Tea is everywhere in Istanbul. It’s usually black and you get it in a little glass. But it’s even more common than your average cuppa in the UK: shopkeepers are drinking it constantly, it’s involved in nearly every social interaction; hey, it’s even served every few hours on long distance buses into and out of Istanbul.
It’s so much a part of everyday life that it’s hard to recommend where to go for something a bit special or a bit different.
Actually, our first special encounter with tea in Istanbul came at the Spice Bazaar in the old centre of town, just by the Galata Bridge. We didn’t even have to taste any tea to get this treat; the feast was just for the eyes this time, but stall after stall had wonderful flavours and leaves piled high next to the spices.
This place is a must if you like your tea and are visiting Istanbul.
For our first special venue to review for tea, though, I have to thank fellow tea enthusiast, who writes under the twitter name @teaexplorer. Drew is an expat American living in London (if I remember his profile correctly) and he wrote a great blog post about tea in Istanbul earlier this year.
In his blog he recommended Erenler tea room near the Grand Bazaar.
Mind you, ‘near the Grand Bazaar’ can cover quite a large area, as we found as we began to look for this place. And Erenler Water Pipe and Tea Garden, to give it its full name (Nargile & Cay Bahcesi), does its best to stay hidden away out of sight.
No big branding or logo here.
It is actually right on the main road of which it has its address (Yeniçeriler Caddesi), but we found it quite by chance, spotting a casual piece of paper pinned to the stone wall with its name on it.
Once you know it’s there, you just know it’s there clearly.
Go through the archway, and you enter a different world.
It’s a place filled with (water) smoke, as people puff on their hookahs. The décor is all lanterns and dimly-lit corners. And tea is a dead cheap 2 Turkish lira a glass (about 40p).
It’s a very very chilled place. There were women there, mostly youngish and all the women we saw were with men. I don’t imagine this is a place you’d want to come to alone if you were a woman.
And I can imagine even 20 years ago, this would have been pretty well all men, puffing away the afternoon and discussing weighty matters of state.
We tried both the black tea and the (very sweet) apple tea. But waved away the smoking option. And there is no food, so once again, this is not your place for an English afternoon tea…
In complete contrast and, rather ironically, on the Asian side of Istanbul in Kadikoy, we found a tea house where 90% of the customers were women and the waiting staff were also both women.
The name of the place Osman Bey suggests a man is involved here somewhere, but this tea house felt about as relaxed as anywhere we saw in Istanbul, with couples, women sitting alone sipping or with friends.
AND they did cake! We didn’t manage to find anywhere serving baklava with tea (though we did see some later), but this place serves up a decent cheesecake. So if you’re wanting something more familiar to home and you’re women on your own, we’d highly recommend this place.
Our third recommendation for tea in Istanbul is probably a Turkish equivalent of a really good fry-up café in the UK.
Kahvesi Mustafa Amca Jean’s is also tucked away, this time behind the main shopping street in Galatasaray as you walk down from Taksim Square towards the harbour.
Again, if you’re looking for it, you’d have to keep your eyes peeled as the sign is just about at navel height (maybe eye level for some shorties I guess), and you have to go right to the back of a very long dark passageway to find it.
But what a great place. Mustafa himself sits outside reading the paper and keeping an eye on things, while the fantastic chef whose looks made us think he must have cooked for many a ship down the years, though he could also have been rehearsing for a part in the next Pirates film.
I forget his name but he fried up a pretty fantastic concoction, involving eggs, onions, pepper, tomatoes and I’m not sure what else. All washed down, of course with lashings of Turkish tea.
This was a great little find, though again I’m not sure how I’d feel as a single woman turning up here on my own.
So we picked three spots for tea in Istanbul, one with great history and something of an icon for the city; one with a relaxed feel where anyone could go for tea and cake; and one for a bit of breakfast or half an hour away from the shops to recharge your batteries.
As with our coffee experiences, you probably need months to seek out all the potential tea houses of Istanbul. But we hope these three give some others a brew to remember.