The Peculiar Turkey Behind Istanbul’s Smell


Istanbul, the beautiful city where the East meets the West, is sensationally charismatic. With the visual richness in its amber cityscape, the call of prayer echoing in its damp air, and the abundant flavours in its traditional cuisine, these sensual experiences together mark Istanbul’s uniqueness. Among all human senses, our experience is particularly linked with Istanbul’s five common smells. More interestingly, this scent profile in our Istanbul memory wonderfully summarizes Turkey’s peculiar characteristics.

1. The Scent of Nargile in Tea Gardens

A sip of çay and a puff of nargile is a Turkish experience one cannot miss.

Cultivated by its Ottoman Empire traditions, Turks are gravitated socially with a high sense of communal value. Sniffing a trace of nargile (NARG-ee-leh) in the air can easily guarantee spotting a gathering place for locals to huddle and reflect on their society. At these functions, Turks enjoy smoking a nargile while sipping a cup of steeped brewed Turkish tea between each puff.

Tea, or çay (Chai) in Turkish, also plays a strong part in the social custom. As people from Sivas, Turkey say, conversations without tea are like a night sky without the moon (Caysiz sohbet, aysiz gok yuzu gibidir).[1] To the locals, drinking a cup of freshly brewed tea is more than just to quench the thirst, it is a symbol for Turkish hospitality.

2. The Scent of Cigarettes in the Street

Scent of Istanbul_2

From men to women, from young to old, almost everyone in Turkey smokes.

Ever wonder why “to smoke like a Turk” is used to describe a person who smokes like a chimney? Well, although nowadays Turks’ tobacco consumption rate is declining,[2] tobacco scent is diffused in almost every corner of Turkey. Just like nargile, cigarette smokers are well accepted socially. However, as according to a Turkish smoker, one thing setting nargile and cigarette smokers apart lies in the smoker’s inner state.

”Cigarettes are for nervous people, competitive people, people on the run,” he said. ”When you smoke a nargile you have time to think. It teaches you patience and tolerance, and gives you an appreciation of good company. Nargile smokers have a much more balanced approach to life than cigarette smokers.”[3]

3. The Scent of Feet in Mosques

Scent of Istanbul_3-03

The smell of tourist feet absorbed by the carpet inside the mosques is indeed an unforgettable memory.

It may seem negative to associate stinky feet with mosque visits. After all, cleanliness is an essential part of Muslim living. But when come to think of it, isn’t the smell trapped inside mosque’s tourist designated area symbolizing the world’s admiration towards the beauty of Turkey’s Islamic culture? Curious about these magnificent structures which prominently support the Muslim lifestyle, thousands of tourists respectfully remove their shoes for a chance to closely inspect the beautiful craftsmanship hidden inside each mosque themselves. If mosques lack the magic to lure tired tourist feet in, the dense vinegary smell would not have accumulated in these stunning dome-shaped architectures.

4. The Scent of Grilled Fish Sandwiches by the Sea

The irresistible balik ekmek smell around Galata Bridge can surely make a person hungry!

Balik ekmek (bah-luhk ehk-mehk), Istanbul’s popular quick grab at various seaside vendors, is a grilled fish fillet dressed with a dash of freshly squeezed lemon juice served with a lightly toasted bread and salad. As a street snack enjoyed by the locals and tourists alike, it may seem farfetched to call a fish sandwich a Turkish quintessence. Of course, the weight of fish sandwich is insignificant when compared with the Empire history in shaping the modern Turkey. But its historical insignificance does not inundate its brilliance to reflect Turk’s resourcefulness. Fishing has been taking part in Istanbul’s water for a century, so why not grill the freshly caught fish right on the boat and sell it to the hungry people ashore?[4] The clever fisherman started selling the fish bread, which slowly becomes a must eat when visiting the Golden Horn. Nowadays, a walk on Istanbul’s seaside is most likely accompanied by the smell of grilled fish.

5. The Scent of Exotic Spices in the Spice Market

Scent of Istanbul-5-01

A powerful mixture smell of spices, herbs, dry fruits, nuts and Turkish delight pervaded in the air in the Spice Market.

It is visually stimulating to see the piles of red, green, yellow, and black powders neatly displayed at each spice vender when walking down an Ottoman bazaar. With the aroma of freshly grounded spices and herbs filled in the air, the experience is even more intriguing. These sensual stimulations rewind the time, bringing people to witness the historical evidence of spice trading and its importance to today’s Turkey. Needless to say, spices not only made Turkey an influential country in the past,[5]  it is also rooted in the Turkey’s food culture.

Turkey is a cultural exchange of the East and the West. As the hub of the cultural exchange, Istanbul’s common smells reflects not only the uniqueness of the city itself, it also carries on the value of Turkey’s history and culture. The above is our take, through our noses, to interpret our trip experience.



[1]      Aylangan, Pelin (August 2011). ”Turkish Tea”. Turkish Cultural Foundation. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
[2]      Turkey marks progress in fight against noncommunicable diseases”. World Health Organizations.  September 2012. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
[3]      Kinzer, Stephen (10 June 1997). “Inhale the Pleasure of an Unhurried Ottoman Past”. The New York Times. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
[4]      Brosnahan, Tom. “Istanbul Fish Sandwiches”. Turkey Travel Planner. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
[5]      Woodward, Geoffrey (March 2001). “The Ottomans in Europe”. History Today. Retrieved 1 August 2015.


  1. Pietros · · Reply

    but otherwise a good description and very nice graphics and layout!


    1. Urban Fox · · Reply

      Thanks for your comments and interesting perception indeed! Will definitely try to understand more of the history.


  2. Pietros · · Reply

    Yeah… and you forgot also the smell of the history, of the ancient Eastern Roman Empire called Byzantium, which was for most of its over 1000 years history Christian… Its ancient buildings, churches, fortifications… in this perspective the Turks are the newcomers, who had never understood the country and the City (the Turkish name “Istambul” comes from the Greek popular name for Constantinople, “To Polis” – “The City”) they conquered and greatly destroyed.


  3. Oresteeeeee · · Reply

    You forgot the scent of the metro bus in the summer heat!!


    1. Urban Fox · · Reply

      Haha.. Haven’t got the chance to be there during the summer to experience it yet!


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