Article originally published in LUXURY Holidays & Corporate Travel magazine Issue 27, 2015.
Arriving into Istanbul by ship was quite glorious. The city’s buildings were bathed in a soft pink light as the sun began its ascent. The early morning sounds and smells wafted across the Bosphorus. We pinched ourselves – before our eyes was Istanbul – a name associated with so many things from food to architecture – we were excitedly poised and ready to be introduced to some of the city’s best kept secrets.
Istanbul is unique in that it straddles both Europe and Asia across the body of water called the Bosphorus. Located on the historic Silk Road and the only route by sea from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, the Old City is steeped in trading history from bygone eras.
A city pushed and pulled by its rulers, it has been known by many names. The most notable include Byzantium by the Greeks, then Constantinople by the Romans before becoming officially Istanbul by the Ottomans in the mid 14th century. The influences of the many empires that once ruled here are still significantly evident even in its modern state. That’s partly what makes Istanbul so alive and interesting.
Even before we arrived, we knew that we wanted to get a real sense of the food. Our research lead us to discover a company called Culinary Backstreets, offering intimate walking tours in different parts of the city. The name piqued our interest further and we booked ourselves on a “Culinary Secrets of the Old City” tour. The experience with Adam, our guide that day was superb. The first stop on our tour was down an alleyway outside a shop that serves steaming Turkish tea, on order, to neighbouring shopkeepers. Laid out for us was the most delicious Turkish breakfast. We dipped into pastane simit (a ring shaped savoury bread covered in sesame seeds– crispy on the outside but so soft on the inside), a variety of cheeses (including kaymak, which can only be described as ‘dreamy’ – a delicious milk cheese similar to clotted cream and scented with honey), plump olives, marinated Rosemary and a spicy tomato-based paste. A fantastic way to set the scene for what we were about to experience, but leaving us worried as to whether we had over indulged, it was that good.
We wandered through a Spice Market – a visual and aromatic feast – noticing the quality, quantity and uniqueness of many of the ingredients on offer. We passed a coffee roasting shop, where a line of young men worked in unison prepping and bagging the beans for sale; through an area where all the cooking utensils imaginable were on display for purchase, then stopping at a pide stall. The owner made the process of making this narrow style of pizza with fillings like lamb mince and freshly cracked egg, encased by a thick crust look so easy – the result was nothing short of flavoursome.
We carried on, taking in all the sights, smells and sounds as street vendors cooked their specialties and store owners sold their wares.
There were many more tastings – to name just a few – mercimek çorbasi (a hearty yet smooth, traditional red lentil soup), a selection of baklava (the melt-in-your-mouth kind that can only be found in Istanbul), boza from Vefa Bozacisi (a fermented millet drink that tastes a bit like apple pudding laced with cinnamon), a variety of kebap with the most unusual being kokoreç (made from goat or sheep innards, chopped tomatoes, green capsicums and lots of spices) and perde pilav (rice, currants, almonds and chicken cooked and enclosed within a pastry dough).
Search on the Internet for top ten things to do in Istanbul and there is no shortage. The old city is amass with historical relevance like Hagia Sophia (a former Church then a Mosque and now a museum), Sultan Ahmed Mosque (identified by its six minarets and also known as the Blue Mosque due to the predominance of blue tiles adorning its interior walls), Topkapi Palace (the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years and which also includes an extensive harem) and of course the Grand Bazaar. These are all a must to visit, however if you have time to spare then Istanbul has so much more just waiting to be found. Wander the streets in the Sultanamet district and you’ll discover trinket shops, less touristy yet still as beautiful mosques and smaller bazaars (always next to a mosque). If you have a sweet tooth then it will be hard to walk past the numerous delectable sweet shops seducing you inside.
Less known about and close to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia is the Basilica Cistern. Lying beneath the city, this ancient underground water-holding chamber is tranquil and quite beautiful with giant repurposed Medusa heads at the base of two columns in the northwest corner – some mystery still surrounds their origin.
Then for a real local experience, visit one of the hamams (Turkish baths). We ventured to Çemberlita Hamami. Built in 1584, they open at 6am until midnight every day. Designed by the royal architect Sian, the building is steeped in history and exudes an atmosphere of another time. There are separate male and female bathing areas and friendly non-English speaking attendants who usher you around. The process is a little daunting at first but once you relax and let the attendants do their thing, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what a unique and cleansing experience it is – no wonder the art of bathing like this has been practiced for hundreds of years.
Our days in Istanbul were none other than intensely enjoyable and our minds enriched forever. We certainly want to return again as we felt we only but touched the surface of what this bustling and animated city has to offer.