It is impossible for me to walk through the streets of Istanbul and not ponder chaos theory and particle swarm dynamics as a system of organization. The symphonic madness. The rivers of kinetic energy. The ancient flow. When I first came to Istanbul, my western eyes could only see the discordant mash of unrelated swarms of bees. Seas of people flowing through endless traffic without any sort of discernable structure or rules. But very quickly you realize this madness works. And perhaps more efficiently and harmoniously than the rule and process laden systems I grew up in. The traffic flows. The people move. Packages and food are delivered. Scooters weave on and off of sidewalks the wrong way up narrow roads. You’re swept up in a river of flow. The people and the cars and the madness flow together in a spontaneous orchestration. You hear short honks urging people on, but unlike my home, there doesn’t seem to be any rage. There’s a patience. Respect for another person’s job. A conspiracy to keep the flow going. And soon you become one with the flow, with the rhythms, the orchestration of necessity. The zen of disorder.
This was my second visit to Istanbul. On my first, I spent three weeks frantically seeing everything the city had to offer, tasting the exotic, unearthing the deep layers of history and meaning. But this trip, I wanted to let all of that go. To find a chill spot, settle in, and get local. Someplace away from the postcards. A place that I could imagine as home. On one of our last days in the city we ferried across the Bosporus to the Asian side of the city looking for the best lahmacun and discovered the hipster enclave of Kadıköy. And we both agreed, this is where we would return to.
Kadıköy, North of the Market – Rasimpaşa and Yeldeğirmeni
When you take the ferry across the Bosporus River from the bustling neighborhood of Karikoy on the European side of Istanbul, you arrive at the main port of Kadikoy on the Asian side which is likewise bustling and urban. And directly across from the port you will find the Kadikoy Market, a grid of dozens of narrow pedestrian streets loaded with stands selling fish and produce, dried goods, spices, treats, and prepared foods, mixed with restaurants of every sort and small shops. You get a real Grand Bizaar feel and it can be a bit claustrophobic if you’re not used to it. But if you head up the main street, Söğütlü Çeşme Caddesi, at the northern edge and turn left up the winding lanes of shops and food places, the crowds begin to subside and you find yourself in a chill traditional residential neighborhood with a mix of locals who’ve lived there their whole life and young hipsters and expats lounging in the many groovy tea shops and coffee houses spilling out into the narrow streets.
The best way to go is to take a left on Halitağa Caddesi, a shop and restaurant lined (mostly) pedestrian lane, then take another left on Karakolhane Caddesi which runs through the heart of the Yeldeğirmeni neighborhood. On or first visit we explored this neighborhood looking for the giant murals it is known for and fell in love with the hip vibe and chill scene there and vowed if we came back to Istanbul, this is where we’d stay. So we rented a traditional house on the northern edge of Yeldeğirmeni where it bleeds into Rasimpaşa and found exactly what we were looking for.
We had our little tea shop across the street that made great noodles, our bakery run by this little mustached man who was very excited to teach me how to cut the bread dough before it went into the oven, our corner bodega for snacks, the friendly crowd at Küff who were always nice and served the best breakfast. We felt really at home. It’s a magical little place.
This was the little teahouse and café across the street from our house and we probably spent the most time here. I loved getting little glasses of tea and hanging out. The music was always excellent and they had great food to boot. Fond memories.
Central Kadıköy and the Kadıköy Market near the port.
The market itself takes a bit of getting used to. It’s packed with locals and tourists alike from all over the world. The buzzing high chaos that defines Istanbul. Even in these covid times the people are smashed shoulder to shoulder on narrow lanes pushing through, negotiating, scooters honking their way through the crowd, this current of people that you have to submit to. It can be a little intimidating for westerners, but make the effort to spend some time here and you’ll start to relax. English is common and even when there’s none, people are always friendly at communicating with you. Pointing and pantomime work just fine. The prices are marked so I haven’t found much worry about being taken advantage of. And some of the best restaurants of the city can be found in this part of the market. So relax and let yourself get excited by the sights and smells.
This central area is divided up into many smaller sections. The streets near the front and center are quite crowded and hectic. But as you move further in, things quiet down a bit.
I liked the rainbow colors you could see when the sun hit these fish. They flip the gills out like that so you can see how fresh they are. Old fish lose that color.
South of the market and the Moda Neighborhood
You won’t find alcohol in the market area but further south along a main cross road made up of Misbah Muayyeş Sk., Sarraf Ali Sk., and Sakız Gülü Sk. you’ll find the main bar road with lots of pubs and hip stores. This is the heart of the Istanbul alternative scene with Karga Bar hosting live metal shows and the Wizard Pub featuring metal music. If you’re looking for harder music shops, try the basement of the Akmar corridor (the street level just sells books).
Go a bit further south and things become more residential before you hit the waterfront. One of our favorite spots was at the intersection of Leylek and Gürbüz Türk, a quiet spot with chill cafes on each corner and some great graffiti. At the far southeast corner of this area you’ll find the Mehmet Ayvalıtaş Meydanı square surrounded by restaurants. It’s a good spot to explore around.
The Moda neighborhood is along the waterfront south of the market and is the bustling center of hipster life. Though a bit upscale for my taste. It feels more gentrified and clean and packed with nice looking people. The main road leads straight to the Moda Coastal Park and Pathway with brilliant views of the coastline and crowds of young people enjoying the sun. But you won’t find much solitude here.
Looking for the best of Turkish food.
Istanbul truly is the crossroads of the world and the complexity and diversity of its cuisine is a testament to this. I wrote a entire blog post on Turkish food last time I was here and I knew then I had only scratched the surface. This time instead of chasing dishes across the entire city I wanted to find the best places to eat in Kadikoy and explore the local places near my apartment. Luckily some of the best food in the city can be found in Kadikoy so I wasn’t missing out on anything.
Çiya Sofrası always makes the list of the Istanbul’s best restaurants. It was our favorite meal from our last visit and one of the reasons we came back to Kadikoy. It’s even recommended on The World’s 50 Best website. Here’s what they had to say:
“Less chef, more culinary anthropologist, Musa Dağdeviren has been collecting Turkish recipes from all over the country and serving them up to foodies from near and far for more than 25 years. His no-frills restaurant, opened in 1998, is located in Kadiköy Market – Istanbul’s answer to London’s Borough Market – on the city’s Asian side. The menu changes daily, according to season and supply, but recurring motifs include the pairing of meats with fruit (lamb with quince being a signature dish) and an intuitive approach to using spices.”
Tavuklu pilav (or chicken rice)
I want to introduce you to one of Katy’s favorite Istanbul meals, the humble tavuklu pilav or chicken rice. You see these places everywhere. It’s deceptive. It looks like boiled chicken and white rice with plain chickpeas but it’s really delicious rice cooked in fatty chicken stock. Creamy and amazing. And the portion is pretty big, very filling. And it only costs roughly $1.20. This time I chose to go with ciğerli pilav, which appears to be the same yummy rice with stewed beans instead of chickpeas and chicken liver which was fantastic. I could barely finish.
Lahmacun /lah-ma-june/ (but with a hard h a bit like a k) kinda like Turkish pizza. Typically a mince meat with minced onions, garlic, tomatoes, and red peppers, spread on a thin dough and baked at a high temperature so that the crust is crispy, and served with parsley and fresh lemon. After topping with condiments you roll the whole thing into a pizza burrito and enjoy. Love these.
In my opinion the best lahmacun is in Kadikoy at Halil Lahmacun in the market. On the next block you can find another place that is often in the top 5 list, Borsam Taşfırın. But these pictures were taken at a local spot near my apartment, LTF Lokma Taş Fırın. Not as good but serviceable. Along with the house ezogelin soup, bulgar and red lentil with fresh lemon (very important).
Manti, a Turkish dumpling
Manti is a local dumpling kind of like a small ravioli usually filled with meat and topped with melted butter, garlic-yogurt sauce, and Aleppo pepper with dried sumac and mint as a condiment. You can find these commonly at cafes along with various toasts as a short menu.
Supposedly brides prepare manti for their mother-in-law to prove their skill in the kitchen, the smaller, the more skill, so they are supposed to be prepared so small that 40 dumplings can fit inside a single spoon. The café variety are much larger.
We ended up eating a lot of these and the café across the street from our apartment, Cafe Eya, had a great one. I went for the traditional meat manti and Katy chose the manti with butter and walnut.
Çorba (soup) and the Çorbasi
Soup is a staple food in Turkey and often served at meals. Soups tend to be thinner and light, often a blended vegetable, and served with fresh lemon which is essential to the flavor. I try to order soup whenever available, it’s generally less than a dollar. There are also very affordable Çorbasi (soup restaurants) all over the city where you can get a bowl of soup for $.70-$1.20 along with some croutons, a variety of condiments, and unlimited packages of rolls. After trying a few out it appears that there’s a common set of about 30 kinds of soup available at these places. The most expensive usually being the sheep or lamb foot soup which comes with some meat (if you like foot meat). Lots of different kinds of vegetable soups, including “black cabbage” which turns out to be dinosaur kale. And a few with special names like thimble soup or wedding soup. I haven’t had a bad bowl yet.
The most common street food you’ll encounter is the ubiquitous döner kebab, or meat cone, that’s shaved off and wrapped in a dürüm like a burrito. But if you keep your eye open for a place that has a grill, you can often find my favorite dürüm, the adana kebap. It’s spiced ground meat on a skewer grilled over coals and wrapped with lettuce or parsley, onions, tomatoes, and spices.
My favorite adana so far is still over in the Taksim/Galata area called Dürümzade where the cook pats the cooking meat with the dürüm soaking it through with meat fat and spreading the flavor through the wrap. But generally speaking all adana is good adana.
Büfe (Buffet style restaurants)
We didn’t get to try these restaurants on our first visit but now Katy swears by them. You’ll find similar ones all across the city. It’s a standard buffet style place with dozens of different dishes. Just point and you’ll get a reasonable portion for a surprisingly low price. One portion is filling but we usually get a couple each just to try things out. Some places also have a grill and you can order fresh cooked meat too. Katy loves these to accommodate her tricky diet. We ate at several this visit.
Kadı Nimet Balıkçılık
I found this place by searching for the best restaurants of Kadikoy. It’s dead center to the busiest part of the Kadikoy market, so I typically wouldn’t think to eat here amongst the other tourist places, but it turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip. Out front is a fresh fish stand where you can buy raw fish to go and inside another impressive fish case. You just point out what you want and they’ll cook it to order. Along with the fish there’s an impressive collection of delicious mezze, small snacks served tapas style as appetizers or a tapas style meal. The décor is fun as well. Apparently the owner used to have a pet goose that would follow him around the market. There’s a video playing of some news story about him and the goose is featured in the restaurant’s branding.
Baklava is probably one of the most well known Turkish exports. It is popular across Balkan, Persian, Mediterranean, African, and other cultures. The current version that we think of as baklava was probably created by the imperial kitchens of the Ottoman seat of power, the Topkapi Palace in Instanbul (previously known as Constantinople). The Janissaries (the Sultan’s elite infantry) were presented with trays of baklava every 15th of the month of Ramadan by the Sultan in a ceremony called the Baklava Alayı, or Baklava Parade. Acceptance of the tray indicated satisfaction with pay and conditions where refusal indicated dissatisfaction.
Sadly this trip I have developed an unhealthy obsession with these fantastic treats. I call this local sweet shop my dealer. I can only buy an amount I’m ok with eating at a sitting because I have proven I have no willpower.
Yanyalı Fehmi Lokantası
This is another restaurant I found online that I would have passed by given its central location within the market. But maybe our favorite meal of the trip. Food is served in the buffet style, you pick from dishes in the case, and the waiter took care to explain each dish.
The owner was from northern Greece and opened this restaurant in 1919. People from his region are known as Yanyalı and the specialty of the house is the yanya meatball, a seasoned meatball wrapped with eggplant, just an amazing flavor bomb of garlic and meat. We ordered this dish by chance but both agreed it was fantastic and came back later to get more.
Turkish breakfast! (at Küff Yeldeğirmeni)
The Turkish breakfast is a well known tradition but certainly a site to behold. It’s widely available at cafes and typically comes in a few flavors. There’s a basic breakfast with just a few items and then there’s the larger version typically reserved for a Sunday brunch. Every place has their own version but our favorite was at the very popular restaurant near us called Küff Yeldeğirmeni where we ate many times.
This meal is meant to last a while. An endless array of nibbles served with bottomless tea. It’s a multi-hour affair if you’re doing it right.
Küff has a long eclectic menu that’s a good representation of food popular with the younger hip crowd including favorites like spaghetti Bolognese, burritos and quesadillas, burgers, and pizza.
Köfte or meatballs (at Ekspres İnegol Köftecisi)
Meatballs are popular in Istanbul and you’ll find them on most traditional menus but there are some restaurants that specialize in them called a köftecisi. Loving meatballs as I do, I tracked down what was supposed to be the best köfte place in Kadikoy. This place was packed with locals and had a very short menu, and everyone was getting the same thing, the house special meatball. I also got the soup. And every table gets a plate of spicy pepper pure and a hefty plate of bread. Definitely worth a stop if you’re looking for good meatballs.
Fettucinne Alfredo at Say Cheese
We discovered this place by accident while exploring the bar section of Kadikoy. There was a line down the block all dutifully waiting for over an hour in front of this tiny shop featuring a woman dipping noodles into a full wheel of melted parmesan like a giant soup bowl. We left at first but then had to come back and queue up. The fetticine noodles are made fresh by 5 noodle makers next door constantly walking over tubs of noodles which are immediately consumed. They basically only sell one thing, the noodles, in a small and large size. Then you can add different toppings for a small fee. I got the large noodles with extra parmesan, mushrooms and onions, and bolognese sauce. Katy went with bacon (which is uncommon here). Totally worth the wait.
İskender kebap at Kebapçı İskender
İskender kebap is shaved lamb doner over cut flatbread, covered in a tomato sauce with fresh tomato and grilled peppers, then finished with a scorching brown sheep’s milk butter poured from the pan tableside and a dollop of yoghurt. This version pictured with a side of eggplant salad.
İskender kebap can be found all over Istanbul and even the world. It’s one of those basic Turkish dishes. There’s even an İskender place in the mall food court. But the dish itself was invented by İskender effendi in the 19th century in Bursa. And his shop is still there. But in Kadikoy there is another place run by the grandchildren of İskender effendi and is well regarded as the best İskender in Istanbul, Kebapçı İskender. Even though there are a half dozen Iskender places nearby, this is the true original. And it’s farking delicious.
Pide at Pide Sun
Pide is the Turkish equivalent to pizza, except it’s shaped into a little bread boat shape and chopped into sections. You can get all the regular pizza versions but there are a lot more toppings available, like corn, raw meat, and a runny egg.
This is a ubiquitous snack but supposedly the best pide in Kadikoy is at Pide Sun which offers a large variety including more typical round pizzas and the covered pideler, like a pizza tube. There’s a lot of bad pide in Istanbul but this was delicous.
Kokoreç at Reks Kokoreç
Kokoreç isn’t for everyone but it’s a very popular late night snack around town and the most popular Turkish fast food. You’ll see the equivalent of hotdog stands grilling this stuff up around all of the late night party spots but you’ll see just as many stand alone restaurants specializing in this dish. And in Kadikoy, Reks Kokoreç is supposed to be the best.
Kokoreç is lamb large intestines stuffed with small intestines and sweetbreads into a roughly 15″ log, set on a skewer, and slow roasted horizontally over hot coals. When cooked with a nice char, the skewer is finely chopped and seasoned with thyme, oregano, salt, pepper, and finely chopped fresh tomato and parsley. Loaves of ekmek bread are halved and toasted on the coals (sort of like a french bread) and you order a sandwich in quarters of the loaf (e.g. 1/4, 1/2, 3/4). Some restaurants like Reks also offer plates of sliced Kokoreç.
I thought this particular one was a bit heavy on the oregano which overpowered the meat. The versions I’ve had from street stands were a touch less spiced. But I guess it depends on your taste.
So … cats. Lots of places in the world have cats but in Istanbul they seem to be woven into the fabric of being. You’ll find throngs of every sort of kitty living their best life, lounging in cafe chairs, perched on walls, and tucked into every cranny. None of them seem to be owned by anyone in particular but are taken care of by everyone. You’ll find little shelters built on stoops, window sills, and abandoned lots, bowls of water everywhere, piles of food or food dispensers mounted on fences. Everyone seems to have a little time to stop and pet the kitties and be on their way with a smile. It’s an interesting balance of feral and domestic. Most are nice, some bite, some seem completely wild.
You’ll also find a decent amount of stray dogs with tagged ears lounging in cafes and sleeping or barking at the recycling guys with their big carts. These guys are always chill and friendly and never seem to be causing a problem.
This guy was a regular at the Kuff restaurant we frequented. He would lay down in the middle of the only footpath during dinner rush and go to sleep and all the waiters would just step over him. This customer tried really hard to wake him up by petting him and moving his legs but he never stirred a bit and kept visibly dreaming about chasing something all through her affection. He was unshakeable.
Istanbul is one of the best places to see graffiti in the world. Bright and imaginative works. And Kadikoy is one of the best neighborhoods for it. In the 2012 the Kadikoy Municipality with the help of ÇEKÜL (Foundation for the Protection and Promotion of Environmental and Cultural Values) green lit the Mural Istanbul Festival which sponsors local and international muralists to create enormous murals around the neighborhood. You’ll find 5+ story murals scattered across Kadikoy in all sorts of unusual places. I spent over 5 weeks walking around there and still see photos of things I haven’t found yet. The artwork is welcome by the neighborhood both aesthetically and for the tourism it brings. This then fosters other unsanctioned street art which seems to be everywhere. I had a great time trying to capture it all and ended up with hundreds of shots of the most amazing work. This is just a small sampling.
More on Istanbul
On my last visit I wrote 4 posts on Istanbul if you want to read more:
Day 91 – Istanbul, Turkey – An introduction (part 1 of 4)
Day 91 – From Taksim Square to the Hagia Sophia: Walking Istanbul’s city center neighborhoods (part 2 of 4)
Day 91 – Visiting the mosques, palaces, and antiquity of Istanbul, Turkey. (part 3 of 4)
Day 91 – Next level street food and the truly amazing cuisine of Istanbul, Turkey. (part 4 of 4)