IstanbulWords Kevin Gould
Photography Matt Munro
Istanbul is East and West, Europe and Asia, incredibly hospitable and deeply mysterious. It pulses with history and power, its culture is ancient but alive, its people are charming and funny, and its food is abundant and absolutely amazing. Everyone seems to be sipping drinks and eating all day and late into the night, at pavement hole-in-the-wall köfte joints and in world class penthouse restaurants.
It is not just one city, but three. There’s the Old City, with its buzzy huddle of domed mosques, iconic churches, fabulous palaces and famous markets. Across the Golden Horn – an estuary that runs into the Bosphorus Straits – is the New City, which was new in the 14th century. Today the New City is full of hip clubs, restaurants and bars.
Old and New Istanbul are in Europe, but across the shimmering Bosphorus is Asia. Lower-rise and more laid-back than the European side, Asian Istanbul is just a glorious 10-minute ferry trip away.
Another way to think of Istanbul is as 20,000 villages crammed together to create one throbbing metropolis. Istanbul truly is a melting pot of immigrants, a stew of treasures and trading– the New York of the Near East. Each neighbourhood has its own character, shaped by immigrants who came here. Settlers brought with them the foods and drinks of their native places – in their Istanbul villages you eat the endlessly delicious meals of the regions that the Turks colonised.
Chef Musa Dagdeviren of Ciya specialises in village dishes from all over Turkey, made with wild herbs and rare grains sent daily from villages 1000 miles away. “Istanbul’s history is not only in the museums,” he says. “It is in the faces of the people, the foods they cook and eat.”
Istanbullus may have blue eyes, or can look like Mongol horsemen. They are dark-skinned, from the deserts, and are pale, tall mountain-dwellers. Their ancestry is advertised in their food: Caucasian chicken, Albanian fried liver, Greek mezze, Bulgarian sausage, Mongolian ravioli and Mesopotamian pomegranate salads are all Turkish foods.
London has its parks and Sydney the beaches, but Istanbul has the Bosphorus. Weaving through the three cities, this deep, fast salty waterway is their artery and their lungs. It’s also their larder. Bobbing fishing boats dot its turquoise top, and men with rods crowd its shores as fish run from their spawning grounds in the Black Sea towards the warmer waters of the Aegean.
Every Istanbullu knows which fish are in season each week, and the briny air tingles with the smell of fresh anchovies sizzling in frying pans, or of grilling mackerel getting splashes of olive oil and juicy lemon. “If it smells of the tide, I sell it,” a fishmonger at Galata fish market says. “If it smells of fish, it’s over.”
Before exploring, it helps to know a little bit about Istanbul’s past, which is all about power. It was the capital of Emperor Constantine’s Eastern Roman Empire, from which was born the Byzantine Empire. Later, the Ottoman Empire was as strong then as America is today. Each empire dominated the known world, and Istanbul commanded lands from Tenerife to the Holy Lands and from Armenia to Vienna.
The Old City is where most visitors head first. In its muddle of streets you’ll find the famous Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia church, both tremendous. But wander away from the main sights and you’ll discover jewel-like peaceful mosques like Kuçuk Ayasofia, the mediaeval Cemberlitas Turkish baths (still in steamy daily use), tranquil gardens, and village life that’s remained more or less unchanged for two millennia.
Break up a morning’s wander with a plate of grilled lamb rissoles (köfte) at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi. It comes with vinegary bean and carrot salad, pickles and a yoghurt drink that sets you up for the Covered Bazaar (in Turkish, Kapali Carsisi). Trading for more than 500 years, today the bazaar is a world of more than 3,000 shops lit by dusty sunlight and coloured neon; its own trading standards police; perspiring kebab grillers; tourist tat and rare treasures; chippy, funny salesmen; shoppers from all over the near East in their romantic village outfits; dodgy knock-off designer gear; leaf-shaded courtyards; scurrying porters and light-footed tea sellers. Mad, magical and mysterious.
Amble downhill and you come to the Spice Bazaar where dried fruit, nuts and spices are piled high. Follow your nose outside to Kurukahvecisi Mehmet Efendi – Istanbul’s most famous coffee roaster, with a permanent queue outside its window hatch. Then pick your way down a crowded street market selling white cheeses and fiery pickles into the warren of tiny alleys with stalls for everything for the kitchen, from poplarwood spoons to copper-clad ranges.
At sunset, the Old City rises like a fantastic cloud over the Golden Horn. The best place to witness this tableau of floodlit minarets and domed mosques is from Mikla restaurant’s penthouse terrace at the Marmara Pera Hotel in the New City, where the outfits are haute and the vibe is cucumber cool.
The New City was founded 700 years ago, and feels racier than its older sister. To get here you cross Galata Bridge with its cheap and cheerful fish restaurants. There’s a funicular railway to haul you up the hill to Beyoglu, which was built to house foreign embassies and soon became Istanbul’s red light district. Like London’s Soho, the area has reinvented itself as the home of cool, with media types and swish eateries, especially around the Asmali Mescit quarter, where restaurants like Antiochia fuse rural classics with urban chic. A crawl around the bars here is a great way to drink excellent Turkish wines, try raki (like Pernod, but punchier and more elegant) and make new friends.
When the bustle gets too much, get down to the water. Before you get on a ferry, head for Güllüoglu to load up on what is surely the world’s best baklava – sweet and crisp. “You eat my baklava with your ears first,” owner Nadir Gullu says, referring to the crunch as you bite through 40 layers of pastry, the thinness of which is checked by reading a newspaper through it.
A ferry up the Bosphorus drifts you to villages like Bebek, Ortaköy and Arnavutköy, where a cold beer, plate of meat and salad is yours for less than a tenner at any waterside café. They’ll even rent you a box of dominoes or backgammon.
At all the New City’s ferry ports you’ll find a boat to Asia. Here you feel that wild, empty plains are just down the road: Bagdat Street really does lead to Baghdad. Kadiköy is a brilliant place to eat your way around: there’s a bustling market street on Gunslibahce Sokak with honey shops and friendly deli owners and bakers.
Boats marked ‘Adalar’ take you to the Princes Islands, where locals and tourists alike come to draw breath, picnic or visit lively fish restaurants. Buyukada is the grandest island, Kinali island is one big hill with fishermen’s houses and holiday flats clinging to its cliffs, and Heybeliada’s monastery has a minute, atmospheric chapel, and huge sea views.
At night, from any of Istanbul’s vantage points, lights twinkle in millions of windows and the city is strung out like a net of diamonds. The queen of two continents, she is half world city, half tiny village and totally in a world of her own.
EAT & DRINK
Köfte By Sultanahmet tram stop there’s a line of köftecisi (köfte restaurants). Each one serves affordable plates of juicy grilled köfte and piyaz (a saxlad of onions, white beans and carrots).
Kara Mehmet Kebap Salonu Iç Cebeci Han No 92 (Old City); +90 212 527 0533. Tiny, friendly and hidden away deep inside the bazaar in a leafy courtyard – an oasis of peace, with great cooking. Go for the spicy adana kebab, and künefe (a warm, sugar-soaked shredded-pastry dessert, served dusted with crushed pistachios); expect to spend less than £8. Ask any stallholder for directions to Iç Cebeci Han.
Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi 12 Divanyolu Caddesi (Old City); +90 212 520 0566. This fourth-generation family-run köftecisi is the best by miles in this area. Tables upstairs give you a great view of the Blue Mosque. Expect to eat for about £5 a head.
Pandeli Misir Çarsisi No 1, Eminönü (Old City); +90 212 527 3909. Perhaps past its heyday, but this is still a jewel of a room above the Spice Bazaar. It’s decorated in gorgeous antique turquoise tiles. Tour parties use the place, so reserve ahead, and insist on a window seat overlooking the Golden Horn. Stick to the very extensive mezze, which is offered to you from big trays, as the grilled fish can be very pricey.
Künefecisi Hasircilar Caddesi No 52 (Old City). In the warren of tiny alleys just past Kurukahveci the coffee grinder, this is a hole-in-the-wall with a few low seats that makes great grilled meat wraps called antep durum evi that come with stupendous dipping sauce of pomegranate molasses, onion, chilli, tomato and mint. Just point at what you fancy from the grill or another table.
Güllüoglu Katli Otopark Alti, Karaköy (New City). The most famous name in baklava. Their newly extended shop is insanely busy and worth the visit. Gorge on buttery, nutty, syrupy, with (of course) a tea or fresh lemonade.
Grifin Tersane Caddesi, Kardesim Sokak 45 (New City); +90 212 243 4080. There’s no sign outside, but this is Istanbul’s hottest new smart fish restaurant. Great mezze, including the most perfectly baked sea bass. Ask for directions for Tarihi Karaköy Balikçisi, look for a doorman with an earring and take the lift to the 5th floor. Around TL100 per head including wine.
Mikla Mesrutiyet Caddesi 15 (New City); +90 212 293 5656. The glammest dinner in Istanbul is at Mikla, on the penthouse terrace of the Marmara Pera Hotel. Celebrity chef Mehmet Gürs serves world-class Turkish/Scandinavian fusion, centred on amazing ingredients, to the beautiful people. The view is mind-blowing. Reservations essential.
Ciya Güneslibahce Sokak 43, 44 and 48B (Asia). This is a cluster of three restaurants run by Musa Dagdeviren. Village recipes and old Ottoman dishes in uncomplicated surroundings.
The Blue Mosque Sultanahmet (Old City). Magnificent from the outside, imposing within.
Hagia Sophia Sultanahmet (Old City); +90 212 522 1750. Opposite the square from the Blue Mosque and in front of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia was first a church, then a mosque and is now a museum.
The Covered Bazaar (Old City) You can spend days in here and still not see everything. Monday-Saturday, 9am-6pm.
The Spice Bazaar On the shores of the Golden Horn, and full of atmosphere and amazing edibles. Next to the exit where the Malatya Pazari shop, follow the smell of freshly roasted ground coffee to...
Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi, outside the Spice Market, sells packets of pulverised coffee to take home. The small street market to the right (on Tahmis Sokak) is great fun, too. Nearby, check out Inanc Baharat (2nd stall on the right) for delicious spicy chilli/tomato pastes and a good bit of banter.
Cemberlitas Turkish Baths. This is the oldest and best place offering this wonderful ritual. Allow at least 2 hours for soaking, steaming, massage and a kip. Men and women go at different times. Just by the tram stop above the Covered Bazaar.
Haci Bekir has the best turkish delight and marzipan. In Kadikoy at Muvakkithane Caddesi No 14. Also at Istiklal Caddesi No 83 in Beyoglu (New City).
Hotel Sultanahmet Divanyolu Cad. No 20, Sultanahmet (Old City); +90 212 527 0239. A budget option, overlooking the Blue Mosque with clean rooms and lovely owners.
Sofa Hotel Tesvikiye Caddesi No 41–41A (New City); +90 212 368 1818. Treat yourself to upmarket luxury in this hip modern art-filled hotel in Istanbul’s Knightsbridge. It also has a celebrated nightclub.
Hotel Splendid (Buyukada, Princes Island). Nicely odd; built for British officers convalescing from the Crimean War.
gototurkey.co.uk The government body for tourism news, events and information.
THY Turkish Airlines Fly from the UK to Istanbul 45 times a week.
Ferries The main stops (called Iskele) are Sirkeci (Old City); Eminonü, Kabatas and Besiktas (New City); Usküdar, Kadikoy (Asia) and all the Princes Islands. Ferries to the islands (signed Adalar) go from Sirkeci, Kabatas and Kadikoy. IDO also run short, long and sunset Bosphorus cruises departing Eminonu.
buyukada.org offers information about the largest, most glam of the Princes Islands.
Taxis are always painted bright yellow, and by UK standards, are affordable. Unoccupied cabs beep you to say they’re free, or just flag them down.
Trams run from the ferry station at Kabatas (New City) into the heart of the Old City. Buy a token from the machine or kiosk for cash only.