New Year’s Eve in Istanbul: Street Food and Birthday Pub Crawl Shenanigans

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Daniel and I stop for a photo at Taksim Square, Istanbul.

I am one of those rare people with a birthday that falls squarely on New Year’s Eve. Most people assume that I would love having a birthday on New Year’s Eve because, well – everyone parties on my birthday. But I don’t. I always feel like I’m competing with all the New Year’s Eve parties so I typically celebrate my birthday on another night. On one year, I decided to skip New Year’s Eve altogether. I stubbornly held a Unicorn-themed birthday party on New Year’s Eve instead and made my friends dress up like unicorns and sing happy birthday to me at midnight. It was awesome.

But this year is different. Daniel and I have been travelling for three months now and we weren’t near any friends to celebrate the holidays, let alone New Years. So we decided to do something epic for my birthday/New Years Eve and headed to Istanbul. I first traveled to Istanbul about 10 years ago for a business trip and absolutely fell in love with the city. I’ve been wanting to return ever since and it seemed like now was the perfect time. A New Year’s Eve birthday celebration in the world’s 5th largest city? Yes please!

Beyoğlu Neighborhood and Taksim Square

Daniel and I booked an apartment in the Beyoğlu neighborhood near Taksim Square for the New Years holiday. Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfare, was insanely crowded with shoppers and revelers so we peeled off the main drag to visit some side streets. This is my favorite part of Istanbul – the winding pedestrian alleys filled with everything from fish mongers to hookah joints and restaurants with outdoor seating spilling into the street.

There is something magical about Istanbul that is hard to describe to someone who’s never been. Daniel’s heard me talk about it for the past ten years and I was worried that the city wouldn’t live up to his expectations. But I needn’t have worried. It was really fun to be with Daniel as he experienced the allure of the Istanbul and the Beyoğlu neighborhood for the first time.

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Nevizade Street, Istanbul.
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The trolley along busy Istiklal Caddesi street.
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Istiklal Caddesi street on December 30. On December 31 the street was so packed we could barely walk through it.
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Nevizade street – one of my favorite places in Istanbul.
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Fruit stand on Nevizade street.
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Fruit stand in the rain.
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Turkish sweets and delicacies. Turkish delight, anyone? Yum!
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More yummy Turkish sweets.
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Mussels vendor on Nevizade street. Photo by Daniel.
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We passed several streets with a rainbow of multi-colored umbrellas hanging overhead. Pretty cool. Why didn’t I think of that…?
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Daniel poses for a photo in front of Taksim Square.

Istanbul Street Food and other Culinary Delights

We spent our first couple of days in Istanbul wandering around the Beyoğlu neighborhood and stuffing our faces with all kinds of street food. Daniel had a whole list of Turkish dishes to try and so we wasted no time diving right into this endeavor.

Our apartment happened to be located only a block away from Dürümzade restaurant, now made famous by Anthony Bourdain who visited it on his television show. We stopped by to try the wraps and they were everything that we could have hoped for. Two thumbs up.

We also stumbled upon Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrasi restaurant as we walked down Istiklal Caddesi street and had to go in. Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrasi is the restaurant of Chef Burak, also known as “the smiling chef”. Burak is a Turkish chef and Internet sensation with a proliferation of YouTube and Instagram cooking videos. He is especially known for his uncanny smile at the camera as he cooks – it is quite… distinctive. And hilarious. The food wasn’t terribly exciting but we did get a kick out of having our pictures taken with the multiple cut-outs of Chef Burak in the restaurant.

If you haven’t seen any of his videos, I recommend checking one out. This video of Chef Burak on Instagram is one of my favorites. I also enjoy this video of Chef Burak roasting meat in a pit oven.

This is only a small representation of the varied and wonderful food that we ate during our visit to Istanbul. We also spent an inordinate amount of time trying different kinds of lahmacun (which is kind of like a flat crispy pizza) – as well as pide (also pizza-like but shaped into little boats) and, by request of my cousin Jim of the Sandwich Tribunal blog, the tantuni sandwich. Oh, and did mention the Turkish breakfast?

If you’d like more details of all the fabulous foods we ate in Istanbul, be sure to check out Daniel’s comprehensive foodie post: Next level street food and the truly amazing cuisine of Istanbul, Turkey.

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Kizilkayalar Haburger stand in Taksim Square.
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Islak Hamburger from Kizilkayalar. It’s a burger-like sandwich marinated in some sort of magical sauce.
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Döner kebap! One of the most traditional street foods from Turkey. Anthony Bourdain refers to döner kebap as “little missiles of love”. We got these at the Kizilkayalar stand.
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Speaking of Anthony Bourdain… thanks to Dürümzade restaurant’s clever marketing, we were lured inside to try some tasty wraps.
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The wrap from Dürümzade restaurant as recommended by Anthony Bourdain. Yum!
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Chef Burak’s Hatay Medeniyetler Sofrasi restaurant. This restaurant is hard to miss!
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Daniel poses for a photo with a cardboard cutout of Chef Burak.
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I love the smiling chef! He’s a man after my own heart. Photo by Daniel.
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Lahmacun. We went all over town to find the best one. Photo by Daniel.
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Pide. Photo by Daniel.
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A full Turkish breakfast. Photo by Daniel.

New Year’s Eve Birthday Shenanigans

And now for the main event – New Year’s Eve! I wanted to meet some new people on my birthday so we signed up for Istanbul’s Most Famous Pub Crawl on AirBnB. At the appointed hour we met up at a tiny little bar called Papillon and began the evening with some ice breaker games. It was an extremely diverse group – we had people from all over the world including Spain, Mongolia, Russia, Libya, India, Jordan, Turkey and Croatia. Soon we were all getting along famously and then we headed off to our next destination.

The next bar turned out to be a dance club already packed with locals who were ushering in the new year. We joined the crowd and just before midnight I turned around to see our host, Oytun, approaching with a flaming birthday cake! I was very surprised and utterly delighted. Soon midnight arrived and we danced in the New Year to the raucous sounds of fireworks.

Daniel and I split off from the group as they wandered along to the next bar since I’m not much of a night person and I was about done in. But we had an absolutely fabulous time.

Epic New Year’s Eve birthday party in Istanbul – achievement successfully unlocked!

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Daniel gets a hair cut in preparation for the big night. This guy also trimmed Daniel’s beard and was about to slather his face with cologne before we managed to get away.
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As we were about to leave our apartment for the evening, the building manager stopped by and brought over a birthday cake. How sweet!
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Papillon Bar. Photo by Daniel.
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The event organizer, Oytun, expertly manages the crowd. Photo by Daniel.
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Getting to know the other attendees. Photo courtesy of Istanbul’s Most Famous Pub Crawl.
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Making new friends. This guy is from Russia. Photo courtesy of Istanbul’s Most Famous Pub Crawl.
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The whole gang (almost). Photo courtesy of Istanbul’s Most Famous Pub Crawl.
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Oytun leads the way to the next bar.
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At the next bar. Photo by Daniel.
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…and they lit the bar on fire. Surprise!!!
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All of a sudden Oytun handed me this amazing sparkling birthday cake. I was very surprised. Photo by Daniel.
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Another photo of the birthday cake extravaganza. Photo by Daniel.
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Happy birthday to me! Thankfully I had lots of friends to help me eat it. Photo courtesy of Istanbul’s Most Famous Pub Crawl.
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Midnight strikes.
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Happy New Year, everyone!
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Yep, I’m having a good time. Time to head home.

Where are we now?

Location: Istanbul, Turkey
Date: Tuesday, December 31, 2019
Vagabonding Journey Status: Day 92

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We are in Istanbul, Turkey.

For more details on our vagabonding journey, see my previous posts: