Quotes describing the magnificence and beauty of historical cities are often either exaggerated or attempts in nationalism. Some of them do hold water; but the city itself might have declined since the day that quote or observation was made. So when Alphonse de Lamartine said in the mid-18th century that “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul,” there was genuine concern that the city might not be able to keep up with it in a century or so to come. After all, in the centuries that followed, the city witnessed the decline and later abolition of Caliphate, two World Wars, regional wars and formation of the Republic. Add militant Kurdish homeland movement and repeated coups in that, and it becomes a perfect concoction for implosion. But when your plane hovers above Ataturk Airport waiting for touchdown, you realise that this magnificent city has survived all these, and how!
Istanbul has the prestige and the unique geography of being situated in both Europe and Asia. Known variously as Byzantium, Constantinople and Asia Minor in the past, the city truly epitomizes not only the confluence of the East and the West but also tradition and modernity. In any other city, the horse-driven cabs on the cobbled roads or intricately designed tea-glasses and kettle in a swanky restaurant will look like a tourist trap at worst and out-of-place at best; in Istanbul it merges so seamlessly that one does not so much as give it a second look. The story of Istanbul is the story of such seamless intermingles. In other historic cities – we are told – time has stood still. In Istanbul, it has moved ahead, but comes back home, everyday.
Istanbul, although the largest, the most populated and the most important city in Turkey, is not its capital city as many erroneously believe. But that does not affect connectivity to the city. Istanbul is connected to possibly every major capital city in the world and more. Ataturk Airport is on the European side of Istanbul and serves as the main airport. Turkish Airlines, the nation's official carrier, boasts one of the most modern fleets in the world and is constantly voted the best airline in Europe. Those partial towards travelling by land have options both on the Anatolian as well as the European side. Haydarpasa station has regular trains to Syria and Iran, as well as to other cities in Anatolia. Sirkeci station on the other hand has regular services to Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Budapest (Hungary) and Bucharest (Romania). Istanbul is a huge city with lots of attractions. Therefore it is advisable that one breaks it in several single day tours so as to utilise one’s time optimally. The core of Istanbul's tourist delight is of course the old city, popularly called Sultanahmet. Most of the Byzantine and Ottoman-built monuments are located in this district that can easily be covered by foot. The star attraction is of course Sultanahmet Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque. This iconic six minaret mosque is visible from anywhere in the city with a plain view. However, one needs to take a look inside to appreciate this marvel. Since it is a functional mosque, one is required to dress modestly. The guide gives free lessons in Turkish history and Islam – both worth listening to. Bang opposite stands the famous Hagia Sophia, locally referred to as Aya Sofya. Constructed in 6th century CE, this was supposed to function as a basilica for the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. And it did so for him and many more who came later. The start attraction here is the murals drawn inside as well as its mammoth dome. When Ottomans conqured the city in early 15th century, it was turned into a mosque. After the formation of the Republic, the champion of secular Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, converted it into a museum. Nearby is the seat of Ottoman Kings, the Topkapi palace as well as the ruins of Hippodrome. While the former can be appreciated for its intrinsic design patterns and calligraphy, the later transport you directly to Roman Byzantium. The area also boasts a few of museums all of which are worth visiting. The Museum of Archeology and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art are especially recommended. The more religious kinds can pay a visit to the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which arguably is the seat of Orthodox Christianity.
Turkey is famous for its Hammams. Though costly, Sultanahmet Hamami and Sulaymaniye Hamami is particularly good to unwind after a long day trip. An entire day also needs to be dedicated to the Galata and Bosporus areas. The Dolmabahce Palace and Rumeli citadel are worth visiting in this area. Especially the former. That itself can take a couple of hours to appreciate fully. However, the star attraction is the legendary cruise ride on the Bosporus. Bosporus is a narrow strip of water body that connects Black Sea with Mediterranean Sea, and effectively divides Asia from Europe. There are all kinds of rides ranging from an hour to four. It gives a breathtaking view of numerous palaces, hotels, Ottoman wooden houses and medieval castles. Try the one that starts around sunset. The view will make you want the world to stop and drop dead there.
The nearby Galata area is the hip and happening district of Istanbul. Takshim Square forms the nerve centre of this area and Istiklal Street that leads from there is where you have most of the good eateries, pubs, clubs and designer outlets. The area turns into a delight after sunset and even a casual walk down the street (or taking the old historic trams) leaves to fulfilled desires. When you are around, and if you happen to be a soccer fan, do catch a match involving any of the famous Istanbul clubs like Galatasaray and Fenerbahce. If it's a derby, the passions will be unusually, but justifiably, high. And of course, a trip to Istanbul is hardly complete without a performance of Whirling Dervishes at the Galata Convent of Whirling Dervishes. The new city offers the usual fare. Although that grew up on a diet of Orhan Pamuk's books will definitely like to visit the iconic neighborhood of Nisantasi and Elmadag.
Istanbul is famous for its gastronomical delights. Turkish food is a great blend of spices and are quite enriched. Doner kebabs are everywhere and it is impossible for a Turk to make a bad Doner. So you can grab one while walking. The serious fare includes Iskender Kebabs, Balık-Ekmek, Hamsi, Patso and Kumpir. Good restaurants come in all shape and sizes and are concentrated either in and around Sultanahmet or Takshim Square.
Istanbul is known for its sweets, and Baklava and Turkish Delight (called Lokum locally) make their presence in every global list of desserts that takes itself seriously. Again there are many shops around, but Baklava comes best from Gulluoglu whereas Turkish Delights are the best at Hacı Bekir. Both of them are situated near Bosporus and are massively popular. You can also try the local alcoholic drink called Raki. In fact, do grab a couple of bottles for friends back home. The non-alcoholic types can marvel at the famous Turkish coffee and tea. There are lots of cafes in tourist districts. Choose the one that gives a good view of either Sultanahmet Mosque, or Bosporus or both and set aside the troubles of life for sometime.
When it comes to shopping, the city leaves you spoilt for choice. The centre of course is the iconic Grand Bazaar in the old town. Considered once the biggest covered markets in the world, the place sells practically everything that the Orient has had to offer in all these years. Carpets, scarves, cutlery, table silver and the local tea are among the must buys. Some information about the basics. Istanbul has pleasant weather from late April to early October. June is particularly the best time to go. The temperature is mild and hence the city can be best explored on foot. However, that is not to say that the transportation is bad. In fact, Istanbul has one of the best public transportation networks among the tourist oriented cities of the world. A mixture of buses, trams, metro, funicular railway and ferries make it a delight to travel. In fact, one does not need a taxi at all. Several tourist cards are on offer that offers discounts at museums. There is a key-ring shaped electronic ticket too that serves well for all the means of transports.
Istanbul is an expensive city and nothing comes cheap here. However, with ingenuity and little bit of application of mind, one can cover it on a shoestring budget too. The thumb rule about hotels is this. The nearer they are to the Blue Mosque or Takshim Square, the costlier they are. The same applies for restaurants too. There are lots of hostels that offer clean and affordable accommodation. If you can cut some corners here, it will leave you with plenty to wine and dine.
One can take trains, buses and flights to other tourist destinations in Turkey such as Izmir, Ankara and Cappadocia. There is a high-speed network that connects Istanbul with Ankara. This new service leaves from Hyderpasa station from the Anatolian side of Istanbul. The station itself is a beauty to admire, especially in the night when it is well lit amidst the dark waters of Bosporus. And when you are there, dont forget to dine at the iconic railroad restaurant, the oldest of its kind in the world. But it is the sheer energy of this city that holds you to itself.
There is no better place to meet people of so many nationalities than Istanbul. While you are there, make friends. The gazing at the sunset on the Bosporus, the soccer match and even a sip of Turkish coffee or Raki becomes special when you do it with a complete stranger. Always take the initiative; more often than not, you won't be left wanting.