Turkey: Tea Tour of Istanbul

In the sunken courtyard behind Süleymaniye Mosque we listen to Turkish chatter and the trickle of an ancient fountain. It is far from the noisy froth of cappuccino making and nu-folk playlists that signify coffee shops back home. Students of Istanbul drink black tea from gold-rimmed glasses, papers spread out over squat tables in front of them. Some chat in clusters on bright cushions, passing a waterpipe between sips. Business men and stall owners from the Grand Bazaar gesticulate wildly – lost in grand political debate and a haze of apple tobacco.

The first sip of tea scalds my tongue. The waiter appears with our waterpipe. Mark and I look around, hoping that the seasoned pros reclining in confidence don’t notice our wheezing attempts at smoking. The waiter takes pity on us trying to relax Istanbul-style. He gets the water bubbling for us, smoke spiraling from his lips. When the coals burn amber he lets me have the pipe back, as if spoon-feeding a toddler.

After a few splutters our draws become smooth. The tea has cooled to perfection. I sink into the cushions, warm fuzz in my brain and broken sunshine through leaves on my face. We watch the microcosm of Istanbul society until we are left with dregs in our glasses.


Past the cries of vendors selling cheap cookware, mosaic lamps and coils of waterpipes the smell of the Spice Bazaar floats on the air. We are engulfed in a labyrinth of bright yellow, burnt sienna and rust coloured powder. Mark dons his chef face, tutting and hmm-ing at mounds of spices. I spot a brass coffee machine through a cloud of steam. The mustachioed barista catches me looking.

“You like to try? For free?” he shouts to me.

I nod, leaving Mark bartering over black cumin.

The barista pours the tarry liquid from a long-handled jug into a tiny cup. He looks at me like I’m mad when I decline sugar. I see why as the bitterness hits the back of my throat, sending electricity down my spine. It’s perfect.

Mark waves a bag of canary-yellow turmeric in victory. I mirror him with a bag of coffee.

Istanbul is built on seven hills, and it feels like we climb all seven on our tea quest. Up a steep, cobbled street a gnarled old man sells tea from another brass contraption. He smiles as he hands us hot, dirty glasses of tea, his calloused fingers poking in fresh mint leaves.


Our final stop is a rickety tea house on the edge of the Bosphorus, where uneven floorboards creak under faded Persian rugs. Another tourist couple has found this place. A waiter lights the vanilla-scented coals of their waterpipe, and they wait until his back is turned before inhaling and spluttering.

I take a smooth puff of our waterpipe and wait for my tea to cool. Tomorrow we might see that couple in the sunken courtyard, reclining into bright cushions like they’ve been doing it for years.