Updated: May 27
Istanbul is my favorite city in the world and given my travel history this is saying something. The magic of the Bosphorus alone is like nowhere else. Venice is beautiful with the canals, the Danube in Budapest, every city with water in it is lovely and Istanbul is the Empress. From the very first moment I saw her, I was enchanted.
Nearly 20 years have gone by since I first set foot in Istanbul and my heart still races when I arrive there. My Dad (Popper) is actually what brought me there. On a visit to Vladivostok he met friends Mike & Halle Brady who were teachers at the International school, and the origin of the entire concept of Bunny. The next year we went to visit them in Kazakhstan where they were then living. Halle being an extraordinary cook, they rarely went out to dinner, however Turkish food was the exception as it was particularly good in the capital city of Almaty. To thank them for their hospitality we took them out for a Turkish meal, and we were ourselves super impressed. Later during our stay, we lunched on Turkish food and Popper made the mistake of drinking his coffee to the last drop. Anyone who has drunk a Turkish (or Arabic, or Greek) coffee knows this leads to a mouth full of powdery grounds. We howled with laughter and vowed to visit the place where the coffee came from. True to our word, when I left my job in Moscow, Popper and I met in Istanbul for a tour of Turkey, we were both enchanted, and I stayed for seven years.
Why it's taken me so long to post about this beautiful city can only be explained by the fact that I miss it so much. The color, the noise, the people, the chaos, the beauty, she is a sacred city for me. Since I first started Food Mood one year ago in Jan 2018, I have been ruminating on including Istanbul in the Bunny Chronicles, as the title indicates this is after all the city of Bunny’s birth.
For seven years I lived between Turkey and Russia and every time I landed at Istanbul Atatürk airport my heart swelled with joy and my eyes filled with tears of gratitude. My love affair with Istanbul is long standing and I am aware that no post will do her justice, maybe this inhibited me. Now, with the first edition of the Bunny Chronicles illustrated children’s book –
available for purchase on Food Mood in February 2019 –
I felt a growing urgency to write about this city of dreams and still I was stalled.
Ironically it was Netflix which brought feelings of nostalgia to my heart and compelled me to finally put my mind to sharing my Istanbul. With a lot of time on my own over the Christmas holiday I took some moments to pause, write, meditate, walk in the crisp sunshine, and I admit, watch Netflix.
In particular Istanbul Kirimizisi which happens to star my favorite actor from and the series Magnificent Century, Suleiman himself Halit Ergenç and the Protector, which can be watched in English or Turkish on Netflix.
Cover of the first book in the Bunny Chronicles series.
Pick up countless guide books and travel sites and you will need to wade through the enormous historical and cultural details and travel tips about this great city. What I offer are some personal stories and images highlighting what make this city magical for me, followed by guest blogger Megan Levine’s impressions on her first visit to the city in 2018, and ending with a few of my personal picks for places to visit (and eat).
Transport in, to and, around the vast city of Istanbul is with an endless variety of busses, minibuses (dolmus), taxis, private cars and boats. When coming from the south of Turkey, my favorite way to get to Istanbul is by bus. The first time we went to Istanbul together with Claudio, he and Begum indulged me, and we came to Istanbul by bus from the southern village of Dalyan where Begum and I had lived for many years. The reason I love this 14-hour ride, is the crossing of the Marmara in the wee hours of the morning on a car/bus ferry. The bus boards the ferry and we cross the vast expanse of the Marmara with dozens of other sleepy (sleeping) travelers making the journey. True to Turkish hospitality, there is a café on board and fresh hot Simit (crispy round breads with a pillow soft inside covered in sesames, a breakfast standard), tea, coffee, and various other treats are available. Passengers huddle together drinking something hot and if we are lucky watching the sunrise on this 20 minute crossing. This way you arrive to Istanbul like a Phoenix over the sea. On this particular occasion the sky was overcast and both Claudio and Begum stayed asleep in the bus while I alone enjoyed this spectacle, the nostalgia brought tears of joy and gratitude to my eyes – how lucky was I to have this experience so very many times.
Left the overcast sky at 5 am as we crossed the Marmara in the bus ferry; middle Claudio upon our arrival at the central bus terminal; right the reward of his favorite menemen for breakfast at a café on the Bosphorus when we finally arrived home.
My father was a police officer for 30 years and so when I am lost or in trouble, my natural instinct is to ask the police for help. When my Dad was still alive, I would take photos with police around the world and send them to him. When Claudio and I found ourselves turned in circles on a rather steep incline on a steamy day in the city, without hesitation I flagged down the police car coming in our direction and equally without a hesitation they took us in the car to the exact place where we needed to go – in Istanbul traffic! So stopped up were the roads, we even had time for the photos featured here.
Left Claudio poses with the handsome young police officers who gave us a lift and right they pose proudly in their official vehicle. We sent them these photos by text message that same day!
The lead photo of this post is an actual illustration from the Bunny Chronicles, showing Begüm & Bunny at the Ortaköy mosque. Ortaköy is one of my favorite areas of Istanbul, full of life, food, fun, and plenty of places to enjoy all of them. In 2014 our friend Diana was looking for a temporary home and Istanbul welcomed her with open arms with many thanks to our Istanbul’lu friend Cigdem. Soon after we visited her and shared an entire day basking in the sunshine of Ortaköy on the Bosphorus.
Right center Bunny, Bearli, and I with Ortakoy mosque; top left Diana and Bunny with a nargile; middle left Diana, Cigdem and I with a coffee; bottom left Claudio and Diana in one of their best moments smiling in her flat in Cihanger (see below for tourist details).
Once we were nearly the entire month of September in Turkey and our friend Sasha (from Barcelona and Paris posts) joined us for the Istanbul portion, where we both celebrated our birthdays. Each day was some small celebration and three days in particular stand out.
Breakfast at Sariyer to start our long day Sasha and I luxuriate in the abundance; bottom left the glories of Topkapi palace; middle Claudio a real Pasha with his Russian on one side and American on the other; bottom before we were caught in a flash deluge; next Claudio is served lamb Ottoman style; and finally Bunny & Bearli share a lobster tail later that night for dinner.
Begüm's Ece Abla is a notable opera singer in Turkey and she gave us a private concert one lovely fall evening just after we visited the Topkapi palace. Ever hospitable and gracious, Ece Abla had prepared songs in Russian, Italian, and English for us. She played the piano and sang, a private concert there in her lusciously comfortable home, complete with Turkish white wine, freshly picked figs, and walnuts from the tree in a nearby garden.
Center Ece Abla between songs; top left Claudio and Ece Abla toast her talent; bottom left Claudio, Begum, and I delight in candles, figs, and Ece Abla’s velvety voice; and bottom right Ece Abla and Claudio.
Nargile. An Istanbul pleasure I enjoy with relish, a waterpipe whose smoky flavor makes me feel myself part of another epoch, another world. Alone or sharing this ancient tradition with loved ones, I enter an internal state of peace and joy difficult to match, and there is a relationship to location. In 2010 when we were in Syria, I enjoyed one every evening with a cup of tea and usually together with Diana, and when we got home, I did not think about it again. Whenever I am in Istanbul the smoke calls me, preferably on the shores of the Bosphorus. On my actual birthday my call was met in Sariyer with the Bosphorus at our feet, and lemon mint flavor in our pipe. Sasha casually asked me how I felt, and I responded, “So happy my heart might explode into a million loving pieces.” In a rare moment of romanticism Claudio commented, “The world would be a better place.” For that moment, my world was perfect.
Top birthday nargile with Begüm, Sasha, Claudio, Bunny, Bearli, and I huddled against the wind on the Bosphorus; bottom left Sasha and Begüm earlier that morning with breakfast on the Bosphorus; middle Begüm and I pose with the nargile; right Begüm, Sasha, and Claudio on the ferry crossing the Bosphorus later that day for a visit to Kadiköy.
Turkey for Thanksgiving, right? In 2015 I made a Thanksgiving pilgrimage to Istanbul and Chiara a dear friend from Lugano (via Bologna, France, & Como) joined me. We arrived to brilliant sunshine and cold winds. Begum welcomed us at Sariyer and we settled in for a lovely long weekend filled with intimate friendship, fabulous food, and gentle adventures. Chiara was the perfect friend to share my treasured city with, she ‘got’ it without even visiting a single tourist sight. We walked along the Bosphorus in Sariyer, visited local places in Taksim and Beyoglu, and shared easy, comfortable time in total connection with our hearts.
Center Begum and Diana (still living in Istanbul at the time) welcome Chiara and Bunny; top left Bunny & I share a morning moment; next Chiara and Bunny meditate in a sunbeam; bottom left the Bosphorus as seen from the Sariyer house; middle sunshine glinting off the water is our morning wake-up call; right bottom Begum and I embrace against the wind on a long Bosphorus evening walk.
In July 2016 we took a rare visit to Turkey in the height of summer, to attend Kenan’s high school graduation. A guest photographer and serious behind the scenes technological presence on my blog, attending his graduation was a highlight in my life. Being all together for the celebration was a true gift.
Center family photo from left Tinaz, Feyza, Begum, Kenan, me, Yesim, and Ayshen celebrate the graduate; top left Claudio & I pose proud with Kenan; bottom left I beam over Kenan; next the whole class with a photo of himself at 3 then at 17 (which is done for each member of the class); middle Turkish flag presides over the ceremony; and far right Begum and I beam over Kenan with maternal love.
Part of the magic of Istanbul for me is how I feel when I am there. Many people are surprised when I say how beautiful, feminine, and light I feel when I am in Istanbul. There I am smitten by the beauty which radiates from inside of me, the beauty of the place, and most of all the beauty of the hearts and souls of the people I have had the good fortune to call my friends, and even my family.
From my first visit to Istanbul with my Dad in 2001, my visits to this city were thanks to the adventurous spirit of my real-life Bunny, Begüm, and her generous family. When Begüm and I met, her son Kenan was 3 ½ and her daughter Feyza was 1 ½. She invited me into their home and gave me the gift of love and family.
For seven years they allowed me the chance to be a part of their lives in intimate and mundane ways sharing the challenges, joys, and uncertainties of everyday life. All of the times we shared in Istanbul were full of magic in some way. The final magic on our last visit as a family happened when Feyza and I found a small stuffed Bunny in the Kanyon shopping center. At the time Bunny was to be a mascot for a fledgling website, and what she grew to be is a symbol of this magical time in my life, of the beauty of the person I was then, and of the gratitude I have for the family we were.
Today for me, this little Bunny is pure love and each time I hold her I am reassured that life is magical. Feyza and Kenan are adults now each on their path and they “get” Bunny, each greeting her whenever they meet. THIS is what Istanbul is for me, pure love, magic, understanding, possibility. I wish the same for all who visit her.
Top our little family in 2016 Begüm, Feyza, myself, and Kenan in a student café in Istanbul; bottom left Begüm’s city self; middle Feyza, Begüm, & Kenan in January 2019; and far right Kenan in summer 2018
Nearly 20 years ago and my heart is still enraptured, it is true. We can spend a lot of time debating the current politics, the state of economics, and particular misconceptions about Turkey and this post is about Istanbul, a magical city in its own right. For those interested in the historical aspects of the Ottoman Empire and even the creation of the modern Turkish Republic pre-Erdogan, there are plenty of books to read and documentaries to watch (some listed at the end of this post). For my part, I am interested in sharing only the heart wrenching beauty and magic of this ancient city full of culture, history, hospitality, and people. Some, especially Turkish friends who live in Istanbul, call me Pollyanna, I am ok with this, though I prefer to be called a romantic.
My good fortune at having spent so many years in and around this city has made me a self-appointed ambassador and when asked by a treasured young person, “Should I go to Istanbul?”. My response was – “Buy your ticket now!”. Here she shares her impressions and adventures, food related and more.
From Megan Levine:
I fell in love, Turkish breakfast! Everything Nicole told me it would be and more…
Familial connections led me to explore the cultural collective that is Istanbul. Before traveling to Turkey I had a few reservations, as the country had been frequently mentioned in international news with reference to upcoming elections. Unsure to commit to travel, I called the person I knew would have the answer: Nicole. Her stories took me back to when I was growing up; she would visit painting pictures of magical places on the other side of the world. This was my chance to go see one of those places. Thanks to our family friend, my Turkish Aunt Dilsad, I received a front row seat to this sprawling city on the sea. Her private tour of the city, where she had spent so much of her life, showed me a new side of her plus acted an introduction to this incredible city. I arrived a few days before the election in June 2108, and as we walked out of the airport the atmosphere stupefied my senses. Ancient structures filled my field of vision, reminders of past empires living along with the new. Tantilizing aromas wafted from every street corner. Scents of lavender and spice rose to greet and welcome me to Istanbul. I inhaled deeply, savoring each sensation, only to walk a block further and be blown away with smell of fresh fish and other fragrances of questionable origin. In a few short minutes, I came to realize this is what Istanbul is all about, the blending of opposites.
The genesis of all of Istanbul’s beauty: its people. From women in hijabs to those in jeans and short sleeves, from Christians of the cross to daily attendees of mosque, the crowd converged in the streets of the same city. These people, the Turks, are some of the kindest, most welcoming people I have ever met. By virtue of my Turkish translator Dilsad, I found myself enjoying the nuances of life in Istanbul. A humble dinner beginning at 5 o’clock in the evening warped over the course of seven hours and resulted in a crash course in Turkish history/politics via Dilsad and our Kurdish waiters. Wielding the cultural key of language and wit, Dilsad arranged for my last day an adventure that will endure for years to come. She told me that we were going to see some old watchtowers at the top of a large hill. Upon arrival at the bottom and looking upwards at what would be a strenuous hike, she said she would investigate possible transportation to the peak. A simple traveler, I took the liberty during this time to purchase a few keepsakes in a little shop to remember my trip. Dilsad’s communication level knew no boundaries. Within minutes she had spoken with the shop owner and we were riding in the back of his car to the top of the mountain to see the archaic castle where the watchtowers stood guard. The Turkish shop owner knew the man who stood guard before the gate. With a few words passed between them, he led us through a small iron gate and we stepped through time. Ancient ruins partially broken and covered in grass stretched across the expanse before us. Old paths where footsteps once echoed in hallways intersected in the openness. We sat in awe. Dilsad and I began to giggle, laughing at the improbability of the situation and how simple communication and acts of kindness brought us to a point where we both had the chance to experience something historical. The generosity of a people rich in history, language, and culture reverberates in every memory I have of Istanbul.
Color, people, art, history, and food – unforgettable sensations of Istanbul.
There are as many institutions in Istanbul as there are changes, places that have been there for centuries – the Egyptian bazaar - my personal preference for cultural shopping – and places that pop up overnight and are gone before I can get back. A city of merchants, entrepreneurs, and risk takers. The best way to visit is when you have friends there, and if you do not, go anyway!
That said, here are a select few of my favorite/suggested places in Istanbul:
Cihanger is the area I suggest to stay in Istanbul, and I am not unique there are several sites to reference this area. You can get anywhere from here, there is a fabulous nightlife for any taste, including quiet cups of herbal tea. For the cat lover this is a particularly happy place recently documented, literally, Kedi.
Cafes in Taksim area, just adjacent to Cihangir:
High class place with excellent sweet treats, where ladies have ‘tea’. Its excellent location and large windows make it an ideal place to both people watch and steal a bit of time for yourself or with a dear friend
Simple & very European, it is popular & fashionable with locals and visitors alike. A pleasant spot to have tea, coffee, a sweet or even a light snack any time of day. Located steps from our hotel it is ideal if you are having some time to yourself or a chat with a friend
Kafe Ara This is an institution, the original European cafe in the Taksim area, Cafe Ara offers lively atmosphere, perfect cafe fair, light salads (hellim cheese salad is my favorite), simple hot meals, sweets and a large variety of coffees and teas Even more original is Kafe Ara's constantly changing display of professional photographs, all taken by the cafes namesake famous Turkish photographer, Ara Guler.
Smoking is an issue and we have often joked that this place trains there staff to be surly and still I love it.
Located on the Tunel end of Taksim, Markiz is the oldest cafe in the area. I am told that 70 years ago it was 'the' place to be seen. Today it has been restored to some of its former glory with fabulous Parisian style murals on the wall, coat room at the door, plush upholstery and an intimate atmosphere that is almost gone in a land obsessed with the new and modern. For nostalgia or a clandestine conversation with a 'would be' lover, is is a wonderful place to have a cup of tea, Turkish coffee and a sweet treat. Best known for its European style pastries.
Random other spots
Ahirikapi Balikçisi fish restaurant a rare find in the old city The first time I went to this place was with my father in 2001 and the last time I was there in 2016 it was still fabulous. A rare find in the old city, this place caters as much to discerning Turks (and they are demanding! As to clueless foreigners with equal abundance and top-notch service.
Finally, my love for reading meets my love for travel when it comes to Turkey and Istanbul and accordingly, on this post I share with you my. Istanbul book list:
The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin this combines history, food, culture and intrigue