Istanbul, Turkey: where Occident meets Orient
The city on the mighty Bosphorus has developed into one of the most atmospheric places in the western hemisphere. It’s a place where cultures collide, and the outcome couldn’t be any more appealing. As you cross one of the many bridges that link the different quarters, you’ll find yourself in a different world. It is not without reason that Istanbul has left both occupants and travelers in awe of its timeless beauty for centuries.
If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.
Alphonse de Lamartine
Vibrant Street Life
It’s hard to imagine Istanbul without its busy Caddesis (streets) and İskelesis (piers). Take a tour of Istanbul and stroll over Galata Bridge to watch hundreds of fishermen at work. By the time you reach the end of the bridge (and crossed the ‘Golden Horn’), you’ll smell the fresh balık ekmek (fish sandwiches) from the piers’ floating restaurants. Healthy fast food made in Istanbul. Fight your way through the dense crowds and try the local delicacy while listening to the prayer calls of the New Mosque across the street.
Sultanahmet, the ‘Old Istanbul’, is home to most of the cultural heritage of the city. Once known as Constantinople, wealthiest city in Europe, Istanbul managed to preserve many of its architectural edifices from the Byzantine and Ottoman empire. The Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, two massive and exquisite constructions facing each other from opposite ends of Sultanahmet Park, are the most prominent sights. Although I did not managed to see everything on my two-day walking tour, Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern are worth a visit, even without a tour guide.
Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport is the biggest airport in Turkey and is a convenient hub for worldwide flight connections with Turkish Airlines. A return ticket from London to Istanbul won’t cost you more than 160€ in low season and takes barely two hours; one of the many reasons why Istanbul has become the perfect weekend getaway. It was my first flight with Turkish Airlines and I was positively surprised by their customer service: an IT problem had charged my credit card twice during the online booking process, and a refund was initiated right at check in.
Oriented around the famed seven hills, Istanbul treats you with the most breathtaking views you can imagine. A great way to get an overview of the metropolis is to take a half-day Bosphorus cruise. Istanbul is also packed with great rooftop bars, where you’ll be able to escape the hustle and bustle catch a fresh breeze as the sun begins to set behind the silhouettes of the city’s 3,113 mosques; a wonderful and unique blend of history and modernity that you won’t forget anytime soon.
Although some might consider it a daunting experience, you need to visit a Hamami (Turkish bath) at least once. What used to have hygienic purposes, is now considered a popular after work activity. Istanbul has many traditional and historical hamams featuring highlights such as a large marble dome, several water basins and an impressive göbektaşı — the central, raised and heated platform. Treatments usually include a short massage and a rather rough body scrub. As my attendant twisted my half-naked body on the central platform he asked ‘You hurt??’ – ‘Umm, YES!’ – ‘Good!’.
No pain, no gain.
A trip to Istanbul is not complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. Many of the 3000+ stalls target tourists, hence make sure to practice your bargaining skills when buying any jewelry, carpets, sweets, leather goods or clothing. I loved the sensory experience of strolling through the spice market, unarguably the most colorful area of the Grand Bazaar.
Nowadays, the antique Bazaar must compete with modern shopping outlets along Istiklal Caddesi, the hectic shopping street leading towards the modern and pulsating city center known as Taksim Square.
Although Istanbul suffered in 2013 from the negative headlines related to heavy protests on Taksim Square, the city is generally a very safe place for tourists. I found most people to be very hospitable, friendly, and generous. I also noticed a highly visible law enforcement presence on Taksim Square at night, which ironically, scared me quite a bit on my first night in town. As our taxi was pulling over on the northern edge of the square, a masked man nearby appeared to point a machine gun at us. He was not wearing any official uniform, so I guess private security is in charge at night time.
First Class Dining & Nightlife
If you thought the city of Istanbul is lively at daytime, just wait until it gets dark. Thousands of locals flock into the characteristic quarters of Beyoglu, making it the city’s prime nightlife destination. Most bars set up cozy outdoor terraces, that are perfect for avid people watching over a few Rakıs. Dinner is served a bit later than most Europeans would be used to. Head to one of the fabulous rooftop restaurants to enjoy culinary specialities and spectacular views. And best of all, upscale dining is still rather affordable.