A shimmering skyline of towering walls, grand palaces, and intricate minarets – from the Bosphorus, Istanbul still retains much of its unique and famously beautiful landscape. Upon setting foot in the city, however, it is clear that the city is changing.
Between the tourist-packed Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar lies the inner heart of Istanbul: Eminönü. In this twisted knot of streets lie the last real markets of Istanbul, complete with everything from fishmongers to the last chest maker in the old city.Specialty stores galore still exist, with locals and tourists able to pick up any type of food or good they would ever want.
Eminönü begins at the mouth of the Golden Horn, where a veritable fleet of ferries is coming and going at all hours. Along the docks is also one of the remnants of old Istanbul – the fish stands. The uniquely decorated small barges rock up and down with waves, grill and griller working on the barge itself. Here, day in and day out, expert grillers whip out hundreds of delicious balık ekmek, fresh fish straight from the Bosphorus, with lettuce and onions on a half loaf of fresh bread. These half sandwiches are a cheap and delicious meal in Istanbul, which can be seasoned to your tastes with lemon juice and salt.
Starting in front of the Spice Bazaar, turn to the right and head up the line of storefronts that seem to be a continuation of the spice bazaar. After the first few, the real character of Eminönü will start to appear. And if your eyes deceive you, just follow the smell of fresh lüfer and turbot. You will begin to see the specialty food stores that are a culinary figment of Turkey. Instead of the traditional western grocery store, although those have begun to penetrate Turkey, stores are broken up into individual specialties.
Walking through Eminönü, you will quickly come to understand the combinations. First you have the dried fruit and nut vendors, usually stocking spices as well. Next you have those stores that carry a trifecta of great Turkish food: olives, honey, and milk products, including many cheeses and the unique water buffalo clotted cream known as kaymak. Then there are the fishmongers, butchers, coffee roasters, and Turkish candy stores. The markets also have every single item you would ever want to find, from tea sets and coffee grinders to party favors and fifty different types of bags, from burlap to ornate paper.
The real treat, however, is trying the food from the stores behind the Spice Bazaar. The vast majority of these shops are in a long line starting from the first street to your right after you walk up the right side of the Spice Bazaar. Stop by the dairy stores and try a slice of Turkey’s most known cheese, beyaz peynir, or white cheese. Next try an olive or two. Smell the mountains of spices from cinnamon to red pepper, heaped up in huge bins.
And don’t forget the small restaurants scattered through this narrow path and its side streets. Some of the best Turkish masters ply their foods from these streets. You can get rich, cheesy pide, delicious döner sandwiches, and juicy kokoreç, a surprisingly tasty sheep intestine sandwich that originated in Albania.
After eating these delights, don’t forget to cross the street and visit the candy stores for homemade lokum, or Turkish delight. These colorful, powdered sugar or coconut-covered gems are sweet, flavorful, and have an ideal texture—much better than the thousands of packaged boxes that litter old the main Istanbul tourist stops.
After touring the edible delights of Eminönü, you can head up into the old hans, or caravansaries. These double story, square-shaped buildings were where traveling merchants stayed in Ottoman times. They kept their goods and animals down below, while they stayed in the rooms upstairs. Today many of the local tea brewers, or çaycılar, operate out of holes in the walls of these often deserted hans. You can stop by to enjoy a glass of finely brewed Turkish tea while sitting in the courtyard of an old han. The Büyük Valide Han is the last remaining part of the area around the Grand Bazaar where you can still climb to the roof and see old Istanbul from a remarkable vantage point.
In the rapidly changing world of modern Istanbul, these treasures of Turkish culture that take you and your senses on a remarkable journey are in a perilous position. As developers begin to buy up areas around the Grand Bazaar and the tourism industry drives deeper into the heart of Eminönü, these places are in danger of being changed forever. Take advantage of these experiences while they still survive.
If you are going to Istanbul to experience the culture, take a journey through Eminönü, a journey of the senses. Smell the freshly ground Turkish coffee. Taste the unique zest of the olives and kokoreç. Hear the calls of the storekeepers. See the colorful mountains of spices. Feel the weight of centuries of Turkish culture and cuisine. For me, Eminönü was the greatest hidden gem in Istanbul – the place where culture, cuisine, and memory were all wrapped into one unforgettable experience.