Image Credit: Cheryl Robertson/GN Focus

Suhoor drums roll out through Istanbul’s streets well before dawn during Ramadan, waking up those who are fasting and those that aren’t. Whatever your religious affiliation, Turkey is a fascinating place to be in during the holy month, when traditions and celebrations merge, complemented by the hospitable nature of its people.

Turkey has for centuries been home to followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism and pilgrims of varied religions continue to flock to its ancient holy sites. Visitors from the GCC have risen dramatically. The country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism office in Dubai shows that tourism numbers from the UAE increased by more than 370 per cent when comparing figures from August 2011 to August 2012.

Architectural appeal

The beauty of Turkey’s ancient architecture can truly be appreciated in its mosques of which there are 82,693 according to the English Hurriyet Daily Newspaper that quotes data from the Religious Affairs Directorate. Istanbul has 3,113 mosques, of which three – the Sultanahmet Mosque (better known as The Blue Mosque), Suleymaniye Mosque and Eyüp Sultan Mosque – have gained worldwide stature.

The historic Blue Mosque should feature on any traveller’s itinerary. Known as Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish, it was built between the years 1609 and 1616.

Retail therapy

GCC visitors also head to Istanbul for its shopping. Designer malls for the label addicts abound, as do chic boutiques, on par with their counterparts in London and Paris. High-end areas to browse through include Nisantasi, Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi where international and Turkish brands meet, Istinye Park Shopping Centre and the Istanbul Sapphire, a shopping mall and luxury residence mixed-use project where you will find the Sapphire Building, the tallest building in Istanbul, rising 54 floors above ground level. The yearly Istanbul Shopping Fest is another major draw card, usually held in June.

Culinary hub

Authentic food is top of my list of priorities when travelling anywhere, all the more exciting when the gastronomic journey starts on the flight out to Istanbul on Turkish Airlines. It has six weekly flights from Abu Dhabi and 14 from Dubai, the latter its first destination in the Middle East to introduce the flying chef concept for business class travellers. It’s where chefs from Austrian catering company Turkish DO&CO prepare international and Turkish dishes in the narrow on-board galley using fresh ingredients and know-how. A potpourri of Borek (cheese and spinach puff pastries) for starters followed by a spinach and red pepper omelette set the tone for a three-day extraordinarily spectacular culinary fiesta.

The city’s gastronomic culture incorporates all tastes. The major foreign fast food chains have a huge presence in Turkey but even so, burgers still have a Turkish stamp with the inclusion of eggplant and spices.

Word on the street is that raw meat, which has been popular in Turkey since the time of Prophet Ibrahim, has really made a comeback in the last three years. Shops have started to sell raw meat and chains 
of restaurants have on their menus çiğ köfte originating from south eastern Turkey.

Pide, a special bread served during Ramadan, and yoghurt mixed with sweet fruit make for good and equally healthy breakfast options.

Winging my way back to Dubai, the selection on board Turkish Airlines had me absolutely stumped. Grilled sea 
bass, spiced chicken brochette and, or homemade cheese 
tortellini. “How about I try all three?” I ask half-joking. “Certainly ma’am, as you like,” said 
the attentive and ever eager-to-please cabin attendant.

Turkish Airlines has also just launched a Dh790 round trip package, inclusive of all taxes and service charges, from Abu Dhabi during Ramadan. n

Be aware of sensibilities

While a festive air prevails at night, the month commands a certain solemnity that the non-fasting need to respect.

Although non-Muslims are not expected to fast, it is polite to avoid eating or drinking in front of people fasting. In religious buildings ensure the privacy of those praying is not disturbed.

Understand that people fasting may be slower than 
usual during the day.

Some venues have limited hours and staff and most restaurants close during the day, so visitors should pack lunches or make reservations at restaurants that may be open for lunch.

Change your routine and rest during the midday heat for Istanbul’s streets come alive after sunset. At this time music, light displays and food and sweet offerings abound.

Refusing to accept an invitation to eat with a Turkish family is seen as insulting.