There is not a street in Istanbul without a street vendor who is happy to show passers-by his or her culinary specialities, each one tastier than the next and sometimes surprising. A weekend, or even more, in Istanbul allows you to discover Turkish culture through its cuisine. Your taste buds will thank you, your hips perhaps a little less.
ISTANBUL, AN EXCITING AND GOURMET CITY
There are so many things to see in Istanbul and yet one of them is well worth a stay in the metropolis! Street food is a true Turkish way of life. Not a street corner without a stall selling specialities prepared at the minute. Not a metre without coming across a Stamboulian biting into a local speciality. The metropolis of Istanbul is vibrant in more ways than one. Its flaw is undoubtedly its traffic, which reigns over it day and night. And the horns are blaring. Istanbulites spend an endless amount of time in traffic jams. And if you accidentally stay in a poorly insulated hotel, earplugs or a good sleeping pill may save you the night. In this respect Istanbul is almost as good as Bangkok…
To avoid this inconvenience, the districts of Eminönü, Kumkapı and Sultanahmet are the best places to visit on foot the Blue Mosque (it is under restoration until June 2022), Hagia Sophia, Topkapi, the Hippodrome, the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar. In the latter two of Istanbul’s tourist hotspots, spices and sweet treats are sold in profusion. And an almost countless number of mosques and buildings worth a look or a visit are built in this area.
The streets of these districts are also lined with trendy restaurants and bars, undoubtedly bringing together the city’s historic past with the 21st century present.
In the Beyoğlu district, Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s most famous tourist street, also known as Pera High Street, is lined along its three-kilometre length with shops of all kinds and street vendors offering culinary specialities to be enjoyed on the go. As you cross it, you should stop off at the Turkish Film Museum, recently opened after two years of work in a building that also houses the Atlas Cinema. With one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Istanbul is above all international. Tourists from all over the world come here for a weekend or more to discover its rich and fascinating history. Istanbul was already the capital of Byzantium and the Ottoman Empire. It has retained the presence that makes some cities great capitals.
TURKISH MINI-SNACKS AND SANDWICHES NOT TO BE MISSED
Hot chestnuts! Mostly in autumn and winter, vendors roast them and eat them right away. Eating them would even be a pious act in Islam. When it’s cold, it’s a good way to warm your hands while enjoying yourself. In summer and early autumn, it is more likely to be boiled or roasted corn on the cob that you see on the stalls. In the summer, sunflower seeds are more common, and these are only small snacks. Hungry people can enjoy mussels stuffed with onion and spice rice and sprinkled with lemon (midye dolma), round breads covered with sesame seeds (simit, very often on hotel breakfast buffets), plain salted buns or filled with olives, cheese or potatoes (pogaca), and even the speciality that should not be overlooked: kokorec. These are simply fresh lamb and offal casings, grilled on spits over an open fire, sometimes in the oven, and sold in bread. Salt and spices are used to refine this recipe, which originated in Izmir in the 1960s but has since become a national pride. At a price that defies all competition, as it does not even cost one euro!
Istanbul is a city turned towards the sea and the Bosphorus. It is only natural that some of the specialities also come from the depths and are eaten by the water’s edge. Balik ekmek is mackerel in a loaf of bread seasoned with salt and lemon, garnished with white onions and sweet green chillies, but sometimes also with lettuce and tomatoes. More surprising is white rice mixed with chickpeas. To accompany it, some vendors add grilled chicken as an option. Of course, it is impossible to ignore the Turkish sandwich par excellence: the doner kebap! But to eat some really, really good ones, you’ll have to move away from the touristy areas a bit. The Beşiktaş district – consisting of a maze of narrow streets lined with shops and bars around its nerve centre, namely its fish market, is famous for this speciality.
DESSERTS AND STREET DRINKS TO ACCOMPANY
As for desserts, Turkey is known for its baklava (a kind of filo pastry mille feuilles – yufka in Turkish – filled with pistachios or walnuts) and its loukoums (the one with rose is a must). However, there are other desserts to try during your stay. Künefe is a cake made from angel hair. It is eaten cold in kebab restaurants. Tavuk göğsü is a kind of pudding made of rice flour, milk, butter, sugar and cinnamon. The traditional and ancient version includes chicken in the list of ingredients but nowadays it is prepared mostly without chicken. Güllaç is an Ottoman dessert made of filo pastry sheets interspersed with powdered ingredients such as walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, almonds, grated coconut. Muhallebi is a kind of flan made from milk and rice flour, with rose water, almonds or honey depending on the recipe. And Turkey’s must-have dessert is helva, made from tahini and presented in solid form.
All this is washed down with the vitamin-rich pomegranate juice (nar suyu) served everywhere in the streets. Ayran, a salty milk, is one of the most popular drinks in Turkey. Cay is a bitter black tea served to welcome you to a place or to keep you waiting. Kahve or coffee is drunk strong and without milk. Even if the Turkish vineyards have been shrinking for a number of years, the country is still an important wine producer as it is the fifth largest producer in the world. Many regions (Marmara, Aegean, Black Sea, Central Anatolia, Mediterranean, Eastern Anatolia, Southeastern Anatolia) produce wines based on well-known grape varieties such as chardonnay, semillon, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, gamay, pinot noir… But also indigenous grape varieties, in particular the Kalecik Karası, whose wines are the most famous in Turkey. To taste them, you will have to sit down… A well-deserved moment of relaxation after a day of walking the streets of La Magnifique.
PRACTICAL NOTEBOOK FOR SPENDING 72 HOURS IN ISTANBUL
GETTING THERE. Turkish Airlines operates several flights a day outside the epidemic. It takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes by direct flight to reach the Turkish capital. 0 825 80 09 02.
ACCOMODATION. In the Beyoğlu district, the Pera Palace Hotel is legendary. Evliya Çelebi, Meşrutiyet Caddesi, Tepebaşı Cd. No:52, 34430 Beyoğlu, İstanbul, Turkey +90 212 377 40 00. Agatha Christie stayed in room 411 to write her novel Crime on the Orient Express. Room 101, which was regularly occupied by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic, has become a small museum where his many personal objects are displayed. In the districts of Eminönü, Kumkapı and Sultanahmet, there is a plethora of hotels from €18 to €90 (or more). To get around more easily to the Beyoğlu district, choose one along the Yenikapı-Hacıosman metro line or the Beyazıt-Kapalıçarşı tram. Turkish taxi fares are no match for French taxis. Rides are quite expensive. You should expect to pay around €20 for 5 kilometres. Still in the Beyoğlu district, a stone’s throw from the Pera Palace, the Marmara Pera Hotel, apart from its fairly hearty but very poorly insulated breakfast, has only one interest: its view over Istanbul from its roof terrace. It is also very close to the Galata Tower and Taksim Square. Asmalı Mescit, Meşrutiyet Cd. 34430 Beyoğlu, İstanbul, Turkey +90 212 334 03 00.
EAT IN A RESTAURANT. Park Fora Restaurant, Ortaköy, Muallim Naci Cd. 54/A, 34347 Beşiktaş, İstanbul, Turkey. +90 212 265 50 63. Matbah Restaurant, Cankurtaran, Caferiye Sk. 6/1, 34400 Fatih, İstanbul, Turkey. +90 212 514 61 51. Seviç Restoran, Hüseyinağa, Çiçek Pasajı, İstiklal Cd. 80/8, 34435 Beyoğlu, İstanbul, Turkey. +90 212 244 28 67. Hamdi Restaurant Eminönü, Rüstem Paşa Mah Tahmis Caddesi, Kalçin Sk. No:11, 34116, Turkey +90 212 528 03 90. In Grand Bazaar, Cevahir Spice Turkish Delight. +90 212 522 42 42. Info@cevahirspice.com.
WHAT TO VISIT IN ISTANBUL Cinema Museum, İstiklal Caddesi No 131, Istanbul. 30 Turkish Lira. www.istanbulsinemamuzesi.com. Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (İstanbul Modern Sanat Müzesi), Asmalı Mescit, Meşrutiyet Cd. No:99, 34430 Beyoğlu, İstanbul. +90 212 334 73 00. The Galata Tower offers a magnificent 360° view of Istanbul. Bereketzade, Galata Kulesi, 34421 Beyoğlu, İstanbul. +90 212 245 41 41. www.istanbulmodern.org.
VISIT ISTANBUL WITH A GUIDE Ahmet Balci speaks French, English and Turkish. +90 533 353 96 55. About 100€/day.
Photo copyright: Maeva Destombes. Reproduction in whole or in part, in any form, is prohibited without prior permission of the author.