Located in southern Turkey on the eastern Mediterranean coast, Hatay province is a treasure trove of rich multicultural heritage and delicious dishes.
Text & photos by Yao Hsiao
Being one of the UNESCO Creative Cities of Gastronomy, Hatay is well-known for dishes such hummus, kebabs, and künefe. Not limited solely to food, Hatay’s location at a critical geographic juncture with rich soil reflects a multicultural and cosmopolitan character with influences from the Middle East, Anatolia and the Mediterranean.
City of tolerance: what to see
Most of the attractions located in Antakya, the capital of Hatay Province, are easy to reach by bus or on foot. Start at the Hatay Archeology Museum, which owns one of the world’s largest mosaic collections. In addition to the large mosaics from the Roman and Byzantine Eras, the museum also displays an extensive collection of coins, statues, and other ancient utensils. It is not an exaggeration to say that casual observers can spend nearly two hours just briefly browsing the exhibition area so, history buffs should plan to spend the whole afternoon examining the rich historical heritage on display in the museum.
Take a bus or walk along Antakya Reyhanlı Yolu to reach the Church of Saint Peter, one of the oldest churches in the world. This is the place where it is believed that the term “Christian” was first used by Saint Peter the Apostle when he came to preach in the region. The church was carved into a natural cave in Mount Stauris as early as 40 A.D., and a stone facade was added by the Crusaders around the twelfth century. Worship services are conducted on June 29 every year.
Not far from the church, there is an innovative contemporary building that stands out from its surroundings. This is The Museum Hotel Antakya, where a 2,000 year old massive mosaic piece was found during the hotel’s construction. The ambitious project was recently finished by EAA-Emre Arolat Architecture, the world-acclaimed Turkish firm, after nine years of excavation and construction. In this museum hotel, guests can stay in rooms built above the impressive, well-preserved ancient ruins.
Located in the city center, the historical Habibi Neccar Mosque has an obscure, yet interesting history. Before the mosque was built, the site may have been a Roman temple, and then turned into a church. A tale says that Habibi Neccar, a carpenter of Antioch, was the first believer whom two disciples of Jesus met when they arrived in this region. Failing to mediate a conflict between the locals and the disciples, Habibi Neccar was killed alongside them. The tombs underneath the current mosque are said to be theirs.
Just a three minute walk from the mosque is the Medical and Aromatic Plants Museum, housed in a historic mansion with a courtyard. As Hatay is a land rich in herbs—which is also reflected in its food culture—this small museum displays 280 different dried plants that visitors can touch and smell.
Wandering in the city’s main bazaar, Uzun Çarşı, is always fun. For a coffee break, Asi Künefeleri housed in Kurşunlu Han offers a quiet escape. Try the different flavors of Turkish or Arabic, coffee—added with milk or different spices—which are harder to find in Istanbul.
City of gastronomy: what & where to eat
As Antakya is best-known for food, eating is definitely the major activity of the trip. While all the iconic food places are in close proximity and within walking distance of each other, the main challenge is crafting an itinerary to hit all the must-eats in limited time.
Meat lovers must try tepsi kebabı and kağıt kebabı, the two iconic meat dishes of Hatay. Eat the juicy, fatty, flavorful kebabs at Vitamin Kasabı, where the butcher prepare the dishes and sends them to the stone oven bakery across the street to cook. Tepsi kebabı is spiced ground beef and mutton placed on a round tray topped with tomatoes and peppers, and tomato sauce is poured on top before cooking. The sweetness of the tomato amazingly enriches the spicy, savory flavor of the meat. Kağıt kebabı is made with a similar process, but cooked wrapped in paper. Uzun Çarşı Caddesi No.158; T: 0326 212 15 71
Due to Levantine influence, hummus is a big thing in Hatay. Visit Humusçu Nedim Usta for a late breakfast or lunch. In addition to a plate of hummus served with various chopped veggies and pickles on top, try the yogurt, bakla ezmesi (fava bean spread), and cevizli biberli (dried red pepper and walnut spread). Each spread is finely grounded and spiced, offering excellent texture and flavor. Plus, they are very colorful and photogenic.Gazipaşa Caddesi No.5
Serving döner with onion and coriander salad, plus a spoonful of hot tomato dressing on top, Dönerci Tacettin Usta’nın Yeri is the most authentic döner place in town and requires advance reservations. Because the old usta (master) still prepares and takes care of every order by himself, having limited guests at one time is how he maintains service quality. This is also why the spacious shop always has only a few tables occupied. Service starts around noon and ends in the late afternoon. Silahlı Kuvvetler Caddesi No.18; T: 0326 212 49 53
Among all the künefe shops in Antakya, Çınaraltı Künefe Yusuf Usta’nın Yeri is the most popular. Instead of preparing each portion separately, künefe here is cooked in one big pan over charcoal and then cut into pieces. Expect to wait awhile to taste the crispy, chewy and mildly sweet künefe with lots of pistachios on top. Ayakkabıcılar Çarşısı Pazar Sokak No.2
The historical, family-run Affan Kahvesi is the go-to place for hayatlı, a regional dessert made of three layers: custard, rose water, and ice cream. With mild vanilla and rosy flavor, this cold desert is a refreshing treat on a hot sunny day. While the ground floor of Affan Kahvesi provides a truly nostalgic vibe, the upper floor is a vibrant terrace lavish with vines on the walls. Kurtuluş Caddesi No.42/A
For a casual meal, Hatay Sultan Sofrası offers traditional, regional home cooked dishes with a menu that changes daily. Either a bowl of soup or hearty main dish will satisfy a starving stomach. İstiklal Caddesi No 20/A; T: 0326 213 87 59
An evening feast at Konak restaurant can be the highlight of your food tour in Antakya. Housed in a historic mansion, Konak’s spacious garden is where to experience the lively, cozy night scene of the old town. The mezze here is not only delicious, but also well presented. Try ali nakiz (eggplant paste with beef cubes), grilled cheese, za’atar salad, and the Hatay style çiğ köfte (raw meatballs) and oruk (içli köfte, or stuffed meatballs). Afterwards, stroll around the neighborhood to find a live music venue to spend the rest of the night. Make a reservation for Konak’s outdoor seats. Kastal Sokak No.2; T: 0326 214 32 14
Day trips out of town
Start with a bountiful breakfast at Hammuşun Yeri Yağmur Kahvaltı Salonu in Döver, a small town half an hour away from Antakya city center. Plan to be surprised by the fast service and generous portions. The side dishes and bread are quite different from what is typical in Istanbul and eastern Turkey. Among all, we love the carrot jam and grilled cheese with garlic. Reservations are necessary. Döver Sokak Köy Meydanı Türbe Yanı, Döver; T: 0532 482 68 92
In front of the breakfast place, catch the shuttle bus to the nearby Harbiye waterfalls. Known as Daphne in the past, this area used to be a famous summer resort town during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Today, the greenery and waterfalls remain a popular attraction for locals to come to cool off on hot summer days. However, instead of a natural gem, this area has become a popular tourist spot packed with restaurants who set their tables in the water and man-made pools.
Interesting and fascinating for visitors of all ages, the Titus Vespasianus Tunnel and Beşikli Cave (Cradle Cave) in Çevlik village are the historical sites not to miss. Constructed by pure manpower for more than a century, the tunnel was built during the Roman times to divert the floods from the mountains that threatened the city’s harbor. The magnificent size and well-preserved engineering make this site listed on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list. Wear sandals or waterproof shoes and walk in the water along the tunnel.
Located in a rocky hill near the tunnel, the Beşikli Cave is a deep, maze-like, Roman period stone cut cemetery that has a dozen tombs engraved in chambers. The whole area, encompassing the two ancient sites and a walking trail, is well organized by the municipality, clean, and easy to explore. There are also many vendors selling tea and local produce along the trail. Chill out at Çevlik Beach after visiting the two ancient sites.
With a vehicle, it’s easy to visit other attractions in Samandağ, such as the Moses Tree in Hıdırbey and Vakıflı, the last Armenian village in Turkey. Musa Dağı restaurant provides a great view of the lavish greenery in this area.