For millennia, Istanbul has been the connection point for a vast web of places with distinct cultural identities, landscapes, and, of course, cuisines. These disparate influences form the great mosaic that is modern-day Istanbul cuisine, which is so much more than simply “Turkish food.”
Question the origin of any dish in a typical neighborhood restaurant and you’ll find yourself falling down a rabbit hole that may lead out to Albania or maybe over the peaks of the Caucasus to Chechnya. As they have for centuries, people come to this city with their own tastes from home; food in Istanbul these days often bears the fiery hallmark of the largely Kurdish southeast and the myriad of flavors of the Syrian kitchen, brought to the city by refugees who now call it home. Filter this through the older urban traditions of Ottoman Turkish, Armenian, and Greek cooking, and something very uniquely Istanbul—bewildering, fascinating, in perpetual motion—comes into focus.
This trip is best for people who are...
- Curious about Istanbul's culinary history and hidden corners.
- Ready to walk 4 to 6 miles a day, whether wandering food bazaars or strolling amid the historic mansions of the Princes' Islands.
- Eager to make the most of each day—when you’re meeting and eating with chefs and home cooks, delving deep into the city's history, and experiencing the flavors (and sights and sounds and smells) of Istanbul's most vibrant markets, you’ve got to cover a lot of ground.
On this seven-day culinary experience in collaboration with Culinary Backstreets, we’ll be studying the city of Istanbul through its kitchens. We’ll use the simple ritual of a tea break to access ancient crafts still alive throughout the city. We’ll meet and eat with chefs dedicated to documenting and preserving Anatolia’s rich and varied rural cuisines, endangered by the migrations that continue to this day. We’ll cross the Bosphorus, visiting food bazaars on both continents and eating in private homes along the way. We’ll also witness cooking demonstrations in working restaurants and have a hands-on lesson in a private home. We will finish our trip with a taste of the “new Turkish kitchen” at one of the city’s most talked about restaurants to see how Istanbul’s cuisine continues to evolve.
There will be much more than food, though. Along one of our walks, we’ll stop by a Greek Orthodox Church that is a pilgrimage site for Muslim women praying to get pregnant, and stop again to visit a former Byzantine church now functioning as a mosque. We’ll also take a trip to a worship center of the Shiite Alevi minority to join the community’s weekly lokma lunch. We’ll have a chance, behind closed doors, to probe contemporary Turkish taboos—both political and otherwise—with an accomplished journalist. We’ll climb up to rooftops for spectacular views and have tea breaks among the workshops of craftsmen carrying on medieval traditions. After a few days of the chaos of the city, we’ll escape to the nearby Princes’ Islands, a traditional retreat for Istanbul’s religious minorities. There, we will board horse-drawn carriages for a tour of one of the island’s remote corners and visit a historic Greek Orthodox Seminary, embroiled in a long-standing political controversy. We’ll also have a leisurely stroll down the tree-lined lanes of the car-free island, passing examples of its unique architectural treasures and historic mansions.
From morning to evening, it will be a week of constant collision and natural synthesis between the many cultural currents that make Istanbul so special—and so deserving of the title, “City of the World’s Desire.”
This trip is limited to a small group of 12 travelers.
- A panoply of flavors: Sample the many flavors of Istanbul in a staggering variety of places—at vibrant bazaars and outdoor markets, in a local home, at a family-run candy shop, at an Alevi Muslim house of worship, and at some of the city’s most exciting restaurants.
- Local perspectives: Sharing, tea, meals, and stories, we’ll get a range of perspectives on the city as we meet with chefs, home cooks, writers, religious and cultural figures, and many others along the way.
- Delving deeper: In addition to eating well, we’ll delve deep into Istanbul’s cultural traditions by visiting churches and mosques with fascinating living histories, meeting a pigeon trainer on a rooftop in the bustling Fatih neighborhood, exploring a beer-factory-turned-contemporary-photography-gallery, and much more.
YOUR ISTANBUL CULINARY GUIDES
Benoit “Selim” Hanquet
Originally from Belgium, Benoit (a.k.a. Selim) has been living in the heart of Istanbul for more than 20 years. He left a career in the textile business to focus on his passion for Istanbul, its history, street life, and cuisine. Benoit is a professional guide to Istanbul’s backstreets and spends most of his free time on long-distance hikes throughout Turkey.
Born in Hamburg and raised on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, Gonca studied translation and interpretation at Hacettepe University in Ankara. Afterwards, she continued her studies in Florence, Italy, before she became a professional guide in Turkey. She loves cooking, painting watercolors, and working in her garden.
Please email us at trips@or call us at (646) 961-4857 with any questions about the itinerary, logistics, and payment.
Welcome Dinner & Golden Horn Cruise
- We’ll begin this trip with a brief introduction to the city by boat, cruising the Golden Horn to our welcome dinner, where we will get to know each other in classic Istanbul style, around a table filled with meze and rakı. Here we will lay out the plan for the week and introduce the subjects we’ll be exploring.
Through the Backstreets of the Old City
- This day will be our first plunge into narrow alleys, bustling markets, and the hidden, living monuments of the Old City. We’ll be visiting food shops, restaurants, bakeries, and grill joints throughout the day, so bring your appetite and skip breakfast at the hotel.
- At a fourth-generation family-run candy shop, we’ll sample some of the city’s finest lokum, Turkish delight. We’ll have pide in the style of the Black Sea region, an unforgettable döner kebab, and Turkish coffee among many more edible delights.
- We will also witness the rituals at a Greek Orthodox shrine, where mostly Muslim women visit the priest and light candles in hopes of getting pregnant.
- After heading back to the hotel in the late afternoon, you’ll have the evening free to explore.
Markets, Mosques, & Acrobatic Pigeons
- We’ll start with breakfast in a most unusual setting: a decommissioned Greek High School now cared for by an Arab Christian family from Hatay, a Turkish region neighboring Syria known for its superb cuisine.
- We’ll get a quick crash course on the construction of Istanbul’s weekly outdoor neighborhood markets—which are, miraculously, set up and broken down each day like a traveling circus—before visiting one of the most elaborate and bustling ones, in the Fatih neighborhood. There we will have a quick lunch of stewed white beans, a staple of the Black Sea region, before visiting fragments of Byzantine-era frescoes hiding beneath flaking whitewash.
- Finally, we will climb up to a rooftop to meet a pigeon trainer and witness his birds dance in the sky with the Old City skyline as their stage.
- Return to the hotel for a rest before meeting up for meze and drinks with an accomplished international journalist who will lead a discussion on present-day Turkey, how it got here, and field questions on everything in between.
Escape to the Princes’ Islands
- We’ll escape the city’s traffic and chaos for a relaxing day in the Princes’ Islands, the traditional retreat of Istanbul’s religious minorities.
- On Heybeliada, long a center for the city's Greek community, we’ll board horse-drawn carriages and work our way up to the top of the island to visit the historic Orthodox Seminary, caught in a legal limbo that threatens the future of the Patriarchy itself. Since the 1970s, this centuries-old institution has been closed to religious education by order of the government, as classrooms and dormitories remain moth-balled and a small cadre of monks tend to the grounds, waiting for the day that it is permitted to again accept students. We’ll meet those priests to learn about the controversy and visit the Seminary’s church, where rare Byzantine-era icons are kept.
- On our way to lunch, we'll stroll through a pine forest, passing fine examples of the gingerbread house-style architecture for which the island is known.
- After ferrying back to the hotel, the rest of the evening is free.
Ara Güler & Home-Cooked Dinner
- After a morning of free time, we will meet after lunch and head over to the former Bomonti Beer factory, now a cultural center and home to a collection of photographs by the recently deceased Ara Güler. His record of 20th-century backstreets Istanbul is second to none.
- After a quick snack, we will make our way to Kurtuluş, one of Istanbul’s most diverse districts, where our host will show us the neighborhood’s speciality food shops. There, we'll gather up some ingredients before returning to her home for a cooking lesson and our evening meal.
Religious & Culinary Pilgrimages
- After breakfast, we will head to Üsküdar on the Asian side of the city to explore some of the different forms of Islam practiced side by side in the same neighborhood. We’ll visit an Alevi house of worship for a communal lunch to understand a bit about their more liberal community and traditions. While we are there, we’ll visit the tomb of a saint’s horse as well.
- Next, we’ll head to the mausoleum and pilgrimage site of a saint venerated in Sunni Islam on the way to an ultra-modern mega mosque, designed by Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, a leading female architect.
- We'll then head into the Kadıköy market for some free time to explore the shop-lined streets.
- Our early dinner is at the culinary pilgrimage site of Ciya, where the famed chef Musa Dağdeviren collects and preserves obscure Anatolian recipes, many nearly lost to migration from the countryside.
New Istanbul Cuisine & Bosphorus Cruise
- No trip to Istanbul is complete without a pleasure cruise on the Bosphorus, passing by the palaces and iconic wooden houses that line this historic waterway. We’ll get a dose of Ottoman history onboard as we cruise toward lunch at a no-frills waterfront fish restaurant, where we will enjoy the simple pleasures of life on the Bosphorus.
- For the daring, there will be a chance for a quick dip in the water separating the two continents, so bring your swimsuit if you like.
- We’ll have a few hours of free time before our farewell dinner at one of Istanbul’s most famed, contemporary restaurants, where we’ll get a taste of where this city’s cuisine is headed.
YOUR ATLAS OBSCURA EXPEDITION TO ISTANBUL INCLUDES
- Accommodations in a modern, well-equipped hotel throughout the trip. (Single supplement for a private room is available for $630. Otherwise we’ll work to place singles of the same gender together.)
- All meals and drinks (alcohol included) that are a part of the scheduled activities (all breakfasts, six lunches, and five dinners).
- Transportation during the trip, including in a private coach. Travel within the city will often be by foot.
- Two experienced culinary guides accompanying you through the trip.
- Admission to all proposed activities, sites, workshops, and events.
- A great group of fellow Atlas Obscura fans, excited to explore all that Istanbul has to offer!
NOTE ON FLIGHTS
For flights in and out of Istanbul, Turkey, we suggest you arrive by 3 p.m. on June 10 and depart anytime in the morning on June 17. We’ll provide the option of booking extra nights at our Istanbul hotel before and/or after the tour, and are more than happy to provide suggestions for things to do, see, and eat in the city on your own.
NOTE ON ITINERARY
Itineraries are subject to change—as is the weather! If any activity or attraction that is advertised is missed or not available, then we will always replace it with another activity or location of significant interest and value.
NOTE ON PHYSICAL ACTIVITY
Travelers should be reasonably fit and feel comfortable walking 4 to 6 miles each day and remaining on their feet for long periods of time. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves and get hands-on during a couple cooking workshops.
NOTE ON DIETARY RESTRICTIONS
We encourage an adventurous palate! However, if you’d like to avoid meat, the Turkish diet is vegetarian-friendly, so we can almost always supplement a non-meat dish. Avoiding gluten, on the other hand, will be challenging. If you’d like to join but are gluten-intolerant, you'll need to bring and/or buy a steady stash of snacks to supplement your meals.
The total cost of the trip is $3,530. You will be charged a non-refundable $500 deposit to hold your space. The final payment of $3,030 will be due by March 11, 2019. All reservations will be final after this date and subject to our cancellation policy. By submitting your deposit, you agree to the Terms & Conditions. For travelers wishing to have single accommodations during the trip, an additional $630 will be included in the final payment.
TRAVELERS ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
- Transportation and flights to and from Istanbul, Turkey.
- Travel insurance (recommended).
- Food and drink outside of Atlas Obscura offerings, including two dinners and any snacks during the day, as well as any personal expenses.
- If applicable, applying for a Turkish visa; tourist visas are required for travelers of all nationalities with the exception of this list of European countries. E-visas can be easily purchased online.