“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul” – Alphonsede Lamartine
Istanbul is truly one of the most magical places I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. Walking along (and sometimes hiking up) its cobblestone streets feels like you’re stepping into another world. While Istanbul is often thought of as a stopover rather than a final destination, there is so much to do, see and eat in this beautiful city that I believe it should be added to everyone’s bucket list.
The Bosphorus strait
Turkey is one of the world’s few transcontinental countries as it has land situated both in Western Asia and Southeastern Europe. From the busy tourist hub of the European side of Istanbul, it’s just a short ferry ride across the Bosphorus to the Anatolian (Asian) side. Turkey’s convenient positioning means that, back in the day, the Turks gained complete control over major trade routes. Combined with a gorgeous environment in which flora and fauna could flourish, Istanbul helped to refine Ottoman cuisine. The traditions of Ottoman cuisine continue in Greece, the Middle East, parts of Western Asia and Eastern Europe and, of course, Turkey.
Modern Turkish cuisine is similar to Greek and Middle Eastern cuisines but with a few distinctive flavours and dishes. Much like Hong Kong, people eat out more than they eat in and tons of restaurants, quirky cafés and street-food stalls line Istanbul’s streets. You’ll certainly never go hungry, but here are a few things you absolutely have to try in Turkey:
But first, coffee...
Traditional sand coffee at Nest Cafe
Turkish coffee is not for the faint of heart! Referring to the preparation rather than the beans used, Turkish coffee is finely ground and unfiltered coffee, resulting in a strong, rich flavour and a thick residue left at the bottom of the cup. The coffee is made by boiling with water in a special pot called a cezve. It’s usually served with a small Turkish delight to counteract its bitterness. Turkish coffee is often prepared using sugar, but servers will ask before making it to see if you want sugar or not. Even if you say no, they’ll give you some sugar cubes... just in case.
One of the many tea stalls at Arasta Bazaar
Tea is very special in Turkey. It’s something you’ll be offered wherever you go, usually completely free of charge (and if you order it off a menu, it’s usually no more than the equivalent of HK$4). Offering someone a cup of tea is way of extending a hand of friendship in Turkish culture – and it’s rather rude to turn it down. Enjoy a sweet cup of pomegranate or apple tea while you peruse the spice markets or the exquisite Turkish carpet shops and sip on black tea as a digestif after a meal. You can purchase a wide variety of floral, fruity and herbal teas at one of Istanbul’s many bazaars. While the Grand Bazaar is by far the largest and most well known, it’s also unbearably crowded. Try one of the smaller bazaars, such as Arasta Bazaar in the Sultanahmet district, instead.
Or maybe ayran or sahlep...
These two drinks are sadly not for the lactose intolerant! Ayran is one of those drinks you either love or hate, and let’s just say I didn’t love it (but it’s worth a try). It’s a salted yoghurt drink, kind of like a salted lassi, but I was not prepared for just how salty it is. Sahlep, on the other hand, is the drink of the gods. Made originally from a flour of orchid tubers, sahlep is now a more artificial powder (as orchids are a bit too precious these days). The powder is then mixed with milk, a bit of sugar and cinnamon – simple yet delectable. Some restaurants will only serve this glorious drink in winter, and it is the perfect comfort drink in cold weather.
The exterior of the tiny but popular Maya’s Corner Cafe
The best place to enjoy any one of these drinks and a wide range of other beverages is at one of Istanbul’s ultra-Instagrammable cafés. While you’ll find lovely cafés all around town, the districts of Balat and Kuzguncuk are a hipster’s dream, with adorable vintage cafés lining their streets.
Breakfast views of the Blue Mosque from Ada Hotel Istanbul
Unlike many of my friends and intermittent-fasting fellows, Turkish people and I agree that breakfast should be the most celebrated, as well as the most important, meal of the day. A traditional Turkish breakfast spread consists of eggs, fresh or pickled veggies, thick breads, pastries and yoghurt. Most hotels serve a buffet breakfast on their terrace with incredible views of the city. Other popular breakfast choices are fried eggs with sausage and menemen, a shakshuka-style dish made with scrambled egg, tomato and pepper that is served in the skillet in which it was cooked.
Simit and other breads
Various types of breads are served as a complimentary side to every meal. These can be anything from stone-baked lavas (puff bread) and fresh French bread to pitta. There is one bread, however, that reigns supreme, and that is the humble simit. Often referred to as a “Turkish bagel”, simits are indeed bagel shaped but are slightly flatter and crispier. They are covered in sesame seeds and can be eaten plain or with cream cheese or Nutella. Simit carts are found on nearly every street corner, and you’ll often hear “simit!” shouted out by friendly street sellers. It’s the perfect on-the-go snack.
Dips for days
Most meals begin with a small meze, and many restaurants will start you off with a complimentary dip with bread. Popular dips like hummus and baba ganoush are all over the world now, but other dips like muhammara (red pepper, walnut, pomegranate and chilli) and ezme (spicy tomato and red pepper) are uniquely Turkish. For what is probably the best hummus I’ve had in my life (as well as fresh seafood and 360° views), I headed to Seven Hills Seafood Restaurant.
Lahmacun and pide
Lahmacun at Hamdi Restaurant (left); meat pide at Cosy Pub Cafe & Restaurant (right)
While we’re on the carb train, let’s talk about Turkey’s answers to pizza. Lahmacun is super thin and crispy and topped traditionally with minced meat, veggies, herbs and spices – it’s a flavour explosion. Pide is a boat-shaped pizza that comes with an assortment of toppings including minced meat, egg and cheese. They’re both cooked in a stone or wood oven.
From Turkish pizza to Turkish ravioli! Manti is a type of dumpling filled with a lamb mixture and topped with yoghurt, garlic, melted butter and tomato and spiced with sumac, red pepper and dried mint. The overall strong and tangy flavour is not for everyone, but personally I could not get enough manti. For manti with unbeatable views, truly wonderful service and an all-round great vibe, visit My Terrace Cafe & Restaurant. You can also try manti right here in Hong Kong, with a slightly different (but still delicious) version at FRANCIS.
Kebabs, kofte and more
Çökertme kebab at Ozi Pizza and Pasta
Carnivores will rejoice looking at any Turkish restaurant’s menu (save for a few trendy vegan spots). However, Turkey is a predominately Muslim country, so you will not find pork on many menus.
Kofte are essentially meatballs. They are served grilled or fried in batter. The battered ones can be a little dry, but if done well, they’re a magical blend of nutty, sweet and sharp flavours.
The renowned kebab pops up constantly, and there is a vast range of types from which to choose. These include the chicken adana kebab (minced chicken and chilli), beyti kebab (lamb or beef wrapped in a doughy casing – kind of like a sausage roll) and, my personal favourite, the çökertme kebab (doner meat over shoestring potatoes with a yoghurt dressing). Of course you’ll find the classic doner kebab, but don’t expect the greasy late-night kebabs you’ll find in Lan Kwai Fong – these kebabs are usually lean, cooked to perfection and spiced delicately. They usually come with rice or bread (or both), yoghurt dressing and pickled veggies.
For a touch of theatrics and pyrotechnics, be sure to order a testi kebab (pottery kebab in English), a traditional Anatolian dish. A clay pot is served on a bed of flames and then broken open at your table to reveal a tasty casserole of meat and veg. These tend to be far pricier than other kebabs, but at Old Balat Cafe & Kitchen, you’ll get it at a quarter of the price alongside exceptionally friendly service.
The monster baked potato
Simply put, a kumpir is a baked potato, but honestly, it is so much more than that – it’s all your daily calories and nutrients in one not-so-humble potato. Sold predominately in the picturesque seaside town of Ortaköy, kumpir is a popular street food sold from booths with literal towers of ingredients. Toppings include pickled veggies, sausage, yoghurt, couscous and tomato sauce.
Get ready for... Turkish sweets
Turkish delights at one of Istanbul’s many sweet shops
Those with a sweet tooth (like me!) will have a tough time exerting self-control in Turkey. Sweets are everywhere you look, and complimentary sweets are common when shopping or ordering coffee. When I say sweet, I mean syrup-soaked, sugar-coma-inducing sweet. However, refined sugars are not the norm, and high-quality fruits and nuts are used for extra flavour. Here are some of the top sweets you simply have to try in Istanbul:
Let’s start with the obvious. Turkish delight is a polarising dessert – many Westerners show a strong distaste for the jelly-like sweets. Personally, I have always been a fan, but I was delighted to find out that Turkish delight is far more varied than we’re used to here. Some Turkish delights are creamier, with a marshmallow or nougat-like texture. Common flavours are rose, honey, Nutella, pistachio and peanut. While the regular powder-covered jellies are sold in small cubes, the creamier delights are sold by weight in long tubes that you cut up yourself.
Turkish ice cream is unlike any other, and if you like, you can get it with a side of magic. The use of gum mastic makes the ice cream sticky, stretchy and less prone to melting. In tourist areas, you’ll find vendors donning red and gold hats and vests who perform fun tricks with the ice cream. Slightly more expensive than other street eats, it’s worth it for the experience.
Baklava is one of the foods that many countries claim as their own, and each place has a slightly different take on it. In Turkey, you’ll find baklava of all shapes, sizes and flavours. The most common baklava is made with phyllo pastry and pistachio, but you can also get walnut baklava, chocolate baklava, huge triangle-shaped baklava, baklava with ice cream or clotted cream... the list goes on!
Chocolate kunefe at Hafiz Mustafa, a chain established in 1864
By far the most decadent and irresistible dessert, kunefe is made from a stretchy melting cheese called hatay that’s found only in this region and is similar to mozzarella. The cheese is coated in sugar-syrup-soaked shreds of phyllo pastry and then fried until crisp. It’s sometimes topped with ice cream or cream – heaven on a plate.
For a nightcap...
After an exhausting day spent sampling all these delicious eats, I highly recommend taking a trip back in time by visiting the Orient Bar at Pera Palace Hotel. Designed immaculately with high ceilings and Victorian details, this was once the place to be if you wanted to rub shoulders with literary greats such as Ernest Hemingway and Agatha Christie or film legends like Greta Garbo and Alfred Hitchcock. Pop by after 6pm for a cocktail or glass of raki (a strong, anise-flavoured spirit). For a five-star hotel, the rates are surprisingly reasonable, so perhaps you could even spend a night in Agatha Christie’s room, 411, where she purportedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express!
*Note: tipping of around 10% is customary in Turkey if the service charge is not already included by the restaurant. Food is generally very reasonably priced in Istanbul, and Turkish people are incredibly warm and kind-hearted, so I can assure you that your money will be well spent!
For more guides like this, sign up to receive our newsletter!