If I learned one thing from my trip to Istanbul it was this: Avoid full meals. Amazing food is around every corner. So if you polish off a scrumptious grilled lamb kebab for lunch, when you pass a window filled with bright, glistening vegetables and savory meats you'll have instant buyer's remorse. Luckily, Istanbul lends itself to grazing, as lunches and dinners are often served meze style, on small plates brought out incrementally throughout a meal.
It's all about a little here, a little there. Snack on some roasted chestnuts after a light breakfast, and twenty minutes later stop at a lokantasi (cafeteria) to get a small plate of eggplant. Wash it all down with a fresh pomegranate juice, which can be procured from shops or vendors on nearly every corner.
Once I realized this, I knew how to eat my way through Istanbul. My favorite dining experience involved a tasting tour of the balik pazari (fish market) in the ultra hip Beyoğlu neighborhood. For those from the States, Beyoğlu recalls the trendy feel of Bucktown, Williamsburg, or Echo Park. The balik pazari is a small side street off of Istiklal Cadessi, a large pedestrian avenue crammed with boutiques and galleries. The stores may be modern, but the food is pure tradition. We stopped at one joint for midye dolmasi (mussel meat filled with cinnamon spiced rice and drenched in fresh lemon juice), found ourselves eating minced meat and pepper sandwiches from a cart, and rounded it out at a little open storefront with breaded and pan fried hamsi (fresh anchovies, which are in season during the fall.)
I had two meals that blew my young mind. One was at Çiya Sofrası, a lokantasi on the Asian side in the Kadıköy neighborhood. The hearty stews were perfect for the chilly November rain we sought refuge from. One sweet, brothy soup involved grilled peaches, chestnuts, hunks of tender lamb and soft potatoes. I drooled over the spinach and chickpeas creamed in yogurt. The divine after-meal tea was clove, cinnamon and ginger with crushed walnuts served in tiny porcelain cups.
If I had indiscriminate amounts of money, I'd fly into Istanbul every Saturday for a leisurely breakfast at Kale Café. The low-key café is right off the Bosphorus in the posh neighborhood of Rumeli Hisari. It was a 45-minute trip from our hotel, by tram, bus, and foot, and was worth every minute of transit. We discovered the spot prior to our trip on an episode of Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, and so before we even touched down in Istanbul, I was obsessed with finding my way to the kaymak (clotted cream) and honey. The meal did not disappoint: plump tomato slices and seasoned cucumbers, rich olives, a basket full of warm flat bread and baguettes, three salty cheeses - one fried, and tiny ramekins of pekmez (grape molasses) and tahin (lightly roasted sesame paste), which is the more flavorful cousin of peanut butter and jelly. There was also a skillet of menemen: scrambled eggs with onion, tomato, green peppers, paprika ground red pepper, salt and oregano.
Other than eating, a few notes of interest. I found the Grand Bazaar quite mediocre. It felt like an indoor mall with sanitized haggling at kiosks that carry nearly identical goods. We stayed at the Kybele Hotel, a delightful family-owned bread and breakfast decorated with antiques, centrally located near the tourist stops in Sultanahmet. Most definitely do not leave without getting a refreshing hamami. For something down and dirty try Çemberlitas, but for a more luxurious experience I've heard Les Ottomans is a must. By far my favorite part of the trip was walking around the Princes' Islands. An hour ferry ride from the city, it was a welcome refuge from the hustle and bustle. While there isn't much to do, biking the gorgeous streets and then sipping tea on picturesque garden terrace were my favorite way to relax for a day in the midst of an otherwise hectic trip.
A final note, if you were to judge a culture by the way they treat their animals, Istanbul might be the most civilized city on the planet. The stray cats and dogs are fat and happy, store-owners leave out heaping dishes of food and clean water, and it is not uncommon to see an elderly gentleman rubbing the belly of a big orange tabby in the middle of a city park. My love of pets alone left me smitten with Istanbul, and any animal lover will find the countries sense of humanity quit endearing.