Cartagena, Colombia

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

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For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.

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How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.

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Mompos, Colombia

Ceiba Tree, Mompos, Colombia

I had long been intrigued by Mompos. A fabled Colombian city of exquisitely preserved colonial architecture, Mompos is perhaps best defined by its obscure location. The city sits on an island, shrouded by a maze of marshes on the Magdalena River, several hours inland from the Caribbean Coast. To this day, no road connects Mompos to the mainland.

However, Mompos’ location was not always remote. During the colonial era, Mompos achieved preeminence as one of Colombia’s key commercial ports, precisely because of its position on the Magdalena River. At the time, the Magdalena served as the region’s central thoroughfare, funneling goods from the interior of the continent to the Caribbean port of Cartagena and onward to Spain. In the 19th century, following the wars of independence, traffic along the Magdalena declined. Mompos’ location lost its strategic value and many of its residents abandoned it for new opportunities in the burgeoning industrial city of Barranquilla. Gradually, Mompos faded into obscurity.

Mompos’ fall into oblivion is what drew me. Unlike other colonial cities that have been forced to adapt to a changing society, Mompos was left entirely alone, its plazas, churches and houses untouched by the modern world. I envisioned Mompos as a relic of an earlier, quieter Colombia, a rare haven not yet bombarded by the blaring stereo systems and roaring motorcycles that have become ubiquitous across the Caribbean region. A forgotten city with nearly empty streets and glorious mansions and plazas, where only the faint gurgle of the passing Magdalena would be heard. A place, that I hoped, might still contain the magic of its colonial past.

Raft on Magdalena River, Mompos, Colombia

Outer Marshes, Mompos, Colombia

When I finally visited Mompos earlier this year, the main challenge was getting there. Jorge and I began our journey in Bogota, where we boarded an hour-long flight to Corozal, a marginal town in the Caribbean department of Sucre best known for its bird-infested trash dump. A loquacious taxi driver, Carlos, met us at the airport and entertained us with stories of his jealous wife, as we inched past wide-eyed bulls saddled on pick up trucks and jubilant families on horseback on their way to the annual bullfighting festival in the neighboring city of Sincelejo.

Two hours later, we arrived in Magangue, a lively, but crumbling port city on the Magdalena, pungent with the air of fish and sewage. There, we boarded a chalupa, a rickety motorboat, with twelve other passengers, crammed with life vests, babies bobbing on their mothers’ laps and green bunches of unripe bananas to be sold at island markets. As we hurtled into the river, we rushed past tiny islands bursting with the jagged oversized green palms from which plantains grow. From their shores, children in their underwear waved at us excitedly before flinging themselves into the river on rope swings.

In only ten minutes, we had arrived in Bodega, home of the wobbly dock and patch of mud that is the principal port for the series of islands on the Magdalena. A mob of colectivo taxi drivers accosted us, each insisting that we pay him for passage to Mompos. We selected one quickly and boarded his car along with a tight-lipped momposina in a knit cap who refused to share in the payment of the empty seat that had to be filled before we could depart.

During the final hour of our journey, we traversed the marshes that separate Bodega from Mompos, via a series of precarious mud bridges. The road buzzed with the chaos characteristic of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Motorcycles, overloaded with passengers, barefoot and helmetless, weaved dangerously in an out of lanes and whizzed past us. Roadside pit stops advertised patacones and fried fish in garish hand-painted signs. Boom boxes blared a cacophonous mixture of traditional vallenato and hip-hop-inspired reggaeton outside cement houses, where entire families weighed down by heat and boredom, sat idly in plastic chairs, watching the traffic pass.

Yet, beyond the road, a tropical stillness reigned. Here, there were only marshes and high grasses, blanketed by a light mist. Where the land was firm, ceiba trees rose dramatically, dominating the landscape with their enormous trunks and broad, decisive canopies. A haunting primordial beauty pervaded this place, a hint of what I had hoped to find.

Houses, Mompos, Colombia

 

Motorbike, Mompos, Colombia

With dusk fast approaching, we reached Mompos. At first I saw only dusty streets and motorbikes and decaying one-story buildings, all painted in the same faded white with large wooden doors and iron wrought windows. The thump of reggaeton reverberated from a storefront. It did not look so different from any other modern Colombian town graced with the vestiges of colonial architecture. I braced myself for disappointment.

Then, as the taxi turned onto a riverbank, I caught my first glimpse of the Magdalena—flowing quickly and vigorously, dragging with it tassels of bright green foliage ablaze in the late afternoon light. Alongside the river, the city and its surroundings were suddenly infused with a glowing and magical force. On the opposite shore, the same giant ceiba trees I had seen from the road set the stage, reaching, like dancers, wildly into the sky. The city they faced gleamed with a serene elegance. Waterfront mansions boasted tall pillars and proud doorways, alongside open plazas and ornate churches, all carefully displayed to impress the visitors that had once arrived in droves along the Magdalena.

When the driver reached our hotel, I leapt from the taxi and scurried towards an empty park that bordered the river. I closed my eyes. Somewhere nearby, I imagined a pair of dainty young women strolling beneath white lace parasols. A lovesick man appeared too, serenading one of the señoritas with a violin. A crowd gathered around me and we all eagerly awaiting the latest shipment of gold that would soon arrive from a faraway mine. Alone with my trance, I savored the lost majesty of Mompos.

Contemplating the Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

 

Ceiba Trees, Mompos, Colombia

How to get there
From Bogotá, fly to Corozal via Satena Airlines. Then, take a taxi or bus to Magangue, board a chalupa to Bodega and finally a colectivo taxi to Mompos. Alternatively, travel from Cartagena, where you can arrange for a door-to-door van (Toto Express 310 707 0838) to pick you up from your hotel and shuttle you by land and ferry to Mompos. The total travel time, from either Bogotá or Cartagena following the routes suggested above, is about five to six hours.

Where to stay
Portal de la Marquesa: This beautifully renovated colonial mansion originally served as the residence of the Marquis of Valde Hoyos. Its location—directly facing the river, but removed from the nightly parties near Iglesia Santa Barbara– is ideal. Address: Cra 1, No. 15-27, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6221, + 57 (5) 685 6781

Where to eat
El Fuerte: This restaurant, owned by Austrian chef and furniture-maker Walter Maria Gurth, features delicate and flavorful wood-fired pizzas in a whimsical garden setting complete with outlandish wooden tables and lush palms. The classical music playing in the background provides a welcome respite from the dueling boom box parties in the nearby plaza. Address: Cra 1, No. 12-163, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6762

Trees on Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

Bicycle taxi, Mompos, Colombia

 

Northwest Argentina: Food and Nightlife in Tilcara

La Casa de Champa, Tilcara, Argentina

Tilcara is one of several sleepy colonial villages along the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a narrow, arid ravine 155 km long in the extreme northwest of Argentina, bordering Bolivia.  Travelers flock to the Quebrada for its breathtaking views of orange, pink and purple tinted mountains and to explore indigenous ruins and a rural way of life.  During my recent visit to Tilcara, I discovered that this particular village offers an unexpected surprise for such a remote corner of Argentina: quirky restaurants, cafes and live music venues with delicious and creative food.  Tilcara’s food and nightlife make it an ideal base for visiting the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

Here are my favorite Tilcara food and nightlife discoveries:

1) La Casa de Champa, Belgrano 249, Tilcara

In an old colonial style house with a cozy interior adorned with clay tea pots, religious icons and hand-woven ponchos, this tea shop is the perfect place to experience my favorite Argentina custom, the afternoon tea ritual known as merienda.  Here you will find a wide selection of loose-leaf teas mixed with local herbs (my favorite “Yungas” is named for a nearby jungle), as well as exquisite homemade desserts, like the heavenly torta alemana made with fluffy layers of meringue, cake and chocolate.  An absolute must for lovers of tea and cake!

La Casa de Champa, Tilcara, Argentina

2) El Nuevo Progreso, Lavalle 351, Tilcara

This stylish restaurant owned by a hip young couple from Buenos Aires functions as an art gallery as well as a restaurant.  Contemporary artwork illuminated by candles hangs from the walls, while the high ceilings and elegant façade provide a reminder of Tilcara’s colonial heritage.  The menu takes a creative twist on local cuisine with many excellent options for vegetarians, like the quinoa salad with mushrooms, sesame and grilled vegetables.  The highlight of the meal was the dessert (I ordered the chocolate mousse), which was out of this world.

El Nuevo Progreso, Tilcara, Argentina

3) La Peña de Carlitos, Lavalle 397, Tilcara

The most famous peña in the Quebrada de Humahuaca, this is a wonderful place to come for a drink after dinner to listen to lively stories and music by local performers.   Here you will appreciate the distinct cultural heritage of Northwest Argentina.

La Peña de Carlitos, Tilcara, Argentina

Northwest Argentina: Best Empanadas

Empanadas, Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

The empanada salteña, from the northwest province of Salta, is the most beloved of empanadas in Argentina, a country obsessed with these small and savory pastries.  Empanadas originated in Salta and are made differently in this province than in other parts of Argentina.  They are miniature in size and typically filled with finely chopped steak, potato, egg and chili pepper.  Though they can be ordered fried, the traditional version is baked in a mud oven.

I have always loved empanadas and part of what attracted me to Salta was its reputation for empanadas.  During my two weeks in Northwest Argentina, I embarked on a search for the best empanadas, constantly hounding locals for recommendations and sampling as many as I could.  What I found surprised me: the most popular spot among tourists and locals alike, the Patio de la Empanada in Salta City, disappointed me.  However, near the end of my trip, while stopping in the remote mining town of San Antonio de los Cobres for lunch, I unexpectedly stumbled upon an empanada so sublime that I will never forget it.

Here is my list of favorite empanadas spots in Salta Province ranked from best to worst:

1) El Puneño, San Antonio de los Cobres, Salta Province, Argentina    

In a sad and dusty mining town in the heart of the Argentine Puna, I found my favorite empanada in all of Salta Province.  Rich in flavor, with a soft, delicate dough that will melt in your mouth, they can be ordered fried or baked and with a variety of fillings.  This is a perfect place to stop and have lunch on the road between Salta City and Tolar Grande.

El Puneño, San Antonio de los Cobres, Argentina

2) Doña Salta, Salta City, Argentina 

A block from the central plaza of Salta City, this large and affordable restaurant featuring an extensive menu of regional specialties serves excellent empanadas.  The empanada de charqui, filled with salted dried meat, is particularly tasty.  However, the empanadas, though delicious, are overshadowed by the fabulous carbonada, a thick pumpkin soup with veal, potato and spices, possibly my favorite dish in all of Northern Argentina.

3) El Papabuelo, El Carril, Salta Province, Argentina

This rustic roadside eatery, about 45 minutes south of Salta City, is a convenient place to stop for lunch when traveling to either Cachi or Cafayate.  Meals are served at outdoor wooden tables in a patio surrounding the traditional mud oven used for baking empanadas.  The empanadas are decent, as are the corn-based humitas and tamales.

El Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

4) El Patio de la Empanada, Salta City, Argentina

Ask almost anyone who has lived in or visited Salta where to go for the best empanada and you will likely be told to come here.  Every blog I read and every taxi driver I asked insisted that this was the place where I would taste the best empanada of my life.  With such high expectations, it is perhaps not surprising that the empanadas I had here disappointed me.

Still, I would recommend that anyone visiting Salta stop here at least once for a quick empanada run.  The setting, a collection of colorful empanada stands clustered around a sunny courtyard, will appeal to anyone with a penchant for street food.  The prices, too, are hard to beat.  And, though I found the empanadas to be bland and generic, keep in mind I only sampled empanadas from two of the stands and there were several more options I could have tried.  To avoid a similarly disappointing experience, I recommend ordering a single empanada from each stand until you find the one you like best.

Patio de la Empanada, Salta, Argentina

Patio de la Empanada, Salta, Argentina

Northwest Argentina: Road Trip Through Calchaqui Valley

Calchaqui Valley, Argentina

The Calchaqui Valley is situated high in the mountains of Salta Province in Northwest Argentina.  A river cuts across this long and arid valley that is defined by its stunning variety of landscapes: lush oases, strange and colorful rock formations, snowy peaks and vast plains dotted by sand and flowering cacti.

The best way to see the Calchaqui Valley is by renting a car and exploring it on your own.  The starting point for this road trip is Salta, a busting city of 650,000 inhabitants and the capital of Salta province.  From Salta, drive to Cachi, a tiny mountain village with cobblestone streets and colonial style buildings in the shadow of a snow-covered mountain, the Nevado de Cachi.  The final stop is Cafayate, a larger town encircled by vineyards and red rock mountains, which is an ideal place to rest for a day or two before returning to Salta.

Car rental tip: Rent your car from Federico Ochoa at Marina Semisa Rent A Car near Plaza 9 de Julio in Salta.  I had read horror stories before my trip from travelers who rented cars from other local car rental agencies, but Federico came highly recommended to us by our hotel and was indeed extremely reliable and professional.

Recommended Itinerary:

Day One: Salta to Cachi

Distance: 98 miles on both paved and unpaved roads, allow up to six hours including stops for lunch and photos

From Salta, drive south along Route 68 for about 45 minutes and stop for lunch at the wonderfully rustic El Papabuelo in El Carril, a small roadside eatery specializing in empanadas made in a traditional wood-burning oven, as well as other regional favorites like corn-based humitas and tamales.

Tamal, El Papabuelo, El Carril, Argentina

From El Carril, turn west onto Route 33 and brace yourself for one of the most bizarre and spectacular drives of your life.  Past the grand estancias and tobacco fields of Chicoana, you will enter the Quebrada de Escoipe, a verdant ravine bordered by steep and winding cliffs with rock faces shaped like Venetian masks that will startle you unexpectedly at every turn.  From there, the road begins to ascend the famed Cuesta del Obispo.  The green vegetation slowly fades and gives way to arid rocks and parched mountains dotted with flowering cacti, known as candelabra for being shaped like antique candlestick holders with multiple arms.  After reaching the summit, Piedra de Molino at an elevation of 3348 meters (10,984 feet), you will descend onto a wide-open plain crowded with even more cacti, the heart of Parque Nacional Los Cardones, a park with informative signs and well-marked trails for seeing the cacti.

Oasis near Cachi

Your final stop for the day is Cachi, a village high in the mountains with cobblestone streets and white colonial buildings with green doors.  You will want to stop in Cachi for a walk around the village with your camera, before heading to your hotel, Finca La Paya (see previous entry), a nineteenth century farmhouse situated in a river valley about fifteen minutes south of Cachi with breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains.

Finca La Paya, Cachi, Argentina

Day Two: Cachi to Cafayate

Distance: 102 miles on an unpaved road, allow eight hours including stops for shopping, lunch and photos

From Finca La Paya, drive south along Route 40.  Take a detour between El Colte and Seclantes to visit the Camino de Artesanos, a country road that runs parallel to Route 40.  This road is home to Argentina’s finest poncho makers.  Here you can watch the artisans at work and buy ponchos and other textiles.  The road ends in Seclantes, a lovely village with colonial architecture and lush vegetation, an oasis in the desert that is the Calchaqui Valley.

Seclantes, Argentina

Stop for lunch at Hacienda De Molinos, the beautifully preserved home of the last governor of Salta Province under Spanish rule.  Dine under the shade of an enormous leafy pepper tree in the main courtyard of the hacienda and then take a stroll through the surrounding village of Molinos, another colonial gem along Route 40.

Molinos, Argentina

South of Molinos virtually all traces of vegetation and water disappear.  The road turns to sand and curves through a narrow maze of jagged rocks piercing upward like arrows, the aptly named Quebrada de las Flechas.  Be warned that the landscape here is so bizarre that you will want to stop every few minutes to take photos.

Quebrada de las Flechas, Salta Province, Argentina

Finally, you will reach the red rock mountains and vineyards of your destination, Cafayate.  Here there are many fantastic places to stay, including the ultra luxurious Patios de Cafayate and more affordable but highly recommended Casa de la Bodega.

Day Three: Cafayate

Take a break from the long days of driving and indulge in the vineyards, spas and incredible landscapes of Cafayate.  There are many fashionable and costly vineyards to choose from including Esteco of Cafayate, but those seeking a less pretentious experience will prefer San Pedro de Yacochuya or Bodega Nanni.  Spas can be found at the high-end hotels, including Patios de Cafayate.

Vineyard near Cafayate

At sunset, take a drive with your camera through the terracotta colored rocks of Quebrada de las Conchas, the third in a series of stunning ravines you will have encountered by now in the Calchaqui Valley.  Those staying at Casa de la Bodega can hike to the Quebrada from their hotel.

Quebrada de las Conchas, Cafayate, Argentina

Day Four: Cafayate to Salta

Distance: 115 miles on a good paved road, allow four hours including stops for lunch and photos

Return to Salta along Route 68, a good paved road, which will get you back to Salta in less than three hours if you make no stops.  The main attraction along this road is Quebrada de las Conchas, which I recommend those interested in photography visit separately the day before so that you can enjoy the intense colors of the rocks at sunset.

Quebrada de las Conchas

Just past the town of Alemania, stop for lunch at La Posta de las Cabras, a dairy farm with a delightful restaurant specializing in homemade goat cheese, sumptuous olives, salads and desserts.

Goat cheese, La Posta de las Cabras, Alemania, Salta, Argentina

End your trip in Salta.  For hotel recommendations in Salta, see previous entry.

On food

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My favorite way to explore new cities is through food.  Food provides the pretext for venturing to neighborhoods beyond the major attractions and a medium for tapping into local culture.

The first step is to identify the typical foods for that city or region.  The second step is to research the best eateries serving these foods, preferably in a wide variety of environments: bakeries, stalls in the central market, teahouses, stylish upscale restaurants, the local diner that is a favorite among cab drivers.  The greater the variety of eateries, the more of the city you will see and the more likely you are to stumble upon unexpected and delightful surprises along the way.

How do you find out about these places?  Tripadvisor and Yelp provide a helpful starting point.  Food blogs are an even better resource, especially those written by bloggers on the ground.  Another strategy is to find out whether you are connected to anyone from this place.  If so, email them to ask for their preferred eateries.  My own favorite approach is to see if Anthony Bourdain has been there.  If so, I download the episode and take notes.

A wonderful place to do this kind of food tourism is Istanbul.  Not only is Turkish food delectable and varied, there is a goldmine of information available on where to go in Istanbul to sample authentic foods.  The best resource available is the Istanbul Eats food blog, which specializes in introducing readers to “the best undiscovered local eateries.”  Istanbul Eats also offers enormously popular culinary tours.

During my own trip to Istanbul in 2011, I salivated over the culinary tours I had read about before arriving, but ultimately opted not to book one based on the exorbitant prices (around $125 per person for a day long tour).  Instead, I crafted my own food itinerary by compiling recommendations from Istanbul Eats, an acquaintance of my father’s and by watching Anthony Bourdain’s Istanbul episode four times and taking diligent notes.  The result was an exhilarating multi-day tour that took me to places I could have never found out about if I had relied solely on my guidebook.

Here are some of my favorite food finds in Istanbul:

Breakfast

Turkish breakfast was my favorite food discovery in Turkey and I highly recommend skipping the hotel breakfast and eating breakfast elsewhere in order to experience it at its best.  The food is mainly savory (cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumber and flatbread), though the best part of it for me was the sweet kaymak (clotted cream with honey) which is used as a dip for the flatbread.  Also, keep in mind it is acceptable to eat Turkish breakfast at any time of day.

1)    Van Kahvalti Evi, Defterdar Yokuşu No: 52.A, Cihangir.  Tel: 212-293-6437:  A small, unassuming restaurant in bohemian Beyoglu run by a crew of hip, young Kurds serving breakfast from the Van region of Turkey.  This was my favorite meal during my entire three weeks in Turkey.  Read the complete review on Istanbul Eats.

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2)    Kale Cafe, Yahya Kemal Caddesi No: 16, Rumeli Hisari. Tel: 212-265-0097:  This is where Anthony Bourdain goes to sample Turkish breakfast on his first morning in Istanbul.  It is a simple restaurant overlooking the Bosphorous in the picturesque neighborhood of Rumeli Hisari.  Ideal place to start your day with a pleasant breakfast and stroll along the Bosphorous.

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Lunch/Light Dinner

For smaller meals, I recommend zeroing in on everyday staples, those easily found in the most authentic eateries of any city: markets, food stands, hole in the wall restaurants.  In Istanbul, two of the most popular foods in this category are lahmacun (similar to a rolled up thin crust pizza) and kebab.

1)    Halil Lahmacun, Guneşlibahçe Sokak 26, Kadıköy, Tel: 0216-337-0123:  Tiny, inexpensive restaurant in bustling Kadikoy (on Asian side of Istanbul) that serves two types of lahmacun, each for only $2.  I recommend getting both.  Here is an article on Istanbul Eats on finding the best lahmacun in Istanbul.

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2)    Durumzade, Kalyoncu Küllük Caddesi 26/A, Beyoğlu, Tel: 212-249-0147: Anthony Bourdain loved this place.  I enjoyed it, but not as much as he did.  It’s located on a peripheral block of Beyoglu, and if you aren’t careful, you could end up lost in the neighboring red light district.

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3)    Fish market under the Galata Bridge: This market is comprised of numerous small stands serving full meals at small picnic tables with plastic chairs.  The two favored foods are fish sandwiches and hamsi (anchovies).

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Dinner

The one meal for which we dressed up and splurged a little.

Antiochia, Minare Sokak, Asmalimesict, Tel: 212-292-1100.  Hip restaurant in the maze of narrow alleys that make up the heart of Beyoglu.  Recommended to me by a local resident for serving the best meze in town.  Reservations required.

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