The capital of empires… The city that dominated continents… The cradle of civilisation… The meeting point of cultures and civilisations… These are some of the thousands of phrases that describe Istanbul. Yet neither words nor any amount of reading or listening are sufficient to truly describe and become familiar with the city.
Only when you walk along its historic streets, when you see with your own eyes the architectural masterpieces of Byzantine and Ottoman Empires in their original setting, when you enjoy the panoramic vistas of its unique location, and when you start to explore its mystical beauties – only then will you begin to discover, and to fall in love with Istanbul!
Istanbul is a melting pot of cultures that have formed this fabulous city over the millennia. Take a look at Hagia Sophia; this orthodox Basilica not only changed the perception of architecture but has been utilized by the different religions to be found in Istanbul’s history. In 360- 1453, it served as the Greek Patriarchal Cathedral of Constantinople; in between that from 1204-1261 it became a Roman Catholic Cathedral. In 1453 it became a mosque and then a museum. Very recently, Turkey’s President has decreed it to be a mosque once again! Hagia Sophia displays a parallel to Istanbul itself; under the layers you will find a surprising history!
Istanbul is a city where you can have a European experience with an Islamic grace. Spires and domes of mosques together with medieval architecture dominate the skyline. At dawn, you can see people going to mosque for the first prayer as you hear the call of muezzin rebound from the ancient minarets. Meanwhile, you see clubbers making their way home from the nightclubs and bars while their neighbours are kneeling on the prayer rug. Istanbul has a very unique ability to make so many diverse things rhyme together.
The chaotic and colourful Grand Bazaar is the best-known shopping destination on the historic peninsula, but it certainly isn’t the only one. After exploring its winding lanes, follow the steady stream of local shoppers heading downhill into the busy shopping precinct of Tahtakale, which has at its hub the seductively scented Spice Bazaar.
In fact, no visit to Istanbul is complete without stopping by the atmospheric Spice Bazaar or Mısır Çarşısı, (the Egyptian bazaar), located along the Eminönü district of Istanbul. Alongside the sea routes, it has been a source of local and exotic spices and herbs since 1663. Originally known as the New or Valide Bazaar its name evolved in the mid-eighteenth century when most of the spices came from Egypt. From there, head back up towards the Blue Mosque and its attached row of shops, where you may well find a lasting memento of your trip.
Another place you should not miss, particularly for its shopping opportunities, is Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). It’s in Beyoğlu, and is the city’s most popular strolling, shopping and snacking street, now reserved for pedestrians. It’s lined with boutiques, cafes, consulates, restaurants, galleries, cinemas and banks, with residential apartments above. It’s a lively street with buskers outside the shops, particularly in the evening. An iconic red tram runs along the length of this street too. As it’s only a single carriage, it can get crowded. but good to experience.
Be wary of scams along this street if you’re a single man! The goal is to get you to enter one of their bars with overpriced drinks and under-dressed women. The result is always the same: you end up with a huge bill, often into hundreds of Euros. I came across a slightly different version of this scam but I just kept my cool and kept on walking on even though the guy was persistent and even asked me if I wanted a man when I simply ignored his first request of a woman!
Dominating the Old City’s skyline, Süleyman the Magnificent’s most notable architectural legacy certainly lives up to its patron’s name. The fourth imperial mosque built in İstanbul, the Süleymaniye was designed by Mimar Sinan, the most famous of all Ottoman architects, and was built between 1550 and 1557. Its extensive and largely intact külliye (mosque complex) buildings illustrate aspects of daily Ottoman life and are still used by the local community, making this a sight that truly lives up to the tag of ‘living history’.
The city’s signature building was the grand project of Sultan Ahmet I, who urged its architect and builders on in the construction process before his untimely death in 1617, aged only 27. The mosque’s wonderfully curvaceous exterior features a cascade of domes and six tapering minarets. Inside, the huge space is encrusted with thousands of the blue tiles that give the building its unofficial but commonly used name. Beloved by tourists and locals alike, it and Hagia Sophia bookend the beautiful Sultanahmet Park in a truly extraordinary fashion.
Another must-see while in Istanbul is the Galata Tower; it’s one of Istanbul’s most iconic visuals, overlooking Beyoğlu and Karaköy from its perched position, while the colourful lights of the tower can be seen at night from all over the city. It’s best seen at dusk and one can climb to the top for amazing views, that is, if you have the patience to wait in the long queue!
I was lucky enough to be staying very close to the bohemian district of Beyoğlu. This meant I was close to the various cafes and restaurants serving cheap but delicious local cuisine. Beyoğlu is the eating and entertainment epicentre of the city so don’t miss it! I also found the metro in Istanbul very efficient indeed for quick access to most parts of the city. It not only consists of underground trains but trams and funiculars as well.
People who are unfamiliar with the country assume the national drink is coffee, but in fact, tea is the inseparable drink of Turkish culture. Called Cay in Turkish, small tulip shaped glasses sitting on round saucers are used to drink the tea. The sight of the çaycı or tea-waiter carrying a tray of glasses to thirsty, caffeine-craving tea-drinkers is one of the first and most common sights you’ll see in Istanbul. Having fresh, hot tea always available everywhere is one of life’s splendid little luxuries in Turkey.
Oh, by the way, make sure you taste Turkish ice cream – it’s out of this world! Honestly! It’s a little different to western-style ice creams, however; Turkish ice cream is sweet, creamy, stretchy and sticky at the same time. This stretchy stickiness is thanks to the inclusion of an aromatic resin called mastic. In addition to mastic, it’s also thickened with salep, a special type of powdered orchid bulb. So whether it’s your first time in Istanbul, or you’re a returning visitor, Turkish ice cream should be high up on your list of ‘all things delicious to eat‘!
While in Istanbul, I also took the opportunity of visiting the Rumeli Hisar, meaning “Fortress in the land of the Romans”. It took only four months to build this fifteenth-century castle and it has been standing for more than five centuries! It’s a majestic fortress with pretty views from the top! Located on the shores of the Bosphorus, the easiest way to get to the castle is to take a bus passing by Rumeli Hisarı bus station and to get off at Rumeli Hisarı bus stop. The castle is right next to the bus stop.
In my opinion, three to four days are fairly enough to enjoy the must-see places in the city, and to be able to say “I’ve been there” before heading off to other parts of Turkey. Unfortunately, I was not able to do this as I needed to head off to Skopje in North Macedonia after those few days I spent in Istanbul. However, if I ever get the opportunity, I’ll definitely return.
Everything about Istanbul is unique, fascinating and distinct; the city beats to its own tune, one that is continuous and timeless. Always growing but not losing its roots. Definitely one of the best cities I’ve ever visited! And that’s rich coming from someone who prefers mountains, lakes and countryside!