Istanbul, with 15 million residents, is the most populous city in Europe. Previously known as Byzantium and Constantinople, it was founded in 660 BC and has been governed by a number of empires—Roman, Ottoman, Byzantine, Turkish.
Despite its Ottoman history, Istanbul is no place to put your feet up. If you only have one day, the options are staggering. Start by wandering through the jagged cobblestone streets of the old city… or take a boat ride on the Bosporus, which cuts the city in two and divides Europe from Asia. The architecture, spanning two millennia, is diverse and extraordinary. Mosques, churches, aqueducts—some are in ruins, others stand tall, but all are stunning. Stop at a café in the Hippodrome for a potent Turkish coffee, Türk kahvesi. The Hippodrome is both relaxing and bustling, touristy and local. Built 1800 years ago by Septimius Severus (Roman Emperor, 193–211), this was Istanbul’s social center. Today you can sip coffee, have a snack, and see the Obelisk of Thutmose III.
It’s imperative to try the local breads and pastries—in Turkey, a meal isn’t a meal without açma, simit, katmer, börek, or pogaça. A bland pre-packaged supermarket loaf just won’t do. Because of this, home delivery is still common. I watched as baskets, tied to ropes, were lowered from apartment windows by head-scarved grandmothers. The delivery boy would take money from the basket, put fresh bread inside, cover it with a dish towel, and grandmother would pull it back up for the family meal.
The first time I stepped foot in an Istanbul bakery, simit immediately caught my eye. Big, round, twisted and covered in sesame seeds, it’s Turkey’s version of a pretzel or oversized bagel. Also called susam kebabi (sesame kebab), simit has been a staple of Istanbul cuisine for 500 years. You can get it at the bakery or from the ubiquitous street vendors. Simit is generally eaten for breakfast or a snack and is traditionally served with tea. Like most Turkish breads, it’s always served fresh and piping hot.
Pogaça is another wonderful, salty pastry—softer than a bagel, yet almost as light and fluffy as a croissant. The traditional cooking method is to bake pogaça in the fireplace ashes before finishing in the oven. Large, soft, and oval, pogaça is made from wheat flour, which can be supplemented with rye or barley. Any number of ingredients can be baked into the dough or sprinkled on top, including potato, dill, sesame, sunflower seeds, paprika, garlic, onion, or even cabbage.
My favorite is börek, a type of savory pastry made from yufka, a slightly thicker version of phyllo. The yufka is layered with spinach, pasta, peas, mint, leek, zucchini, parsley, or cheese and baked until the dough is flaky and light. Sweet versions are often topped with powdered sugar. Börek dates back to the Ottoman Empire and, today, is a cheap, popular street food.
Lost in the crooked sidestreets, I stumbled upon a cramped barbershop with a doorway too low to enter without bending in half. I needed a haircut and had always wanted to be shaved with a straight razor. Bravely, or stupidly, I walked inside.
In Turkey, haircuts are a serious business. Foreigners are not allowed to become barbers. A prospective tonsorial artist must apprentice himself for years to a master, much like a trainee sushi chef.
A standard male haircut takes two hours.
“You understand?” I asked. “Just a trim and a quick shave. I don’t want a perm or highlights.” The barber continued to sharpen his razor, nearly smiling.
The actual haircut didn’t take long. The shave, conducted with what appeared to be a machete, was also fairly quick. Afterward, I was given a neck and shoulder massage by one of the trainees. Finally, the barber returned with an industrial-size bottle of… rubbing alcohol? He dowsed his hands with the substance and, for the next 10 minutes, “massaged” my face.
Then came the plucking. Whatever tiny hairs the razorblade had missed were tweezed from my face one at a time. The massage had been less violent.
But the really scary stuff was yet to come. The barber approached my chair with a burning rag. With a mixture of English, Arabic, and Turkish, he explained that the rag was going to be shoved up my nose. Clearly, there was a translation problem.
Except there wasn’t.
“You’re serious?” I asked.
“No thanks. I’m good. Really.”
He took a step closer.
I waved my arms frantically.
He smiled and brought the burning rag to my nose.
Shave and a haircut, plus facial immolation at no extra charge. Super.
“You will be fine,” he said, with suddenly impeccable grammar.
The last thing I recall from that part of the experience is the smell of methylated spirits.
Our session ended with a shampoo, blow dry, mousse, and rugged scalp massage. Various unguents and powders were applied to my face, neck, and head. Afterward, I felt clean as a whistle and just as hair-free.
As long as you’re treating yourself to a shave, haircut, and rhino-tonsure, you might as well keep the party/torture going and try a Turkish bath.
After a few trips to Istanbul, I summoned the courage to visit a hammam, or public bath. The hotel concierge recommended a place several blocks away.
I went inside and approached the counter.
The woman didn’t speak a word of English. She asked me a series of rapid-fire questions and I shrugged—the only Turkish word I knew. She kept speaking. I explained that I didn’t understand. She kept talking. I kept explaining in my lack of Turkish.
A tall, thin man came over and led me to a locker room.
I sat down to untie my shoes, waiting for him to leave. He did not.
“Are you going to…?”
I took off my clothes and stashed them in a locker while the man, standing a few uncomfortable inches away, stared. I put on a pair of swim trunks. This was met with disapproving eyes.
“I bring you to attendant. He will wash you.”
It dawned on me that a Turkish bath wasn’t something you took. It was something that took you.
“I… want to bathe myself.”
“But you pay for attendant before.” He head-nodded toward the front desk.
“Yes, but I didn’t understand… I don’t want attendant.”
He came closer.
“But you pay for attendant. Here.” He gave me a pair of worn rubber flip-flops and a small pink towel. “We go now.”
I followed, stepping carefully on the wet, tiled floor.
The hammam itself was dark. Domed ceiling, arched doorways, marble columns, intricate mosaics decorating the floor and walls. There was a raised platform in the center of the room. Men and women—on separate sides of the room—lounged in various stages of undress. Some were completely naked, pink towels covering their groins.
I was led to a wooden bench, where I sat for 20 minutes. The room was a large steamy sauna. Dirt, oils, and toxins flowed from my pores.
The attendant came, dressed in a floor-length wrap skirt. He grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward the platform. I lay on the slick heated marble—called a göbektasi or belly-stone—and closed my eyes. The attendant poured warm water over my body and attacked me with a kese, a coarse loofah-like glove—similar to being massaged with sandpaper or a cheese-grater.
The next step was a good sudsing, followed by a hard, deep massage.
Afterward, the attendant brought me to a semi-private nook. He grabbed a plastic bucket, filled it with water from a burbling fountain, and soaked me with ice-cold water. This went on for a while—we’re talking 30 bucketsful. Next, I was plunged into an ice-cold pool where I stood, chest-high, for 10 minutes. Then it was back to the main room for steam, back to the pool, back to the steam…
At the two-hour point, I took a shower of soothing arctic water. I was wrapped in warm towels and guided back through the hammam to a cozy sitting room for a steaming cup of mint tea.
I felt like the survivor of a natural disaster, but I was also incredibly relaxed. The day was almost gone and I’d done almost nothing at all, though many things had been done to me. I felt sleepy, calm, confused, elated, and a little sore.
That’s Istanbul for you.