Istanbul, Capital of Turkish Delights

Regions and cultures collide in this city, one of the world’s oldest centers of civilization.


Photo by Anna Mindess


Istanbul lays out a banquet for the senses. Majestic mosques, their slender minarets piercing the sky, accent the city’s sprawling skyline. At neighborhood marketplaces, crimson cones of spices are on display while the earthy aroma of roasting coffee and the haunting, melodic wail of the call to prayer flow sinuously through the narrow streets.

After gazing open-mouthed at the intricately decorated domed ceilings of the Blue Mosque and bargaining with carpet sellers in the maze of alleys at the Grand Bazaar, a Bay Area traveler’s thoughts inevitably turn toward food.

As one of the world’s oldest centers of civilization, Istanbul is the site of a succession of religions and cultures, all of which have left their imprints on the city’s architecture and culinary riches. Greek, Persian, and Arabic delicacies are all represented, plus regional specialties from every corner of Turkey.

Your endless feast starts with breakfast—a ritual of edible reverence, with bread, cheeses, pickles, olives, pastirma (thinly sliced, sun-dried spiced beef), and the world’s best dried figs and hazelnuts. For a decadent finale, add kaymak: clotted cream drizzled with honey, washed down with a thimbleful of strong coffee.

Continue your edible adventures with creamy lentil soup, meat kebabs, and a mesmerizing assortment of meze (side dishes) such as stuffed eggplant or peppers; fig leaves filled with rice, meat, and cinnamon; beet salad; or wild oregano with pomegranate seeds.

Straddling Europe and Asia, this ancient city is bisected by the Bosporus Strait, whose waterways are alive with fishing boats and ferries, providing entrancing views, relaxing boat rides, and plenty of dockside dining. If you’re staying on the bustling European side, take a ferry to Kadiköy on the calmer Asian side. During the half-hour ride, emulate the locals: Purchase a ring of chewy, seeded simit bread and share half with the thronging seagulls. Then join the passengers who partake of tea served in tiny tulip-shaped cups.

Kadiköy’s street market is a short walk from the pier and boasts fruits and vegetables arranged into edible mosaics. Also here are friendly fish peddlers and captivating confectioneries.

In Istanbul, freshly caught fish are available in every season and traditionally served sans sauce, with heads and tails intact. Crowded, competing fish restaurants line the streets of several neighborhoods, including Eminönü by the Galata Bridge. These can be pricey, but offer a waters’-edge view.

For a more reasonable meal, do as the locals do and enjoy a fish sandwich by the Eminönü docks for the equivalent of only a few dollars. You can watch your mackerel being grilled on the bobbing, gaudily decorated boats, then presented without pretense on a soft roll with lettuce and onion. Season it yourself with the bottle of lemon juice that sits on every table. For the full experience, purchase a plastic cup of pickled vegetables, and drink the pink pickle juice.

Take a self-guided tour of the Topkapi Palace Museum, former home to a succession of opulence-loving Sultans. Imagine their escapades in the harem quarters, then wander through the imperial kitchens to see where meals for the pampered monarchs and thousands of palace residents were prepared by hundreds of staff (including the Sultan’s personal fish chef and halvah makers) and served on elegant Chinese porcelain dishes.

For an intimate introduction to gustatory delights hidden in Istanbul’s historic side streets, take a food tour with Culinary Backstreets.

Look for weekly neighborhood street markets and wander amid sellers hawking the freshest tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, pastries, and other local foodstuffs, as well as assorted dry goods, from nightgowns to knock-off Nikes. You’ll find Turkish-made gift items such as gaily colored cotton scarves and the softest towels, handcrafted hamsas, and piercingly blue evil-eye charms at much more reasonable prices than at the souvenir shops surrounding the city’s landmarks.

Ascend to the top of the Galata Tower for incomparable views, especially at dusk. This iconic, cylindrical stone tower with its conical cap, built in 1348, formerly functioned as a prison, but now features a rooftop restaurant.

Descend into the Basilica Cistern for an eerie underground escape. This sixth-century water-filtration site features hundreds of marble columns, some with Medusa-headed bases. It’s especially cooling during Istanbul’s hot, humid summers.

To beat the heat, guzzle lemonade or ayran, a refreshing salted yogurt drink. Or purchase an ice cream cone; but be forewarned that certain ice cream vendors are adept at making your cone perform a disarming disappearing act before letting you take a lick.

On chilly winter days, sip sahlep, a creamy libation of grated orchid root, hot milk and spices that is as warm as Turkish hospitality.

In any season, savor pistachio-studded baklava and rosewater-flavored Turkish delight. Better yet, take home extra treats to prolong your sweet memories of magical Istanbul.



Culinary Backstreets:

Weekly Farmers Markets:

Topkapi Palace Museum:

Galata Tower:

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