The sensory city of Istanbul reveals itself to be as layered, addictive and devourable as its endless culinary delights.
On Galata Bridge, which stretches across Istanbul's Golden Horn, we let ourselves be carried along by a tidal wave of bodies as they move across the swell of the Bosphorus. Fishermen line the edge of the water, whipping back their lines to reveal glittering carcanets of sardines, which they fling into buckets of ice water. Boats glide by beneath us, ferrying tightly packed crowds from the Asian to the European side of the city and back again, while flocks of seagulls fill the sky along with the call to prayer, which bellows down in musical waves from the surrounding mosques.
We weave our way past hundreds of food stalls, trying hard to stay focused and not ruin yet another meal by filling up on the street snacks that hit you in the face whenever you step outside - sesame-studded simit, sizzling corn, cups of sliced watermelon, roasted chestnuts, sticky lokma, rice-stuffed mussels and fresh sardines hissing on hot plates, ready to be piled into crusty bread, topped with pickles and handed over to hungry passersby. All over the city, blood-red cherries and shiny greengages are piled onto carts, marking the beginning of summer.
On the other side of the bridge, the spice market crackles in the heat of the day. Vendors hand out samples of salty cheese, wrinkled black olives slick with oil, sugared nuts and garlands of dried chillies, vying for the attention of the crowd as we pour down the tangle of cobbled streets. Every tea house and lokanta spills over with people sipping tea on silver trays or knocking back raki. Bus horns honk, ferries wail, seagulls caw. Our trip here coincides with Eid al-Fitr, the festival marking the end of Ramadan, and the whole place feels almost overwhelmingly full of life. Yet to our surprise, one stall owner happily remarks: "You chose a good time to visit - the city is much calmer this week!"
There are few places on earth where as many cultural contrasts live in such unison as Istanbul. It is a city for the senses, immense in its colours, sounds, smells and tastes, a heady concoction of East and West, old world and new world, cutting-edge design and the faded, ramshackle relics of the past. We drift from crowd to crowd, neighbourhood to neighbourhood, snoozing in taxis as they come to a standstill in steamy traffic jams and piling into street-side cafés to join locals in the daily (and often hourly) rituals of tea, tooth-aching sweets and coffee brewed in copper pots on flaming hot sand.
In one afternoon you can go from breathing in the scent of leather, dust and honey at a 600-year-old bazaar to sipping craft cocktails in a tiled bar surrounded by tattooed twenty- somethings; from staring up at the Hagia Sophia's golden mosaics to a contemporary art space inside an old post office; from a slick, minimalist restaurant to a carpeted chair on a street corner, licking syrup from your fingers in a plume of hookah smoke.
"Istanbul is a young-spirited, dynamic city," Bora Hoşver, marketing director of the Galataport development tells us. "When change happens, the original soul of the city has to be respected, or all of that spirit would die." The project is set to finish in 2020, reopening a major stretch along the Karaköy coastline that has been closed for almost 200 years. Made up of reclaimed historical buildings, it will be a place to eat local cuisine, stay in revamped rooms and visit contemporary art spaces including the new Istanbul Modern, designed by Renzo Piano.
Galataport signifies another chapter in Istanbul's history, when new life is being poured into the oldest parts of the city. At Soho House stylish guests gather on a fairy light-strung rooftop overlooking the Beyoğlu district as smoke drifts over from a wood-fired oven. The frescoes, creamy marble and creaking doors of this 19th-century palazzo have been lovingly preserved, joined by luxurious bedrooms, a cocktail bar, spa and tree-lined courtyard. Over in the sleepy district of Bomonti, crowds pile into the Bomontiada complex, an old brewery turned entertainment centre. After being left abandoned for decades, it is now home to an outdoor cinema, contemporary galleries, the iconic Babylon music venue and restaurants such as Kilimanjaro, a seasonal small-plate eatery where the bread, yoghurt, charcuterie and preserves are made in-house and served alongside a carefully selected list of Turkish wines, which we slurp happily as the sun goes down and the breezy courtyard below us fills.
When it comes to exploring, the city works in the opposite way to most. It seems to grow and swell the more you walk it. The flavours, sights and sounds crank up with each hour of the day and the longer you're here, the more there is to see. Every morning we find somewhere for a feast of menemen (Turkish-style scrambled eggs), crusty bread, fresh tomatoes, tahini and Turkish coffee before setting off with loose plans of sightseeing, not returning until late in the evening with feet blistered by the steep streets and our misjudged footwear.
Whenever possible, we climb up to roof terraces to take in the city below. It is a rolling landscape of chipped, palatial buildings, sun-faded rooftops linked by flapping washing lines, with over 3,000 mosques making up the domed horizon across seven hills. Reminiscent of the famous Grand Bazaar in the Fatih district, the city's endless maze of streets overwhelms us, each one more heaped with treasures than the last. Yet as we watch neighbours gathering on chairs outside their front doors, meeting for coffee or crossing the street to greet each other by pressing their temples together, the picture seems to come together. In these small moments Istanbul can feel like a village made up of sprawling districts and sun-dappled side streets, as layered, addictive and devourable as a freshly baked tray of baklava.
The echoes of Istanbul's centuries-old history are felt most easily in Beyoğlu, a sprawling neighbourhood filled with distinctive districts where elegant Greek orthodox churches and leafy residential streets take up residence beside fish markets, street art, old-school lokantas and heaving boulevards, with the many- threaded web of Taksim Square at the heart. It is also home to some of the city's best boutique hotels, including the Istanbul outpost of the Soho House group.
Over at Tomtom Suites, bright, contemporary bedrooms occupy a former Franciscan nunnery, while at Adahan Istanbul, soothingly simple rooms and a panoramic rooftop are housed in a grand 19th-century apartment building. We head to Istanbul Modern for an exhibition tracing the Turkish photographer Ara Güler's "Footsteps in Istanbul". Nicknamed "The Eye of Istanbul", Güler takes photographs that show a mid-century world of street cafés, belching boats and busy markets - stills of a city that, in many ways, has remained unchanged.
We bypass the glittering bevy of high-end restaurants on our first night and instead head to Canım Ciğerim, where our plastic street-side table is filled with plates of fresh parsley, mint, sliced lemon, pickled onions and red-hot skewers of chicken and liver, ready to be heaped into thin flatbreads. We inhale every last speck so fast that the owner and his friends give us a nod of respect (and quite possibly disbelief) as we pay up.
Located within Beyoğlu, Karaköy is the neighbourhood we find ourselves returning to again and again, swallowed up in its patchwork of cobbled streets, where cats snooze in doorways and the city's obsession with round-the-clock café culture hits its peak. Its Byzantine-era port explodes with life, from fishermen and ferries to tiny seafood stalls lining the water.
We follow our noses several times to Güllüoğlu, where arguably the city's best baklava is made. Glistening pans of freshly baked, nut-filled filo pastry occupy every corner of this bakery. Ignoring the looming sugar crash, we order a few varieties and wash them down with ayran, the salted yogurt drink locals crave when temperatures start to rise.
Young creatives fill Unter, an industrial-style bar on one of Karaköy's busiest backstreets, while nearby café-cum-art space İlmisimya heaves late into the night. We also pay a visit to the fish market down by the port, where a fisherman hands me a slick, flapping anchovy and bellows with laughter as I try to contain it within the palm of my hand.
Along with a swell of coffee shops, outlets such as A Hidden Bee, a mindful store and design studio run by Aylin Erel, and Bey, a clothing and accessories shop run by a brother-and-sister team, show where Karaköy's reputation as a hipster haven comes from. Housed inside a grand former bank, SALT is a contemporary gallery and library with sweeping city views from its café.
Vintage shops, tattoo studios and concept stores (Vitruta is particularly lovely) can be found beside casual fine-dining restaurants such as Yeni Lokanta. Recently listed as one of the world's 50 best restaurants, it serves seasonal dishes flooded with Mediterranean flavours. We spend hours inhaling meat-stuffed dumplings, sumac beetroots and pumpkin panna cotta.
From Karaköy we hop on a boat over to Kadıköy-Moda one morning, passing over to the city's Asian side. "The European side is more built-up - there are more galleries, shops, hotels and big tourist sites. The Asian side is more residential. I think there's more heart here," Derin Arıbaş, the co-owner of Basta! Street Food Bar, tells us, as he fills our table with reimagined Turkish classics such as dürüm (wraps) with gourmet fillings including eight-hour slow-cooked rib and smoked chicken, with a cold turnip brine juice to cut through the fat.
Kadıköy-Moda has made a name for itself as a hipster hub in recent times, but the appeal here comes from its well-trodden tea houses, barber shops and bakeries. After lunch, Derin and co-owner Kaan Sakarya walk us through the local food market where they buy most of their produce. They point out their favourite butcher, a pickle shop stacked with golden jars, spice stalls and a bakery where giant flatbreads bubble on hot plates.
We dip into Story Coffee before enjoying our second breakfast of the day at Naan, a bakery that attracts a cool local clientele with its sourdough and bagels. Bina on Kadife Street (also known as Bar Street) is a four-storey hub with a bar, restaurant and music venue, while independent films are screened at the long-standing Rexx Cinema down the road.
"This is where we'd live," we agree, less than five minutes into walking the sleepy, rainbow-splashed streets of this traditional Jewish quarter in the waterside Fatih district. We start with lunch at Forno, a brick-lined neighbourhood eatery where we demolish wood-fired pide and ground meat lahmacun (thin Turkish pizza) with sliced tomatoes, lemon juice and a bowl of iced yoghurt. Tiled, airy corner café Cooklife Balat is a favourite for craft coffee close to the area's ceramic ateliers, vintage shops and concept stores. We wander down a few of the backstreets laced with Turkish flags and bougainvillea, passing by trucks full of watermelons, decades-old sweet shops, old-school barbershops and one particularly proud baker, who beckons us over to show us a loaf of bread the size of a suitcase.
The smoky, dimly lit bars are a good starting point when it comes to exploring this famously bohemian district. Its narrow streets are home to overflowing antique shops, traditional Turkish hammams and all-day outdoor cafés populated by local artists, writers and actors. Istanbul is, we happily discover, a very late- rising city and Cihangir doesn't crank into action until well past midday, making an early morning stroll through its streets and a visit to the Cihangir Mosque (which happens to have the best views of the Bospherous) a surprisingly peaceful experience. We loop back later to sample a few late-night cafés (tea is a 24-hour pastime here) before heading to Geyik Coffee Roastery & Cocktail Bar, where neighbours sip whiskey sours and spill out onto the pavement.
HOW TO GET THERE
Pegasus Airlines flies from London Stansted to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen up to four times a day from £180 return, with connecting flights to Turkey and beyond. Flights are also available from Manchester. To book, download the Pegasus App or visit flypgs.com