I grew up in a terrace house in Portsmouth. At one end of the street was Fratton Park, where the local football team played, and at the other was the Istanbul Grill House. Only one of these venues was in the habit of providing value for money.
Between the ages of seven and 11, I’d go to the Istanbul Grill House every Saturday with my pocket money. Each time I entered, the guy who worked there would salute me theatrically and say, “Merhaba, my friend – hello, hello.” I’d give him a wink, swap some football stickers with his son then place my order. It would always be a cheeseburger. Having just got back from Istanbul – and loving that city’s range of tasty staples – I now look back on my childish routine with no small amount of regret.
If I could relive those youthful visits, I’d do things differently. I’d start with a skewer of slow-cooked, marinated lamb with humus and tabbouleh and a splodge of chilli sauce. Then I’d have a bowl of mercimek çorbası (lentil soup), a helping of kokoreç (a bit like haggis), a sizable pide (boat-shaped flatbread ballasted with cheese and spicy sausage), a serving of menemen (like shakshuka but with scrambled eggs and spicier), and a dollop of sutlaç (baked rice pudding).
If he had his way, my younger self would conclude his visit with a shot of raki and a conversation with Haktan Tursun (whom I met in Istanbul but who would be transported through time for the occasion), to be regaled with stories of the Ottoman back-scrubber who whispered revolution while greasing up his clients; the catastrophic riots that kicked off after a chariot race at the Roman hippodrome; and the medieval executioner who, to protect his customers from infection, would fastidiously wash his blade between beheadings.
Haktan is 35, the son of farmers, a tour guide and a passionate Istanbulite. I’d arranged to meet him in front of the Blue Mosque, Istanbul’s most Instagrammed establishment, beloved for its blue tiles and its six minarets. I’d just arrived from Bucharest on the night train (which is another story) and was feeling like no amount of turkish delight could keep me awake. But then Haktan started talking – about Byzantium and Ben-Hur and the maiden who got locked in a tower for her own good only to be eaten by snakes – and all dreams of sleep were suddenly banished.
Istanbul’s history is legion, its stories are operatic and its buildings are totemic. Its waterways are beguiling and its cobbled streets teem with students and tourists and trolleys and taxis and dashing salesmen stepping into the road and saying, “Merhaba, my friend – where are you from?” before doing their utmost to flog you a carpet. It is a city that invites – and deserves – superlative descriptions. It is a city par excellence.
And it is a city fuelled by tea. Black tea. Small tulip-shaped glasses of it. Fifteen a day on average. At the Grand Bazaar – that ancient covered market packed with spicy hawkers and sugary vendors – tea is summoned by means of secret buttons in the walls. “The country used to be potty about coffee,” said Haktan. “But when Yemen broke free from the Ottoman empire and the coffee supply dried up, Turkey started growing tea and a new obsession was born. You lose something, you gain something. It was ever thus.”
And as if to prove his point, Haktan then disappeared and was replaced by his teenage cousin and assistant. Yigit was no less a buff than his boss. As we prepared to enter the unnervingly majestic Hagia Sophia (first a church, then a mosque, then a museum, now a mosque again), Yigit lectured me on the fall of Constantinople and the chances of Galatasaray in this season’s Champions League, before matter-of-factly requesting that I take off my shoes and pull down my shorts. I gave him a look, as you would. “Just a little bit,” said Yigit. “So they cover the knee. It’s a condition of entry.”
I’m glad I obeyed, because Hagia Sophia is quite something. Simply put, it’s a whopping basilica with an equally whopping dome on top. It was built in the sixth century at the behest of Emperor Justinian I, who, by commissioning the church, was hoping to atone for the massacre of 30,000 of his subjects. Justinian recruited 10,000 workers and gave them just five years to knock up an unparalleled edifice. And they did it.
With a pair of World Heritage sites under my belt, Haktan returned to continue my tour. He showed me Gülhane Park, which is home to a 2,000-year-old olive tree and a plaque commemorating the occasion in 1928 when president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk switched the national alphabet from Arabic to Latin. He showed me the best spot to fish for anchovies in the Bosphorus. He showed me the sprawling pomp of Topkapi Palace, former HQ of the Ottoman sultans and site Vlad the Impaler’s schooling. (The man on whom Bram Stoker’s Dracula was based was educated at the palace before skipping town, returning to Romania and then expressing his thanks by impaling 20,000 members of the Ottoman army.)
He showed me a boy called Ahmed flogging ice-cream in a manner deserving of international acclaim. He showed me a number of cat condos and bird palaces that have been erected to accommodate the city’s beloved avian and feline populations.
He showed me the 14th-century Galata Tower, the 21st-century contemporary art gallery Istanbul Modern, and the 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace, to which the Ottoman ruling family shifted when they felt that Topkapi was getting a bit old-fashioned. And when he’d shown me all that he said, “So, shall we go and have a look at the other half then?”
Which is exactly what we did. Haktan’s favourite spot for dinner, Nevmekan Sahil, happens to be in the Asian part of Istanbul and worth switching continents for. Not only is the grub decent and subsidised, the restaurant also has a library, an art gallery and a magnificent domed ceiling.
After polishing off a bowl of manti (tiny mincemeat dumplings with garlicky yoghurt), and a trio of lokum (turkish delight), Haktan wrenched me from my postprandial slump and led me to a sunny spot on the waterside, where he gestured proudly to the fetching expanse of the Bosphorus Bridge, nodded gladly to the Golden Horn and the distant Mediterranean, told me the colour turquoise took its name from the hue of the water before me (which is almost true), provided a list of resources I might wish to pursue in order to further my Turkish education (including the novels of Elif Shafak and Netflix’s Rise of Empires: Ottoman). Then he hopped on an e-scooter and made a dash for an evening screening of Oppenheimer in Karaköy.
Which left just Yigit and me. Feeling a tiny bit lost all of a sudden, and a long way from home, I looked to my young friend for direction. “Cheeseburger?” he said. “Yeah, why not?” I replied.
Travel from London to Istanbul was provided by Byway, which specialises in flight-free, sustainable travel. A 10-day London-to-Istanbul package, including transport and accommodation (six nights in hotels, three in private cabins on night trains), plus 24/7 support, costs £930pp, based on two sharing. Ben Aitken’s latest book, Here Comes the Fun: A Year of Making Merry, is published by Icon (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply