Straddling the Bosphorus River, Istanbul straddles two continents both physically and culturally. Ottoman mosques and old world bazaars mix and mingle with hip eateries and boutiques. The history that is the Middle East is ever so apparent as the young blood filling the streets are as chic as the locals from any European rival. This blending of cultures has a “right now” kind of vibe, making Istanbul a must on your list of hot travel destinations.
A short hop from the heart of Europe, Istanbul is easily reached. Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies non stop from many of the continents major cities and capitals. Getting around is also a breeze with the use of the cheap and efficient rail system and taxis. Once arrived, there is no shortage in accommodation choices. You can live like a sultan in an upscale resort, lounge in style in a chic boutique hotel, or relax in a simple hostel.
My choices for the former include the Four Seasons situated in the premier sightseeing zone of the Sultanhamet or the Ciragan Palace along the banks of the Bosphorus on the outskirts of the city. The pulse of the city lies in and around bohemian Beyoglu. This is also where you will find the cities best boutique hotels, brimming with hip locals and tourists who want to be in the heart of it all. Solid choices for sleep include the Witt Istanbul Suites and the Gezi Hotel Bosphorus. For those on a budget, you should consider booking a bed at Chambers of the Boheme hostel in Taksim Square.
The perennial foodie and art history lover, Istanbul quickly captivated. First stop: Eminonu. Home of balik ekmek, the quintessential Istanbuli street food, join the crowds piling at various stands along the quay hunkering to get their hands on a delish fish sandwich. Served simply with lemon juice and salt at $2 a pop, it is the perfect lunch or anytime snack.
Appetite not satisfied? No worries at all. The Egyptian Spice Bazaar (dating back to the 1600′s!!) is right around the corner. Hawking everything from spices, cheese, fish, turkish delight, to coffee vendors fill them main building and surrounding streets. Let your nose take the least and your stomach won’t be disappointed. Spice Bazaar must: Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi Mahdumlan. The most famous coffee supplier in all of Istanbul, a bag of this stuff will keep you awake for weeks!
Of course there is more to the majesty of Istanbul than the food (though the food, is certainly up high on my list). The Sultanhamet district is the center of Istanbul’s tourist zone housing many of the most important historical sights. With the help of a few guide books and local advice I set forth on my journey. My walking tour took the morning and logistically seemed to make the best use of time and path….
First Stop: Hagia Sophia (also known as Aya Sofya). The art historian in me was ELATED. Check one off the bucket list.
Built as a church by Emporer Justinian in 527- 565 AD on the site of Byzantium’s acropolis, the structure has served as a mosque, and now remains Istanbul’s most important museum. It’s massive dome is Hagia Sophia‘s hallmark and the interior mosaics highly regarded. Both are decorations attributed to the original design and purpose of the space. When the Ottoman Turks took control of the church in 1453, they concealed the mosaics and added decorative elements partial to Islam such as the minarets still visible today. One prominent design element included the calligraphic medallions. The ones on view in Hagia Sophia were added between 1847-1849 and bear the names of important Islamic prophets and caliphs. They are the largest examples of calligraphy in the Islamic world. IN 1935, Turkish President and founder of the Republic of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared the space a national museum. Hagia Sophia remains a museum today.
Hagia Sophia was truly a great way to start the day. Across the street from Hagia Sophia was my next stop: the Basilica Cistern. Used to store water for the Great Palace, it was definitely a welcomed cool reprieve from the beating summer heat.
Following the Basilica Cistern it was off the the Hippodrome, a large open square that was the venue of choice for afternoon chariot races.Continuing down the tourist path, I found myself at the Blue Mosque. The mosque was built in 1606 by Sultan Ahmet I and was meant to rival the beauty of Hagia Sophia. While impressive, I don’t think he managed to succeed. A still functioning mosque, it is regardless, worth a visit though remember it is often closed during prayer times.
After a morning spent taking in the sights, I think I was in need to some shopping to rejuvenate my soul :) The Grand Bazaar, the most famous souq in the world, luckily was around the corner. With vendors selling every good imaginable in its 4000 plus shops. Leather good and carpets are a Turkish specialy. If you are in the market for either, this is the place to buy. After hours spent haggling, I ended up with a lovely suede jacket which, to me, is the only thing I am looking forward to as the weather is turning. A stop here is an Istanbul MUST. It’s closed on Sundays, so plan your trip accordingly.
Some pampering was definitely in order after a long day soaking up the majestic history of Istanbul. A quick trip to Cemberlitas Hamami did the trick. The oldest in the city and around the corner from the Grand Bazaar for 69TL (approx $38) one can get the traditional style steam, scrub, and bubble was as well as access to varying baths. Additional add-ons come in the form of massage, reflexology, and mask treatments. The massage, in my opinion, well worth the splurge! Note to those considering a visit- hamams are not the place for the shy. Nudity is definitely the rule rather than the exception. Cagalogu Hamamni and Aga Hamami are other great alternatives.
Another not to miss site of Istanbul is Topkapi Palace. Taking in the opulence of the complex will take the better half of a day. Built in 1453, the palace has been home to its’ fair share of colorful stories. Grab a headset and make your way through the various rooms filled with jewels, armor, and other regal possessions. A ticket to the harem is well worth the extra 15TL.
Istanbul’s sights may be the reason you visit, the food is the reason you will return. Beyoglu and neighboring Cihangir are brimming with lively restaurants, bistros, and drinking establishments. Filled with locals (most tourists stick to the Sultanhamet) this is the area to visit if you want a sense of authentic Istanbul and Turkish culture. Walk the streets, find a restaurant that intrigues, order a plate of meze (the Turkish version of tapas) an Efes beer, and enjoy! Sofyali 9 (Sofyali Sokak 9) was a particularly good taverna but not to worry if there aren’t any tables. All the restaurants here are packed with locals and those who are in the know: always a good sign.
A few recommendations from my local friends: Cafe Lucca (Cevdetpasa Cadessi No. 51B) in Cihangir, Saki (Kameriye sok. 9A) and Arslan (Asmalı mescid sofralı sokak No:7) both in Beyoglu, and Reina (Muallim Naci Caddesi 44) if you want to go straight from eating to dancing at a popular resto-club.
With the history, people, and a culture melding the European with Middle Eastern, Istanbul will not disappoint.