With its multifaceted history and melting pot of cultures, Istanbul is a delight for history buffs and foodies alike
Like a lot of Irish people, I think, I had Turkey squarely in the ‘sun holiday’ section when it came to getaways.
I’ve been to places like Antalya before and loved it — an excellent package holiday location. Sun, pool, lounger... all boxes ticked.
This email, however, was enquiring if I would be interested in a city break to Istanbul.
I have to admit, geography was never my strong suit in school. When I heard mention of Istanbul, my first notion was of spy thrillers, or maybe a hint of Indiana Jones meeting an old contact in a fez before hitting the road on an adventure.
For me, city breaks are maybe Paris for a bit of touristy wandering and the food, Rome for the littering of history, and, well, the food. At the height of the Celtic Tiger’s roar, I even hit New York and Chicago. But Istanbul?
Turns out the illustrious Michelin guide, the ultimate list of restaurants I can’t afford, has expanded out of Europe and, for the first time, is awarding stars to the finest eateries in Istanbul. So, I blew the dust off my all-but-forgotten passport, rooted out the stretchy pants and headed for the ancient city on the banks of the Black Sea.
The city was everything I didn’t know I already expected. Like Rome, it’s a modern, humming city of glass and steel, punctuated with living reminders of the Roman, Ottoman, and Byzantine empires.
A boat trip on the first day was a great way of beginning to understand the unusual and defining geography of the city. The Bosporus strait splits the city in two, almost a physical and cultural border — a meeting of the waters between the European and Asian empires.
Lining the banks are summer palaces owned by sultans and millionaires. It reminded me of Lake Garda in Italy, with stunning ancient mansions with their own gated jetties, complete with polished wooden speedboats to spin across the water.
Disembarking on the European side of the Bosporus, you are immediately reminded that you are in the heart of a city with truly ancient roots. Known in the past as Byzantium, Nova Roma, and Constantinople, the ancient city changed hands as new empires clashed and spread from the west and east, claiming the vital Golden Horn for its unique position for trade and defence, linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
Moving through the narrow, cobbled streets you open onto Sultanahmet square. This is Disneyland for history buffs and the site of the ancient hippodrome — Roman chariots and horseraces thundered through the square in the past, where now the ancient columns dedicated to Constantine are erected, along with a Roman obelisk dedicated to the pharaohs.
Moving through the square, the massive, minareted Blue Mosque comes into view followed by the red-walled Hagia Sophia. The two towering temples almost face-off against each other across the square like a metaphor for the cultural and spiritual divisions within the city; melting pot of Christianity and Islam, Europe and Asia, coexisting and collaborating in this UNESCO heritage site.
The enormous Hagia Sophia dates back to the year 360 and the internal, gilded dome is mesmerising and an absolute must-see — despite the queues to enter.
On the other side of the square is the famous Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque. Built in the 17th century, it is an architectural masterpiece. Six minarets, eight domes and 200 windows make up the jewel of the Istanbul skyline.
According to our guide, the mosque caused trouble for commissioning Sultan Ahmed when it raised six minarets — equalling those of the then-unique mosque of the Ka’aba in Mecca. The ‘presumption’ was put down to a miscommunication with the architect and Ahmed quickly commissioned a seventh minaret to be built in Mecca.
The columned and beautifully lit walkway of the Binbirdirek Cistern was one of my highlights, cut short only by a rising hunger, reminding me that the reason for my visit to this stunning metropolis was to sample the best food the city had to offer.
With a rumbling stomach and high expectations, we made our way to Araka, one of the 53 restaurants that received a listing at the first Michelin ceremony in Turkey. The modest street front made way for a carefully curated ‘shabby chic’ interior, all exposed brick and faded floorboards but with crisp white tablecloths and spotless place settings.
The chef is Zeynep Pinar Tasdemir: a unique figure at the previous night’s awards. While most celebrating chefs were tuxedoed men of a certain age (stalwarts of the culinary scene finally achieving the up-to-now impossible dream of achieving Michelin recognition), Zeynep hit the stage in her stilettoed stride to collect her coveted Michelin jacket in a sequined crop top — clearly a woman proud to represent a new and progressive Turkey. Her food shows the same personality, pride and progress.
Traditional elements like warm olives were served with spiced pickled Muhammara pumpkin. Slow-cooked lamb was tender with a depth of flavour that, had I not been in the presence of the flock of international foodies, would have made me happily pick up the plate and lick it clean.
Dessert again jumped back to Turkish tradition with sticky and delicate baklava but mixed with halloumi and geranium ice cream — again, the foreign mix of tastes and textures confused the senses, but it was an absolutely stunning experience.
The other jewel of the trip for me was Alaf Bistronomy. Unashamedly ‘cool’, this is another modern offering inspired by a melting pot of Kurdish, Armenian and Yezidi fare
Again, lamb was on offer, this time dressed in a pistachio jacket alongside modern twists on pumpkin with tahini sauce; stewed figs with vine leaves; hummus and flatbreads; and line-caught wild seabass with saffron and tarragon sauces.
The dishes are spiced and deep, the textures completely new to me but it was a mind-opening feast of flavours.
Aside from these fine-dining offerings, Istanbul itself is teeming with a culture of spice and flavour, from street vendors with pretzel breads and black tea, to the delicate and sticky wonderland that is hand-made baklava from Nadir Gulluoglu. The air of the city is a mix of sweet saffron, sticky syrup and stunning spiced meats that will leave any visitor hungry for more.
ISTANBUL, TURKEY See goturkiye.com ■ Turkish Airlines fly direct from Dublin to Istanbul twice a day. ■ In Istanbul, Owen stayed at the very central Conrad Istanbul Bosphorus, which has a spa and pool. ■ Apart from fine dining, another gem worth visiting is The House Cafe — a great breakfast spot.