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10 Great Reasons to Fall in Love with Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge tourist favorite globally, but Americans are just beginning to discover its riches.

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Fish, especially sea bass, can be extraordinary when fresh (Turks do have a tendency to freeze their seafood), but traditional Turkish meals are all about shish—small pieces of grilled meat, lamb or chicken; kofte—a blend of minced lamb and herbs; and mezzes—dozens of cold and hot “starters” of greens, veggies, meats, and seafood which accompany every meal, or make a meal in themselves. Many Turkish restaurants give you visual tours of their food, especially the mezzes, before asking for your order. Also, Turks make very good pizza, with thin, crisp crusts and lots of cheese. [vii]

Despite the Islamic ban on alcohol, there is lots of drinking (and smoking for that matter) in Istanbul. Raki, an  anise-flavored alcoholic beverage similar to Sambuca, Ouzo or Pernod, is the national drink. (Rumor has it that Turks will split a bottle of raki with dinner. As we value the use of our legs, we did not test this custom personally.) The main beer is the very good Efes Pilsen, which has 80% of the market. Tuborg is often available for those who crave a more upscale brew.  

For the most part, though, it makes sense to steer clear of wine, which is not a mainstay. One exception is Cankaya, which produces a consistently satisfying white. And be prepared—many restaurants serve their red wines chilled. 

9Shopping, anyone?

At this point you might not think you need anything further to add to the pleasures of Istanbul, but just in case, the Turks make it extremely easy for you to buy things. Many things. Maybe Turkey isn't the world's most capitalistic society, but Istanbul did invent the enclosed shopping mall—the sprawling, chaotic labyrinth known as the Grand Bazaar—in the 15th century. The innovation seems in character.  Goods spill out of storefronts onto the streets—not just souvenirs but housewares, vegetables, clothing, furniture, even boat engines.  

And Istanbulis have certainly turned their attention to the tourist market. Anywhere a visitor could conceivably cast an eye (and we do mean anywhere), shops appear to tempt them, selling everything from fine ceramics, jewelry, textiles, and leather to the ubiquitous, sometimes delightful "made in China Turkish souvenirs" (to quote a friend). [viii] And, of course, carpets, and rugs, and more carpets, and more rugs, from the finest silk showpieces or plant-dyed nomadic treasures to products that have a lot more familiarity with a factory floor that with a weaver's hand. Overall, the sheer accumulation of things makes for a constant riot of color and form, an unending feast for eyes already glutted on the city's many beauties.

10. A cat lovers’ paradise.

When Barack Obama visited Istanbul in 2009, he was surrounded by the usual heavy security—which didn't stop a cat from slipping up in front of Hagia Sophia for a quick presidential rub. Cats are everywhere in Istanbul—tabby, calico, gray, and the occasional pure white. Though technically strays, these animals make themselves very much at home, graciously accepting the food and attention that is their due. Every restaurant and cafe has its resident felines, who wind their way among the tables or just drowse on a nice warm wall.

Legend has it that a cat saved Mohammed from a snake, and Istanbulis repay the debt, feeding, watering and generally indulging their beloved kitty companions. And the cats are inspiring as well—nothing models such complete sensual ease as a cat asleep in the sun. Not a bad reminder in the midst of a day of seeing, learning and taking in so very much, so very pleasurably.

[i] It’s possible to visit Turkey on any traveler’s budget, from backpacker to five-star. Planning ahead will give a sense of the options and help keep it manageable.

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