The allure of smoking nargile, also known as hookah and shisha, is insurmountable in the Middle East. In Istanbul, the most authentic place to try it is Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi.
The 300-year-old Medrese has evolved from a religious school and dervish lodge during the Ottoman times, to bazaar stores in the mid-20th century, to its current form—an oasis for locals and tourists wishing to escape the hustle and bustle of the Grand Bazaar district.
No one rushes here. Time stands still. Relax amid the bubbling sounds of the nargile, and enjoy the colorful sites of carpets and mosaic lanterns while indulging in the wafting aromas of fruity tobacco. It’s a sensory delight in a mystical setting.
Do savor a Turkish tea served in a tulip shaped-glass, or try "boomba" tea with lemon, hibiscus, and mint at the café on the left as you enter the complex. In winter, the warm milky cinnamon drink called "sahlep" is also sure to please. Alcohol is not served.
The customers are mainly men, but ladies don't feel intimidated. It’s a great place to people watch and meet the locals who speak many languages. Take the time to ask them about life, love, and the places to see in Istanbul.
Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi is open till 2am and located on the tram line between Cemberlitas and Beyazit/Grand Bazaar stations.
If you want my recommendation, try the apple and mint or rose and mint nargile—best shared with old and new friends. Afiyet Olsun (bon appetit)!
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Winding Down the Turkish Experience
Istanbul is a treasure chest of history and culture that almost seems to be one huge, fascinating contradiction. One moment, you're in Europe and after a 10 minute walk across the bridge, you find yourself in Asia. You approach the mosque that is the Hagia Sofia with its traditional Arabic architecture and minarets only to discover an ancient mosaic of Jesus inside. Istanbul's multi-layered cultural history is mind-boggling but addictive.
On top of this is the sensory experience. You feel the hot slabs of stone in the Turkish bathhouses, hear the prayer calls beckoning from the mosques all through the day, smell the mix of exotic spices in the Spice Bazaar only to escape the ruckus and see sunset over the water in the evening. It is one of the most fascinating travel experiences that leaves you yearning for more but exhausted.
The night called for a stop to smoke nargile, and I was determined to find a nargile locale that was not simply a tourist trap. I was pleasantly surprised to stumble into the easily missed Corlulu Ali Pasa Medresesi. It serves many tourists but is also an afterwork meeting place for locals to chat and watch soccer on television.
Smoking nargile accompanied with tea continues the sensory experience in a relaxing environment. This was the perfect way to wind down a day in Istanbul, and I imagine this is how it came to be such an essential part of their culture.