Standing on the very link between Europe and Asia, Istanbul also marries modern and ancient, and is one of the most amazing cities in the world
If ever a city was perfectly constructed for tourists, it has to be Istanbul. But then as travellers have been coming here for several thousand years – not always peacefully – I suppose it should be pretty adept at giving them plenty to see.
The place has a strange, almost magical ambience. I remember standing at a busy part of the town centre on my first visit here, and it seemed like I was the only one who wasn’t in a rush to be somewhere, and who had no real direction in which to aim. Those all around me, whether hurrying on foot, buzzing around on scooters, or driving with a death wish in their cars, were all focused and determined not to let anything come between them and the quickest way to their destination. At the same time, I also felt that this was a city that I was part of. I had never been here before, and yet I didn’t feel like a stranger.
Maybe everyone feels like that, because Istanbul is such a vast, chaotic, sprawling metropolis, and it’s impossible for any one person to know it all intimately. It is, after all, the only city in the world that is built on two continents. It’s also been the capital of three of the world’s greatest empires: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. That legacy means it also has one of the most diverse, rich and celebrated cultural heritages anywhere.
And as if all the palaces, mosques, museums, churches and bazaars aren’t enough, it also just happens to be in one of the most perfect and glorious locations, with the Bosphorus dividing the European and Asian sides of the city.
I was fortunate to get a room at the four-star Zurich Hotel, in the heart of the Historical Peninsula. With both an outdoor and indoor swimming pool, and an excellent terrace restaurant, it is also within walking distance of the main sights in this district.
Top of most visitors' lists is the enormous Topkapi Palace, which is more like a small town than a true palace. Between the 15th and 19th centuries, this maze of structures was the centrepiece of the Ottoman Empire, and its opulence is clear to see. Surrounded by woodland gardens, the palace doubles as a museum of unimaginable wealth. I’ve seen many museums in some of the grandest cities, but I was totally awestruck by the riches here. It houses not just the stunning collections of costumes, jewellery, and artefacts relating to the sultans and their families, but also the holy relics of the Prophet Mohammed. These were brought to Islam when the Ottoman Empire assumed the caliphate of Islam. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the vast complex, for me anyway, was a slightly secluded area to the left of the kitchens. This was the harem, which was home to the many wives, concubines, and assorted offspring. I had always doubted that such places actually existed outside of Carry On films!
From here, it’s a short walk to the beautiful Sultanahmet Mosque, more commonly referred to as the Blue Mosque because of its exquisite blue-and-white interior tile panelling. Whilst I was photographing its amazing exterior, with six towering minarets, a helpful local told me that I should return for the ‘show’ in the evening. As luck would have it, I had the time to come back, and was enthralled by the nightly sound and light show that uses the mosque as its centrepiece.
The list of fabulous buildings in Istanbul would fill several pages here, even without going into any detail about them. The impressive Dolmabahce Palace, on the shore north of the ‘Golden Horn’ inlet, the Istanbul Palace, the Sea Pavilion, the Imperial Suleymaniye Mosque, the Cinili Kosk… the list is endless. Suffice to say, you will never run out of places to see, and whatever your interest there will be something for you.
At the other end of the spectrum, I also enjoyed the more mundane tasks like shopping. Of course, this is done Turkish-style in the Grand Covered Bazaar, which was just a few minutes' walk from my hotel. This labyrinth of narrow streets beguiles you with a staggering 4,000 shops! I found everything from leather goods to jewellery, hand-painted ceramics to copper and brassware, and, naturally, every shape, size and colour of the world-famous carpets. Every shopkeeper seemed to pounce on me and invite me to see his wares, which – he said – were better than all the others! I quickly became an expert at bartering, except that I would suddenly realise it was for something I didn’t actually want. It’s easy to get caught up in the whole frantic atmosphere of the bazaars, but I thoroughly enjoyed it anyway.
If it’s all getting too much, though, I can recommend a leisurely cruise around the picturesque coastline. There are plenty of different boat trips available, from short circuits on the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, to full-day excursions along the coast of the Sea of Marmara, or the Black Sea. I enjoyed an afternoon visiting the islands of Buyukada and Heybeliada, which were once places of exile for the Byzantine princes.
We arrived back in good time to enjoy a traditional Turkish meal at one of my favourite eating places. The Naz Restaurant (Bayildim cd no 2, Macka Besiktas) is chic, clean, and enjoys some fabulous views across the Bosphorus. And afterwards, its perfect for a stroll along the waterfront, watching the lights on the Asian side of the channel, and reflecting on just how many centuries people have walked in this very spot.
Istanbul is an amazing, timeless city. You’ll never see it all, but at least take any opportunity to see some of it!