We can do better than the old cliche of Istanbul as “East meets West.” Instead, Courtney Crockett seeks out the vibrant local experience–the real hamam culture, Türk kahvehane and the hidden corners of the Grand Bazaar.
If you follow the Istanbul of some tour guides, you’re sure to have the so-persistent photo op wearing a Sultan costume. But if you want to get to the heart of the vibrant city, break the surface of the local side. You won’t be disappointed.
Eat + Drink
Coffee is the best starting point. The good stuff will be found in a “Türk kahvehane,” or coffeehouse. Turkish coffee is unique because it’s made using a time-honored method, where the coffee and water is heated together, unfiltered in a special copper pot called a “cezve.” The process produces a kick about double that of your average espresso.
According to local advice, kahve is usually ordered with a little sugar already mixed in. It can be a bit bitter without it. To order this “just right” amount of sweetness,” you must ask for “az sekerli.”
An explosion of chain coffee shops has flooded Istanbul in recent years, from Starbucks to the Turkish version, Kahve Dünyasl. Lately, young people in particular– 50 percent of the city’s population–seem to be embracing the old style shops, aligning with rest of the vintage crazed western world.
First time or fifth time, you’re probably going to end up at the Grand Bazaar. In one of the most bustling “shop ops” on earth, with over 4500 retailers, not many people think to sit. The results are better than any evil eye bracelet you could ever buy. I loved Fes Café. Order the “Damla Sakizh.” It’s a piney flavored infusion, almost like gin without the alcohol… a traditional Turkish spin.
A few other coffee spots include Kahvecci Ethem Tezçakar (a tiny spot with a max seating of 4), Türk kahvehanes (ocean views and good food), Kronotrop Coffee Roastery + Brewery (good for pick up), Café di Dolce and Pierre Lotti.
I cannot exclude Turkey’s other pride and joy… tea. If you’re a tea aficionado and frequent loose leaf boutiques with flavors most people have never heard of, you’ll likely want to spend a whole afternoon and a lot of Liras at Agakapisi. You can order in a seat with a great view, from a menu with +40 tea flavors. If you’d rather skip the fancy hibiscus infusion, tuck into the secret gated courtyard of Tunnel Square. Any café will do, but I liked K.V., for its square open window to the kitchen below your feet.
You can only drink your way to satisfaction for so long; prepare for a food coma. Istanbul has some of the most delicious eats, combining local spices, age old recipes and the fresh flavors of the Mediterranean. Food for thought; try a neighborhood “meyhene,” a sort of Turkish tavern. Check out Yakup 2. Skip the traditional main course and ask your server for a combination of hot and cold “mezzes.” Mezzes are small plates, like tapas and are by far the best way to taste a wide range of plates, from white cheese borek to eggplant salad.
It’s common in Istanbul to trust the waiters recommendation instead of ordering off the menu, so you won’t get a funny look if you request this. Also, order a glass of “raki,” the national drink. It’s an anise-flavored spirit that turns cloudy when mixed with water. Watch out, it goes down pretty easy but creeps up like tequila…so I’ve heard.
Full as you may be, remember what is truly important at the end of the day…baklava. Although you really can’t go wrong with baklava in Istanbul, some are still better than others. Karakoy Güllüglu factory happens to be the largest baklava-producing site in the world. It’s quite a dangerous stop, and if you plan on visiting I highly recommend wearing elastic waist pants. I’m usually very partial to pistachio, but their walnut baklava made me seriously question my loyalty.
While you’re in the area, just down the street is Koska, boasting to die for chocolate-walnut baklava that I can’t even talk about. The employees suggested eating baklava upside down, so the flaky crust dissolves on your tongue and you can take in the real texture. While my unsophisticated taste buds were not phased by this recommendation, it made binging on thousands of buttery calories feel slightly scientific.