We finally arrived in Istanbul and took the bus over to our hotel in Pera, close to Taksim, the heart of the city. Istanbul is such an amazing city, and we were very lucky to be the first ICS group in USC history to have a stop here. Everyone was very excited.
We grabbed a quick bite at the hotel restaurant, Big Chef's (which is quickly became a staple on the trip) and started walking towards the Accent Center. Our guide and Accent aide, Kursad, walked us through Taksim, making sure to point out some great spots along the way. We arrived to the center for a very warm welcome and orientation that really helped to ease everyone's nerves for the next few days.
We went around and did a little window shopping, trying to get acclimated with the area a little better. I had been to Istanbul one time before about ten years ago, so it was exciting to return and get to reexperience the city. We decided to stay in and relax before the long day that would follow.
Big Chef's -- First, you are met with a olive and pine nut with olive oil and a bread basket, and always add some of the pomegranate balsamic!!! I got a mint lemonade which came in a huge glass mug and was filled with fresh mint and fruit. To eat, I ordered the grilled chicken salad which was delicious and perfect for what my body needed most.
Sunday started with a walking tour of the historic peninsula of Istanbul. The city is so rich in culture and history, so despite the heat, it was a great chance to get acquainted with the city a little better. We walked down to the water from our hotel, hopped on the tram and then got off near the Blue Mosque. We went into the Blue Mosque first and got to explore for a little, all while making sure we were covered and not wearing shoes. It was still Ramadan when we visited, so our tour guide pointed out that the mosque has certain hours for visiting and others for praying. We walked around a little more in the square and gardens while getting a SparkNotes version of Turkey's history.
After a few hours in the sun, we decided to get some lunch. All of the waiters and hosts at each of the restaurants, let alone any other place, will hassle the heck out of you, trying to get you to come in. These people are ruthless! We picked a small cafe that had tables in the shade and Wifi (a major selling point). I'm not sure what the restaurant was called but I got their grilled chicken which came with a small side of fries, rice and salad. One of the reasons I love traveling to the Middle East or countries with a heavy Islamic influence is that the meat is so much tastier. Besides not jacking up the meat, and even produce, with GMO's, Muslims cook their meat halal style, which I feel makes it much more delicious. We also got fresh hummus and pita.
The rest of the day was spent walking around and looking in the shops. The craziest thing was the fake handbags. I mean these people have unreal stores all selling (illegal) fake designer handbags. This quickly became a joke during the week while we would just ask each store if they had "VIP" because "really liked us." We quickly fell bored with this and decided to grab some Turkish bagels (so good and soooo cheap) before trying to attempt the tram on the way back. After ten minutes of arguing over which direction and train and then two men following us and the hike all the way back up to Galata Tower (which we also got lost on the way to), we finally made it back to the hotel.
Dinner was, surprise, eaten at Big Chef's, again. By now, we knew the Wifi password, which things to order, how to perfectly make the tapenade to dip focaccia bread in, so we were stoked.
Big Chef's -- This time, I got the same drink and the fried goat cheese salad with a side of grilled chicken. This was simply my favorite thing on the menu.
Our day of visits in Istanbul was a double header with two of the major newspapers in Turkey. We (finally) got to take our own bus over to the companies, which ironically enough, were quite close to one another. Hurriyet was a great visit. We got to talk with one of the journalists and editors, along with an older gentleman who had been with the company for a long time. Because the visit was put together the week before, the staff had not really anticipated what our group had been doing and what we were interested in. Our visit also took us over to the next building which was home to CNN Turk and a few other production studios. We got to visit some of the stages and even got to watch a CNN broadcast live. Hurriyet was kind enough to provide a free lunch and tea afterwards. The lunch was delicious and so different from what a cafeteria in the States would serve.
The Zaman visit was sort of different. The journalist we talked to found out like an hour before that we were coming and kind of rushed through her presentation because she had a deadline to meet. The next guy who talked us talked about their journal they produce twice a year, and asked probably twenty times if he could have our email addresses so he could add us to the email list. Finally, a guy from administration talked (and talked and talked) to us about all of the company's different publications, what kind of things they wrote about, what languages their publications came out, where they distribute around the world, who worked on what floor, what they did there, etc. Basically, it was a lot of unneeded information that prolonged the visit so long that Kursad ended up sort of cutting him off.
After another dinner at Big Chef's, one of my friends and I went on a walk around the area that ended up being a few hours long. We walked down to the water, figured out how to tram up to the top and stopped for desert at Shake Shack. It was so funny to see this here because I was so used to the one in Dupont Circle in DC. I got a vanilla shake after the girl at the counter tried to haggle me into the "Banana caramel special shake, very delicious." We walked throughout Taksim stopping into stores to check out sales.
We decided to head back around 10 PM, which we were baffled over seeing as everything was still popping.
Shake Shack -- The only times I have ever been to Shake Shack have been in Dupont Circle, so it was odd to see it in Istanbul. I got the vanilla shake which was fine but really heavy.
The visit on Tuesday morning was my favorite visit in Istanbul, and probably one of mine for the trip. We walked down the hill to Medina Turgul, a PR and marketing agency with branches all over the world. We were greeted by a very welcoming staff (and free coffee and Turkish bagels) and given a presentation by the CEO of the company. He (while being extremely attractive) blew us all away with his presentation, which he noted was the same that they would give to prospective clients. The company represents clients such as Volkswagen, Doritos and Dominos, along with a ton of other clients. I was really excited to hear Lawrence speak about the PR perspective of their approach to marketing also. Their offices were in a restored salt depository (I think?) that was completely revamped. Talk about serious aesthetic and work space goals.
We grabbed lunch in Taksim at a little restaurant on a corner called Parole. Then, we walked back over to the hotel and changed so we could head out to the Grand Bazaar. The Bazaar was crazy and just as extensive as I remembered from my last visit to Istanbul. I left with a few goodies for my family after negotiating for what felt like twelve hours. Dinner followed at the cafe we ate at on Sunday, and we all got the grilled chicken.
That night, we decided to check out Istanbul nightlife and went across town to Angelique and Reina. I was told by a friend that Angelique was really fun on Tuesday nights, but when we got there, it seemed to be a bit turned down, so we decided to go over to Reina. We ended up staying until 3 AM, at which point we decided to head home.
Parole -- Small restaurant in Taksim along the street. We got a great little bruschetta for an appetizer and, of course, some mint lemonades to cool down with. For my main course, I got a delicious grilled halomi cheese salad. Halomi is a Greek goat cheese that has a slightly rubbery texture but tastes amazing when grilled. (Shoutouts to my grandma for getting me hooked!)
Reina -- A few of the other girls in our group had been there a few nights before and highly recommended it. Reina was a lot more packed and the music was on point. The club is open throughout the year, so in the summer they open everything up and move the dancefloor outside. We ended up stumbling upon this back section which was like a dock (hidden behind a curtain) which had the most amazing view of the bridge and water. They also had lights that went out into the water so we could see all the little jellyfish in the water.
Thankfully on our last day in Istanbul, we did not have anything until later in the afternoon, which meant sleeping in. We met downstairs at Big Chef's, duh, and got a quick lunch before heading over the the Accent Center for a meeting with Dorian Jones, who is a freelance journalist. The chat was very personal, and I felt like he was very dedicated to working in Turkey and to his talents. Although journalism may not be the field I want to go into, I think it's great to get to hear journalists such as Dorian talk about being a foreign reporter. (Side note: We are currently in Prague today, and I noticed a familiar face on the news on a TV in the hotel lobby today -- It was Dorian! Very exciting!!) A quick debriefing about our time in Istanbul followed. The chat sidetracked slightly, but sometimes that just needs to happen.
We trekked back up the hill to the Shake Shack in Taksim for milkshakes. This time I got the Fair Trade shake, which is basically a vanilla milkshake with a shot or two of espresso. I got a few quality photos for Instagram, and then we went back to the hotel to hangout and pack before our group dinner.
Our group dinner was at a restaurant not too far from our hotel. We had set menu featuring many delicious dishes throughout three courses in a typical Mezze style. I loved the food in Istanbul because it was a perfect mix of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors and dishes, along with that signature Turkish twist. A group of us got to sit with Kursad, and we spent the evening talking endlessly and trying to find Kursad on Facebook.
Antiochia -- We did a set menu here. We started with a bunch of different little dips and what not with bread. Then we were given these sausage-shaped ground beef things (maybe they were lamb?) that were breaded and fried -- this was amazing to dip into the sauces and other dishes. Our main course consisted of kabob wraps with beef, which were super tasty but a little too spicy. We also got tons of skewers of chicken and beef kabobs and grilled tomatoes. The desert was two options: a sort of pumpkin gelatin concoction or fried cheese that was coated in sugar. I chose the latter which was odd but tasty -- not something I would order on my own but worth trying!