As a couple of street cats look on, we ascend a narrow staircase until we reach a ledge overlooking the whole of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. There, at the somewhat precarious top, our guide has placed pillows for our small group to sit; we’ll be picnicking in the open air, with the spectacular Yeni Cami (New Mosque) behind us and the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar in front.
“Welcome to the best view in Istanbul,” said Benoit Hanquet, his longish gray hair blowing in the breeze. Our group of eight murmured appreciatively as Hanquet passed around slices of pide, a pizza-like flatbread created right before us a few minutes earlier.
If you’re tired of tours that bring you to the same old places, it’s time you gave culinary tourism a try. Food tours are about more than stuffing your face with local specialties. Rather, the good ones give you an insight into a city’s culture, allowing you to see how local people eat, drink and spend their free time.
Food tours have taught me more than a typical city stroll. For example, on a walking tour with Frying Pan Adventures in Dubai, I learned how diverse the emirate really is by eating Palestinian falafel, Egyptian pastries and Syrian ice cream as we walked through the Deira district. Many of these foods are cherished by foreign workers, who aren’t allowed citizenship, we were told — which made what we were eating seem far more compelling.
In Istanbul, I took on the Grand Bazaar with Culinary Backstreets, a food tour company that has now expanded to 16 cities. Founded in Turkey, the company originated as Istanbul Eats, a food guide that first came out in book form, Benoit told us. The authors received so many requests from tourists to help them find the small mom-and-pop stalls and stands in the book that they decided to start offering tours.
In Istanbul alone, Culinary Backstreets runs six tours a day. Topics range from a cooking class held in Kurtulus, a neighborhood well off the beaten path, to an authentic meyhane, or night out on the town, complete with raki (Turkish liquor) and live music. While the company keeps the skeleton of the tours the same, the guides do some of their own improvising; Benoit tells us that our picturesque ledge is one that only he visits.
Taking a food tour can require some fortitude, both on your feet and in your stomach. Both my tours in Dubai and Istanbul stretched out over six hours; in Istanbul, we left Benoit after being together 7.5 hours (the Belgian expat was still going strong; he informed us that our “early” departure would keep us from coffee at a restaurant with another great view). Come hungry and pace yourself!
Food tours are not for the squeamish. Although Benoit told us that customers with food allergies or preferences are given options, many of the world’s cities aren’t well suited to picky eaters, particularly when you’re visiting places that specialize in just one thing. In Istanbul, we were coaxed into having kokoretsi, lamb sweetbreads that have been roasted for hours. Served on a toasted piece of French bread, the pieces of offal were melt-in-your-mouth delicious — and even those people on our tour who questioned the stop ended up liking them.
Culinary tours also tend to be bonding experiences. Our Istanbul tour included three lively Australians, three Americans (my husband and I included) and a couple from Pakistan. We listened, enthralled over our bulgur and lentil soup, as Shireen from Islamabad shared the hardships of being an art critic in Islamabad. I still follow the Frying Pan Instagram feed, posted by Farida, a University of Pennsylvania grad who returned to the U.A.E. to start her business. Turns out breaking bread together is an intimate act around the world.
At the end of our Istanbul tour, we exchanged email addresses with our new friends and headed back to our hotel. We were tired and full, but also upbeat; suddenly the streets seemed friendlier and more familiar, now that we had drunk the same sweet tea as the Turks. At the hotel I called up the website for Culinary Backstreets and immediately booked another food tour for next week, when I’m in Athens. I’ve visited there before, but I know that by exploring the city through its bakeries and markets, I’ll come away satiated.
Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 5.2 million
Currency: Norwegian krone
Phrase to Know: Snakkar du engelsk? (Do you speak English?)
Fun Fact: Dying is forbidden in the Norwegian community of Longyearbyen, located above the Arctic Circle in the Svalbard archipelago. According to the BBC, the cemetery in this small town no longer accepts new bodies because they don’t decompose in the area’s permafrost. Locals who become seriously ill or who die unexpectedly must be flown to the mainland.
With the Greek economy in flux, travelers with upcoming trips to Greece have been wondering: How should we prepare for travel to Athens and the islands during the Greek financial crisis?
I’m going ahead with my own planned cruise on Azamara Journey later this month that centers on Turkey and Greece, including port stops in Volos, Hydra, Skiathos, Mykonos, Santorini and Athens. Unless we hear otherwise from Azamara, my travel partner and I will hedge our bets against the currency upheaval by adhering to the following tips — which can also help travelers planning a land-based journey.
Bring euros: Usually we rely on ATMs overseas when we travel, as our bank doesn’t charge us foreign transaction fees. But with news reports noting some ATMs are out of money, we’ll be prudent and come prepared.
Contact bank in advance: Since we’re not stopping in the Eurozone before our flight, this means we’ll have to get some money in advance from our U.S. bank; we might end up taking a bit of a hit on currency conversion fees. That said, the Euro is $1.10 against the dollar right now — almost a record low. In the end, the fees are a small price to pay for peace of mind.
Haggle with cab drivers: Our itinerary has a few Greek islands where we’re fine with last-minute plans. If cash is king and we have enough of it, we suspect that Greek taxi drivers might be willing to drop prices for short day trips.
Watch out for pickpockets: It’s a sad fact that crime goes up in times of financial instability. We’ll be doubly sure that our purses and wallets are secure when we’re out and about. We’ll also limit the amount of cash we bring with us on shore and leave important documents back on the ship. (We recommend the same if you’re staying in a hotel.)
Prebook (and prepay) some excursions: Financial instability means that some vendors do one of two things: Jack up their prices to compensate for a low euro or ask for cash payments. For those must-see tours — we’ve got our eye on the gorgeous monasteries of Meteora — we’ll make sure we’re working with a reputable company that takes credit cards and pay in advance. To be really safe, cruisers should book through their ship, in case the line changes port stops.
Keep up with the news: A financial crisis often brings accompanying strikes and demonstrations. We’ve signed up for the State Department’s STEP program, which sends you email alerts when situations change, and we’ll check newspapers daily. This is not the time to unplug.
Wait to book hotels: Many tourists have already canceled their trips to Athens because of the Greek financial crisis, which means the hotels will be hurting for business. We predict that hotel rates will go down significantly in the next few weeks, which means we might be able to snap up a room in a hotel that’s otherwise out of our price range (hello, Parthenon view). We also want to make sure that the area we’ll be staying in is safe and free of demonstrations.
Don’t panic: This is not the first time we’ve been to countries where things were less than stable. From demonstrations in Egypt, Thailand and Easter Island to erupting volcanoes in Iceland, incidents have cropped up frequently on work trips and vacations — and it’s always turned out fine in the end. We predict that the Greeks we meet on this trip will be happy to see tourists and do their best to make sure they have satisfying vacations, despite the Greek financial crisis.
Yesterday was International Kissing Day, which got us thinking about some of the world’s most romantic and pucker-producing places. Check out the list of our top picks below — and let us know your additions in the comments!
Paris, France: This one’s a given. Whether you’re strolling hand-in-hand down the Champs Elysees, cuddling up at night to watch the Eiffel Tower’s twinkling lights or staring into each other’s eyes over lunch and macarons at a hole-in-the-wall cafe, Paris practically screams smoochworthiness.
Samana, Dominican Republic: An off-season trip to a resort in this cheerful town in the DR can be a great experience, particularly because the crowds are thinner (or, in some places, virtually nonexistent). That means you’ll be able to snag more alone time with the one who matters most. Sleep in, find a secluded beach or watch whales breach from your private balcony — which, by the way, is a great place to pucker up.
New York, New York: Ironically, there’s nothing quite like the hustle and bustle of the city that never sleeps to make you and your significant other feel like you’re the only two people in the universe. Jog through Manhattan’s Central Park, experience the craft beer scene in Brooklyn or meander down lesser-known side streets to find a divey pizza joint you can call your own.
Bora Bora, French Polynesia: Imagine waking up next to your sweetie in your very own hut in the middle of crystal-clear turquoise waters. Even if thatched roofs, colorful fish and open-air sleeping arrangements aren’t your thing, we’re sure the relative seclusion won’t hurt your chances of snagging a peck … or 50.
Venice, Italy: How can you resist a kiss in a city full of historical palaces, playful Carnevale masks and romantic gondola rides along peaceful, winding canals? Have dinner canal-side, and just try to stave off the feeling of la dolce vita that’s sure to follow.
Savannah, Georgia: As if unique shops, restaurants full of atmosphere and stunning architecture aren’t enough, Savannah has a colorful history that includes plenty of rumored ghosts and spirits. Sign up for a nighttime ghost walk, which will force you to keep your loved one close. Then prepare to plant one on him (or her) — or have one planted on you.
Cologne, Germany: We dare you to find a holiday (Valentine’s Day excluded) that sparks more warm, fuzzy feelings than Christmas. The perfect way to spend some holiday time with your snookums is at one of Germany’s many Christmas markets — and Cologne’s is one of the biggest and best. When you’re done snogging between sips of gluhwein and bites of gingerbread, you can venture to the city’s well-known love lock bridge to further profess your feelings.
Datong, China: Supported by stilts on the side of a mountain, the Hengshan Hanging Temple appears to be “hanging” — hence its name. Explore the roughly 40 rooms that make up this impressive monastery, which dates back more than 1,400 years. The remarkable warren of passageways is great to experience with your partner, especially so you have someone’s hand to hold if you’re afraid of heights! (Note: Out of respect you may want to hold off on locking lips until you’ve left the monastery.)
Few travelers are as passionate about Italy as Kathy McCabe, who’s spent more than a decade as the publisher of a newsletter and website called Dream of Italy, dedicated to discovering every corner of the Boot. Starting this year you can also catch her Italian explorations on TV as part of a new series on PBS, also called “Dream of Italy.” You can find the schedule and watch full episodes online at her website.
We reached out to McCabe to find out her favorite immersive experiences in Italy, her advice for first-timers and more info about her new series.
IndependentTraveler.com: Why is Italy so eternally appealing to many travelers?
Kathy McCabe: Italy has everything — ancient cities, stunning beaches, warm people, the best food in the world, 60 percent of the world’s art. I’m not sure of another country that offers as much as Italy, but maybe I am partial!
IT: What can viewers expect from your new “Dream of Italy” TV series on PBS?
KM: Viewers can expect a different side of Italy from the usual tourist attractions — authentic is a word that seems overused these days, but I think it is one of the best words to describe the people we meet and experiences we have in the show.
We feature real Italians living their passions, from a goat farmer in Italy who makes goat cheese to an artist in Rome who teaches the ancient art of mosaics. One of my favorite segments features the Tuscan cowboys of the Maremma — there are only a few of them left. (Check out this clip in the video below.) I’m proud that not only are we giving viewers great travel ideas, but we are preserving Italian culture for future generations.
IT: Which region of Italy would you say is most overlooked, and why should travelers check it out?
KM: One of my favorite less-visited regions is Puglia — the region of Italy on the heel, facing Greece — though it is really becoming more popular. We even devoted an entire episode of the TV series to Puglia. Puglia has 500 miles of stunning coastline: beautiful empty beaches and fortified harbors. The olive trees in the region are gargantuan and dot the landscape. You will also see trulli, small white stone huts. And the people, like all Italians, are warm and welcoming.
IT: What are your favorite immersive/hands-on experiences in Italy?
KM: I love taking cooking classes in Italy, and these are accessible to every traveler (in the Dream of Italy print newsletter, we devoted two full issues to Italy’s best cooking schools). You can easily fit a half-day cooking class into a trip, and it’s a great way to learn about the culture through food and to interact with locals.
Another great experience is enjoying a dinner in a local home through Home Food. The hosts go through a rigorous selection process and speak English.
IT: What one piece of advice would you give travelers planning their first visit to Italy?
KM: As hard as it is, don’t over-plan or try to do too much. I have been to Italy more than 35 times and I still haven’t seen every region. Pick a few places to focus on, and be sure to leave time for serendipity!
IT: Outside of Italy, what are your other favorite travel destinations?
KM: Most of my travels are to Italy, but when I have the chance to travel somewhere else, I have found it hard to tear myself away from Europe. (I guess I made a good choice in college when I majored in European studies.) France was my first love — one summer in college, I studied in the exquisite towns of Annecy and Talloires in the Alps. Ireland is another favorite European destination. The people are so warm, just like the Italians.
Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 66 million
Phrase to Know: S’il vous plait (please)
Fun Fact: When the Nazis occupied Paris during WWII, the French resistance cut the cables of the elevators in the Eiffel Tower so that Hitler would have to climb the stairs (some 1,500 of them!) if he wanted to get to the top.
On my last trip, I traveled nearly to the ends of the earth.
My destination was Svalbard, a remote cluster of islands located approximately halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole. It’s a land where polar bears and reindeer roam, and where the only ways to get around are by air, sea, snowmobile or dog sled.
I traveled with polar specialist Quark Expeditions, which offers small-ship cruises in Antarctica, Greenland, northern Canada, Norway, Iceland and even the North Pole. My itinerary was the “Introduction to Spitsbergen,” a Svalbard cruise that sails roundtrip from Longyearbyen with a focus on spotting polar bears, walruses and other Arctic wildlife.
Over eight nights aboard Sea Adventurer, Quark’s oldest vessel, I discovered a few of the qualities that make this itinerary special — plus a couple of little things that didn’t quite live up to expectations.
HITS Wildlife: Every part of a Svalbard cruise is designed to get passengers as close to the wildlife as possible. When a whale surfaces or a polar bear is spotted in the pack ice, the ship veers off course to get a better look. For more intimate encounters, smaller Zodiac boats bring passengers right up to the shoreline for views of nesting puffins or grazing reindeer. In the most incredible moments, the animals came to us — as when a polar bear padded directly across the ice to within about 50 feet of our ship, lifting its sensitive nose to scent us every step of the way. The wildlife is the number one reason that most people book a Svalbard cruise, and it didn’t disappoint.
Staff: Led by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable expedition team, Sea Adventurer’s crew kept us safe, well fed and well informed. Naturalist guides piloted the Zodiacs and offered insight about the animals and birds we saw along the way. When viewing wildlife on deck, they helped passengers spot the animals (which were often quite far away and difficult to see, even with binoculars) and positioned the ship’s telescopes to give us a better glimpse. In the evenings they gave talks on everything from walruses to glacial geology.
Beyond the expedition team, the rest of the crew greeted us with smiles and provided efficient service in the dining room, bar and cabins.
Food: Sea Adventurer may not be a massive cruise ship with food around the clock, but we certainly never went hungry. From early-morning munchies in the lounge to tempting desserts at both lunch and dinner, the food aboard the ship was plentiful and usually delicious (if not always particularly healthy). The highlight was an Arctic barbecue, held on deck one mild evening when the ship was anchored in a fjord. Dining alfresco on burgers, ribs and corn on the cob with a stunning view of a glacier? Yes, please.
MISSES Shore Landings: One of our scheduled hiking outings was called off because we spotted a polar bear on shore — obviously not a creature we wanted to encounter on foot! Another landing spot was inaccessible due to ice. In the end, we boarded on Monday afternoon and didn’t set foot on land again until Friday afternoon. That didn’t mean we were twiddling our thumbs in our cabins — Quark filled our days with Zodiac cruises (including some amazing close-up viewing of the polar bear that would have been such a danger to us on land) and nature lectures. Fortunately, we did end up with four landings over the last three days of the cruise, all of which were excellent. But passengers on any Svalbard cruise should keep in mind that all landings are subject to the whims of weather and wildlife.
Staying in Touch: While Internet access was available on the ship (via Wi-Fi and two computers in the Internet cafe), it often didn’t work in the remote regions where we were cruising. Even when you could get a signal, it was extremely slow and might boot you off between emails. Considering the lofty prices ($20 for 10 MB of data, $50 for 30 MB and $130 for 100 MB) and the fact that the access cards are nonrefundable, most passengers simply didn’t bother.
Every so often I wander over to Vimeo, a video-sharing site that’s one of my favorite sources for travel inspiration. I know that every time I visit I’ll find myself drooling over films from exotic locations around the world.
One of my latest discoveries is this poignant look at Myanmar (Burma), which captures fishermen rowing their boats, children at play and other scenes of everyday life:
Ever wondered what it might be like to swim with jellyfish? You can try it at Palau’s Jellyfish Lake, where the creatures do sting, but not powerfully enough to harm humans. The resulting footage is mesmerizing:
Every week in our “Spotlight on …” feature, we’ll highlight a different country around the world.
Population: 4.8 million
Phrase to Know: Slainte (cheers — a toast)
Fun Fact: A popular legend about St. Patrick, the country’s patron saint, is that he banished snakes from Ireland back in the fifth century. However, researchers at the National Museum of Ireland have pooh-poohed this legend because there is no fossil evidence that snakes ever lived in Ireland in the first place.