A Brief Overview of Gaziantep
Traveling to Turkey? Make sure to add Gaziantep to your itinerary! Renowned for it’s cuisine, Gaziantep is a top gastronomic destination. In fact, Gaziantep’s food is so remarkable that it’s been recognized by UNESCO. Some sources even call Gaziantep “the food capital of the world.” In addition to the food scene you’ll find the world’s largest Mosaic Museum, an authentic coppersmith bazaar, a millennia-old castle, and hand-made leather (Yemeni) shoes. These skillfully made shoes are so famous that they were used on the set of Harry Potter - even Brad Pitt owns a pair.
Colloquially called Antep, Gaziantep is located in southeast Turkey. It’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Located just 60 miles (95km) north of Aleppo, it is the 6th most populous city in Turkey. It’s accessible by plane and bus—you will find transit information about how to get to Gaziantep here. While Cappadocia is famous for it’s hot air balloons and Istanbul for its Blue Mosque, Gaziantep is famous for it’s food, especially pistachios. Pistachios are one of the most important ingredients in Gaziantep’s world famous baklava. You can find baklava in hundreds of shops throughout the city. Did you know that Gaziantep is the birthplace of this tasty and buttery baked delicacy? Keep reading to learn more about the city’s best baklava.
Walking the Streets of Gaziantep
Despite being a large city, with a population of about 2 million people, Gaziantep holds onto traditional values. Whereas in the western region of Turkey head scarfs are the most common choice by women, in Gaziantep the head scarf is often times worn in addition to loose conservative clothing. It still did not seem as conservative as Urfa, our previous destination in Turkey. Interestingly, I read that many ‘Urfans’ compare Gaziantep to Las Vegas saying it’s full of “sin and lust.” Considering that you can’t find a drop of alcohol in Urfa but beer is available at some shops in Gaziantep, I suppose the analogy holds true, but perhaps only on a relative basis.
The city has grown over 30% in recent years due to the Syrian refugee crisis. Gaziantep is currently home to 400,000 Syrian refugees. It was documented that on one day they once accepted over 20,000 individuals. Learn more about Turkey and their Syrian refugees. Predictions put total Syrian refugees in Turkey to exceed 5 million by 2028.
Where to Stay in Gaziantep
If you stay in Old Town, almost everything is within walking distance. We visited in the summer month of July and daily temperatures approached 100 degrees F (38c). Unless you are in Gaziantep for an extended period of time (more than 4 days) I would encourage you to stay within the central part of the city known as Old Town. Unlike Istanbul this midsize city goes without crowded sidewalks and unrelenting noise. Feel free to adventure into other neighborhoods to catch a glimpse of student, hipster, or Syrian life—just keep in mind that you’ll want travel tips and advice from a local as I couldn’t find a comprehensive travel blog about neighborhoods outside of Gaziantep’s Old Town.
We stayed at the lovely Tugcan Hotel (the golden star in the map below.) We spent 4 nights soaking up the luxury and comfort of this centrally located hotel. Everything from the diverse foods served at breakfast to the variety of saunas in the spa left us completely satisfied.
What to do Do in Gaziantep
Gaziantep is a city for the senses from tasting meat stews accompanied with yogurt, salivating over stuffed eggplant kebab, viewing ancient mosaics the size of ballrooms, hearing hammering at the coppersmith bazaar, to smelling rich, buttery baklava. Read the sections below for detailed information on how to plan your trip to Gaziantep. Green flags on the map depict the locations of things described below. If you get an early start you can accomplish everything on the map in 1 day (note, not everything described below is on the map but is within a 3 minute walk to any given flag). The map is just to show you how close most things are (within walking distance).
What to See in Gaziantep
Mosaic Museum (Zeugma Mosaic Museum) - This is likely the farthest attraction you’ll visit while in Gaziantep, however it is the primary tourist attraction of this region in Turkey. It’s north of the highway listed as D400 on the map above. It’s easily accessible by taxi or bus, if you feel adventurous. We walked from Old Town but I would not recommend this during the summer months. The Mosaic Museum is free with a Turkish museum pass or 20 Lira ($3.5 USD) a person.
Culinary Museum (Gaziantep Emine Göğüş Mutfak Müzesi) - Informative, centrally located, and a great way to jumpstart your culinary adventure in Gaziantep. The cost is 2 Lira ($.35 USD) per person.
Castle (Gaziantep Kalesi) - Located in the Seferpasa area of Gaziantep (just north of Old Town), the castle is easy to find. It is the most prominent landmark in the city.
Toy Museum (Gaziantep Oyun ve Oyuncak Müzesi) - On display here are about 600 handmade toys dating from 1700 – 1990, as well as many others, including toys based on cartoon characters and doll houses. You will find this right in the middle of the city!
Mosques - Liberation Mosque/Independence Mosque, Ömeriye Camii, Alaybey Mosque are the popular ones but they are all over.
Coppersmith Bazaar (Bakircilar Carsisi) - I had a hard time distinguishing between the “general bazaar” and the “coppersmith bazaar”. If they are two distinct entities they blend into each other seamlessly. Walk around the bazaar and watch the craftsmen engraving, welding, hammering, and sharpening copper items. I tried to haggle but was shocked at the relative standardization of many of their prices. Don’t worry too much about trying to save money as the prices are reasonable. If you want something to remember Turkey and your budget travel means a Turkish rug is too expensive you can still afford some of these beautifully hand-crafted pieces of art. It was nice to see that the goods are produced on site. Unlike other bazaars, like the grand bazaar in Istanbul, the shop keepers didn’t hassle us as we walked from shop to shop.
English Language Films and Shopping Malls - This is the first time we have seen English-Language films east of Antalya. There are three malls in the city and all three of them have at least some showings of movies in English. If you want to shop or catch a movie check out the malls. The closest and in walking distance to Old Town is the Forum Gaziantep. Next there is the Sanko Park Shopping mall which is a bit farther outside and west of Old Town. Lastly there is the Primemall Gaziantep AVM which is located 20 minutes away by bus in the University section of the city.
What to Eat in Gaziantep
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “where should I eat when visiting Gaziantep?” There is a long and short answer to that question. The short one first—anywhere - you won’t be disappointed! For the long answer, keep reading.
Imam Cagdad – Receiving over 7,000 reviews on Google and ranking in the top 5 places to eat in the area do not miss this large kebab and baklava restaurant right next to the bazaar. We split a simit kebab (bulgur, garlic, and mint with ground meat), a coban salad, and some ezme. The waiter could not quite understand why we only ordered one meat dish for two people. Salads are seen as side items—most places will actually give you unlimited salads for free as the expectation is that you will order meat as your meal. The restaurant is huge and you shouldn’t have to wait more than a few minutes for a table. Expect to sit next to strangers mid-meal as the restaurant uses rows of tables. Prices are very reasonable given the quality and location.
We strolled through the alleys early in the morning watching the city come alive. Most shops were still closed but we spotted the occasional baker getting ready for the day. We walked in to small shop where two men worked to make the small crispy strings of dough - shredded filo dough - used in many types of baklava and kadayif.
Katmerci Abdo Usta – A trip to Gaziantep isn’t complete without tasting the regional breakfast treat, Katmer. Traditionally eaten by brides and grooms on the morning following their wedding, this heavy dish packs a lot into a tasty package. Katmer should be made to order. We enjoyed watching the phyllo dough get filled with sugar, pistachio, clotted cream, then painted with copious amounts of butter. When taken out of the oven the katmer was allowed to settle as it was puffed with air. Another sprinkle of the green pistachio powder and then dish was ready to be cut and served. Katmer isn’t quite as ubiquitous as baklava shops (you won’t go more than 100 feet (30m) before spotting a baklava shop), but you won’t have a problem finding Katmer.
Tahmis Kahvesi – Located near the Bazaar you can lounge out at this restaurant/cafe and enjoy some zahter tea. The restaurant has an open air café across the street. We hear they play live music on Sundays at 2pm. They are rated #3 in places to eat in Gaziantep, so they’re a popular spot.
Yesemek Restaurant – Rated #4 in places to eat in Old Town this restaurant offers cafeteria style dining with a stunningly beautiful interior. Located a stone’s throw away from Imam Cagdad we were a bit hesitant to eat here since we were eager to try out a new part of town. This fear quickly dissipated as the friendly man in front allowed us to sampled the delicious food at the front counter. What we loved the most about this place was how they serve small portions allowing us to sample many items. We ordered 5 mezzes on 1 platter and 5 soups on another platter. Relatively, it was a bit pricey at 70 lira ($12 USD) but we found trying so many different regional dishes to be well worth it.
Kocak Baklava – If you want to try the best baklava in Gaziantep, the city where Baklava was invented, you need to come here. This place (there are actually two locations near each other) is a 20-30 minute walk north west of Old Town. Since the best baklava is known to be in Gaziantep, which supplies 90% of the country’s buttery treat, it is very probable that this place has the best baklava available on the entire planet. The service is near perfect. Although they were constantly packaging orders, no doubt being sent all over the world, we managed to get our very own baklava specialist tending to all of our baklava-related needs. It was amazing and you’ll pay for it - prices are about double what you’ll pay in Old Town, but it may be worth it - it’s also rated #2 in places to eat in all of Gaziantep.
Small Streetside Kebab Shops – You really can’t go wrong with wherever you choose to eat in Gaziantep. Walk off the main drag and follow your curiosity…or nose. It’s a safe bet to eat where others are eating. We stumbled upon a kebab shop and decided to eat there, the numerous cats in the alley helped us on that decision. Sylvie ordered a chicken kebab and lentil soup using her Turkish. We had to translate how to ask for extra vegetables. The man serving us was all smiles and seemed really invested in our dining experience. He promptly brought us a few salads and a free small order of cig kofte. When we told him we were from America he was so excited that, after bringing our order, he returned with a scoop of the infamous ground meat we’ve been seeing all over Gaziantep. We have seen the dish, usually in a large metal pot, sitting on a burner in the front of the majority of street side restaurants. The meat is cooked with onions and peppers. I took a taste and wasn’t too fond of it, Sylvie hated it. Our server used charades to illustrate that the meat was in fact lung meat.
Upon finishing our meal the chef approached us and asked if the food was good. When we responded that it was delicious his eyes lit up. He took my hand and grabbed me towards him planting two large kisses on both of my cheeks and he gave me a close hug. He said “Assalamu Alaikum” and taught me how to respond by saying “Wa Alaikumussalam”.
Meyan Şerbeti - this drink, can be found on the backs of street venders. It’s prepared with the roots of a licorice plant. It has a unique and bitter taste. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but worth a try. It’s supposed to be good for treating coughs and other bronchial ailments.
What to Buy in Gaziantep
1. Souvenirs at the Coppersmith Bazaar
Engraved copper plates and zinc plated copper pitchers can be found in many of the shops at the bazaar. Make sure you take your time inspecting them - from a glance they may look similar but at closer inspection the quality and craftsmanship varies a lot from piece to piece. Expect to pay between 125 and 450 lira on a pitcher ($20 - $80 USD).
Soap - Aleppo soap is likely the oldest soap made in the region. It’s made with laurel and good for the skin and hair. You’ll fine numerous types of organic soaps made from olive and other vegetable oils. The soap will cost you under a dollar.
Yemeni Leather Shoes - Traditional leather shoes are handmade right in Gaziantep. Children shoes were 30 lira and adult shoes were 90 lira ($5 and $16 USD, respectively).
Food Items to Buy
Nuts, Seeds, and Dried Fruit - In addition to the omnipresent pistachio you’ll find stores stockpiled with a variety of nuts, seeds and dried fruit being sold by the weight. You’ll also find snacks like imitation bugles for sale ($1 a pound is a steal). Make your own trail mix but just remember that some store owners get a little weird if you try to measure out the quantity yourself.
Grains - Similar to the nuts and seeds you’ll find dozens of grains in shops for bulk purchase
Other Dried Food (Peppers, Eggplant, etc) - I found this quite interesting. Many shops around the bazaar had large ropes threaded with dried food items hanging in front of their store. At first I just thought they were decoration but one night we ate a stuffed eggplant and learned that the dried food was purchased and then rehydrated to be used for consumption.
Baklava - Although this was in the “things you must eat” section I cannot stress enough the importance of trying all the local baklava. You can see in the picture below that this particular shop (rated #1 in Gaziantep) sells 20 varieties of Baklava. They charge between 70 and 135 lira per kilo ($5.5 to $11 USD per pound).
The Infamous Pistachio - The sheer number of varieties of this infamous nut is mind boggling. You’ll find heaping mounds being sold all over the city. Depending on the type you’ll pay between 45 and 80 lira a kilo ($3.5 - $6.0 USD per pound).
Did you know
Pistachios are so synonymous with Gaziantep, that they are known as Antep fıstık (Gaziantep nut) all around Turkey.
The pistachio, or pistacia vera, is a member of the cashew, mango, and sumac family, and is native to the Eastern Mediterranean.
The Queen of Sheba loved pistachios so much that she demanded the entire pistachio producing region’s harvest be reserved for her.
A pistachio tree takes approximately seven to ten years to mature.
Final Thoughts On Visiting Gaziantep
I hope I have answered your questions on why you should visit Gaziantep. This travel blog is a jumping off point and I encourage you to read more about southeast Turkey—we have found it to be the most rewarding region of Turkey. Please write us with any questions you have and I wish you a happy travels.
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