Upon landing in Istanbul I wasn’t sure what to expect. The information I’d read beforehand had been contradictory. Some sources stressed its Muslim heritage and architecture, others its dramatic landscape and natural beauty, and many more its Western-style cosmopolitan restaurants and nightlife. In fact, the only aspect on which all sources agreed was that it is one of the world’s must-see cities.
Located in a prime geographical location, since 3000BC Istanbul has represented the centre of east-west trade. The Bosphorus river which runs through the centre of the city forms the connection between Europe and Asia and was a crucial route for the trade of silk, spices, tea and metals from as far afield as India and China. A mixed blessing, this location has made Istanbul a constant point of attack. Under numerous names, the city has variously been under Greek, Roman and Ottoman rule, embracing Orthodox, Catholic and Islamic religions and traditions along the way. Though not always peaceful, this history only adds to the richness and diversity of culture which Istanbul displays today.
Driving from the airport (Sabiha Gökçenin, one of two in Istanbul) in the East of the city to our base near Taksim in the West, this cultural richness is immediately made apparent. Crossing the bridge over the Bosphorus, an iconic sign helpfully informs us we are now leaving Asia and entering Europe.
Once we checked into our hotel and got rid of our bags, the first thing to do is get something to eat. Before my trip, food was probably the thing I knew most about Turkey. Mezze offering bold flavour contrasts of sweet and savoury mixing Mediterranean fish, herbs and oils with much more Asian lentils, nuts and spices – a cuisine which I can now see is completely fitting of the culture. And that’s before we get started on the kebabs. Walking from Taksim Square down Istiklal Avenue (the main street for shops, bars and restaurants – the kind of West End of Istanbul), what struck me more than the stunning stone buildings and intricate tiles which adorned them was the sheer number of Kebab restaurants. Don’t even begin to think of the post-pub doners you get at home, though – these are kebabs as kebabs should be. Tender pieces of lean chicken & lamb aromatically spiced with flavours of cumin and cinnamon; minced meat koftas packed with herbs and studded with raisins, apricots, pistachios and pine nuts; whole aubergines stuffed with minced beef and spiked with chilli – all masterfully char-grilled and served with endless amounts of fresh Turkish flat-bread.
Eating at one of the more Muslim oriented restaurants which doesn’t serve alcohol, I drank Yayik Ayran (buttermilk) with my meal and waited until we moved on to one of Istanbul’s many new clubs to try the traditional Raki. This clear brandy made from grapes and raisins and flavoured with anise is Turkey’s national drink. Drunk mostly with meals and often diluted with water, the country gets through 60 million litres off the stuff each year. Just down the street up in 360, currently Turkey’s trendiest bar, tradition is shaken up and Raki forms the base of many of their vast cocktail list. Getting its name from its roof-top position offering panoramic views of the city, the club is an ideal vantage point to take in Istanbul’s diversity. Looking out you’ll see Turkey’s stunning rocky landscape offset by a skyline comprising vast mosques, tall churches and towering skyscrapers; while looking in you’ll see a bar which, Raki cocktails aside, could very easily be located in the heart of Soho.
Six flights of stairs and a good few hours later and back on street level, I turn the post-drink kebab on its head, completing the meal I started beforehand with a selection of baklava from the array of late-night sweet shops along the avenue. The syrupy little pastries packed full of dried fruit and nuts and drenched in honey are, to my mind, perfect for soaking up a little too much Raki...
The next morning I set out to explore the city properly. Having seen the diversity on offer, I am now determined to see as much as possible. A breakfast of Süzme Mercimek (strained lentil soup) offers perfect sustenance.
To really soak up the history of Istanbul, the region of Eminönü along the Bosphorus is a must. The Sultan Ahhmed Mosque is one of the oldest and largest in Turkey and, although still practising, is now also one of the country’s most popular tourist attractions. The intricate blue-green tiles which line its walls lend it the name The Blue Mosque. Removing your shoes and walking into the four-hundred year old building, you can’t but feel the significance of this historically important building beneath your feet.
Fifteen minutes away is the Spice bazaar, another of Turkey’s great tourist attractions but also a site where locals shop on a daily basis. Walking through the bazaar’s narrow streets surrounded by stalls on both sides, the smell of spices, sweets and teas is intoxicating. As I browse the range on offer, I begin to resent the customs laws which will stop me bringing back the lot. One stall sells only paprika, so fresh it is still moist, in an array of heats. Another sells only Turkish coffee, hand ground to order. Others specialise in teas in flavours ranging from the traditional mint and apple to hibiscus, pomegranate and sage. Take my advice – don’t have just eaten when visiting. The many lokum (Turkish delight) sellers are eager for you to sample their range of flavours and it would be rude not to oblige.
If you manage to save a little room for lunch, I would recommend Hamdi just around the corner. Fast food such as Lahacun (spiced minced meat spread over a thin dough base, a little like pizza – eat them rolled up with a little salad and a squeeze of lemon juice), kaşarli (a stuffed bread filled with sheep cheese), Çiğ Köfte (raw spiced meatballs, often served in lettuce leaves), falafel and, of course, kebabs are order of the day.
Once refuelled, the grand bazaar is a short walk away - and its name is no lie. A labyrinth of streets containing over 1,200 shops, the bazaar is better described as a town than a market. Here you’ll find more delights to bring home. Tea glasses, coffee pots, lanterns, jewellery, leather, carpets...the list is endless. As with the Spice bazaar, remember that no price is set - this is your chance to barter. My guide on the trip recommended starting negotiations at half the stated price and settling for no more than two-thirds. Having taken this advice, I am now the proud owner of a tea set, a coffee pot and a whole lot of tea...
Travelling around Istanbul can be a slow process. The city has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world and its tram network is less than comprehensive. Avoid this and get to soak up the sights in a much more relaxing way by taking a boat trip along the Bosphorus. If you’re willing to spend some money, stop off at one of the posh waterside restaurants along the way. Here they serve simply cooked, freshly caught fish in a very Mediterranean style - cuttlefish in ink, chargrilled grouper, and lemon and parsley anchovies come highly recommended, as do some interesting fish koftas. Alternatively, go for the cheaper and more authentic option and head back into town for a taste of Istanbul street-food, which I’m sure you’ll find just as rewarding.
The descriptively named square buffets at Taksim Square are open 24/7 and along with street sellers dotted all around the city offer a wide variety of snacks. Try Simit (crisp bread rings topped with sesame seeds – not unlike a bagel), stuffed mussels filled with aromatic rice, chargrilled corn-on-the-cob, borek (savoury baklava-style pastries traditionally filled with either beef or cheese) and roasted chestnuts, which, though delicious, I must admit I found slightly strange in the approach to summer! Much more fitting is a refreshing glass of pomegranate juice, squeezed before your eyes for half the price of a small smoothie.
Head down to nearby Çukurcuma with the money you’ve saved to explore the fashionable antique district. Browse the range of vintage clothes, furniture, art, pottery and textiles and, if you still have some room in your suitcase (I didn’t), once again try some bartering...
How To Get There
Pegasus airlines operate daily flights to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçenin airport from London Stansted for £39.99 one way. Flights take approximately 3 ½ hours. Try www.flypgs.com/en.
Where To Stay
Sheraton Maslak hotel is just 10km from the city centre and has prices starting at around £110 per night for a double room. As it’s situated in the business district, good deals can sometimes be found for weekend nights.
What To Eat
There’s so much food you have to try: kebabs are obviously a must, as is proper Turkish flatbread. Süzme Mercimek (strained lentil soup) comes highly recommended for breakfast. As far as sweets go, baklava and lokum (Turkish delights) are essential. Also make sure you don’t leave without having tried some proper street food, be it rice stuffed mussels, corn-on-the-cob or freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
What To Drink
Raki and leer Effes are the must-try drinks as far as alcohol is concerned. Turkish tea (including apple and mint) are also essential, and no Turkish meal is complete without a proper Turkish coffee. Also give Ayran (butter milk) a try, and Şalgam (turnip water) if you’re up to it.
Coolest Spot In Town
360 Istanbul is without a doubt Istanbul’s trendiest club. Try their range of Raki cocktails and fusion bar food and enjoy live music and performances.
>> originally published in Fresh Escapes magazine