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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.

istanbul view


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.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

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.

doner kebab istanbul food


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.

istanbul breakfast


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.

Learn More About Food and Travel

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.

— written by Chris Gray Faust

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:



Next we head to Istanbul, where this filmmaker lovingly zooms in on the city’s mosques, mosaics and minarets:



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:



Finally, here’s an intriguing look at Egypt from a filmmaker who wanted to counter some of the negative media coverage the Middle East’s gotten over the past few years:



Okay, I’m ready to plan my next trip. How about you?

4 Travel Videos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

— written by Sarah Schlichter

This is the first post in our new Living Like a Local series, in which we interview expats about their experiences living abroad in destinations around the world.

ben lyonsBen Lyons is a licensed Captain who has served throughout the world on the bridge of cruise ships and expedition vessels. He is currently CEO of EYOS Expeditions, which arranges luxury expeditions to remote and wild regions on superyachts. He is living in Istanbul for 18 months while his wife fulfills an overseas rotation for her job.

Q: What’s one thing most tourists don’t know about where you live?
A: How diverse Turkey can be. It is a mix of cultures, ethnicities and religions. There are deeply conservative and religious neighborhoods, and yet only a few miles away you’ll encounter a scene as Western as any street in New York. Yet despite their varying backgrounds, they are all fiercely proud to be Turkish.

To read the rest of this interview, click here.

Learn More About Turkey:
Photos: 10 Best Turkey Experiences
Istanbul City Guide
Getting Around Turkey
Turkey Accommodations: Cave Hotels, Gulets and More

— interview conducted by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two mouth-watering seasonal beverages.

Would you rather …

… guzzle gluhwein at a Christmas market in Germany, or …

gluhwein mulled wine christmas



… sip warm salep in Turkey?

salep sahlep sahlab turkey


Gluhwein, that delicious mulled wine popular at Christmas markets in German-speaking countries, is spiced with cinnamon, cloves and citrus fruit. Salep (also spelled “sahlep” or “sahlab,” depending on where you’re drinking it) is a popular drink served during the colder months in Turkey, Egypt, Greece and other parts of the former Ottoman Empire. In Turkey the drink is thickened with flour made from the tubers of wild orchids and mixed with warm milk, cinnamon, ginger and/or nutmeg.

12 International Foods to Try Before You Die

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two spectacular religious landmarks.

Would you rather…

… tour the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, or …

hagia sophia istanbul



… wander the ancient temples of Angkor, Cambodia?

ta prohm angkor cambodia


No matter your own spiritual leanings, religious buildings such as cathedrals, temples and mosques are some of the world’s most spectacular buildings. As we write in our Istanbul travel guide, the Hagia Sophia was “once a church, then a mosque, [and] was made into a museum in 1935 after the secular Turkish Republic was founded.” Angkor, Cambodia, is home to a number of Hindu and Buddhist Temples dating back to the Khmer Empire (9th – 15th centuries).

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two scrumptious sweets.

Would you rather…

… try baklava in Turkey, or …

baklava turkey



… enjoy a mooncake in China?

mooncake china tea


Baklava is a popular dessert in Turkey, Greece, and other countries in the Mediterranean and Middle East. Phyllo dough is stuffed with chopped nuts and drizzled with honey. Mooncakes are traditionally eaten during China’s Mid-Autumn Festival, accompanied by a cup of tea. They’re made of lotus seed or sweet bean paste, along with lard and egg yolk — a delicious but calorie-rich treat.

Tell us your preference in the comments below!

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

In this week’s shot, a hot-air balloon soars high above the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. Learn more about this experience in 10 Best Turkey Experiences.

cappadocia turkey hot air balloon


Our Favorite Istanbul Hotels

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

12 Photos That’ll Make You Want to Get Up and Go

— written by Sarah Schlichter

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today’s colorful shot was snapped at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Turkey.

istanbul grand bazaar turkey market colorful


Our Favorite Istanbul Hotels

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

20 Ways to Blend In with the Locals

— written by Sarah Schlichter

istanbul mosque birdsLast week I returned from a trip to Europe that involved visits to a couple of places in Italy as well as a stop in Turkey. “I’m worried about you going to Turkey,” my mom nervously told me over the phone before my plane took off. Because it’s near the Middle East, she had lumped it in with some of the less stable locations in that region and was concerned it was unsafe — even before the recent attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya.

Sadly, I’ve spoken with several others — granted, not frequent travelers — who expressed the same sense of alarm when I mentioned where I was going, and I’ve received more than one reader e-mail asking whether it’s wise to embark on cruise ship shore excursions in certain locations, such as Greece and South Africa, that I wouldn’t necessarily consider to be at risk.

Travel Warnings and Advisories

As a Turkey newbie, I had no preconceived ideas, but I was pleasantly surprised by how modern it is and how friendly and welcoming its residents proved to be. I felt no less safe than when I’ve traveled to other European countries — Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, etc. Even our tour guide told us the country gets a bad rap, despite the absence of U.S. State Department travel warnings there.

While I take basic precautions and trust my instincts when I travel, I try to avoid allowing fear to keep me from visiting the places on my bucket list.

Have you visited someplace about which others were wrongly concerned? Have you traveled to a supposedly questionable area and found the danger to be blown out of proportion? Leave your comments below.

— written by Ashley Kosciolek

Every Monday, we’ll post the answer to the previous week’s Photo Friday quiz. Play along with future photo guessing games by subscribing to our blog (top right).

The correct answer to last Friday’s photo guessing game is Istanbul, Turkey! This sprawling multicultural metropolis straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosporus Strait. Visitors can tour iconic sites such as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia, and go shopping among the crowded, colorful stalls of the Grand Bazaar. Learn more about the city in Istanbul Essentials.

— written by Sarah Schlichter