I recently spent four wonderful days in Istanbul. Here’s a few notes on five unexpected delights of this great city:

  1. Dried fruit. While this is probably not the first reason most people visit Turkey, you have to try the dried strawberries, pineapples, figs, peaches and several others that’s available in the Spice Bazaar. I don’t know why I’ve never had (or seen) dried strawberries before, but this should be a compulsory ingredient in any dessert. It comes with a warning though: dried fruit is not cheap. While we’re at fruit, also try the amazing watermelon (served in a bowl with a plastic fork)¬†sold in the Sultan Ahmet park between the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque for about 5 lira (roughly R25) every evening.
  2. Treat yourself. There’s the famous Turkish Baths (I went to the more touristy Cemberlitas Hamami) which is certainly something to experience (it will set you back about R330 for an hour of steaming, washing and, well, bathing). Each patron gets his/her own washer, and after about 20 minutes in the sauna, you are rubbed, then washed and then washed again in another room. I don’t think I’ve ever been so thoroughly clean. But while Turkish Baths are well known, Turkish barbers are perhaps even more entertaining. I had a cut and shave for about R150 – and it’s a great way to relax and listen to the comings and goings of the locals. If you want, some barbers also use something like a Bunsen burner on your, well, sideburns. (I decided not to for the very obvious reason that I don’t have sideburns.)
  3. Read. I hadn’t known much about Orhan Pamuk before visiting Turkey, but his books are excellent ways to understand the history and culture of its people. I would recommend his ‘My Name is Red’, a murder mystery about miniaturists (book illuminators) set in the Ottoman Empire at the end of the sixteenth century. If you’ve loved ‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco, ‘My Name is Red’ should be on your next reading list. I also started reading Pamuk’s latest – ‘The Museum of Innocence’ – set in 1970s Istanbul. Be warned though: it’s a tragic tale of love lost and won’t do much to brighten your mood.
  4. Mosques. For someone that’s never been in a mosque (like me), there is no better place than Istanbul to experience some of the most impressive Islamic architecture and traditions. While the Blue Mosque is open to non-Muslims (except during prayer hours and religious events) and should be a compulsory visit, what makes Istanbul unique is the plethora of mosques all across the city; taking a cruise on the Bosporus is perhaps the best way to see this city of spires. Istanbul is not only a city of vivid colours and tastes, but also of sounds, and the morning and evening prayers that envelop the city is a constant reminder that religion is an essential part of Turkish life. And for that reason, even though traffic can be terrifying and thousands of people populate the streets, there is an incredible sense of calm about Istanbul that I’ve not experienced anywhere else. One piece of advice, though: if you’re a late sleeper, make sure your hotel room is not situated next to a mosque spire…
  5. Turkish delight. Don’t wait. Don’t think that you’ll try it later. The more, the earlier, the better. Don’t try just one variety (the pistachio ones are my favourite). Don’t think they’re too expensive (they’re not). And don’t hold back; as with Istanbul, you won’t be disappointed.