It starts on the plane. Actually, it starts several weeks before you get on the plane, when you page through (or click through) the travel guides and marvel at the colourfulness and exoticism of it all. The idea of Istanbul is almost more romantic than the city itself.
The meeting-point of Asia and Europe, the confluence of cultures, ancient civilisation — clichés about Istanbul are a dime a dozen. And yet, somehow, the city manages to exceed even your high expectations, making you fall in love with it.
Istanbul’s history is intertwined with its geography. The city lies on the historic Silk Route and is the only sea link between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The old European city of Istanbul is bounded on three sides by water — the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara, which made the city uniquely defensible, deterring attackers for centuries.
As Byzantium, Constantinople, and eventually, Istanbul, the city became the centre of three great civilisations, its fortunes ebbing and flowing with their empires. If you cross the river to Beyoglu you can see this writ large across the old city’s skyline, from the Topkapi Palace (built by the Ottomans) to the Hagia Sophia (built by the Christian Justinian as a church, and used subsequently by the Ottomans as a mosque) and the Blue Mosque (which stands on the site of the old Byzantine palace).
Topkapi Palace & Harem
Eating our way through Istanbul
Istanbul also has some amazing food. We signed up for a walking food tour run by Culinary Backstreets, which I highly recommend; it’s a bit expensive (it was definitely our most expensive “meal” of the trip) but it’s worth every $/€/.
Fun fact: the Turkish word for breakfast, Kahvalti, literally means before coffee; ie it’s what you line your stomach with before you can ingest coffee
We started out in Beyoglu with a typical Turkish breakfast, which begins with tea. Breakfast (and this is a traditional full breakfast, typically only served on weekends) included a salad, simit (a poppy seed bagel of sorts), and Menemen (eggs cooked in a tomato-based sauce). My absolute favourite breakfast dish, however, has to be kaymak, which is a clotted cream made with buffalo’s milk and served with honey. It’s airy, creamy, delicious, and as with all good things, quite scarce. Here are some places where you can find it on your next trip to Istanbul.
On the tour, which lasted about six hours, we also took in some Börek (which are made with filo pastry), Black Sea specialities, a properly made kebab dürüm (kebab roll), Baklava and Turkish coffee. Walking through the market you also get to eat goat head, including (for the not-so-faint-hearted) goats brain and eyeballs. (I passed.)
One of the most interesting things we had was Chicken pudding. Yep, you read that right — a sweet pudding made with boiled chicken. I imagine it was used to give pudding a more gelatinous consistency, and our guide said it’s a somewhat popular way to get kids to ingest protein. I’m not sure I’d have guessed it contained chicken if I wasn’t told, but once I was it was hard not to “sense” a certain mild chicken-y-ness in the pudding.
My favourite Istanbul spots, mapped
View Istanbul in a larger map.