istanbul and cappadocia travel guide
If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know that I just got back from a trip to Turkey with my mom (we were Girls’ Trippin’)! We spent 9 days in the country, splitting our time between Istanbul (the largest city in the country) and the Cappadocia region (known for its natural wonders like rock formations and gorges).
Because this was 100% vacation (I did literally zero work for my cookbook and this blog, unless you count some half-hearted, distracted photo editing on the flight over while I horror-watched Mother! with Jennifer Lawrence — has anybody seen it? Like, wtf, right?!), I wasn’t initially going to do a recap of the trip at all. But prior to the trip, I was pretty frustrated by the lack of blogger guides to Istanbul. There was plenty of information available on what to do and see by way of guide books, but I tend to get food-related information (ehem, by that I really mean: WHERE SHOULD I EAT?!) from blogs since they tend to be more up-to-date and less touristy than what’s recommended in a guide book. Luckily, I put out some feelers on my Instagram and you kind folks delivered! A big shout-out to Merve for some baller recommendations, as well as all the wonderful Turkish followers who helped me identify the kurabiye cookies I was devouring without abandon.
What to Expect
Real Talk — I was the worst and did zero research before landing in Istanbul (aside from putting out feelers for food places). I literally knew nothing about it. So I had no idea that it was HUGE. It reminded me a lot of the busy, chaotic cities that I’ve lived in before (Manila, London, New York City). Its sheer size, population, and traffic can be incredibly overwhelming.
That being said, once we got our bearings, it was pretty easy to get where we wanted to go. Although we mostly walked everywhere, the taxi and ferry system is plenty reliable. We didn’t ride a whole lot of public transport, but it seems cheap and accessible.
My advice is to pick out the activities and sites you want to do and see beforehand, and to pick a hotel or Airbnb within walking distance. Walking is the best way to see a city anyway, and we felt plenty safe while doing so. The city is plenty bustling at all hours and you’ll be walking among many locals and tourists if you’re planning on seeing the major sites. In the more touristy areas, we did got accosted by restaurant and store owners trying to get you into their shop, but that happens in most touristy areas of Europe.
Another thing to note: because Istanbul is a little bit off the beaten path in the US (seriously, Americans mostly holiday in London and Paris when in Europe and literally nowhere else), I wasn’t expecting all the sites to be so crowded. L.O.L. The line to get into most of the sites rivaled that of the Louvre in Paris, with the crowds of Times Square in New York City. It’s a very international city, attracting visitors from the rest of Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Prepare for crowds. Lots and lots of them. And traffic.
Where We Stayed
We stayed in two neighborhoods: Sultanahmet and Karaköy, both on the European side (more on that later). Sultanahmet is incredibly touristy due to its proximity to the Hagia Sofia museum, the Blue Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Topkapı Palace, and more. We were able to walk to all those sites from our hotel within 10 to 15 minutes. If you are NOT interested in seeing those sites, I recommend finding another neighborhood that’s less touristy and will give you more of a local flavor. Like Karaköy! When we got back from Cappadocia, we spent a night in Karaköy, which is across a bridge from Sultanahmet. According to Merve, it’s one of the hipster districts of the city. Although it was slightly further way from the sites, it was still plenty walkable but also filled with much cuter restaurants and shops.
And if we’d had more time, I would have loved to check out Kadıköy, which is all the way over on the Asian side of Istanbul. Istanbul sits in the middle of the continental divide between Europe and Asia, as divided by the Bosphorus strait. While most of the sites are on the European side, it seems that the Asian side has gotten hipper and more exciting. I got several recommendations for places to eat in Kadıköy that sounded really good and promising. That being said, I do think it’s still worth staying on the European side if you’re only in Istanbul for a limited amount of time because it is a bit of schlep to the Asian side (and traffic really is pretty bad).
What to Eat
This is what you came for, right! First, a quick primer on Turkish cuisine. Think: lots of lamb, beef, rice, and bulgur. Vegetables were mostly tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber, and eggplants. Yogurt, with a generous sprinkling of sumac, was served with almost every meat dish. Fish was available, but not as ubiquitous and good quality as you would get in a seaside and more ocean-centric city. And of course, no pork was available due to Turkey being predominantly Muslim.
We ate wonderfully in Istanbul, frequenting establishments that ranged from considered “street food” to that of “fine dining”. You can eat really well there for super cheap; even at the “fine dining” restaurants, we paid less than $100 per head (including two glasses of wine each!). A lot of the restaurants we visited were at the top floor of a hotel, offering us beautiful 360-degree views of the city. I had some of the best lamb of my life in our few days at Istanbul: first, a cağ kebabı a lamb skewer similar to doner kebab, but made from meat that is roasted horizontally instead of vertically) from the street food vendor Şehzade Cağ Kebap; next, from the more upscale Mürver, a lamb shoulder that was roasted slowly over a fire for several hours complete with a crispy, crackling skin.
Below are the restaurants we frequented and had delicious meals at, most of which were recommended by my lovely readers. I also included a handful that I was really interested in but unfortunately missed because we didn’t have enough time:
Matbah Ottoman Palace Cuisine (Sultanahmet neighborhood)
Okay, we didn’t actually make it to this restaurant, but I’m so intrigued by it anyway that I want you to go and report back to me. This is a restaurant that specializes in ancient Ottoman cuisine, using recipes found in Ottoman palace libraries and kitchens! Their menu even includes the approximate date of origin of each dish. Very cool. It’s near all the major historical sites too, so it’s easy to pop in for lunch in between tours of Sultanahmet square.
Mikla (Beyoğlu neighborhood)
Mikla is a member of the esteemed World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (fun fact: I visited the #1 ranked restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, when I lived in New York) and has a fun, modern menu of Turkish classics made with Scandinavian and fine-dining twists. My dishes — the balık ekmek (a sardine sandwich) and manti (Turkish dumplings) — were traditionally street food items, but classed up by Mikla’s chef (the balık ekmek was more like crostini, and the manti used ingredients like smoked buffalo yogurt). You can either opt for the tasting menu or go for an a la carte menu which allows you to pick three dishes (an appetizer, entree, and dessert); both options are priced relatively cheaply when compared with what it would be priced in the US and western Europe.
Mükellef Karaköy (Karaköy neighborhood)
A pretty, airy restaurant on top of a hotel in the hip Karaköy neighborhood specializing in meze. We shared several small plates here, all of which were delicious. The standouts, however, were definitely the meze plates. Ordering was a little hard to navigate; the meze selection changes every day, and since they aren’t listed on the menu, you have to go to the deli section up front to see what’s available. We randomly selected two, and both were delicious and made with smoky, flavorful vegetables. This restaurant only seats you if you have reservations, so be sure to make some before you go (although it didn’t seem that popular when we went — there were several empty tables).
Mürver (Karaköy neighborhood)
Located on a rooftop of Sofitel, this restaurant is famous for their wood-fired dishes (they have a beautiful, blue-tiled wood-fired oven in the middle of the restaurant) and scenic views of the city. Be sure to order the lamb shank for two, which they slow-roast in the oven for several hours until the fat renders into a separate layer with a crispy skin on top. This was one of the higher-end restaurants that we visited; be sure to make a reservation beforehand as it’s fairly popular!
Karaköy Güllüoğlu (Karaköy neighborhood)
This bakery specializes in baklava and is owned by a family who has been making the pastries since 1820. The inside is a little bit confusing, and not the most tourist friendly (the set-up is weird: you pay for your pastries first, and then hand a ticket to somebody behind the counter who gives you your pastry). But their baklava is apparently one of the best in the city and it is very, very good — be sure to try both the walnut and pistachio varieties for a fun taste test! Also, despite being made with the same ingredients, the baklava comes in different shapes; each will yield different crunch and texture. The bakery also has other classic Turkish sweets like tulumba, bülbülyuvası, and more.
Şehzade Cağ Kebap (Sultanahmet neighborhood)
This restaurant had the cağ kebap I described up top. The meat is shaved so thin, yet still so juicy and succulent. One dish is two skewers with two servings of lavash and sumac covered onions, but be sure to get the full works (yogurt, tomato salad, and spicy tomato salsa) to accompany it. With all the accompaniments, you’re probably looking at $10 per head. No reservations are taken, and there will likely be a line full of locals if you decide to visit. Don’t be intimidated! Turnover of tables is fairly fast (my mom and I were the only table of tourists amongst many locals; locals appeared to be pressured to eat quickly, whereas we were mostly left alone).
My favorite things to do in Istanbul were probably visiting the Spice Bazaar and taking a ride on the Bosphorus River Tour. The Spice Bazaar is a MUST for anybody interested in food and cooking; inside a beautiful building are several stalls selling literal heaps of spices, tea, and Turkish delights. Because each stall sells similar products, the store owners can be a little aggressive about getting you inside their stall to shop. But it’s worth the hassling to source exotic and expensive spices like saffron, black rose tea, and dried limes for cheap. I also really enjoyed the Bosphorus River Tour that we took — it was a great way to see the city without having to deal with any of its crowds or traffic. We did the longer tour, and our boat dropped us off at a small, sleepy fishing town where we had a simple meal of locally caught fish and had views of the Black Sea.
What to Expect
Again, I was walking into Cappadocia completely blind and ignorant. I had assumed that it was going to be a teeny, tiny part of Turkey and would be incredibly remote, in the way that some national parks in the US are. I was wrong on both fronts: Cappadocia is HUGE, and made up of several bustling towns and even small cities nestled and scattered among its craggy, mountainous terrain. During our time there, there was a lot of driving between its main sites (at least 40 minutes to an hour between some of the major ones). And because there is so much to do, a lot of the tours take all day. Similar to Istanbul, the area receives a lot of international visitors and tourists; so much so that some of the towns even have Chinese and Korean restaurants, with many shops with signs in Chinese catering to the large tourist population.
Cappadocia is also at high-altitude and is a dry, dusty environment. Be sure to drink plenty of water, and don’t be surprised to find yourself out of breath at some of the steeper hikes. That’s the altitude for ‘ya!
Where We Stayed
As I mentioned before, Cappadocia is comprised of many cities and towns (Turkey Travel Planner has a great index with brief descriptions of each one). But as far as I can tell, most tourists usually fly into Kayseri and stay in either Göreme, Ürgüp, or Uçhisar. We decided to stay in Göreme because it seemed like it had the most options in terms of dining and activities, and indeed, the town was far more developed than I thought it would be, complete with a bustling boulevard of shops and restaurants (it actually reminded me a lot of Colorado skiing towns like Breckenridge and Vail).
Regardless of which town you decide to stay in, you MUST stay in a cave hotel. Historically, people who settled in the area created cave homes and entire cities for themselves in the landscape’s various rock formation. Some of these caves were converted into luxury hotels, whereas others were built and modeled after them to provide a haven from Cappadocia’s extreme environment (think: high-desert weather, so super hot in the summer and freezing-balls in the winter). A lot of the cave hotels have massive rooms, and amenities like private terraces, epic bathtubs, and more.
What to Eat
You don’t really come to Cappadocia for the food, but it’s worth calling out the region’s specialty dish: pottery kebab (testi kebap in Turkish). Pottery kebab usually comprises of a meat and vegetable stew slow cooked in a sealed clay pot over a fire. To serve, a waiter will bring the incredibly hot pot over your table and crack it open with either a small hammer or machete. We had a great version of a lamb pottery kebab at Organic Cave Kitchen in Göreme; if you opt for the full meal, you’ll also get a tahini and tomato soup and a delicious rice pudding.
Riding a hot air balloon in Cappadocia was definitely the highlight of our entire Turkey trip. Cappadocia has ideal conditions for doing so; every morning, 100 balloons float up to the sky, dotting the landscape with bright splashes of color. From the basket, you can see the region’s rocky, craggy terrain and watch the sun rise.
That being said, hot air ballooning is a very popular activity here and perhaps even the main reason why people travel to Cappadocia. Book a spot in a balloon way in advance, and make sure that you book it with a reputable company (according the guidebooks, the three most reputable are Butterfly Balloons, Voyager Balloons, and Kapadokya Balloons). You’ll likely pay a premium to book a spot with one of those companies, but after looking up articles about hot air balloon accidents in Cappadocia, I can absolutely say that your safety is worth every penny you pay. After being waitlisted for a spot on Butterfly Balloons, my mom and I managed to secure a reservation with Voyager. Voyager has different pricing tiers, with pricing going up as the number of people in your basket decreases. We opted for a balloon that held 10 people maximum, and again, it was worth every penny after seeing how crowded the other baskets were.
If you find that hot air ballooning is beyond your price range, no worries! You can still participate in the magic by getting up early to see the balloons rise (hot air balloons only fly in the mornings, when the wind is more stable and predictable). Sunset Point at the top of Göreme is perfect for doing so, especially since a lot of balloons fly fairly close to the ground near that point and you will find yourself literally level with a lot of them. Another popular spot to watch is the balcony at Sultan Cave Suites, which I actively avoided because of its Instagram fame (and watching the behind-the-scenes of influencers trying to capture the perfect ‘gram simultaneously stresses me out and depresses me). On that hypocritical note, be sure to check out my Instagram account to see more photos from my hot air balloon ride!
- To see more of my travel guides, be sure to check out the Travel section in my index and to follow the hashtag #humhitravelsoften on Instagram!
- A lot of folks DM’ed and emailed me, asking what camera I was using to take my Instagram photos. Bahahahah! Want to know a secret? I just used my iPhone 8+ camera (which is obvious in this blog post, but not so much on Instagram). But after lugging around my heavy Canon 5D Mark IV in Portugal and spending most of my time panicking that it was going to break or get stolen, I vowed never to travel with it again. It’s working out great.