You might come to Gaziantep for the food, but the history and handmade crafts will make you want to extend your stay. To maximize the amount of food you can taste and eat I recommend breaks in-between eating at the handful of museums, bazaars and muse-see destinations.
Less than a 2 hour flight from Istanbul, I arrived Friday night just in time for a bedtime snack, my hosts graciously provided me a feast upon arrival of homemade yogurt soup, lahmacun, chickpea durum and meat durum (yes, that was all for me – no, I did not finish it all). I returned to Istanbul on Sunday night, after enjoying the weekend and 36 hours in Gaziantep.
There is so much to share, so make sure you scroll through the photo sliders below!
1. Soup for Breakfast
Since falling in love with Beyran Çorbasi in Istanbul my dream was to come to Gaziantep and taste the ‘authentic’ one – it was a dream come true! Head to Metanet Lokantası for the REAL beyran soup experience. You can watch the entire process of how they prepare the soup and fresh pide (bread) per order.
2. One of Turkey’s Oldest Coffeehouses
As we sat down my friend was quick to mention that this coffeehouse was older than America – Tahmis Kahvesi has been around since 1652 and is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Turkey. Upon entering it’s reminiscent of a ski chalet with its wooden interior and a wood burning stove in the middle of the room. Here you should try a local speciality, menengiç kahvesi. Terebinth berries native to the Antep region are roasted to make a coffee-like beverage. It may look like Turkish coffee, but this is a caffeine-free beverage that’s prepared with milk instead of water.
Another local drink to try here is zahter çayı (zahter tea), a clear tea brewed with a type of thyme native to the Eastern Mediterranean region, best enjoyed with a slice of lemon. This mixture of thyme aids in digestion, so definitely something to consider drinking in between all the food you’ll eat.
3. The World’s Largest Mosaic Museum
The ancient city of Zeugma (located in modern Gaziantep) was originally founded in 300 B.C. by Alexander the Great’s generals. Named for the bridge that crossed the Euphrates river, ‘Zeugma’ means ‘bridge-passage’ in Greek. During the Roman Empire, it became one of the largest and most vibrant cities of its day, mainly due to its geographical location existing along the Silk Road, connecting Antioch to China via the bridge.
The Zeugma Mosaic Museum (Zeugma Mozaik Müzesi) is spread over three floors filled with Roman and Greek mosaics dating from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D. to the 6th century A.D. These mosaics once decorated the floors of wealthy homes, today providing visitors a glimpse of what life was like in this magnificent ancient city. Some of the mosaics and artifacts are placed to recreate their original settings and are also exhibited in chronological order.
The most famous mosaic in this collection (and the symbol of Gaziantep) is the ”Gypsy Girl”, or as I like to call her, the ‘Turkish Mona Lisa’. From the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D., she was discovered in the House of Menad under the soil and missed by historical artifact traffickers. During excavation she was nicknamed the ‘Gypsy Girl’ based on her appearance, and kept the name as they were never able to find her true identity. Displayed alone in a darkened room, a railing prevents you from getting too close, and a security guard stands nearby ready to answer your questions.
My ‘Turkish Mona Lisa’ nickname came from the same disappoint and reaction I had when I first saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris. Since arriving in Gaziantep I had seen the Gypsy Girl’s face plastered on billboards, posters, and buses…so I was surprised when she was maybe only 2 feet/60cm in length. Like the Mona Lisa, her eyes follow you around the room.
3. Meat Lover’s Paradise
Open 7 days a week from 11am to 4pm, Kebapcı Halil Usta is the go-to place in Gaziantep for kebabs. Upon seating you’re promptly served a salad as they take your order, I recommend a mixed plate – a little bit of everything! Known for it’s high quality meat, their speciality is kebabs, küşleme (mutton) and kuşbaşı. I highly recommend the baharatlı küşleme, it tastes as if it was cooked with a type of Indian curry or masala, but don’t ask how it’s made, he won’t reveal his secret recipe. If you’re a true meat lover, you MUST stop here!
4. Coffee in a Cave
Built during the late 1700’s the Tütün Hanı was an inn (han) for tobacco merchants. As you enter, pass the bedouin tent in the courtyard and head downstairs into the man-made cave that now serves as a cafe.
Caves in Gaziantep
The soft limestone of Gaziantep made it easy for underground caves to be built. It was common for old houses to have an underlying cave used as storage for food and products (an essential key to Antep’s year-round cuisine). Since there was no water table under the city, long tunnels and water structures were built underground to carry water from the springs into town.
Tütün Hanı is an example of one of Gaziantep’s former underground structures repurposed as a cafe. Inside you can see a former well used to bring water from the tunnel to the surface and you can look inside a former passageway of a steep staircase that led underground into the tunnels.
5. It’s All About the Street Food
I’m still not sure how I had room for snacks in-between eating, but I’m glad I did. Curious about the ‘dessert eggroll’ we saw, we gave it a try. Called ‘sarma’, yes that’s the name because I asked twice, the inside is filled with kadayıf (finely shredded dough like vermicelli) and local pistachios, phyllo dough is wrapped around it and fried. Be careful, a lot of oil will drip out of this upon eating.
I’d also recommend stopping to try dut suyu (mulberry juice) locally grown of course. Or even a nohut dürümü, a chickpea wrap that will make you forget falafels existed.
6. Spice Bazaar
Similar to the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul, the Elmacı Pazarı carries the typical Turkish items like dried peppers and aubergines in addition to local spices and products. Here you should consider buying items that are native to this area like kahvaltılık zahter (a thyme-based mixture of spices to mix with olive oil for breakfast), zahter çayı (loose thyme tea), menengiç coffee, spicy dried peppers, pistachios – which will be hard to choose so taste-test them all, pistachio butter (Antep fıstık ezmesi) and more!
7. A Glass of ’Turkish Cola’
It’s hard to miss the traditionally dressed street vendors wearing copper samovars on their backs, while walking from Zincirli Bedesten towards the castle along Gümrük Caddesi. Filled with meyan kökü şerbeti, nicknamed ‘Turkish Cola’, this liquorice root drink is an acquired taste, but it does have health benefits – as my friend pointed out upon the sour look on my face. Made from pouring water through dried liquorice root and adding it to ice (without adding any sugar), the name ‘Turkish Cola’ is quite misleading. I imagine it would be a similar taste if birch beer soda had no sugar added to it. You can buy a drink for just yourself or if you pay a bit more you can buy what’s left in his vat and he’ll distribute complimentary drinks to those around him. Walk a little further and at the corner of Lale Paşa Caddesi there’s even a statue honoring this local drink and tradition.
8. The Castle on the Hill
Gaziantep’s Castle (Gaziantep Kalesi) is impossible to miss on top of the hill in the city center, it’s also depicted in the city’s logo seen around town. Originally built as an observation point during the Hittite Empire, it was later expanded into a castle during the Roman Empire. Walk up the stairs and head inside to view the Gaziantep Defense and Heroism Panoramic Museum (Gaziantep Savunması ve Kahramanlık Panorama Müzesi), documenting the defense of the city against the Allied Powers during the Turkish War of Independence in 1920.
1. Dessert for Breakfast
At Katmerci Zekeriya Usta walk inside and watch men as they pull and stretch balls of dough by hand (like pizza dough) until it reaches a paper thin consistency. The dough is then layered with cheese and local pistachios before folded like an envelope and put into the oven. A delicacy of Antep, each order of katmer is made per order and is well worth the wait. Typically eaten after a meal in Istanbul, here it’s acceptable to eat at breakfast.
2. A Journey Through Childhood
Imagine my surprise when my friend told me about the Toy Museum (Oyun ve Oyuncak Müzesi), located in Gaziantep’s old neighborhood. A historical 3-story house showcases a collection of children’s toys from the past 300+ years from around the world. An admittance fee of 1TL for adults and 50 kuruş for children, takes you on a journey through history from 1700-1990 with 600+ toys. From countries like Germany, America, Japan, England, Turkey, and more the collection varies from dollhouses, boardgames, iconic characters from Disney, the Flinstones, Charlie Chaplin, Popeye and Santa, complete playsets of Seasame Street and Disneyland, to traditional dolls and masks from different cultures around the world. There’s even a real cave underground exhibiting the start of civilization to ‘Children of the World’, showcasing local costumes and iconic landmarks from 20+ countries.
3. Must Stop for Liver
When I first met my friend Mehmet Ali, an Antep native and my tour guide on this trip, despite my lack of enthusiasm towards eating liver he insisted that I would love it in Gaziantep. Finely chopped grilled liver is mixed with onions and peppers and served on a piece of lavaş, waiting for you to add your own toppings of your choosing. I added parsley, raw onion, red cabbage and lemon to mine. The liver (ciğer) at Ciğerci Albay was so delicious that I ordered seconds!
3. Step Inside a Turkish Bath
Gaziantep is home to many Turkish baths (hamams), including a former Ottoman hamam which they’ve converted in a museum, Hamam Müzesi. Built in 1557 by Lala Mustafa Paşa, it’s layout reflects a Roman bath with a cold room, warm room and hot room. Public baths once played a big part of Anatolia daily and social life in the 15th and 16th centuries. Originating from Ancient Greece, Gaziantep’s Turkish baths were influenced by bath cultures of Asian, Roman and Byzantium in addition to the rules of Islam regarding cleanliness. Free and open to the public, the museum preserves the culture of the city by sharing the history, traditions and genuine accessories of an Antep hamam.
4. Learn about Gaziantep’s Cuisine
If you know nothing about Antep’s famous cuisine, this should be your first stop upon arrival. For an admittance fee of 1TL, the Culinary Museum (Emine Göğüş Mutfak Müzesi) walks you through Gaziantep’s culinary culture and history through its tools, preparation and preservation techniques, cooking methods and recipes of local dishes.
Note: In the photos, I’ve included an example of a ‘dinner table setting’, since I was fascinated by the setup. For each meal a stand would be brought to the open room. On top of the stand, a large metal tray was set as the top of the table. Below, they would create a fire to keep the diners (and the food) warm. Diners would then be seated around the tray and share a blanket and the warmth from the fire.
5. Handmade Crafts
Gaziantep’s labyrinth of bazaars includes the Zincirli Bedesten, Bakircilar Çarşisi and Elmacı Pazarı. Walking through this historic area you’ll be able to witness masters at work. Rows of small shops are filled with workshops of craftsmen with trades dating back hundreds of years. From metalworkers to shoemakers, Antep’s handicrafts vary featuring mother of pearl inlaid embroidery, silk woven textile, traditional leather shoes, copper ware to carpets.
6. Turkish Hospitality
I’ve learned by now that part of Turkish hospitality is to shower a guest with food. I realize this might not be possible if you have no connections here, but it’s still an experience that must be shared. As always I was surprised by the amount of food they’d prepared and I was fortunate enough to be in the presence of very talented cooks.
We had a picnic style dinner and was joined by family and friends. The table was filled with homemade stuffed peppers, eggplants and grape leaves, homemade pickled vegetables and lahmacun (note, here the lahmacun is slightly different because it’s topped with minced garlic). I also got to try yuvarlama soup. Typically served after Ramazan, yuvarlama soup is a regional speciality, a dish made with tiny ‘meatballs’ made from ground beef and rice flour rolled to a miniature size, and added to a yogurt based soup with chickpeas and mint. For a dessert, a humongous tray of kunefe appeared from the oven topped with local pistachios.
7. One word – Baklava!
If you want baklava, you go to Gaziantep. With over 300 pastry shops, its baklava is so famous that its registered by the EU on the protection of geographical indications and designations of origin for agricultural products and foodstuffs.
‘Antep Baklavası’/‘Gaziantep Baklavası’ can be distinguished from other baklava by its bright golden yellow colour, its texture, its structure and the dark green lower part. The main difference, however, lies in the taste and aroma of Antep pistachios and plain butter.’
Head to Koçak and dine in or stop in for a box or an entire tray before you head home. (Almost every person on the flight back to Istanbul will be carrying baklava from here – no exaggeration!)
After visiting Gaziantep I can say the taste of food is unmatched and is not the same anywhere but here, but if you’re in Istanbul and want to try Antep cuisine, head to Dürümcü Emmi in Kadıköy for beyran soup and katmer. In my opinion, the closest you’ll get to real Antep authentic taste in Istanbul.