A tour for someone who hates tours
Istanbul is a food lover’s dream. There are so many food options and so many flavors in the city that it’s absolutely overwhelming. It’s like being in a maze without a map, without a sense of direction, and with no idea of where to even begin. It’s a perfect example of when a tour makes sense. There’s just one problem…
I’ve always been completely averse to tours, groups, and following anybody.
My thinking has always been I can see just as much on my own, without the time and location limits imposed by whatever it is that somebody else thinks is important. Let’s be honest: most touristy things are easy to figure out, and the last thing I need is for someone to hold my hand and try to walk me through something that I can just as easily do on my own. The only time I’ll even consider a tour is when it offers an experience I can’t get on my own, without the crowds and without the dislocated feeling you get from simply following along.
Still, I didn’t want to miss out on Istanbul’s much vaunted food scene. As my affinity for new foods and exploration began to exceed my distaste for tours, I quickly gave in when my girlfriend and travel buddy Danielle suggested we do one. It didn’t take much research to find one that looked promising. I contacted Turkish Flavors after I read Liz Carlson’s post, and I showed up with an open mind and an empty stomach.
I’ll tell you right now that I’m so glad I did. Without a food tour, my culinary experience in Istanbul would probably have included a short walk through the spice bazaar and a taste of a couple new dishes from some random restaurant’s menu. I’d have barely even scratched the surface of Istanbul’s food offerings.
Instead, in a single day I explored countless new dishes from each of the Europe and Asia sides of the city. I tried spices, coffees, teas, meats, cheeses, candies, desserts, and more, many of which I never would have known or thought to try. I met some incredibly cool people on the tour, and I left with a full stomach and more importantly a full brain, having learned tons about Istanbul’s food culture and history.
A short background of Turkish Flavors
This is Selin. She’s the owner and founder of Turkish Flavors in Istanbul. Being an Istanbul native, she grew up getting to know the foods of the city. I’m a strong believer in the idea that works of passion are stronger than works of necessity, and in speaking with Selin it’s easy to see that she absolutely loves what she does. She makes it a point that her tour was the first, the original food tour in Istanbul. It’s been around the longest, she says, and it’s the most authentic given that she’s lived her life in the city. She’s also understandably proud of her overwhelmingly positive reviews on Tripadvisor.
Turkish Flavors has been growing rapidly, and in addition to her popular food tour she also runs authentic Turkish cooking classes from her home. Before all this, Selin spent her former life as a travel agent. She’s thus a walking encyclopedia of the city, and she’s happy to point tourists in the right direction toward what to do next.
Our Walk through Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar
Having just arrived from Chicago at 2am and about 8hrs before the tour, my girlfriend and I had no problem falling asleep. We woke up feeling surprisingly rested, and after a small hotel breakfast we got our first glimpse of Istanbul as we made our way to the busy Spice Bazaar. We met the other tour attendees, three very friendly and interesting travelers from Australia.
Turns out Turkish Flavors’ tours tend to be small and personable. Selin told me that when the tours exceed a handful of people a second guide is present so the shops don’t become overly crowded. I could already feel my tour group-aphobia fading away.
The tour commenced as we began to slowly eat our way through the Spice Bazaar, popping into many of the shops and eateries along the way. As we ate, Selin happily spoke about the history behind the flavors. It was a fascinating insider’s look at something I’d never have experienced on my own. No way could I have sampled so many foods from so many shops.
One of the biggest highlights of the Spice Bazaar was Ucuzcular Spices. It’s a small family run shop in the center of the Bazaar. They’re well stocked with just about every kind of spice and tea you can imagine and some you probably can’t. We got to sample many of them as we learned more about each.
I always appreciate flavors a lot more when I know something about them.
I’ve been to plenty of wine tastings, but I’ve never even heard of a spice tasting. Similar to wine tasting, Ucuzcular provided us with our own tasting cards with which we marked our thoughts on each flavor. The ratings go from 2 stars to 4 because, “Nothing’s ever a perfect 5, and we’d hate it if you gave us a 1.” Fair enough!
Sometimes during my travels I experience things that are so out there, so unexpectedly incredible that I’m taken aback for a moment. Getting to Istanbul was a sleepless, whirlwind trek that felt somehow quick, although we’d barely even had a chance to settle in to our new locale. I can’t even believe I was in Chicago just the day before, and now here I am in standing in Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar tasting sample after sample of authentic Turkish spices. I can’t believe how lucky I am to be able to experience something like this.
Back to the adventure. After our few hours exploring the Spice Bazaar, it was time to take the boat to Asia.
And it was on to Asia…
Taking the boat to Asia was a nice, natural break in the tour. It gave us a chance to take in the view as we physically and mentally digested all we’d experienced so far. That the tour takes place on two continents is an added bonus – the boat ride is a fantastic way to see more of the city.
Much like Sydney’s public boats from Cicular Quay or Hong Kong’s Star Ferry, Istanbul’s boats are primarily a means of public transportation, but they’re also experiences in and of themselves.
After alighting, we were guided through a veritable display of all things fresh and sweet. Fruits and vegetables were everywhere, as were candies like chocolates and Turkish Delights. I could write about everything, but I’d rather just show you. Don’t view on an empty stomach!
Putting it all together
I loved trying so many of the shops’ dishes, but up until this point we had been sampling bit by bit. It was like being slowly given the pieces to a jigsaw puzzle when you don’t know what it’s going to become (an amazingly delicious jigsaw puzzle, that is). How did all these flavors come together in a real Turkish meal? We sat down at the restaurant Çiya for a late lunch to find out.
“Lunch” is a terrible understatement. Our meal at Çiya was epic in a way that the word fails to give any credence to whatsoever. And it wasn’t just eating. We got to see how bread was made, we got to meet the owner, and we learned even more about the history behind the flavors, all over pleasant lunch conversation with our Australian friends and fellow tour attendees.
I’ll finish out with even more mouth watering pictures of our meal at Çiya.
We enjoyed far more than just what is pictured here, but I have no pictorial proof as I was too busy eating! There’s a time for pictures and there’s a time for eating, and believe me when I say that if you were presented with a meal like this you’d forget all about your camera too. Other non-photographed highlights included the many other courses we devoured, the Turkish Coffee, Tea, and the beautifully presented plate of desserts.
So is my tour group-aphobia gone?
Not even close! I’m still very reluctant to sign up for tours. I’ll only consider it when it offers something I can’t experience on my own, when it has good reviews, and when it’s done in a professional, informative way. This was one of those tours, and to tell you the truth it didn’t feel like much of a tour at all. It felt like hanging out with a group of friends, one of whom is a local who’s taking the time to guide you though a city she loves. I only recommend things I truly believe in, and I would recommend this tour to anybody with even the slightest interest in Istanbul’s exciting culinary offerings.
Thanks to Turkish Flavors for the complimentary tour. As you know, if I hadn’t enjoyed it I’d have zero reservations about saying so!