Those last two details are key. Istanbul is probably the world capital of street cats—they are everywhere, curled up in butcher-shop doorways, playing in parks, napping on restaurant chairs. Every day I would count them, and the total was rarely under 100. They all appear well fed, but many small shops sell dry food loose if you want to treat them.
And Turkish wines are almost reason enough to book a flight to Istanbul. This is a 90-percent-plus Muslim country, but the cities are surprisingly secular. And winemaking is a growing and serious business; you can taste varieties well beyond Chardonnay and Merlot. Kavaklıdere is a good producer poured almost everywhere. (You will, however, also have to ward off Sex on the Beach in meyhanes these days; cocktails seem more common than Raki, the old anise-flavored alcohol.)
Wherever you land for lunch, take your caffeine somewhere else. Turkish coffee has the reputation, but Turkish tea, called çay, is the singular drink, served in a special little glass, with a sharpness that needs just a touch of sugar to mellow. You can indulge in any tree-shaded tea garden, but a better stop is at Ara Café, owned by legendary photographer Ara Güler, at Tosbağa Sokak 8 off Istiklal Caddesi (212-245-4105). The walls are hung with his black-and-white work and the decor is like a Turkish antiques shop (antiques, in this case, meaning from the late 1900s—not so long ago for this ancient city).
If you want to do some shopping later, stroll through the backstreets below the Galata Tower. Sadullah Çekmece, a ceramics studio at Serdar-I Ekrem Sokak 38/1, sells unique bowls and plates, with very contemporary designs. Stop in any small grocery and pick up some chocolate studded with pistachios; local candy bars make better token gifts than Turkish delight, which is worth tasting but really doesn’t translate back home. Then take a break at Sensus, at Buyukhendek Caddesi 5, a wine and cheese shop/café with no fewer than 300 Turkish wines on offer—sit at the counter or a table and try a flight of four for 20 TL.
For dinner, there are almost more possibilities than cats. But I’d go with a simple choice: east or west.
If you’re up for a cab and then a ferry, head to Ismet Baba, at Çarşi Caddesi 96, in Üsküdar, on the Asian side, for a classic fish-centric Turkish spread along with a gorgeous view of the Bosphorus Bridge. You can start with mezes like eggplant puree, potato borek, smoked fish, fried lamb liver, fried calamari, sea beans with garlic, and wedges of local cheeses, then move on to swordfish kebabs and end with watermelon and halvah for dessert.
But if you want to stay closer in, walk to Zubeyir, just off Istiklal Caddesi on the European side, for a meat orgy to remember. You can sit right next to the open fire and watch as kebabs of minced lamb are threaded onto skewers and grilled to charred succulence along with lamb ribs, to be teamed with a parsley-onion salad dusted with sumac. Mezes are excellent—gigante beans, spinach with garlic, yogurt-cucumber-tomato-spread—as is the herb flatbread. The staff could not be happier to serve you, from the maître d’ to the grill jockey himself (one more enticement for Turkey: Americans are relative rarities and treated like valued visitors).
One of the partners in the outstanding Istanbul Eats blog recommended Zubeyir as we spent an afternoon exploring Turkish cheeses for an ill-fated article, and I can vouch for his reviews. For all its history, Istanbul is hurtling toward modernity, and I was amused by how often locals heard I was a food writer and recommended restaurants with higher-than-Manhattan prices and bordering-on-molecular cuisine I could eat back home.
I’ve saved breakfast for last so we could talk about where to wake up to it. I’m hoping to get back to Istanbul again just to see what is on offer in the top-floor lounge at the hyper-designed House Hotel, back in Beyoğlu at Salhane Sokak 1, the gorgeous one in a converted mansion in a gentrifying district where the shower was in a cylindrical Plexiglas stall alongside the bed. Our flight home was so early we had to settle for only (superb) espresso from the machine in the room.
But I can vouch for both the rooms with views and the groaning board at the sleek Richmond Hotel on Istiklal Caddesi 227. (Wireless connection? Not so much.) A typical Turkish breakfast is just bread, cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, and olives. But here you can fill big plates with all that plus pastries; dried and fresh fruits; yogurt (plain and with fruit); eggs scrambled with peppers and tomatoes from a gueridon; meats; and much more.
And we only strolled through it a couple of times, but the Pera Palace Hotel, at Meşrutiyet Caddesi 52, where Agatha Christie famously wrote Murder on the Orient Express, has reopened after an absolutely dazzling restoration. The floor housing the new Agatha restaurant is almost a food museum, with vintage menus posted on the walls and antique plates in display case. Then, right down the street is the Pera Museum, a jewel box with a casually elegant café where you could have a glass of rosé and a snack. And a couple of doors down from that is the Istanbul Culinary Institute, where you could have a meal or even take a class. And a few blocks over is another market street lined with fish restaurants and spice shops…