Turkey has become a popular destination for travellers recently and once you have been you will understand the exotic yet familiar allure of the country. It is one of my favourite places in the world and I cannot wait to return. This is made all the more convenient with Turkish Airlines flying directly from South Africa to the new Istanbul Airport which will replace Ataturk Aiport from the 4th April 2019.
Istanbul is unlike anything you have ever experienced. It is modern yet can easily harken one back to a bygone era. It is busy, noisy and chaotic yet also strangely calm, efficient and restorative. The city is steeped in tradition on the one hand yet progressive and current on the other. The city flanks the mighty Bosphorus river which seperates Europe and Asia. This makes the city unique in that it split between two continents.
There are many wonderful places to explore in the city but this is not an experience to rush. Rather, take your time, savour the ambience and just take it all in. There is a reason why certain places come up over and over again when researching things to do/see in Istanbul.
On the one hand, the old quarter (Sultanahmet) with its domes and minarets, ancient hammams and olde-world Turkish Delight stores beckon you to explore further. Only to find yourself wandering the cobbled streets, pausing to watch the men enjoying a game of backgammon and a cup of apple tea or to take a moment to buy a simit (bagel) from one of the many street vendors. You can truly feel as though you have been transported back to another time. From the various stores housed in ancient buildings with precarious stairs leading to an upper level where you can browse or select your perfect Turkish rug to the myriad narrow lanes, you can spend hours exploring.
The old city has many of the main sights you should see and most are within walking distance from Sultanahmet Square. Most of the amzing architecture dates back to the Byzantine and Ottoman era’s.
- Hagia Sofia – An absolute celebration of the resilience of man. The walls and ceiling speak volumes of the history of the city as each exposed layer shows the movement through fChristianity and Islam. The beautifully preserved murals will make the hairs on your arms stand up. Originally constructed for Emperor Justinian 1 as a basilica, the church was looted by the Crusaders in 1204 and became a mosque in the 15th century. It eventually became a museum in 1935
- Topkapi Palace – For four centuries, this was the enclave of the Ottoman rulers . Perfectly, decadent and grand, visitors cam wander through all four courts from the harem (where the Sultan kept his bevy of beauties) to the Imperial Treasury, be prepared to be astounded at the magnificence of the relice, ranging from rugs to porcelain to various other gifts from other royals including gemstones the size of ostrich eggs. If you’re muslim or interested in Islamic history, there is a court which contains many of the Prophet Mohammed’s belongings as well as old doors of the ka’bah and various other items of the time.
- The Blue Mosque – The Sultanahmet mosque is a working mosque so although you may visit, the rules of Islam apply. Heads must be covered, no shorts, no sleeveless for women etc. The rules are up on the wall before entry. The mosque has 6 minarets and is as impressive on the inside as it is from the outside. But it is the Iznik tile with which the walls are adorned that give the mosque its monniker and what makes it a ‘must see’ . More than 20,000 Iznik tiles rise from the mid-sections of the mosque and dazzle the visitor with their brilliant blue, green, and turquoise hues.
Traditional motifs on the tiles such as cypress trees, tulips, roses, and fruits evoke visions of a bountiful paradise. What makes these tiles so special is that the craft was lost after the Ottoman empire and since th 17th century Iznik pieces appeared solely in art brokerages and museums worldwide (including the Louvre and the Smithsonian). Nowadays, Turkish organizations such as the Iznik Foundation and Anikya are working to bring the craft out from the museums back into everyday life.
- Basilica Cistern – Famous for the scene from the Tom Hanks movie, Inferno, where the deadly plaque was due to be released, the cistern is A giant underground cistern built by Justinian in 532 to provide water to the city in cases of siege. A wooden walkway winds between the pillars, and lights and piped music add to the eerie atmosphere. Large fish swim in the waters below and there is even an impressive statue of the mythical Medusa which is quite impressive.
- The Grand Bazaar and The Spice Market – No visit to Istanbul is complete without at least a stroll down the lanes. Yes, it is noisy. Yes, it is busy. And yes, you have to put your bargaining shoes on!! Everything is available here, from leather goods where vendors will do the ‘lighter’ trick to prove its real leather to amber where vendors will convince you that the ‘insect’ is inside to Turkish carpets. Every visitor to the city wants to take his chances and find a bargain, but be warned there is every chance you may be scammed. Now, the spice market, not too far from the bazaar is something else. The aroma of magical spice permeate the air, Turkish saffron is abundant and any spice you can’t think of is available. This was my favourite place.
- Palace – It was ordered to be built by the 31st sultan who felt that Topkapi Palace lacked style and luxury. The palace was home to six Sultans from 1856 up until the abolition of the Caliphate in 1924. The last royal to live here was Caliph Abdülmecid Efendi. In 1924 ownership was trasferred to the national heritage of the new Turkish Republic. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey, used the palace as a presidential residence during the summers and enacted some of his most important works here. Atatürk spent his last days in this palace, where he died on November 10, 1938.
There are many other places to explore in the old city and you can even hitch a taxi to take you to the leather district where you can get a pair of shoes or a jacket or bag made just for you. Or you can mosey on down to the waters edge, find a fabulous restaurant or hop on a river cruiser and enjoy sundowners over the Bosphoros. You can even get a txi for the day and explore the ruins of the old Ottoman city wall. The choices are endless, but first visit the magnificent historical place
On the European side of the city, across the Golde Horn is the more modern Beyoglu. So you can get your history on during the day and your groove on by night.
Beyoglu is famous for its lively atmosphere, Istiklal Avenue, Taksim Square and cultural activities. Taksim, Karakoy, Galata & Tophane are is also popular tourists areas in Beyoglu.
- Taksim is the most popular region for the tourists. Taksim Square is cosmopolitan and modern and is a vibrant entertainment & shopping area. Rooftop bars and restaurants abound. There are various cafes offering both western food or more traditional Turkish fare including the famous Turkish doner. But don’t rush, find a pavement café, enjoy something cold to drink and have a puff on a tradtional ‘hookah’ pipe.
- Istiklal Avenue, it is a must for all travelers in Istanbul. It is a long colorful pedestrian street full of all kind of shops, restaurants, cafes, street shows and it is located just off Taksim Square. My favourite street to wander and browse and also where we bought the most amazing baklava.
- Cukurcuma is an authentic district of the area where the visitors may enjoy the lively streets with cafes, art houses and souvenir shops. For the most majestic and panaoramic views over Istanbul and the Bosphorus there is not other place than The Galata Tower, an old Genoese tower which house a luxurious restaurant with the same name at the top.
Istanbul is memorable, authentic and just a little bit magical. I know I will return there but now I look forward to exploring even more of the majesty of this country called Turkey.