ISTANBUL is the only city in the world that straddles two continents – and you will see the influences of both Europe and Asia here. As the former capital of three world empires – the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman, it has borne three names: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, each of which has inscribed its mark on the palimpsest of modern Istanbul. Today it is the vast, bustling home of 13 million residents, mainly moderate Muslims, who are fiercely proud of their rich heritage.
The best way to soak up a sense of the city’s grandeur is by wandering the cobbled streets. Retrace the steps of the Byzantine emperors when visiting Sultanahmet’s extraordinary monuments and marvel at the mosques built by the Ottoman sultans on the city’s seven hills.
Probably Istanbul’s most famous monument, the rust-hued Hagia Sophia is a former Orthodox church later converted into a mosque and now a museum. Its gravity-defying dome is an architectural marvel and its walls boast a handful of gold mosaic panels that survived the iconoclastic period, most notably the Deesis (Last Judgment) depicting Christ Jesus flanked by John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Avoid the hordes of school group and tourbus visitors by seeing this and other major attractions in the afternoon.
A magnificent Byzantine mosaic pavement depicting hunting and mythological scenes that was uncovered in the 1950s behind the Blue Mosque is displayed in situ in the Great Palace Mosaic Museum. If you’re a museum junkie like me, you’ll also enjoy the archaeological museum, which much like the British Museum, contains many treasures plundered from other lands, such as what is believed to be the ornate sarcophagus of Alexander the Great, as well as fascinating artefacts from Istanbul through the ages.
Give yourself at least half a day to see the nearby Topkapi Palace, for 400 years the royal residence of Ottoman sultans. You can see, among other treasures, the harem complex and some surprisingly fascinating rooms dedicated to collections of weapons, clocks, holy relics and jewellery.
If you have time, why not visit one of the sultans’ later homes, across the Bosphorus Strait. At Dolmabahce Palace, known as the Versailles of Turkey, you can stroll through beautiful gardens and some lavishly decorated rooms to see the largest crystal chandelier in the world.
Istanbul has more than 3,000 mosques and there are several historic ones worth visiting. You need to take off your shoes before entering and women are obliged to cover their heads inside. Most close to visitors for lunchtime prayers.
The Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet to rival its neighbour the Hagia Sophia, gets its name from the thousands of decorated tiles that cover its walls – its intricately patterned dome is a sight to behold. The New Mosque is, in my opinion, more blue than the Blue Mosque and equally impressive, while Suleymaniye mosque, built by the richest and most powerful sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, is much simpler yet just as breathtaking.
No matter where you happen to be at sunset, you are likely to be stopped in your tracks by the evening calls to prayer from one or more mosques in the vicinity. I find the wail of the muezzin mesmerisingly beautiful; others would say it’s just plain annoying – but it’s all part of Istanbul’s unique character.
If it’s gold mosaics you’re after, the Chora Church has some of the finest in the world – its interior reminiscent of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice (on a smaller scale). It’s tucked away in the little-visited Western Districts but is easily reached by bus or taxi – and worth the effort.
Shopping, eating and chilling
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the famed Grand Bazaar – important to note that it’s closed on a Sunday (don’t make the same mistake we did)! A great place to find gifts, scarves, trinkets, carpets and loukum (Turkish delight). Be sure to haggle and don’t bother buying the flavoured tea – it may look beautiful but actually has no taste! If you find the Grand Bazaar overwhelming, try the nearby Spice Bazaar, it’s a more manageable size and less crowded to navigate.
Pounding the streets looking at buildings can be thirsty work – and luckily around just about every corner there are little stalls selling freshly squeezed orange or pomegranate juice. I believe London would be a happier place if this trend started in Blighty.
For nightlife and a variety of decent restaurants, head across the Galata Bridge to Beyoglu, the modern heart of Istanbul. There are of course the ubiquitous kebap joints, but seafood is also fresh and abundant, or you could gorge yourself on plates of meze. Be sure to end the meal with a sticky helping of baklava.
A visit to a hamam is a quintessential Turkish experience. Most are open until late at night and are the perfect way to unwind after a long day. Istanbul boasts more than 80 old Ottoman baths where you will get naked (men and women are in separate baths) and be scrubbed and rubbed to a degree of cleanliness you have never experienced! The majority of hamams are popular with locals but there a few more touristy ones, which are slightly pricier but generally offer more treatments.
When you’re travelling on pounds, Istanbul’s accommodation is great value for money. We had a pleasant stay at Hotel Amber, one of several Best Western hotels dotted across the city. The rooms were spacious and air-conditioned, and a sumptuous breakfast was served on the roof terrace with a gorgeous view of the sea.
*Heather visited Istanbul courtesy of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
Photos by Heather Walker and Ministry of Culture and Tourism.