ankara, Izmir, Bursa and Istanbul their dishes and spices went with them. That’s why we now can enjoy those delicacies of Eastern Turkey in Istanbul too.
According to lore, çiğ köfte was invented in Urfa at the time of prophet Abraham. It is usually served as an appetizer in both Armenian and Turkish cuisines, but nowadays there is an increasing number of small eateries that serve çiğ köfte only.
Preparing the spicy snack. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec
Most people eat çiğ köfte in a lettuce leaf, sprinkled with lemon. But I prefer to eat it wrapped (dürüm) in paper-thin lavaş bread. One of my favorite places to enjoy this spicy snack is Elazığ Çiğ Köftecisi in Kadıköy on Moda Caddesi No. 57C.
For me it is spicy enough as it is, so I always ask for acısız (not spicy). The wrap comes with different kinds of salad, pieces of cucumber, lemon and pickles. I take ‘ayran’ (yoghurt drink) to counter-act the burning sensation that this spicy lunch gives me.
So enjoy the arrival of this new culinary trend of the meatless version of this very old dish. Give it a try, vegetarians and non-vegetarians!
Lobby of Pera Palas Hotel. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec
The legendary Pera Palas Hotel is getting more attention again. Not only because the old grandeur is back after undergoing a major renovation and restoration project (2006-2010). Also because of a great book that has just been published Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul, by Charles King.
I loved reading it. It is rich in detail and tells the history of Istanbul and the Pera Palace in the years between the First and the Second World War.
I’m more than happy that all the historical elements in the interior of the first modern hotel in Turkey are still there after the restoration and renovation. Cleaned of course and if necessary coated with new paint. Moreover, the rooms and suites, the kitchen, the restaurant, the elegant Grand Orient bar and the famous patisserie were modernized and adapted to all the conveniences of modern traveling. The best thing they did was removing the old roof and replacing it with a roof of glass.
The hotel is since the reopening in 2006 managed by the Jumeirah Group, a Dubai-based international luxury hotel chain. Pera Palas rightly calls itself a ‘museum’ hotel. The atmosphere and interior hardly changed over the past century. It was designed by French-Turkish architect Alexandre Vallaury, who mixed Oriental and Art Nouveau styles. That resulted in an extraordinary hotel that opened its doors in 1892 at a time when Istanbul was still called Constantinople.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, often stayed in room 101. His room was turned into a museum piece since his death in 1938. The walls were painted pink of the sunrise, his favorite color. On request you are allowed to visit the room.
The hotel was an initiative of the Belgian entrepreneur Georges Nagelmackers, founder of the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, with its luxury sleeper trains in Europe. In 1883 he started the Orient Express, the international luxury train that ran between Paris and Constantinople (till 2009). In big cities where the train stopped overnight Nagelmackers had build luxury hotels. Pera Palas, overlooking the Golden Horn, was the hotel he built in Constantinople for its famous guests: kings, princes, presidents, generals, writers, movie stars and spies.
Agatha Christie stayed there and worked on her thriller “Murder on the Orient Express” (1934) with the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot as the main character. The American writer Ernest Hemingway frequented the bar. Other famous and infamous guests who stayed at the hotel were Dutch exotic dancer Mata Hari, the American singer Josephine Baker, Jackie Onasis, Sarah Bernhardt, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Greta Garbo, King Edward VIII and one of Adolf Hitler’s closest associates and most devoted followers, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels.
Several suites have the names of their legendary guests.
As I said one of the major advantages of the restoration is that the hotel has gotten a glass roof which provides the dark hotel of the old days with much light now. Fortunately they also left the ancient iron elevator as it was. They did a thorough maintenance job and the oldest lift of Turkey fares better than ever.
Enjoy the Orient Express nostalgia by visiting this historic hotel for a few drinks in the bar or the terrace. Or stay there during your city trip to Istanbul. Highly recommended!
In Istanbul’s old town, with all the touristic high lights, many public restrooms are not in a good condition. Istanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş has promised to renovate existing facilities, including those in mosques, and construct new, modern ones.
“There are often questions surrounding the cleanliness of public restrooms, so the municipality will initiate a project to convert public toilets into modern ones, especially in touristic areas. The municipal workers assigned to deal with public facilities will be maintaining the toilets’ cleanness.”
The municipality plans to renovate 25 public restrooms and construct 15 new ones in touristic places in Istanbul.
One of the recently built new and clean modern toilets is on the Hippodrome across the Neo-Byzantine German Fountain that was constructed to commemorate the second anniversary of German Emperor Wilhelm II’s visit to Istanbul in 1898. The toilets are clean, cost 1 Turkish Lira to enter and come in two styles: a western sitting model and a Turkish squat model.
Squat toilet. Photo: Slawomira Kozieniec
Rest rooms in mosques are all squat toilets, also known as a toilet alaturka. These kinds of toilets are also commonly used in Asian countries and France. The toilet is used by squatting, rather than sitting. It is basically just a hole in the ground. Put your feet on foot rests, facing the entrance to the cubicle. Beware that there is no toilet paper available, only a plastic watering can. After washing your hands you can take some paper at the counter where you pay – 75 or 1 Turkish Lira – to dry them.