Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world, the only city which spans two continents. With a wealth of sites to see it's worth the 3 hour flight from London, especially as it also caters very well for veggies and vegans.
We'd decided to visit here on the spur of the moment, as my old mate Ken had worked here over 20 years ago and wanted to revisit it for old times sake.
KhorasaniThe city is full of characters, most of whom are prepared to perform some service or other for a few Turkish Lira. A good example of this was on our first day. Ken had changed his mobile contract in the UK a couple of days before and the spotty youth at the phone shop had assured him this would work abroad. Of course it didn't so we were face with a long twenty quid call to enable it. Whilst we were debating (over a couple of Efes beers) what to do, the bar owner saw us fiddling with the phone, wandered over and asked what the problem was. Within 5 minutes he had taken the phone to his brothers shop, replaced the SIM with a Turkish pay as you go, unlocked it and topped it up with credits, all for eight quid! We hadn't even finished our beers. Imagine THAT in the UK!
Our first major port of call was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (The Blue Mosque). This magnificent 400 year old edifice is unmissable. You can tell it from the other nearby mosques by it's six minarets. See here for more information. Just opposite, down a side road we found a very atmospheric restaurant, the Khorasani. This has a large open grill where you can sit around and watch your food being cooked. This is a pretty good place to take your non-veggie friends as they have a large selection of non-veg too. I had the vegetarian kebab with rice. Very nicely served.
ZencefilOne thing you can do when you visit a restaurant in Istanbul is ask to inspect the kitchen. They won't be offended. In fact, most places encourage it. This place was no exception and the kitchen was impeccable!
The morning after found us strolling across the Galata Bridge. This has numerous shops, bars and restaurants along the underneath. Worth visiting for wonderful views of the Bosphorous strait. Also, a pretty good barber which will do you a cut-throat shave for 80p!
The northern side of Istanbul is more European. This is where most of the chain hotels are, the Hilton, Hyatt Regency etc.. Also found there is a little street, the Kurabiye Sokak, which boasts the two best veggie places in Istanbul. On one side is the Zencefil. This is almost fully vegetarian, and has at least 4 or 5 choices for vegans, but oddly has just one chicken dish. I guess they are catering for the awkward non-veg friend. However, it's still worth eating there. Sitting in a courtyard, I enjoyed the potato pie and Ken had the Veg Lasagne. Portions were giant sized, so make sure you have a good appetite before you go. Price £20 for two including drinks.
Just across the road is the charming Parsifal. This is probably the only fully veg restaurant in the centre, (we couldn't find another, let us know if you know of one!). The artichoke dolma and spinach pie are to be recommended. Lots of choices for vegans. Again, very reasonably priced.
ParsifalThe very friendly lady owner told us she had been established there for 15 years, but that no-one in Turkey was veggie, so she relied on Tourists!
Given that there (apparently) aren't many veggies in Turkey, it's surprising how well we are catered for. Almost everywhere has at least two or three veggie choices, and most menus I peeked at whilst walking around had something for vegans too. The only thing you might find off-putting is the smoking rules. There aren't any! Everyone smokes, almost every restaurant and bar is smoking, even the taxi drivers are known to light up when driving along. If this puts you off then maybe wait till they join the EU and tighten up a bit. I still think it's worth the trip and eat a bit earlier when it's not so busy.
Our last day found us in a cab whisking across to Akatlar, about 5 miles from the centre. I'm a big fan of Saf in London, so was keen to visit one of its smaller brothers, the Saf at the Club Sporium. Basically this is a giant sports complex with gym etc.. and a small Saf outlet selling juices and organic snacks (mainly raw food). It has an attached bar, so you can munch on a hummus wrap whilst enjoying watching other people work out while you are sinking a beer or two. Although a little way out of the centre it's worth the cab ride (about £3) to eat here. It's clean, healthy and there's something quite worthy about their approach.
The Cagaloglu Hamami is probably the world's most famous Turkish Bath. It's featured in the 1000 places to go before you die book, and is reputed to have been visited by King Edward VII, Florence Nightingale, Tony Curtis and Cameron Diaz.
SafUnfortunately, when I visited Cameron Diaz wasn't there, but a 20 stone Turkish wrestler was. Forget any massage you've ever had elsewhere, however "strong". I ve never been so pummelled, doused with hot water, cold water, slapped and stretched. In fact if you are doing the 1000 places before you die thing, then I'd suggest you leave this till around the late 990's. I'll tell you something though, an hour later I felt absolutely fantastic. The full "Sultan" treatment is around 50 euros and worth every penny.
If you fancy a more upmarket meal (and in one of the few non-smoking restaurants we found) then try the main restaurant at the Hyatt Regency hotel. I really enjoyed their veggie wrap served with roast potatoes, and the lengthy discussion we had with the maitre'd, on the political machinations, shenanigans and history of Turkey. Also the roof restaurant (another non-smoking place) on the 9th floor of the Hilton has several veggie choices plus a spectacular view of the Bosphorous.
We flew Easyjet from Gatwick, and stayed at the Ipek Palas Hotel which was clean and reasonably priced at around 50 euros per night per room. This was also a good choice for sightseeing as it's near all the major mosques and the Tokapi museum.
Istanbul is maybe not everyone's cup of tea, but it's one of the best city for Veggies that I've visited, and that, combined with it's history and views make it a destination you should add to your list.
Note: Veggie Places always reviews anonymously, posing as an ordinary customer. If we do divulge who we are, it is always after we have paid in full for food or accommodation.