It was 5am on a Monday when I arrived in Istanbul aching to see the city as it had been on my bucket list for over a decade. Thankfully it wasn’t long before the other media on the trip were mustered up and we headed out to experience an authentic Turkish breakfast, prepared by our tour guide, Ozlem Batal.
A bona fide experience, it was.
She first got us to join her on a quick shopping run to grab freshly baked bread and fruit from a street vendor.
Then it was back to her home for a spread fit for royalty: pastirma (a form of cured meat), raw nuts, honey, kaymak (clotted cream spread), cheese board, olives, peppers, watermelon, cherries, olives, dates and menemen (Turkish scrambled eggs). We washed it down with Turkish tea, a wonderful strong brew that instantly relaxes and rejuvenates.
After pointing out that uneaten food on the table is an insult in their culture, Batal got us to throw out any attempt to calorie count on this trip. With our expectant host as much of a foodie as the rest of us, we felt at home in her delightful company.
With check-in a few hours away, we popped by the Turkish Airlines head office and Turkish Airlines Flight Academy. Both proved to be insightful excursions.
As the exhaustion of the nine hour, 10 minute flight started settling in, we were en route to Florya to check into our hotel, get some shut eye and then freshen up for an istar dinner at Hatay Hak Evrensel Restaurant.
This massive restaurant was teeming with large groups of people occupying tables on several floors. The impressively efficient waiters glided past the diners with the gracefulness of a ballerina.
Admittedly, I was ill-prepared for the amount of food that graced our table. Even worse, everything from the vegetable soup, fresh salads, soft pieces of bread, kofte (kebabs) to the mouth-watering slow-cooked meats was just too damn delicious to turn down.
Ditto for the kunefe, made with cheese, shredded kadayif noodles, and sweet syrup. For someone who doesn’t like to mix savoury and sweet for dessert, this combination called for a change of heart.
Grateful for the short walk back to the hotel, it was time to rest for another full day of activities.
This day was earmarked for a street food tour, which started in the Karaköy area, located on the European side in the new city.
We walked through some picturesque streets and alleyways. One section was covered with rainbow-coloured umbrellas. Eye-catching it certainly was along with the beautiful murals we stumbled across on our way to Levent Börek, where we tucked into the most delicious cheesy pastries with different fillings: beef, pastrami and spinach.
Seduced by those savoury treats, we stopped at a nearby bakery where Batal decided it was time to try something other than baklava. She chose this thin layer of flaky pastry filled with pistachios and a layer of cream. Of course, she ordered vanilla ice-cream with it.
There were no empty plates when we hastily left to catch a ferry to Kadiköy, where we enjoyed some Turkish coffee while Batal read our cups. This is a popular attraction here, I’m told. We then strolled through the market, which has everything from vegetables and fruit; meat, poultry and seafood; pickles; spices as well as nuts.
Before we knew it, it was time for a late lunch and we slowly ploughed through yummy dishes of meat, pita and bread, salads and dips, before beating the rush hour traffic back to our hotel.
Dinner was at Masmavi Balik, a restaurant renowned for their seafood. And they didn’t disappoint.
With the night still young, we headed to Taksim Square, a tourist haunt renowned for its vibrant nightlife. The streets are lined with of branded retail stores. Aside from the myriad dessert and sweet places, there are fabulous dining options here.
Vendors roasting nuts and selling water are everywhere.
A must try is the ice-cream. The key objective is to get your hands on the cone while the seller playfully tricks it away from you.
And if you are looking for a hookah spot, there are plenty to choose from.
Sightseeing was at the top of the agenda as we made our way to Sultanahmet, Old City. Here we visited the Blue Mosque. This is Istanbul’s most iconic landmark, built some 400 years ago by Sultan Ahmet. Visitors are welcome but are required to respect the dress code and remove their shoes.
The exterior is framed by five main domes, six minarets and eight secondary domes. It is a truly remarkable sight to behold at night. The interior is decorated in beautiful stained glass windows and colourful tiles.
A walk across the grounds and you are Hagia Sophia. This place has an incredible history. It’s also much older than the Blue Mosque. Built in the sixth century, it was a church that was converted into a mosque 900 years later. In 1935, it was turned into a museum.
Everything from the incredible paintings on the walls and ceiling to the architecture and chandeliers exudes Arabic opulence.
Given all the mosaics we stumbled across, it was only fitting that a workshop made its way onto the itinerary. With some time left before the Bosphorus River cruise and dinner from Bebek, there was a gap for some retail therapy at Grand Bazaar.
This place is a maze of 3000 small shops. And there’s plenty of clothes, silverware, spices, accessories, home décor items, carpets and more on to tempt you to part with those Turkish liras.
While making our way to the pier, we stopped for a kumpir. This is a massive baked potato loaded with an assortment of different fillings. It is packed with flavour and a perfect on-the-go snack.
The cruise along the glistening Bosphorus River was the perfect way to end the trip.
Although I didn’t get to try the Turkish bath, I did test the transport system and found it to be incredibly cheap and user-friendly. I will, of course, never get used to how they drive on some of those alarmingly narrow roads.
By the way, this is also the place to go to for a hair transplant.
I left Istanbul a tea addict with a newfound appreciation for turkish delight, which has never been my favourite sweet. This city and its people charmed me with its offerings and experiences.
For now, though, that’s one bucket list tick for me.
The Travel editor was hosted by Turkish Airlines.