Want to know something funny? When we planned this trip, Istanbul, Turkey was NOT on the list of destinations! After Greece, we were supposed to be headed to New Delhi, India, but first an 8-hour layover in Turkey. Here’s what happened…
Greece was a bittersweet goodbye. Athens is a bustling city, filled with culture, history and great food. Nevertheless, it was time to go, so off to the airport we went. A few naps later, we arrived in Istanbul, Turkey. My husband and I figured the best way to conquer this dreaded 8-hour layover was to simply leave the airport, so we got off of the plane and headed out. On our way out, we were made aware that in order to leave, we needed to purchase a visa for $20 each. All of the sudden, leaving the airport to sight-see for a few hours didn’t seem appealing any longer (we’re on a budget!), so we decided to tough it out by sleeping, wandering around, and watching movies. What made our stay at this airport even more interesting was the fact that wifi access was extremely limited. During our travels, we learned that a lot of places are requiring that you gain access to their internet by receiving a code sent by their system via text message. The problem with that was, neither of us were able to receive texts because our cellular service was cut off. Sounds problematic, right?!
The only internet access we could get was a mediocre signal from a Turkish ice-cream shop who only allowed one code (that they typed in your phone for you), per device, per purchase. The ice-cream was $6 and my husband wasn’t all that impressed with it. Of course it wasn’t vegan either, so I certainly wasn’t about to waste my money. The 8 hours passed and before we knew it, it was time to board. Before I got on the plane, I decided to grab a bite to eat from the food court. Deryle stayed behind briefly to wrap something up he was doing on the internet. We were supposed to meet at the restaurant I was going to, but somehow our wires got crossed and we ended up in different places. Our flight was about to take off soon, I had no access to internet, couldn’t find my husband. I was starting to panic!
I figured it made the most sense to just go to the gate we both knew where it was and we knew the flight was about to take off soon! I ran to the gate, praying he would be there. I’m pretty sure I ran a marathon that day, y’all. Thank God he was there! Only there was an issue… the airline was demanding that we have a visa to visit India before boarding. For whatever reason, I was under the impression that either we didn’t need one, or we could apply for one when we got there. They assured me we were wrong. We couldn’t board the flight and it was taking off without us. I was beyond frustrated and kicking myself because this was something that could have been prevented. My husband quickly reminded me that I had basically planned a two month trip by myself to 7 countries. I had to cut myself some slack. This was tough.
After leaving the gate, we went back and forth with customer service for about an hour or so. Waiting in lines, being redirected and all that. Not to mention, their english was limited so after a few rounds of talking in circles, we decided to throw in the towel. For us, this meant staying in Turkey. Those $20 visas were now much more appealing. We couldn’t bear another moment in that airport! We bought the visas and found a coffee shop near the exit area of the airport. Thankfully the barista was kind enough to give us the wifi password! We found a hotel, booked it and headed outside to find a taxi. The hotel’s website said that they had a shuttle available, so we headed in the direction the shuttles were. As we waited, we were approached by a man offering assistance. We told him we were waiting on a shuttle and he informed us that because of Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), businesses and shuttles, etc. were operating outside of normal hours. He then offered to call a taxi for us.
Innocently, we accepted and within two minutes a taxi pulled up. He helped us in and we were off! Before getting into the car, we set a price. After a few minutes in the car, he was asking for more. This is when I knew something wasn’t quite right… I immediately told him we didn’t have anymore money to give. I immediately began paying attention to signage, making note of where we were (in case something crazy were to happen). Thank God, the signs were in English! Soon I started seeing signs for the area we were supposed to be headed toward. AMEN! He dropped us off on the side of the street (literally- didn’t even pull up to the hotel entrance) and we lugged our bags up a hill and made it into the hotel. We were immediately greeted by metal detectors. Outside of that, it was beautiful! To be honest, we were so tired, it probably wouldn’t have even mattered if it was a dump. We were happy to be somewhere with a bed. We stayed here for a few days before moving closer to an Airbnb in the city (use this code to get $40 off your first stay) where all of the action was (near Taksim Square).
Since Turkey wasn’t a planned visit, I did some last minute research on the vegan food scene, street food, and of course sightseeing. One of the things I knew I would enjoy was the grilled corn. Y’all, I could have lived off of this alone for the duration of our stay there! It was grilled to perfection and lightly salted. Would you believe it only costs 64¢?! I was in heaven! My other favorite street item was the fresh orange juice. It was nearly on every corner! My husband and I agreed it was pretty much the best ever. It was also inexpensive, which was icing on the cake.
Falafel Karim Sahyoun
One of my favorite restaurants in Turkey was Falafel Karim Sahyoun. It’s a Lebanese restaurant on Istiklal Avenue near Taksim Square. I didn’t find this restaurant, this restaurant found me! My husband and I were checking out the area and I couldn’t help but notice the word “vegan” written on their window. It was like a bright shining light beamed down from the heavens! I wasn’t hungry at the time, so I made a mental note and told myself I’d visit them later. During my time in Istanbul, I visited them twice!
The food was good, but the service was probably what led me to making multiple trips. During my visits I got to chat with the owner, a very nice Lebanese man who understood my eating preferences and presented me with many suggestions. You could tell that he appreciated my business and was super welcoming.
Whew, this restaurant was a hike… literally! After getting off of the subway, we had to walk up what felt like the steepest hill ever. I’m happy to report, it’s worth it! Like a lot of places, I discovered this restaurant online. I was intrigued that their menu involved traditional Turkish food, but vegan! There’s no better combination than tradition and vegan 🙂 I ordered the Kebab platter that came highly recommended by the owner, who was extremely kind. In addition, I ordered baklava and a brownie. The scent of the brownie was permeating throughout the restaurant and I could hear them calling my name. They had just been taken out of the oven and were in the process of cooling. If this wasn’t fate, I don’t know what is.
The kebab platter, made of seitan, was full of flavor and screamed of tradition! The dessert was by far my favorite part. The brownies were so fresh, soft, and moist. If I’m not mistaken, it was made of dark chocolate, which usually isn’t my favorite, but I enjoyed every bit. The baklava was exceptional! The layers were plentiful and perfectly flaky, just as they should be. They seemed to melt in my mouth! To top it off, the owner was super friendly. We chatted a bit throughout the course of my meal and it turns out that she actually has a sister who is planning to open up a Turkish vegan restaurant in Cary (about 20-30 minutes away from where I live in Durham) in the near future! What a small world!
This restaurant was also on Istiklal Avenue near Taksim Square. It’s a cute little restaurant that is also a hotel. My husband and I were wandering around when he noticed that they had vegan options advertised in the window. SOLD! The host didn’t speak much English, but luckily their menu was written in English, so it made ordering easy. Pick and point! I ordered the Meze Tabagt. I wish I could share exactly what it is, but unfortunately I don’t know! All I know is that it was great! Have a look at the photo below! In addition, I ordered the lemonade. If you’re there, I’d skip the lemonade, as it wasn’t sweetened to my liking (not a drop of sugar in sight!), but certainly try the food.
Things to Do:
The Grand Bizarre:
The grand bizarre is a really neat place to get lost! There’s so much to see, eat, and simply explore. You can find everything from jewelry to handbags in the vast selection of vendors. It’s no wonder it’s commonly known as one of the first shopping malls in the world! It stretches 61 covered streets and contains 4,000 shops. If you’re looking for an array of knock-offs, food, and some great people watching, this is the place for you! Check out the photos below:
The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque):
If you’re looking for beautiful sight seeing, look no further than the Blue Mosque. It’s hard to believe that it was built in 1616! It’s also surrounded by other neighboring mosques, so once you’re done wandering around the Blue Mosque, I’d encourage you to consider roaming around the area. Absolutely beautiful! If planning to visit, be sure to be mindful of your attire. Men must wear long pants (short sleeved shirts are fine), and women must cover their head and wear long skirts or dresses. If you’re attire is not in accordance, they do offer clothing you can borrow in order to be admitted. Because it’s still a practicing mosque, where people come to pray, there are certain hours where visitors are allowed to enter, so be sure to research this before going.
Istiklal Avenue is right near Taksim Square and truly feels like the heart of Istanbul. This mile long street houses everything from bookstores, to art galleries, live music and restaurants. It’s got great shopping and plenty of dining options to choose from, not to mention a tram that runs throughout the area. During my first visit there, I even found a store that was selling everything for $3! Yes, EVERYTHING!
If you’re looking for local food, this is a great area to find it as well. Turkish Apple Tea is really popular there, so I jumped at the chance to try it! It tasted exactly as I thought it would, just like hot apple juice, only with dried apple chunks floating at the top. Ha! In this same area you’ll find the Galata tower, which is where we found a group of men doing traditional folk dancing. It’s always cool to go places and observe the locals preserving the culture. Definitely entertaining too!
If you’re looking for a great view of the city, try visiting Ravouna 1906. It’s a cute little bar that has a rooftop with a beautiful view. When we went, no one was up there so we had it all to ourselves! I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this place for food, as there are little to no vegan options, but if you’re in the mood for a beer or cocktail definitely stop by and enjoy the view.
It’s hard for me to resist a visit to a palace. I’m always in awe of the detail, landscape, and the architecture found therein. The Dolmabahçe palace was no different. As soon as you step on the grounds you’re met with pristine views of the structure. It is the largest palace in Turkey and contains a whopping 285 rooms, 46 halls, 6 baths and 68 toilets. WOW! During my visit, my husband and I walked through the accessible areas in awe. Unfortunately we couldn’t take pictures inside, but trust me, no expense was spared when it came to decor and design. It’s amazing to me that people actually lived there! If you’re in Istanbul, I think this place is worth a visit.