By turns the capital of the Roman Empire, the centre of Byzantium and Ottoman Constantinople, the mystical allure of Istanbul has been attracting visitors for centuries.
It's crowded, chaotic and creative, a sensory overload of sights, sounds and smells; a city of contrasts where old meets new and Europe meets Asia, not only geographically but culturally. And it’s all reflected in its eclectic cuisine, from street stalls to sleek restaurants.
My journey began with a sesame-covered, bagel-like simit in Sultanahmet, the city's historical heart and the showcase of its Ottoman and Byzantine roots. Some of the most iconic sites are here – the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkaki Palace – displaying the country’s finest decorative arts.
The city is a century-old hub for merchants. Its Grand Bazaar, built in 1461, is said to be the world’s oldest and largest covered market, a labyrinth of over 60 streets lined with around 4,000 shops selling everything from ceramics to carpets, slippers to spices.
A must-try was the city’s illustrious lokum – Turkish delight – from Haci Bekir. Established in 1777, the shop was named after its owner and is still run by the fifth generation of the same family. I tried some of their sugar-dusted, tangy lemon and creamy vanilla confections before choosing a box of sweet-scented rose-flavoured morsels.
To the north, the Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn, the body of water that separates old and new Istanbul. At the end of the bridge, hungry commuters can grab a fish sandwich straight off the grill, or sit on a rickety stool under a plastic awning and dine on deep-fried hamsi, Black Sea anchovies, served with a squeeze of lemon.
Street food is an integral part of Turkish culture and it can see you through the day. Oval-shaped pide and round lahmacun – wafer-thin pastry topped with ground meat and spices – is the Turkish take on pizza, ideally washed down with a glass of yogurt-based ayran. After a long night, Istanbullus have an array of options to choose from; doner kebabs or more elaborate Iskender – meat served over cubes of flatbread cooked in a tomato sauce and smothered in garlicky yoghurt – or kokoreç, a sandwich of spiced lamb intestines grilled over charcoal.
There are just as many types of restaurants in Istanbul as there are dishes. The Turkish meyhane, or tavern, offers meze (tapas-style hot and cold dishes), while the traditional lokanta is a no-frills affair that serves home cooking. Nowadays, the city sees a new generation of national chefs taking the dishes granny made and giving them a contemporary spin in high-class restaurants.
First-time visitors often overlook upscale Nişantaşi, which has a distinctly European flavour. It became a residential neighbourhood in 1853 when the Sultan moved his court from Topkapi Palace to nearby Dolmabahçe Palace. Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi is still considered to be among the city’s most desirable addresses, lined with designer boutiques housed in Art Nouveau buildings.
At Kantin, based in Nişantaşi, the chef-owner Semsa Denizsel has pioneered the farm-to-table concept and only uses seasonal, locally sourced ingredients in her ever-changing blackboard menu. Try the citir (meaning crispy in Turkish), whole-wheat flour flatbread with a range of toppings – salmon, goat’s cheese, pumpkin – straight from the wood-burning oven. But if you don’t have time to linger, the downstairs shop sells subtly spiced kofte (meatballs), salads, freshly baked bread and pastries to take away.
Beyoğlu is the centre of modern Istanbul, where new bars and restaurants pop up every week. Historically known as Pera, meaning ‘opposite shore’, in the early 20th-century it was nicknamed ‘Little Europe’ after the many European embassies housed in its extravagant buildings. Today it’s a fascinating mix of old and new, where a whirling dervish monastery and a 15th-century hammam sit alongside contemporary boutiques, and the city’s oldest taverns vie with its trendiest bars and clubs.
At Yeni Lokanta, chef Civan Er sources seasonal ingredients from all over the country: sour pomegranate from Antakya, olive oil from Marmaris and blue cheese from Konya. I tried his own-recipe, a delicious sucuk sausage made in south eastern Turkey and dried aubergine stuffed manti dumplings with Antiochian yoghurt sauce, rounded it off with Turkish coffee and mastic. Delicious!
The stylish Münferit is a thoroughly modern meyhane where I feasted on meze, like black couscous with calamari, fried aubergines with tahini and white cheese baked with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, washed down some thrice-distilled Beylerbeyi Raki, Turkey’s potent anise-flavoured spirit.
No wonder they say go for the history, stay for the food.
The author flew to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) and stayed at the Shangri-La Bosphorus (www.shangri-la.com/istanbul). Delicious Istanbul (www.deliciousistanbul.com) offers tours of the local food scene, including Kadiköy food market. For more information on Turkey, visit www.gototurkey.co.uk.