It is my last night here in vibrant and beautiful Istanbul, so far removed from anything I had ever imagined it to be. Having had many Turkish friends over the years, I have always felt lucky to have a better insight than most into true Turkish culture, which bears many similarities to my own culture both in tradition and language. But I find it difficult and somewhat embarassing that we Brits can only seem to muster up the image of a kebab shop when thinking of Turkish people, which to be perfectly honest is a complete and utter insult to an incredible country which is not only rich in history and culture but fast becoming one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.
Istanbul is the official '2010 European Capital of Culture' and it really doesn't take a genius to see why. This ancient and historic city, once known as both 'Byzantium' and 'Constantinople', is brimming with historical treasures; everything from architecture, religion and thousands of years of history to my own personal favourite type of treasure, food.
What struck me when I first arrived in Istanbul is that every street corner, back alley or main road has some kind of ready-to-eat offering for those who indulge. Want tea? Ditch your kettles because in Istanbul there seem to be men that literally carry tea trays from place to place selling proper glasses of Turkish tea ready for you to drink. No plastic cups or annoying fiddly lids with tea bags... Far from it, this is the real deal and it's known to natives as 'Çay' (pronounced 'Chai') and it wont cost you more than 50p (stuff Starbucks' 2 quid equivalent!) and Turks cannot get enough of the stuff. They drink it in glasses at bus stops, they tray serve it on tourist boats and stay in any shop for longer than 5 minutes and the chances are, you will be offered a glass of the good stuff. Hospitality is king in this part of the world! And we thought we Brits were the 'Cuppa Kings' of Europe? Not so, it seems.
But what if tea is not your cup-of-tea, so to speak? Well turn the next corner and someone is selling freshly barbecued corn-on-the-cob, which is dipped in salt water and served hungry patrons. How about roasted chestnuts? Evidently they are not just a winter treat over here and the smell of them fills the air and reminds me of Christmas in London's bustling Oxford Street when I was a kid. If that isn't enough, how about giant Mussels with fresh lemon, freshly cut watermelon, 'chewy' ice cream, syrup-soaked donuts, filled 'Borek' pastries, the famous Turkish 'Simit' bread which are similar to bagels but not as heavy as well as popcorn, some incredibly interesting hard candy lollipops that are made while you wait by dipping a lolly stick into hot coloured and flavoured syrups and spun around the stick to form a multi-flavoured fruit lollipop. Incredible and one of the most fun things I have ever seen being sold on a street corner.
Locals here seem to be eating constantly. You cannot escape the overwhelming sights and scents of food. Every corner is bursting with intoxicating smells which draw you in and make it impossible to avoid the temptation. Pictured above, you can see just some of the incredible sights of Istanbul and there will be more to come in the next installment on my new favourite city soon. I whole-heartedly recommend you visit this vivacious, welcoming and colourful city. The food is superb, the people are warm hearted and so lovely and the city has so much to see and enjoy. I mean, in how many cities can you take a boat ride and be in between two continents? The Bosphorus parts Asia and Europe, which are both still part of the city of Istanbul. Value wise for culture, cuisine and so much more besides, Istanbul is unbeatable and I really hope you will add it to your list of 'Must-see destinations' this year.