You can get delicious Turkish tea just about anywhere in Turkey, but I'm only going to talk about five of my favorite venues in Istanbul.
If you have traveled to Turkey, you know that tea houses and tea gardens are everywhere. These range from a couple chairs in front of the corner convenience store called bakkals, to sheesha/nargile bars (known to most westerners as hookah bars), to extravagant cultural and hotel settings. The fact is, you can get delicious Turkish tea just about anywhere in the country and certainly in nearly every nook and cranny of Istanbul, which is the focus of this article.
Despite the ubiquity of tea houses, I am only going to talk about five of my favorite places (in alphabetical order) to grab a glass of black, Rize Çay (pronounced “chai”), in Istanbul – and I’m really talking about the Fatih/Sultanahmet area of the city, since that is where I normally stay when I visit.
The Basilica Cistern (Alemdar Mh., Yerebatan Cd. 1/3, Fatih) - the cistern, located southwest of the Hagia Sophia, just across the tram tracks, is a beautiful subterranean water storage facility built in the sixth century. Because it’s underground, it offers welcome relief from the heat of summer, and a stunning setting for low light photos (see mine above). What is less known about this historic wonder is the small tea vendor located by the stairs which take you back to the surface streets of Sultanahmet. It isn’t fancy, but the setting is exquisite and church-like quiet, and has been a favorite place for çay on my family’s occasional summer visits.
Edebiyat Kiraathanesi Hafiz Mustafa (Binbirdirek Mh., Divan Yolu Cd. No:3, Fatih) – I’m a bit of a sweets guy, and with very few exceptions, so is the rest of my family. So, when a dose of sugar is needed to push through shopping at the Grand Bazaar (Kapalıçarşı) or taking in the sights, Hafiz Mustafa is a reliable, lovely place to charge up. Hafiz Mustafa has more than one outlet is Istanbul, but I have only experienced the one near the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque. They serve sweets and savories, but when you’re on a mission with my family, tea and sweets are all that enter into the equation. We like the balkavas, tarts (pastalar) and puddings (muhallebiler). And now, sitting in my office writing this article, I’ve become hungry. The restaurant/café is clean, nicely designed and situated on the main road in Sultanahmet – and the staff is very pleasant. I don’t think there is a visit to Sultanahmet that doesn’t involve my family stopping in at least once to this favorite place.
Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul (Tevkifhane Sk. No:1, 34122 Sultanahmet/Fatih) – my first time back to Istanbul as an adult, and without my parents, was a bit over a decade ago. I was in town to wrap up some family business and it was snowing. Not deep snow, but enough to put a good freeze on my tropical weather soul. So my visit to the magnificent Four Seasons Hotel for tea, dressed as the Marlboro Man was as much unexpected to me as it had to be a shock for the hotel’s employees. It had been suggested to me that I had to experience afternoon tea at the Seasons Terrace Restaurant. My internet research confirmed that the Four Seasons, a former Ottoman prison, needed to be a bucket list item. I just hadn’t counted on snow on the day of my visit, which necessitated my waterproof hiking boots, scotch-guarded black denim jeans, and a flannel shirt. Looking back on it now I have to say it was the kind of right look for the wrong place experience typical for TravelPimp. But I’m getting sideways on this story, so let’s talk about tea at the Four Seasons. The hotel is a short walk from Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya in Turkish) and the Topkapi Palace, so it was within walking distance of my much, much less opulent hotel. Tea is served, as you might expect in a country where tea is omnipresent, in multiple hotel venues. But it was suggested that I experience it in the Terrace Restaurant, so, despite the staff's urging that the Dining Room or the Piano Lounge might be better, I figured I was already dressed like a lumberjack so I should traverse the snow-blanketed courtyard and enjoy the experience like the most interesting man in the universe. But, it turned out that the pathway to the Terrace Restaurant was completely covered and insulated from the elements. So, undaunted by the hotel’s comforts, I soldiered on to the Terrace Restaurant as if I had hiked through the mountains to arrive at my destination. The venue was moderately busy and I managed to get a table next to the window so I could gaze interestingly into the courtyard – a trick I’ve picked up from all my solo business traveling. We’ll call it my warrior poet gaze. Tea is served in several types and forms, but I chose the traditional Turkish tea served in the small Turkish tea glasses. I hadn’t eaten yet, so I consumed a couple savories (börek garnished with veggies) and several sweets (baklava and some tarts). The experience was a bit pricey, pretty much what I paid for a night at my hotel, but it was a very nice and recommendable. I suspect that the experience would have been even better with my daughter (and several of her stuffed animals), since tea-parties were a periodic pastime when she was much younger. But even in warrior poet mode, çay at the Four Seasons was worth the effort.
Gülhane Park (Cankurtaran Mh., Kennedy Cd., Fatih) – there was once an outdoor çay garden at the end of Gülhane Park, with a great view of the Bosphorus overlooking the Taksim/Beşiktaş neighborhoods to the North and Űsküdar to the East. Unfortunately, when I stopped in for a spot of tea on my trip last summer, the venue was no longer there. As a result, we ended up having tea and lunch at the Gülhane Kandil Café, which was pleasant enough, but didn’t fill the loss caused by the disappearance of the tea garden that held such nice memories. Still, the park is a beautiful place to relax from sightseeing, and its gardens, fountains and grassy spaces are great for kids to “run off their wiggles.” The park is also home to the very interesting Museum of Islamic Science and History.
Türk Ocağı Café (Mollafenari Mh., Fatih) – this café is located in the back of the Ahmet Tevfik Paşa Tomb (Cemetery), which is across Divan Yolu Caddesi from the Pierre Loti Hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood. I suspect you are now questioning my balance, given this suggestion, but a tea house in a cemetery setting is serene, calming and quiet – all things your psyche begs for while visiting a busting, loud city, no matter how beautiful. You enter the cemetery from Divan Yolu, the street on which the Sultanahmet tram operates, and move quietly to the right and rear, past tombstones of some of the city’s prominent residents from hundreds of years ago. It is an arresting experience, at least the first time you navigate the paths of the cemetery, and continues to be for me even after many visits. The café is a traditionally decorated tea/coffee house adorned with Turkish kilims and pillows and stained woods. It is quiet, but not without life, as college students and other patrons speak in hushed tones while drinking cay or kahve (Turkish coffee) and enjoying delicious desserts.
I mentioned from the onset, Turkey and tea go together like peanut butter and jelly. I welcome the expected “why can’t you have peanut butter by itself” or “how about peanut butter and bananas" emails, but you know what I mean. These five tea houses/locations are the ones in the old city of Istanbul that speak to me. But, without much effort, you’ll find many different venues at which you can relax and enjoy a glass of çay – some of which will hopefully speak to you.
(All photos, such as they are, were taken by me; all copyrights are reserved.)
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