My Search for Istanbul's Perfect Coffee House (and the Surprising Result)!
I tried everything from coffee chains, to charming cafes, to the craziest place I've ever seen. But did I find the "one?"
One of the things I missed most during the pandemic was getting up in the morning, going to a coffee shop, and settling in for the day to work.
I’ve always loved coffee shops — the more quirky and charming, the better. But coffee shops have become even more important to me as a digital nomad, because while traveling, Brent and I often share a one-bedroom apartment, or even just a studio.
That can mean we spend a lot of time together, which is great.
But every couple needs some apart time. You know, so you don’t become murder-y and stuff.
So coffee shops have become my “office.”
Thankfully, here in Beyoglu, our neighborhood in Istanbul, Turkey, there are even more coffee shops than stray cats.
Okay, that’s not quite true because there are over 125,000 stray cats here in Istanbul.
But there are still a lot of coffee shops.
And since these coffee shops are almost always located in fantastically old buildings, they are often funky, or weird, or simply loaded with old world charm that I love.
Naturally, I wanted to explore as many of these shops as possible. I mean, come on!
But I also wanted to see if I could find my perfect coffee shop: the perfect infusion of my “coffee” and “work” needs, and also the perfect reflection of the person I have become since leaving home four years ago.
I figured if I would find it anywhere, it would be in charming, coffee-crazy Istanbul.
Care to join me on my tour of the city’s coffee shops to see if I ever did find the coffee shop of my dreams?
(1) Latife Türk Kahvesi
First, a quick language lesson. The Turkish word for coffee is “kahvesi,” which sounds pretty much like it looks: ka-veh-see. So as I strolled around town, I looked for signs on cute shops that said “kahvesi.”
My first day out, it was cold and drizzly, so I wanted some place cozy.
Walking down a charming stone-paved road, I spotted a little cafe called Latife Türk Kahvesi. How cute is that name? I also loved the fact it was only a few steps from the Galata Tower, a famous Istanbul icon. It would be a bit like working next to the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum — and how freaking romantic is that?
It was 8 AM, but the Latife was open, which was a relief, because I’m an early bird and it turns out a lot of places here didn’t open until nine or ten. Hey, this is Europe!
The staff was friendly-ish, but more importantly, they had soy milk!
I love me some latte in the morning, but I’m lactose intolerant, and I’d already learned a lot of places didn’t carry soy. By the way, the words for soy milk are “soya sütü,” which sounds more pleasant than most Turkish words. It’s a very guttural language.
I ordered a pastry and looked for a place to set up.
Unfortunately, I could only find one electrical outlet, so that could be a problem in the future if someone beat me to it. And while the decor was very nice, not all of the chairs weren’t particularly comfortable. I briefly pondered doing some furniture rearranging to make things more to my liking, but that felt too much like an obnoxious, American thing to do.
As I settled in, I noticed two other things: it was chilly. And every table had an ashtray.
Fortunately, I was the only one there, so smoking wasn’t a problem — yet. I’ve also accepted living outside of America means being exposed to a lot more second hand smoke. But I still avoid it when I can.
On the plus side, I noticed that the ceiling and windows retracted, so in warmer weather this would practically be a courtyard. That could be very nice.
The waiter brought me my coffee and pastry, which together cost 40 Turkish lira, or less than five bucks. In the U.S., the coffee alone would be more than that. The coffee was delicious — dark and rich and somehow really Turkish. Or maybe that was my romantic imagination. Alas, the pastry was just so-so.
Bhe waiter also smiled as he turned on an overhead electric heater, which I really appreciated.
VERDICT: There was a lot to like about this place: cute, opens early, had soy milk and really good coffee. But one electrical outlet? Plus, after a few hours, my back was getting stiff from the bad chairs. So it definitely wasn’t perfect.
On the other hand, I wanted to see this place on a warm day when the roof was open.
(2) Espresso Lab
It was only 6:45 AM, and this place was already open. Woo hoo! I immediately suspected Espresso Lab and I were going to be good friends, because I’m a seriously early bird.
It looked decent-sized from the outside, but once inside, I realized it was ginormous. And that was before I discovered the equally large second floor!
Soy milk was on the menu, and there was a decent pastry selection.
The barista was friendly and asked my name in his halting English. Unfortunately, he started calling me Mr. Michael. I knew he was just being polite, but it still left me feeling like an invading colonial power.
I got my coffee and headed upstairs to explore the vast expanse of desks and tables, all with comfortable chairs. Score!
Plus tons of electrical outlets. Double score!
And smoking was only allowed in certain spots. Triple score!
On the downside, I was definitely getting a “chain” vibe from the place which was bad because like to support the little guy.
Yup, a Google search soon told me Espresso Lab was a chain with 73 stores. A Turkish chain, but a chain.
As I worked, I quickly realized that the people who came here meant business: they came to work. In fact, it felt a lot like a co-working space.
Maybe it was the comfortable chairs, but I quickly settled into a very industrious groove, even if it felt about as romantic as a dental cleaning.
VERDICT: I loved the bright, open spaces, the industrious vibe — and how professionally it was run. The coffee was pretty good, though the pastries were clearly mass-produced. I loved not having to deal with smoking, but it was also a little too open, and maybe a little too busy. Cozy, this place would never be.
(3) Varuna Gezgin
I’d walked by the nondescript doorway to this place many times, barely giving it a second thought. Then one day, curiosity got the best of me. I stuck my head in, started exploring, and holy cow!
From the outside, you have no idea what the inside is going to be like.
But inside? It’s a warren of rooms, and stairs, and hallways, all of them twisting this way and that.
And talk about quirky charm! As I explored, I found walls covered with hundreds of antique signs advertising everything from German beers, to English toilet soaps, to a sign for India Airlines that must date to the 1940s.
One hallway and staircase was so tiny, I had to crouch down as I passed by the scores of U.S. license plates, above. In other rooms, I found display cabinets filled with collections of clocks, sewing machines, antique car and cherry-red firetruck models, and more.
I thought one stairway was leading to a dead-end but instead it opened to not one but two more huge rooms. I was starting to wish I’d left a trail of breadcrumbs to find my way back.
This was truly one of the most fascinating places I’d ever seen in any city.
And I decided that even before I reached the top floor and discovered another entire open area with retracting windows, so there was a lovely breeze on this warm morning.
Plus, it looked out over a courtyard garden full of lush green trees. This was a real bonus: Istanbul is the least green place we’ve lived since we spent two months on the rocky islands of Malta in the Mediterranean.
But there were some serious downsides.
Varuna (as I was already thinking of it) didn’t open until ten, didn’t have soy milk, and wasn’t even a coffee shop; it was restaurant with seating areas in about six different locations.
And despite all those areas and tables, there was still only one outlet again.
But it didin’t matter because I loved this place.
I loved it even more when I started chatting with Rukent, the manager, who told me the fascinating story behind Varuna Gezgin. For starters, the building was actually a two-hundred-year-old Armenian orphanage that slowly expanded over time, which explained the crazy layout.
I also learned there were five Varuna Gezgin locations throughout Turkey, so it was a chain of sorts — but a chain with a cause!
The place is the work of a Turkish man, Murat Fıçıcı, an avid backpacker who decided he wanted to inspire Turkish youth to travel the world.
So he established Varuna Gezgin and decorated the restaurant with mementos from his extensive travels. Then he staffed the restaurants with local young people, to give them practical work-skills and confidence. He decided to use some of the profits from the restaurant to help send them on adventures all over the world.
It was an incredible story, and frankly, I was shocked that none of our digital nomad or local friends had mentioned it to us yet.
Oh, one more thing: Gezgin is the Turkish word for traveler, and Varuna is a Hindu deity associated with the sky, the seas, justice, and truth. So it’s basically the perfect name.
VERDICT: Technically, this wasn’t even a coffee shop. And, well, no soy milk, only one outlet, and the chairs hurt my butt. So I guess this couldn’t really be my perfect place, but I still loved it and planned to bring Brent and our other friends here for dinner, if for no other reason than to support a great cause.
(4) Books and Coffee
Some days I like to get up at 5 AM and go for walks by myself. For an hour or two, I have the city we’re living in almost entirely to myself.
And I love it.
One day, I crossed the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to visit Süleymaniye Mosque at sunrise, and also to see the Egyptian Spice Bazaar before it was mobbed with tourists.
On the way home, I passed by Books and Coffee, which was a name that was pretty hard to resist. The only thing more enticing might have been: Books and Coffee and Chocolate and Handsome Turkish Baristas.
I was planning on working anyway, so I decided to check it out since I was here.
It was in Karaköy, a working class neighborhood right along the water — less trendy than Beyoglu, our hipster neighborhood at the top of the hill.
But I instantly liked the vibe. (Plus the barista was kind of cute.) Another very old building, with charm to spare, not to mention exposed bricks and wooden beams. A narrow staircase wound its way upstairs, and I knew that was where I was going to work the day away.
I was getting a bit jittery from all of my coffee-drinking, so I decide on tea and a cookie. The tea was great, the cookie not so much. On the other hand, the upstairs had a fireplace! How cozy would that be on a chilly morning?
Plus, plenty of outlets and soy milk on the menu. But it was still a twenty minute walk from home, so this wouldn’t be my perfect coffee shop either.
By this point, I’d been searching for my perfect coffee shop for weeks — the ones I’ve mentioned, and maybe a dozen others too. None were absolutely right.
So was I ever going to find “the one”?
Then I realized: there is no perfect coffee shop. Just like there’s no “perfect” anything!
(Except my spouse. He’s pretty darn close.)
I should have known this already, of course. After all, this was something we’d realized on our four-year “digital nomad” journey: every destination has had things we loved, and also a few things we didn’t love so much. But none of them was “perfect.”
I realized something else.
Whenever I think back on our time here in Istanbul, I know I’m going to remember sitting in the open air at Latife, soaking up the charm of Varuna Gezgin, and absorbing the industrious energy at Espresso Lab.
Individually, none of these places was “perfect.” But when you add the experiences together, and when you consider how much I enjoyed searching, and the time spent in each I actually did find the “perfect coffee shop.” It was just spread out over a lot of different places.
Perhaps my whole search was a metaphor for life. It really is the journey, not the destination!
Or maybe that’s just all the caffeine talking.
Goodbye until our next hello!
Michael (and Brent)
P.S. If you’ve enjoyed reading about our travels, we would truly appreciate it if you helped spread the word. Maybe forward this column to a friend you think might be interested. Teşekkürler! (That’s Turkish for thank you!)