Every city has its own smell, or so I like to believe. Something of its culture that’s spread out in the air. Something you breathe in and make a part of you. Istanbul’s air is full of warmth. Even when the temperatures are low the air is warm with the welcoming smells of the city of Istanbul. 

The most distinct smell I encountered walking on the streets was the smell of roasted chestnuts. Chestnuts are a popular street food in Istanbul and you’ll be able to find several of these carts roasting and selling them. Some of them also sell you roasted corn. The smell of that wood burning is a smell that dominates the streets, you can just smell the air and tell there’s a chestnut cart close by. 

Roasted Chestnuts

Coffee is the most distinguishable smell in the air of Istanbul. It is the first fragrance you are likely to recognize the moment you land at the airport. The streets are crowded with coffeehouses and the fragrance of coffee is a constant invitation to have some. Throughout my trip to Istanbul, it seemed I was always craving coffee because I could smell it everywhere I went. 

Turkish Coffee

I found Turkish coffee different from the regular Nescafe that I’m so used to having here in Karachi. The first thing that you’ll notice is it’s not served in mugs, but in tiny little cups. They’re like a shot of strong coffee, those few sips give you the right amount of caffeine kick. The aroma of the coffee is heavenly; very concentrated. You’re not going to be smelling anything else besides this cup of coffee in front of you. Lastly, it tastes great but it also doesn’t dissolve completely, so you’re going to find a lot of dreg at the bottom of your cup.

The streets also smell of baked bread, and we all know how inviting that is. At the start of the day, when bakeries are just opening their doors to customers, the whole place smells of freshly baked bread warm and steamy just out of an oven. The fragrance will linger in your mind and keep directing you to a Simit throughout the day as you go about exploring the city. And not until you’ve had it will that craving go away. If you’re wondering what a Simit is it’s a kind of bagel. It is easily available across the city on carts. The ones on the cart aren’t the same as a freshly baked one that you smelled in the morning but it still satiates your want to have freshly baked bread.

Another fragrance that dominates the air is cooked lamb. Istanbul is famous for serving a variety of kebabs that you can smell walking down the streets. You’ll also find doners being sold around that are the go-to fast food for the Turks and all the tourists visiting. They are filling and most importantly smell heavenly. The smell (only if you are a non-vegetarian) is so inviting you to want to drop everything and try out a doner.

Lemon was another fragrance dominating the air. Not naturally though. I smelled lemon in everything from soaps, and disinfectants to hand sanitizers and I smelled so much of it thanks to Corona. But glad to have known things were being cleaned, surfaces were being wiped and you were being protected from others how they were being protected from you. The lemon made it pleasant to endure.  

Apart from all the food items that you’re likely to smell, early morning when the day is just beginning you’ll be able to smell the sea. Of course, once the day has begun and other aromas and fragrances start dominating the scene, you’re likely not going to notice the salty smell anymore.

Bosphorus, Istanbul

But the smell of the sea is a wonderful smell to start your day with. 

More regularly you will smell the earth after it rains, that’s how I knew it rained the previous night when I woke up the first morning after I arrived. The earth has a unique and universal way of smelling after it’s been touched by rain. And the rain has the ability to show itself in more than one sense. 

Rain in Istanbul

We visited at the start of November and that’s the beginning of the rainy season in Istanbul, out of the 7 days we were there, it rained almost 7 of those days. 

Have you experienced the smells of your city? Tell me what it smells like.

Furthermore, if you have enjoyed this walk through the fragrances of Istanbul, don’t miss out on the next sense of Flavors of Istanbul.

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Written by

Asma Siddiqui

The journey is what matters, not the destination!

I'm a food fanatic, a wishful traveler, a voracious bookworm, a compulsive cat-petter, and the silliest adult in disguise. On good days, I'm outside exploring the world. On better days, I'm inside reading books and sipping on a hot beverage that looks like chai or coffee. And on the remaining days, I write about my escapades.

I'm on my way to where I need to be, loving what I love to do and being awesome all the way.