A Tale of Two Continents
Steeped in history and vibrating with a raw energy, Istanbul is a city to visit now.
Istanbul is a world-class city. It may not seem like one with its disorganised-organised chaos, its peak-hour traffic jams and all the passionate haggling that takes place in the Grand Bazaar, but it is.
A city with one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Istanbul’s rich history and culture – its history stretches back two millennia – together with a seemingly endless influx of young people and new money, gives the city a distinct character you’ll be hard placed to find anywhere else.
It’s a city to head to now, and here are 10 reasons why:
Soak in the Bosphorus
Forever in a constant ebb and flow, the Istanbullus swear that the Bosphorus is ‘alive.’ Some of the more pleasurable ways to soak up its energy and sights include a river cruise (from Eminonu’s Bogaz Hatti dock), a morning coffee at the House Café Ortakoy (Salhane Sokak No: 1 Ortaköy), wine and cheese at sunset at Il Porto (Kuckbebek, Cevdet pasa Cd, No.58 D1, Besikta). Or if you dare, take a quick dip just as the locals do on a daily basis.
Learn about an ancient civilisation
Turkey’s rich history is best illustrated through the breathtaking Hagia Sophia. It was originally a Byzantine church, was transformed into an Ottoman mosque and now exists as a museum. Elaborate Islamic calligraphy exists next to beautifully detailed Christian mosaics – most unusual. Situated nearby is the Blue Mosque. Take time to inspect the tablets on the walls inscribed with verses from the Koran, dating back to the 17th century.
Dine like an Ottoman emperor
Istanbul is home to a number of high-end fine dining restaurants. Among the best are Turga (www.kempinski.com/en/istanbul) with classic and contemporary Ottoman cuisine. For a real treat, sample the tasting menu that starts with selections of dolma (stuffed vine leaves) and ends with a divine fig mousse with hazelnut cream. Over on the Asian side, make a booking at Cercis Murat Konagi (www.cercismurat.com). The menu of provincial South-Eastern cuisine is a sophisticated blend of Turkish and Arabic influences. Share the mezze platter (the pink muhammara dip is delicious), as it is large enough to be a main course.
Explore the Grand Bazaar
One of the world’s oldest and largest covered bazaars, a visit to the Grand Bazaar is an experience that cannot be replicated. Inside, there are over 5,000 vendors selling everything from furs, leather jackets, copperware, carpets, precious gems, gold, antiques to ceramics, and much more. Go with a map, if you lose your way, don’t worry, everyone gets lost. Be prepared to bargain.
Travel between two continents
Istanbul is ‘One City – Two Continents.’ While the European side is where most of the sights are, the Asian side has its own genteel appeal. This is where most of the Istanbullus live. Here the streets are wider, quieter and, ironically, more European like. The tree-lined Baghdad Avenue is where most of the affluent neighbourhoods are situated and offers a shopping experience similar to Paris’ Champ Elysees.
Visit an ancient palace
Explore the Topkapi Palace (Bab-I Humayun Caddesi Gulhane), the primary residence of the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years. At least half a day is required to enjoy its must-see elements – the Harem (and its 300 beautifully tiled chambers), the Imperial Treasury for a look at some real treasures like a jade-bound Koran and diamond chain mail, and breathtaking views from the fourth and innermost courtyard.
Have a hubbly bubbly time
Call it what you want but in Turkey they call it narghile and they’ve been puffing since the 17th century. The strip along the American Pazari (near the Istanbul Modern) is lined with cafes and waiters calling out to you to come in and smoke up. For the uninitiated, start with the fruity tobaccos.
Visit a hamam
Originally an ancient ritual meant for purification, these days a visit to the hamam is more for socialising and relaxing. The centrally located Cemberlitas Hamam (Vezirhan Caddesi 8, Cemberlitas) is a great way to end a day spent bargaining at the Grand Bazzar. For the more discerning, a discreet experience awaits at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul Spa (www.kempinski.com/en/istanbul/) where a quality soap down and deep tissue massage will leave you limp and utterly relaxed.
Party from dawn to dusk
The locals sure know how to have a good time and clubbing in Istanbul is their time to show-off in a big way. The clubs located between Ortaköy and Kuruçeşme attract everyone from celebrities, millionaires, football players on break, European playboys and, of course, the models. If you have only one evening to party, make it a night out at Reina (Ortaköy Mh., Muallim Naci Cd 44). Bopping to the beat of Eastern/Euro house music under the Bosphorus Bridge while knocking back flutes of champagne is one party you won’t forget anytime soon.
Escape to the islands
Set in the Marmara Sea off Istanbul's Asian Shore, Princes Islands are where many of the city’s elite have summer homes. Car-free, here the living is easy. During the day, go island hopping – there are nine islands in total – at night, fill your tummy at one of the many fish restaurants around the main island’s ferry area. Afterwards, walk off your dinner with an evening stroll around the local square.