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Sep 26, 2007 11:01 AM

3 Days in IST / 3 Days in ATH

Can anyone direct me to the "don't miss" spots in Istanbul and Athens? Mid October

Old or New

Upscale or off the beaten path

Gourmet stores

Local Meat / fish / produce markets

Cheese makers close to the cities.

Anything epicurean

Tavernas / pubs

Street food

Thanks so much for your help

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  1. In Istanbul, do not miss the Spice Bazaar. Not that you would, of course. It's absolutely wonderful. I came home with so much good stuff from there - saffron (the real thing - not that cheap fake stuff they sell from the open bins), pomegranate molasses (yes, it was insane to bring home, but fabulous), dried figs, double-roasted pistachios, gigantic raisins, etc., etc. I can't remember everything I got but it was just an irresistible place. Did I declare everything at customs? Nope. But I'm sure most of what I bought home was ok. It was worth the risk to me. And whatever you do, make sure you eat lots of the thick Turkish yogurt. Really delicious.

    In Athens the central market is good, but nothing once you've been to Istanbul. Nice for local eating - good fetas and olives. Also pick up some thyme honey and sun dried tomatoes from Santorini.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Nyleve

      Thanks for the tips. Spice Bazaar is surely on the short list.

      1. re: Nyleve

        While you're in the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, there is a wonderful very old restaurant upstairs that has authentic classic Turkish/Byzantine food. It''s a must! There's also a very nice little classic Turkish restaurant in the Istanbul Archaological Museum. A bit hard to find but worth the effort. And then you have to pick up a few boxes of lokum at Haci Bekir's lokum shop, open for business since 1777. I highly recommend the hazlenut lokum. Street vendor food in Turkey is fantastic. If you find a kebab cart, have some. The flavor comes from using real charcoal, not briquets. Ask around if the "Balak Lokanta" ("Fish Restaurant") that sits on stilts over the Bosphorus is still open. If it is, run, don't walk. Well, actually you'll need a taxi. An Istanbul treasure.

        Almost forgot. As for shopping, most shops will ship for you. If you plan on buying food stuffs and the like (or anything breakable), it's a whole lot easier to have them ship for you than to hassle it rhough customs when you come home.

        Athens... Well, if you want a little tradition, you have to have a meal at Hotel Grande Bretagne. Beyond that, I would absolutely stick to the smaller non-tourist local restaurants where you'll find great food. And don't miss out on the Greek tradition of spending an afternoon sipping ouzo and feasting on mezes, or appetizers. Sort of like tapas, but better. For fish, go to Piraeus, look for a small local restaurant with lots of people in it. If it has outside tables with a view of the harbor, so much the better. The octopus and crab are great. I'm sure it's a matter of personal taste, but I lived in Greece for nearly a year and never had great moussaka in a restaurant. But maybe things have improved? Most non-tourist restaurants will invite you into the kitchen to look over the food and point to what you want when you don't speak the language. If you like lamb shanks, go for it!

        Oh, and if you don't speak the language, forget the Berlitz type phrase books. You ask a question in Greek, they answer in Greek and you don't know any more than when you started. Buy two Greek/English dictionaries and keep them with you. One for you, one for whoever you're "talking" to.

        The Dionysus Restaurant in Athens is famous, and it (hopefully still) has several locations. Assuming the Son et Lumier shows are still going on at the Acropolis while you're there, there is (God, I hope it's still there!) a Dionysus Restaurant very near the Acropolis with a large dining patio from which you get a splendid view of the light show. I found it far more enjoyable, sitting there feasting on mezes and ouzo into the night, watching the lights shine on different segments of the Acropolis. Being a classics buff, I found the naration of the actual Son et Lumier show a bit grating. But if you have time, do both. It's kind of interesting walking out of the Pnyx after a show knowing people have been doing exactly that for nearly three thousand years. If you can, spend some time outside of Athens too. It's a wonderful country! Enjoy.

        But Istanbul is my favorite city in the whole wide world!

      2. Just got back from a two week jaunt to Fethiye and Istanbul. A few observations:

        Contra Nyleve, I think the Spice Bazaar is amusing for people watching and for observing the relative levels of desperation of the touts trying to lure you into the stores. I am not convinced that it's a great place to actually buy stuff. Iranian saffron is the deluxe item on offer there, and the prices are all over the place. The last time that we were there, we did pick up some exquisite saffron that appears to be extremely fragrant, highly potent in color, odor and flavor, and does the job with a fraction of the stuff I normally use when I'm making a saffron dish. But the stuff cost on the order of $5 a gram, which is Penzeys money and not a particular savings. I have seen Iranian saffron in Istanbul for as cheap as $2 a gram, but I've seen musty, rotting saffron, I've seen stuff that was cut with other red stamens, and unless you're an expert on saffron, you're not really going to know what you're getting. Not to mention that even if you manage to bargain the dealer down, he might make up for his losses by cutting his saffron with something else. Moreover, just outside the spice market in the rabbit warren of alleys just to the west and south, the same Iranian saffron is on offer for about 40-70% of the price inside the bazaar. The dried fruits and such are far cheaper in other markets also, so I would shop with some caution. Not to mention that you can get pretty decent dried Turkish figs and raisins at Trader Joe's. Fresh figs, that's another matter (we had some divine ones as part of breakfast at the Empress Zoë), but you won't be able to bring those back.

        I realize it's something of a pain, btw, to declare food items at customs and get your baggage searched, but problematic poking and bureaucratic officiousness aside, they're actually trying to keep adventuresome on-the-edge types from inadvertently importing killer plant parasites, fish that take over ponds and wipe out everything else in the ecosystem, and other such ecological nastiness into the US.

        It's also not such a great time, unfortunately, to be in Turkey. The dollar appears to be in free-fall, which means that the superb deals of last year when it was 1.4 YTL (new Turkish lire) to the dollar are not such a great deal when we're at 1.2 and falling. As a result, many of the classic seafood joints in town have become quite expensive; a meal for two at Doga Balik cost upwards of US $80, with two glasses of raki and with only one fish entree. It was very good, to be sure, and the meze are astonishing, but I'm not sure I'd be happy if I'd paid out that much money in the US for a seafood meal. Same goes for Balikci Sabahattani in Sultanahmet, where we both had mezes and fish and a bottle of wine, and paid out something like $115. Lots of color and flair, to be sure, but again, the dollar value is a little problematic in Istanbul.

        The big fish markets in town are at Kumkapi, on the Sea of Marmaris just outside of Sultanahmet and at Karaköy just over the Galata Bridge. For actual purchasing of food items, I might steer you over to Kadiköy over on the Asian side; just off the ferry terminal there's a market in the shadow of the mosque where prices are a good deal cheaper than in the heavily touristed sections, and quality didn't strike me as substantially worse.

        Nancy Chuang has posted a few times on this board about Istanbul essentials and her blog at is a good intro. I'm not quite so sanguine on Otantik as she was; my "chef's special" dinner had a piece of chicken breast and a piece of lamb both overcooked to the point of dishrag status, and served up with "authentic" french fried potatoes. As I mentioned, Doga Balik did have amazing mezes and fine fish, but is quite pricey for what it is. I would heartily endorse a trip to Ciya Sofrasi though -- the most heavenly upscale kebap house I've ever seen. The standard kebaps are seasoned with these extra layers of depth and complexity that I can only begin to guess at, and the lone English speaking waiter is astonishingly friendly. for info and even updated daily menus! I recommend hopping the Kadiköy ferry as close to sunset as possible to get there - the back-lit views of Sultanahmet and Karaköy and the Golden Horn turn this boat trip from a humdrum workaday commute into the realm of the sublime.

        There are a number of places that serve up fine Turkish delight (lokum) in Istanbul; my personal favorites are Divan (quite pricey but exquisite; the Istanbul shop is a little out of the way but you can pick it up in the duty free shop at Ataturk Airport, and Haci Bekir in Eminönü (available in selected Turkish shops in the US also, ). For baklava, an Istanbul local steered me to Karaköy Güllüoglu. Getting served is a bit of an adventure, since it's off the map for tourists, not in many guide books, and most of the staff don't process English or foreigners all that well, but their kuru baklava (dry) is flavorful without being sickly syrupy sweet and packages well for traveling also. And my wife found that shopping in the Grand Bazaar armed with a Karaköy Güllüoglu shopping bag, many of the touts took her for a local and left her alone. for information and locations.

        One problem is that a number of legendary places that get written up in all the tourist guides have begun resting on their culinary laurels, and overcharge for mediocre, often Westernized food (Pandeli in the Spice Market has been pooh-poohed for this reason, and it's possible that Ciya has completely spoiled me for the so-so kebaps with amazing views at Hamdi Et Lokantasi). I would avoid just about any place in Sultanahmet for this reason, with the exception of Balikci Sabahattin, and viewed most of the places on Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu with similar suspicion (though I do find myself wondering if the Konya Kebap house is any good -- something to find out, next time around).

        My other key bit of advice: if you're in Istanbul in mid October, you'll be likely there at the end of Ramazan. Iftar is a fairly big deal in istanbul, and many restaurants will be packed with locals just at about sundown. For any popular place (Ciya, Doga Balik, Balikci Sabahattin, etc), I would recommend asking your hotel concierge or clerk to make a dinner reservation for you. At Doga, you'll likely be rewarded with a lovely 8th floor view of Sultanahmet at night as a result; we were stuck deeper inside amid clouds of cigarette smoke. for info and menus.

        One other thing -- the Turkish tourism board publishes a brochure on food. You can download it at but I'd suggest getting hold of a paper copy if you can. It's actually quite a useful intro to what's what in Turkish cookery, and has a batch of key vocabulary words for the various types of breads, kebaps, sweets, etc., whicih will make interpreting menus much easier.

        Grouchiness aside, Istanbul really is a wonderful city, one of my favorites, and I've loved it more this second time around, as I've learned to process more Turkish vocabulary, more Turkish food, and more astonishing Turkish friendliness and hospitality. Enjoy your trip!

        15 Replies
        1. re: Dr.Jimbob

          Well now that's what I'm talkin' about. Thanks so much for the info. Just in time, leaving on Tuesday. We're actually staing at The Hotel Grande Bretagne so we'll get some of that first hand. I plan on eating every Squid, Octopus, Lamb Shank, Kebob that crosses my path. Will report back with all upon my return.


          1. re: WileysHungryAgain

            Have a GREAT trip! As for me, it isn't easy being green (with envy). And don't miss out on street vendor souvlaki in Greece, and shish kebab in Turkey. They're basically the same thing but the Greeks use pork, the Turks use lamb. Enjoy!

            1. re: WileysHungryAgain

              And do report back on what you find. Oh one other thing that I know about as street food but never got around to trying -- at Eminönü, whicih is at the southern end of the Galata bridge, there are a batch of kiosks after the in-bridge restaurants which sell various types of fish sandwiches and cooked mussels. I understand these are amazing; I unfortunately was either on my way to a meal or just back from a meal every time I passed this place. Did smell great, and it would be dirt cheap.

              Happy traveling and chowing!

              1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                Hey, that's my trip report! Thanks for the plug :).

                I'm disappointed by the exchange rate these days as well. We spent probably $30 each at Doga Balik including was 1.5 to $1 March 2006! We were also a group of 6 sharing food which helps costs, but exchange rate makes a big difference!

                I agree Otantik is not the best of the type, especially if you have explored Anatolia. I did note on my site that the manti was actually better at Turkish Kitchen in NYC, and in Goreme, but I enjoyed the gozleme and other dishes. Agreed Ciya Sofrasi is one of the best restaurants in the city, and a fun experience with great service.

                I enjoyed one store (actually 3 with one name and owner) in the spice market called Malatya Pazari. Great snacks there, but I agree the market is not necessarily the place to buy spices. But they had an amazing array of dried fruits, and a wonderful treat: coffee-flavored candy-coated dried chickpeas. A local actually recommended I buy spices in the Fish Street. I found a great the numerous articles the owner posted about his shop...but no, it really was nice.

                I agree, few of the restuarants right on Istiklal seem super-appealing, but just off Istiklal is fantastic...the fish street has great bargains and Nevizade street has wonderful mezes restaurants.

                I too never tried the fish sandwiches at time. A few people told me it was the best ever; my co-worker just got back and said it was hard to enjoy because it was extremely bony.

                Gulluoglu is great, and New Yorkers are lucky to have a branch in Brooklyn. There is also a baklava place near Ciya, Gaziantepli Baklavaci. I loved the baklava in Gaziantep and this Istanbul version did not disappoint. If I remember correctly, there was also a branch in Sirkeci in addition to Kadikoy.

                OK, two more because I hate not being able to go to Istanbul whenever I want (although I know the OP has probably already returned!) Mado, local chain, has the best ice cream I've EVER tasted (made with salep so it's stretchy) and Eta Bal in Kadikoy sells AMAZING honey. Well...I guess at these exchange rates you'd have to decide if it's worth lugging honey back.

                Speaking of bringing stuff back Dr.Jimbob, do you know if you can bring dried meats back? smoked/dried, like sausage? Or cheese if it's not raw-milk? We were assuming it would be confiscated so we didn't...but months later I brought in jerky (undeclared) from Taipei. Don't know when I'll get to Istanbul again, but I'd love to pick up some of that next time.

                1. re: NancyC

                  Coffee-flavored candy-coated dried chickpeas. Good thing I didn't find that one (I have enough snacks and treats to fend off in Turkey!).

                  The prospect of a bony fish sandwich was also something that put me off, though I do regret not trying the mussels at Eminönü.

                  There's a branch of Karaköy Güllüoglu in Brooklyn? I have seen a brand called Güllüoglu (sans Karaköy) which is available for sale in the Boston area Turkish stores. The baklava from Güllüoglu is decent, but not sublime like Karaköy Güllüoglu. And I actually did find and try a branch of Gaziantepli Baklavari (the branch I hit was right across the street from the Sirkeci tram stop) and thought it was good, but have yet to find anything that matches Karaköy Güllüoglu for managing to be intensely flavorful without dripping with honey or being overly sickly-sweet.

                  My understanding about bringing food goods back is that you basically don't want to bring anything that might still be alive back with you. If it's been packaged and vacuum-packed, it's almost always OK, though as you might imagine, most of the goods that are packaged for export don't taste quite as good as the local produce. But it's still better than nothing.

                  Sausage and non-raw cheese are both fine. I don't know if beyaz peynir (white cheese) is OK or not, though there are a batch of supermarket brands that are available at least in the aforementioned Boston Turkish marts.

                  1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                    Beyaz penir and feta are the same cheese.

                    In both Turkey and Greece, a lot of shops will ship for you, which dodges the customs hassle and means less to carry.

                    1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                      Gulluoglu is a nationwide chain from Gaziantep. It's possible that this branch simply added "Karakoy" to its name to distinguish itself, but I don't think someone could open a place called "Karakoy Gulluoglu" without having a lawsuit on their hands! Er, well, maybe Turkey isn't litigous like that but my understanding is that the one in Karakoy is the same as the one that's all over the country. Maybe they follow recipes rather than shipping stuff from the Gulluoglu factory in Antep though, so individual branches might have variations.

                      I didn't know there was one in Boston...I knew Brooklyn was the first US one, but I figured it was still the only.

                      The best baklava I had was actually in a restaurant in Antep, but I don't know if it was a particularly delicious batch from Gulluoglu (since they apparently are some sort of baklava mafia in that town) or if the restaurant made its own. Unbelievably intense, as you've described.

                      I didn't have any mussels in Eminonu, but I loved them on the fish street in Beyoglu! Had a whole mussels meal of the fried mussels in hot dog bun, then um...extra fried mussels because they were so good, plus the dolma midye (mussels stuffed with spiced rice). Incredible. At the time this was just a couple dollars, maybe it's up to $4 now :).

                      And next time I'm buying sausage and cheese, dammit. The jerky I brought from Taipei was definitely dead but also not sealed...I had been eating it for a few days. Anyway, I opted not to mention it.

                      1. re: NancyC

                        From the Gulluoglu site (translation quite charming):


                        Sounds like the Karakoy branch does its own production.

                        Also this:


                        So I was totally seems like the Gulluoglu FAMILY produces all over the country, but the actual Gulluoglu-branded store is mainly in Istanbul by one particular family member. So Karakoy Gulluoglu is a different family member's shop. Perhaps that would explain slight differences...while I do really like the baklava in Brooklyn, it's a branch of the Istanbul store, which is not the same as what was available by this same family in Gaziantep.

                        1. re: NancyC

                          Can't stop Googling!

                          "Gullu later told me that only 13 members of the Gullu family, which goes back five generations, are in this business, and they have a total of 34 shops in Istanbul. ‘People think that there is only one Gulluoglu shop, the one in the Karakoy district, and that the others are counterfeit. This isn’t true. We produce the same baklava and have inherited the same patent'."

                          1. re: NancyC

                            Re Caroline1: the beyaz peynir that I have had does not exactly taste the same as standard Greek feta. I can't tell you what the differences are, except that Turkish "white cheese" (literal translation) is a little less flaky and not quite as acid in its flavor.

                            Re Güllüoglu Baklava: the nationwide brand is readily available throughout Turkey, at a variety of stalls in the Spice Market, and in quite a few stores in the US (including two markets in Allston MA). This is the company that has a branch in Coney Island in Brooklyn. Karaköy Güllüoglu's main branch is right near the waterfront, but they have a distinct web site at and they are available only in a select number of places -- I've only seen them at their retail outlets and in the duty free shop at Atatürk airport. I am not certain that the two of them are from the same family -- unfortunately, K.G.'s web site's English section has been down repeatedly for the last few months. I have had both brands of baklava though and I know I'd pick K.G. in a heartbeat, any day and twice on Sunday. Subtler, more complex and interesting flavor. I wish it was K.G. that had a shop in Brooklyn -- would definitely look for excuses to head down to NY if that was the case.

                            1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                              "Re Caroline1: the beyaz peynir that I have had does not exactly taste the same as standard Greek feta. I can't tell you what the differences are, except that Turkish "white cheese" (literal translation) is a little less flaky and not quite as acid in its flavor."

                              I lived in Turkey for four years and in Greece for a bit less than a full year. You'll find small variances in feta/beyaz penir in both countries, as well as in the feta cheeses of the rest of the world. The creaminess you mention in Turkish beyaz penir comes from keeping it stored in water. You get the same texture from Greek feta when you do this. I don't like American feta. When I can't find Turkish or Greek, Bulgarian isn't a bad substitute.

                              To store feta/beyaz penir, it should be submerged in milk or water that is changed regularly and stored (covered) in the refrigerator. This modifies its "flakiness," as well as its saltiness. For salads or for breakfast I prefer the soaked, desalted kind. A classic Turkish breakfast is Turkish coffee, green grapes (or black olives) and beyaz penir with that incredible Turkish ekmek (bread). For tyropita (peynirli borek) or spanikopita, I use it dry and salty. But it is the same cheese. Honest! '-)

                              1. re: Caroline1

                                Nifty hint. I'll have to remember that the next time I"m on a beyaz run, as I too prefer the cheese soaked and desalted.

                                1. re: Dr.Jimbob

                                  There was a time when all beyaz penir/feta was shipped in barrels or tins with lots of liquid, then after purchase, they were taken home and stored in water or milk. Today a lot of fetas, especially those made in Wisconsin, are shipped in cryovac bags with little to no excess liquid and become hard and ultra salty as a result. Turkish beyaz penir is often sold in cans with plenty of liquid. I'm not that sure about Greek or Bulgarian feta because my market has them soaking in water by the time I buy them.

                                  So now for my little rant. I HATE cryovac! It really messes up feta cheese. It's why I won't buy bulk Wisconsin feta. Cryovac is also responsible for wet cured beef, which I think is a sin against nature. And sous vide sucks. But.... '-) I am perfectly confident that within a few years some brilliant scientist is going to make the auspicious announcement that cryovacked foods leach bad chemicals into our food supply from the plastic. Two of 20th Century's Agribusiness' contributions to the welfare of mankind: Cryovac and Mad Cow Disease. What more could we ask for?

                                  Rant over. Thank you for the opportunity! ;-)

                              2. re: Dr.Jimbob

                                Definitely the same family, as the quick Googling I did above evidenced :). Again, I just can't imagine it would be possible for two places making the same product to have the same name without some relation...but then the Gulluoglu website confirms it anyway.

                                But I believe you that there is a difference! I will have to try Karakoy Gulluoglu next time I'm there. I've basically accepted that I will never again taste baklava as good as what I had in Antep (Damascus was very close though, and unlike Gaziantep I would be more interested in going again!) so I'd be happy to find a runner-up.

                                The Boston thing confuses me though...are you sure THAT'S related? I have only heard that the one in Coney Island is the sole US outpost.

                                1. re: NancyC

                                  Sorry if there's a misunderstanding -- there are two shops in Boston (on Brighton Avenue in Allston) which sell pre-packaged Güllüoglu baklava (which looks sort of like the shrink wrapped boxed stuff that you can buy in the Spice Market or in the duty free shop at Atatürk Airport). I actually wound up buying a box to bring to a party the other night and I do have to concede, the stuff isn't bad at all (though I still think the Karaköy branch gets a marginal edge). So no, there isn't an official shop, merely a general Turkish goods store that sells the Güllüoglu brand.

                                  The other odd thing is that when I looked over my credit card receipts from my last trip, the Karaköy Güllüoglu purchase was listed simply as "Güllüoglu" which would tend to confirm your description of things.