“Shh, listen. Do you hear that? It’s Asia calling.” John must have said that about a dozen times (a day) during our recent anniversary trip to Istanbul. Then he’d squint and look out at the Bosphorus and reminisce about the time he spent in Asia, with nothing but the clothes on his back. In truth, his four and only trips to Asia all happened in the one week we spent in Istanbul. For him, the possibility of entering a new continent was a big draw to Istanbul as the place to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

We always knew we wanted to take a trip to celebrate this milestone anniversary since we both feel that a shared experience is a better gift than a material gift like jewelry. We also, let’s be honest, found a pigeon—I mean willing babysitter—who agreed to watch our three boys for a whole week, which is longer than we’d ever been away from them together before (thanks mom!) We’d celebrated anniversaries with trips to San Francisco, Puerto Rico, and Montreal for long weekends in the past but a whole week opened up the world to us. Turkish Airlines’ phenomenal fares from DC to Istanbul sealed the deal.

Here are some of our most romantic and memorable experiences.

istanbul market collage

Markets

Although we visited the Grand Bazaar and even spent some time drinking tea with a rug merchant (who really was just a friend we hadn’t met yet), the Egyptian Spice Market was a much more pleasant experience for us. It’s smaller, was less crowded, and had more interesting wares. We also loved the outdoor markets surrounding the Spice Market, selling everything from flowers to dog food. Finally, we loved the enticing fish, olive, and produce market in the Kadikoy area on the Asian side (do you hear it calling?)

mezze colage

Mezze

The streets of Istanbul were pretty much a rambling buffet for us. We’d start the day with breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of our hotel, Tomtom Suites—buffet of course—which included yoghurt with honey and almonds, a leek egg tart, smoked salmon, olives, and fresh fruit. The progressive meal would continue down the narrow streets and ports until we returned to the hotel late at night, usually with baklava in tow for that late-night snack.

One of our favorite mezze spots in Beyoglu was Ficcin, where we had some amazing fried eggplant and potato ravioli, both smothered in creamy yoghurt, spices, and olive oil. I also feasted on the best warm stuffed grape leaves I’ve ever had, hands-down.

We had a great meal at the well-reviewed Mekan. They had a tremendous variety of mezze, including some tasty seafood. Oddly, we arrived around 7pm to an empty restaurant and were told they were full. They did manage to “find us a table” and the place was still half-empty when we left at 8:30. The same thing happened to many others who trying to get a table. Strange.

One of our most memorable meals (we went there twice) were at Hisko, a friendly little hole-in-the-wall café around the corner from our hotel where you just look over the counter to choose from the day’s specials. We loved the grilled lamb chops, green beans, and stuffed peppers.

One evening, when John heard the faint ringing of the dinner bell calling from Asia, we hopped on a ferry and, after some mapless navigating and a few wrong turns, arrived at Ciya about an hour later. This place was buzzing with people and the odors emanating from the cauldrons of stews, rice, and roasts on display at the entrance were enticing. You choose from a cold mezze buffet as you enter and bring your (heaping) plate to your table. Once done, you just choose your hot foods, which are plated and brought to your table by a waiter. The cold mezze were outstanding and my favorite hot dish was a lamb and apple stew that had strong Moroccan flavors.

istanbul mosques collage

Mosques

One morning, while I went shopping for souvenirs, John heard the call and took the ferry across to Asia to visit the Semsi Pasha Mosque. He claims it’s the smallest but most beautiful of the mosques he saw in Istanbul. I’m not sure I believe it since he was wearing his rose-colored Asia glasses. On our last day in Istanbul, we visited the tiny and lovely Rustem Pasha Mosque behind the Spice Market, which I immediately felt a connection to and John conceded was “almost as nice as the one in Asia.”

The Blue Mosque is certainly the most famous Mosque in Istanbul and it was impressive but crowded. We’d heard from a friend of ours who used to live in Istanbul that his favorite Mosque was Suleimaniye. Perched on top of a hill, you get a beautiful view of the city below and also a good idea of the entire mosque complex, which centuries ago included a hammam, kitchens, and living quarters. Really breathtaking and on a rainy February evening, we were the only ones there.

If John’s obsession was Asia, mine was to find the mosque I thought I remembered maybe seeing on Globe Trekker but couldn’t remember the name of or if it was, in fact, in Istanbul. I seemed to remember it was inside a covered marketplace. Well, we didn’t find it but John did chase down a man in the Grand Bazaar (that’s right, John stalked a merchant) since he’d just washed his face and hands and we were convinced he’d lead us to the hidden mosque of my TV dreams. He didn’t.

While his Asian adventures never took him further than a mile away from the ferry terminal, there was definitely a thrill in straddling two continents. For me, exploring the markets, narrow winding streets, fragrant dinners, and cultural wonders of Istanbul was a trip of lifetime with a partner of a lifetime.