Before business brought me to Gaziantep, Turkey, I had never heard of this city near the Syrian border.

Gaziantep? Too bad NATO didn’t put those Patriot missiles in Istanbul instead, I thought to myself before making the trip to a city I knew nothing about, other than that U.S. troops were headed there for a missile defense mission.

While it might not be Istanbul, I soon learned Gaziantep, with an exotic flair all its own, has plenty to boast about. It might not be on the list of hot-spot destinations, but if you want to head off the beaten path, Gaziantep is a journey worth making.

Upon arrival, I didn’t have much of a plan travelwise, but I asked a Turkish military acquaintance for some tips.

His first suggestion was Bakirciar Garsisi, a shopping area in the heart of the city center. Second tip: Eat at the Imam Cagdas restaurant.

“The baklava is one of the best, if not the best, in Turkey,” the Turkish soldier told me. “People come from all over for it.”

Armed with that info, my travel partner and I were off to explore.

As we strolled through the old town, we stumbled upon one cool thing after another. From castle ruins overlooking the city to a series of mosques and lots of little shops along winding alleyways, there was no shortage of Old World charm. Surprisingly, many of the mosques, dating to the 14th and 15th century, had tourist information in both Turkish and English.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the city is its bazaars. There’s the “covered bazaar,” which dates to 1781 and includes some 73 shops, many of which sell brightly colored spices and dried fruits.

At another nearby bazaar, Gaziantep craftsmen work to shape copper and other metals into everything from tea sets and knives to pots and pans. With the smell of heated metals and the clanging of hammers, it’s clear the bazaar is a living, breathing market and not some tourist trap. Actually, there were few obvious signs of tourists in the city center, where I didn’t notice any other Westerners. The streets were decidedly male and most of the women were veiled in one fashion or another. Still, the people were pleasant. No gawking or unfriendly glares. Just people going about their business.

As we pressed on, we finally made our way to the Imam Cagdas, which appeared to be one of the better-known restaurants in the old town. Across from an old mosque, the restaurant has been around for more than 100 years.

During our midafternoon visit, we ordered baklava to see if it was as good as advertised. I couldn’t really say if it was the best in Turkey, but it tasted great. It was sweet, but not overly so. And the crumbled pistachios turned it into something special.

Pistachios are a big business in Gaziantep and can be had everywhere, whether in downtown markets or roadside stands on the highway.

Days later, as I boarded a plane 150 miles away in the city of Adana, I saw a fellow traveler with a box from Imam Cagdas in tow. Surely it contained baklava.

Getting there Gaziantep, a city of more than 1 million, has its own airport. If you’re driving from someplace else in the region, Turkey has a good highway system. Just remember that you will encounter a series of highway tolls.

Hotels There are more than 30 hotels in the city. We stayed at the Novotel, which offered a decent rate and a good breakfast. It also is only about a 10-minute walk to the old city, where all the sites are located.

Costs Visits to the assorted mosques are free, as are the bazaars.

Food There is a wide-ranging selection. For a couple of slices of baklava and Turkish coffees, we paid about 15 Turkish lira. You can splurge in Gaziantep, which is known for its cuisine, or go on the cheap.

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John covers U.S. military activities across Europe and Africa. Based in Stuttgart, Germany, he previously worked for newspapers in New Jersey, North Carolina and Maryland. He is a graduate of the University of Delaware.

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