Across the Bosphorus: a so-called tower and the best restaurant in Istanbul

On Sunday, our new friend Z took us and another visiting American friend across the Bosphorus, to the Asian side of Istanbul.

Boat on the Bosphorus


{as always, mouse over photos for my notes, or click to enlarge}

I was very pleased to learn the ferries take the Istanbulkart, so we didn’t have to fumble for change or figure out the fare. The ease of boarding makes me that much more willing to take the ferry on our own, another time. It was a fairly quick ride, and soon we were on the opposite shore. “You realize you’re in Asia now, right?” asked Z. Weird thought!

We walked along the water, stopping briefly to browse a small women’s handicraft market (lots of floral scarves, beaded bib necklaces in crochet patterns, white tablecloths with pastel-colored crocheted lace edges, and yellow and pink baby booties). We were bound for the Maiden’s Tower, 1.5 kilometers away. The walk felt long in the noon sun, but before long we spotted the tower in the distance. It was much less imposing than we’d imagined; as it turns out, it’s only about 23m (75′) tall.

Along the walkway to the Maiden's Tower

The Maiden's Tower

At a kiosk along the sidewalk we paid our admission fee and received our tickets and a foldout guide to the tower. This had a timeline and many amusing comparisons, in a very busy font and slightly irregular English: “Maiden’s Tower was built 2500 years ago. Eiffel Tower was built 123 years ago.” “Maiden’s Tower covers approximately 1500 square meters. World’s smallest island nation is Nauru; in South Pacific, covers 21000 square meters. Statue of Liberty’s island in New York covers 5950 square meters.” “Capacity for Maiden’s Tower Restaurant is 236 people. World largest restaurant is in Damascus in Syria; named Bawabet Dimask, with the capacity of 6014 people.” The tower features (probably apocryphally) in at least a few legends, including the one about Hero and Leander in Greek mythology, and a Turkish one reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty, in which a sultan imprisons his daughter in the tower to protect her from a prophecy which says she will die from a snakebite at age 18. (Naturally, on her 18th birthday, her dad brings her a basket of fancy fruit as a “hooray you’re alive” present, and a snake comes out of it and bites her. She dies in his arms, fulfilling the prophecy. People are always celebrating prematurely in these tales — wait until the day after her birthday, Dad!)

From the kiosk, we took another boat to cross the 200m to the tower — a small one this time, which rocked unpleasantly. At the tower we disembarked (probably a scary experience for the elderly and unsteady-of-feet, given the way the boat remained rocking even when tied up) and followed everyone else to the foot of the tower. There wasn’t much to see, though we peered through the bottom windows at the people dining inside.

Top of the Maiden's Tower

We went into the tower and climbed the 87 steps to the top. Each stair landing had a painted mural depicting one of the legends associated with the tower, videos with scrolling text and audio (in Turkish and English) explaining the legends, and — to add to the atmosphere of doomed romance, perhaps? — “Un Bel Di” playing over the sound system. At the top, we found a tiny bar and the 360-degree observation deck.

View of the Asian side from the Maiden's Tower

View from the top of the Maiden's Tower

Z had never been to the tower before, but an Australian expat had raved to her about it, saying that when she visited on her first trip to Istanbul, she was “mesmerized” by the view of the Bosphorus. “That’s when I knew I had to move here,” she declared, and has indeed stayed for eight years since. I can’t say it affected me as strongly… but it was quite pretty and peaceful, and unexpectedly uncrowded. (Or maybe everyone was in the restaurant. The buffet did look good.) It would be a pleasant place to spend a lazy afternoon, drinking something cool and enjoying the ships and the Istanbul skyline (both skylines, Asian and European!). However: if you wanted the open air, you’d have to score one of the few seats at the bar, or else bring your own food and a sun hat and brave the unprotected base of the island; the ground-floor restaurant is all enclosed and doesn’t have much of a view.

When we got back to shore we took a taxi to the neighborhood of Kadiköy, where we walked through a side street lined with food vendors. It looked like a great (if overwhelming) place to do one’s household shopping. I know there’s a similar street around our neighborhood; if we ever stop eating out, I’ll go there to stock our fridge.

Fruit and vegetable stand

Stand with grape leaves for sale

Fish stand with cat

Sea urchins in a styrofoam cooler

A short distance from this market street, we got a sidewalk table at Çiya, the restaurant Istanbul Eats calls “very likely the best in Istanbul.” (The Lonely Planet guide agrees.) We ordered — as is so common in Istanbul — by walking up to the counter and picking out what we wanted from the day’s selection. Clockwise from left: a flat version of içli köfte (what you might know as kibbe, or fried bulgur-crusted meatballs), stuffed eggplant, the best falafels I’ve ever had, yummy soft bread, some kind of vegetarian köfte, and lentil balls in soup; in the center, a mixed plate of cold dishes. 

Lunch at Çiya

What makes Çiya’s food so interesting is that it draws from all over Turkey and the general region. If you go to their website, they post every day’s bill of fare, along with the regions represented by the dishes (of course, it’s all in Turkish, but Google Translate is ever helpful). For example, from checking the site after our visit, I learned that one of the veggie balls comes from southeastern Turkey (where it’s now dangerous to visit).

After our gigantic meal, we didn’t have much room for dessert, but Z ordered an assortment of small sweets for us to try.

Pistachio dessert (kerebiç) with some sort of boiled frosting-type cream

Mixed candied fruit/nut desserts

The weird black ball at the top right of that platter is one of the more unique things I’ve eaten here: an entire walnut in syrup, shell and all. From my Google-translated menu I think it was a green walnut, which probably explains why the shell was edible. The menu says it’s an Antakya specialty — another southern region, close to the Syrian border. Once I got over the strangeness of it, I rather liked it; the flavor reminded me of some spiced peaches my mom made once!

Candied whole walnut

After our meal — which was, as most of our restaurant meals are here, astonishingly inexpensive, about $23 US per person, including drinks and tip — we rolled around the neighborhood a bit before parting at the ferry station. Erik and I caught the boat back across with no problem. The late afternoon sun rendered the Bosphorus even more dramatically beautiful. This was a bigger boat than we’d taken earlier, and on the lower deck we could lean right over the water (Erik got a little nervous while I was taking video).

Birds over the Bosphorus

Girls on the ferry looking out at the Bosphorus