Istanbul is not just a treasure-trove of ancient wonders; it has a modern side and a vibrant art and shopping scene. The latest European Capital of Culture is a great place to spend a long weekend
Standing beneath the dazzling domes of Aya Sofya and feeling the vibes that still emanate from one of the world’s great houses of prayer, it’s easy to understand why Istanbul, at the confluence of two continents, has been a spiritual magnet for nearly two millennia.
This city, considered holy by both Christians and Muslims, has also been home to a vibrant Jewish community for more than 1,000 years. Sufism may have been outlawed, but there is a growing New Age contingent. As well as its religious tolerance, Istanbul is special for the colourful exoticism that comes with its unique geography. The former Byzantium and Constantinople is the only city which has one foot in Europe, the other in Asia, and the mix of east and west, ancient and edgily modern, is a heady and vibrant one.
While there’s no denying the appeal of the old town, the modern city is a buzzy, thriving metropolis with up and coming alternative, edgy neighbourhoods, a burgeoning art and music scene and a wonderful weekend café and nightlife scene. This last stretches like a string of jewels along the suburbs fronting the Bosphorous, that beautiful stretch of water separating the European and Asian sides of this unforgettable - and delightfully affordable - city.
Aya Sofya was one of the earliest churches of Christianity before it became one of Islam’s holiest mosques. Now it’s a deconsecrated museum, which nevertheless demands a visit to soak up the spiritual atmosphere, take in the stunning architecture and admire what’s left of the gold mosaics.
The Blue Mosque is the most visited, with its multiple domes and minarets, but the Suleymaniye Mosque is less touristy, especially for those who stay to observe the elaborate rituals that precede prayer. You don’t have to be inside any mosque to enjoy the haunting call of the muezzin, which hangs on the air several times a day, most evocatively at first light and after dusk.
As far as gorgeous Byzantine churches go, Chora is the king....worth the journey into the western suburbs to admire the stunning mosaics and frescoes. The beautiful Ahrida Synagogue on the Golden Horn dates back to the 15th century, but may not be as instantly accessible for worship as the many synagogues in the Galata area.
Although the Sufi sect has been outlawed as a religion, modern-day whirling dervishes still twirl in exultation for visitors at the Galata Mevlevihanesi in the Tunel district. The peaceful courtyard of the magnificent old building where they perform has its own special vibe.
Where to stay
Because of its spectacular location, it really is worth splashing out on Istanbul's best hotel, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. This former sultan's residence on the Bosphorous is separated by a spectacular swimming pool, with a modern wing containing sumptuous rooms, and the breakfast buffet with 102 items including many local delicacies might be the world's best. Splash out on a river view, which will cost at least £200 per night, or economise by booking one of the cheaper rooms at the back, which depending on availability could be had for half the price.
What, and where, to eat
Turkish food is all about fresh ingredients, messed about with as little as possible - though appearance is taken very seriously, with produce, pastries and salads displayed as enticingly as luxury goods.
Kebab houses predominate, selling not only grilled meats but Turkish pizzas of pitta bread topped with a minced beef, tomato and parsley mixture known as lamajoun, as well as shared starter plates of aubergine puree and other dips, delicious local goats’ cheese and lassi-like drinks of salted buttermilk.
Vegetarians will find great aubergine dishes, salads and excellent borek - a sort of quiche made with filo dough - and will enjoy the soup-houses where wonderful lentil broths are dispensed day and night. The national dessert is baklava, and don’t miss real Turkish delight washed down with sweet, strong, black Turkish coffee.
*Hamdi, Tahmis Caddesi, next to the Spice Market, is an Istanbul institution - great kebabs and wonderful views of the Golden Horn, for between £5-10 per head.
*Topaz, 50 Inonu Caddesi, Gumassuyu, close to the Besiktas football stadium, is one of the best restaurants in the new city; check out the multi-course Ottoman tasting menu for around £46 per person, served against a background of world music and fantastic views.
*Below the Galata bridge, boat vendors and fish-fryers dispense the world’s best street snack - small fry stuffed hot from the grill into a hunk of fresh bread, for about half the price of fish and chips in Blighty.
Where to chill out
Hammams are Turkish bath-houses providing an experience somewhere between being bathed as tenderly as a baby and doused like a cod on the fishmonger’s slab! But you can’t help but emerge chilled from a session that starts in the steam room, takes you onto a marble slab to be scrubbed and tubbed, rinsed off with copious basins of water and eventually dried and massaged. Public baths like Cerembitas near the Bazaar have sumptuous interiors and are less costly than private hammams like those at the Ciragan Palace.
Modern Istanbullus prefer to chill out in tea-gardens, where shisha pipes await smokers and the favourite tipple is apple tea. There’s a good one in the courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque, and another beside the Istanbul Modern, which houses the country’s premier modern art collection.
When dusk falls, locals love their rooftop cocktail lounges. Enjoy the views from 360 and Leb-i Derya, both off Taksim Square on the pedestrianised Istiklal Caddesi, and check out the soothing Bosphorous views of the clubs and bars along the Golden Mile which runs north from the easy to reach suburb of Ortakoy. This last has a great weekend crafts market scene, and a very chilled bar and eatery in the House Cafe, which has a huge waterfront terrace. Clubs to check out in the witching hour include Blackk, Angelique and Sortie.
Shop till you drop
Every first-time visitor hits the Grand Bazaar to stock up on pashminas, gold jewellery and souvenirs. The pashminas are enticing, but many are made in China; check out Sehrazat for the best made in Turkey, Abdulla for great natural products for bedroom and bathroom, and snap up some Turkish delight at Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir.
Lovely ceramic bowls and dishes can be picked up along with Turkish coffee, apple tea, dried fruit and nuts and spices in the Egyptian Spice Market near the Galata Bridge. But don’t buy Turkish saffron - it’s not the real thing, which costs as much in Istanbul as at home.
If anything, shopping is more interesting in the new town, which has its own Portobello in Cukurcuma, an up and coming area where wonderful retro junk sits side by side with Turkish antiques, alternative designer gear and locally-made jewellery. Head for Faik Pasa Yokusu, lined with enticing bric-a-brac emporia like Popcorn, and visit Aziz across the road for colourful, affordable fabrics and jewellery from Turkestan. Visit Buka higher up the hill for original clothes designed in-store.
Also check out the art bookshops and boutiques of the equally up and coming Tunel area (take the little tram from Taksim to the last stop)....this once no-go area has been transformed into a vibrant, still slightly edgy area, by the many photographers and designers who have recently moved in.
Really affordable handmade items like felt and feather brooches, and bracelets of ribbon woven with stone - can be found at the Ortakoy craft market held on Sunday afternoons. And Istanbul has just opened its first 100 per cent organic food market, Sesli Ferikoy, Saturdays only....it’s 10 minutes from Taksim Square, the hub of the new city.
It’s easy to marvel at the sumptuous surroundings in which bevies of beautiful women lived in Topkapi and other Ottoman palaces and forget they were prisoners, often brutally dispatched when the sultan had had enough of their looks and talents.
For centuries, rulers had scouts talent-spotting local beauties, who were kept with other royal consorts and their children in the Harem, a special section of the palace where eunuchs kept guard. Favourites acquired power and jewels; the unluckiest, who served Ibrahim the Mad, were tied in sacks and drowned in the Bosphorous when their charms faded.
Extra tickets are needed at Topkapi to visit the Harem and the must-see Treasury, which contains a famous gem-encrusted dagger and other crown jewels. Allow half a day to visit this palace which is Istanbul’s top visitor attraction.
With so many wonders old and new to absorb, Istanbul demands a minimum of three full days, but a week would not be too long in such an exciting and stimulating metropolis.