Ramadan is such an important religious event celebrated by many that it’s already an integral part of Malaysian culture. The Holy Month marks the start of a 30-day fasting routine among Muslims, who makes up half of the Malaysian population. Because of that, Ramadan has also become cultural. Bazars popped up in every town, grand public iftars organised at mosques; on top of self-restraint and discipline, Ramadan is a time of celebration and togetherness.

Same can be said anywhere around the world, but what makes Ramadan a much-anticipated annual event are the little things as well. The kuih pelitas, the tamars - we yearn for these throughout the year.

In Turkiye, the essence remains but away from our Nusantara-packaged celebrations, exists a whole different world of cultural practices, culinary brilliance and historical learnings. In the middle of Ramadan this year, we grabbed a chance to visit one of the most fascinating cities in the world; Istanbul, a city of a thousand tales and an important location in Islamic history, outside of Mecca and Madinah.

No, this is not going to be a popular tourist-guide type of article. Since we walked, breathed and dined like the locals, this is an article written from that perspective. What do the locals like about Istanbul?

Here are those things:

Hagia Sofia: Perform your solat at a thousand-year-old mosque

Photo by Adli Wahid

In essence, it doesn’t matter where you pray. But performing your solat in a centuries-old mosque is a surreal experience in itself. If you’re not familiar with the name, Hagia Sophia, also known as Ayasofya in Turkish, is an iconic historical mosque located in Istanbul.

Originally built as a Christian basilica in the 6th century during the Byzantine Empire, it served as the world's largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years until it was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Empire's conquest of Constantinople in 1453. With its unique blend of Christian and Islamic architectural elements, Hagia Sophia stands as a symbol of Istanbul's rich cultural heritage and continues to attract millions of visitors from around the world every year.

Photo by Daniel Peckham

The best part is, you get to perform your prayers with Muslims from all backgrounds in the praying section.

Of course, the food

Oh my, where do we even start? Turkish cuisine is a vibrant and diverse culinary tradition that has evolved over centuries of migration, trade, and cultural exchange. It draws influences from Central Asian, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and Balkan cuisines, resulting in a unique explosion of flavors and ingredients that are both familiar and exotic.

From hearty meat dishes to delicate pastries and desserts, Turkish cuisine is characterized by its emphasis on fresh, seasonal ingredients, bold spices, and intricate preparations. Yes, ‘fresh’ is the keyword here.

Turkish cuisine is famous for its grilled meats, which are typically cooked over charcoal or wood fires for an intense, smoky flavor. Kebabs, skewered meats that are grilled or roasted, are among the most popular meat dishes in Turkey. Among our favorite eateries was Haci Abdullah, a restaurant that’s been around since 1888, serving smoky-flavoured delights since its establishment then.

Another favourite Turkish is anything and everything lamb, especially grilled ones. Their grilled specialities include kofta, meatballs made with a mixture of ground lamb and beef, and döner kebab, which is a type of meat that is slowly roasted on a vertical spit and shaved off in thin slices. You can find kebabs everywhere, but one that really got us mouth-watering (until today) is Hamdi’s pistachio kebabs. Yes, lamb meat stuffed with pistachios? Simple, yet inventive. Simply one of the best we’ve tasted before.

Photo by Christian Bredfeldt

Turkish cuisine also boasts an array of savory pastries, which are usually made with dough and filled with meat, cheese, or vegetables. Our top pick is Pide, a savoury pastry that is shaped like a boat and is similar to the concept of a Calzone. You can find these everywhere in Istanbul alongside other pastries, even sweet ones like Baklavas.

The Coffee Culture

Did you know that the first cup of coffee was brewed in Yemen in the 15th century, and then popularised in Istanbul?

Photo by Müslüm Bayburs.

Turkiye’s rich coffee culture dates back to the Ottoman Empire and it’s known for its strong taste and unique preparation method. Coffee is traditionally prepared in a ‘cezve’, a small copper or brass pot, and served in small cups with the grounds settled at the bottom. Turkish coffee is often enjoyed after meals or during social gatherings, and it is a symbol of hospitality and friendship. The coffee culture is deeply rooted in the country's history and traditions, making it a significant part of its cultural identity.

If you happen to be in Turkiye during the winter or early Spring, you have to try Salep, a traditional Turkish hot drink that is made from the root of a wild orchid flower. The root is dried, ground into a fine powder, and mixed with hot milk, sugar, and cinnamon to make a thick, creamy, and slightly sweet drink. Personally, Salep was a wonderful surprise to us - and most probably one of the highlights of our Turkish trip.

Experience three different cultures (or more?) in one

Istanbul is an excellent destination for history enthusiasts due to its rich and diverse cultural heritage that spans over thousands of years. The city was once the capital of three empires - the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman - and served as a bridge between Europe and Asia. Home to numerous historical landmarks with all three influences, including the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar.

The changing of leadership in Turkiye’s past resulted in the country’s colourful present day culture. Whether you're interested in Roman, Byzantine, or Ottoman history, Istanbul is a must-visit destination for any history enthusiast. You get to learn more about the history of these three leaderships in one trip!

So care for a trip to breezy Turkiye next Ramadan? We’d vouch for the place with our hearts! Turkiye is definitely the place to be in rediscovering the joy of the holy month.

Our thanks to Türkiye Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) for this chance to experience Ramadan in Türkiye. Plan your own Türkiye adventure at goturkiye.com