Istanbul is a city of some 16 million souls, making it one of the largest cities in the world. It is a city that is divided in three by the Bosphorous Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Mamara Sea in the Mediterranean. Straddling two continents, Istanbul is blessed with miles of beautiful coastline upon which lie thousands of stunning waterfront homes and beaches whilst it also has a convoluted history to match its coastline. Formerly known as Byzantium and later Constantinople the city was home to the Greek, Roman and Ottoman Empires, all of whom left their mark. Nowadays there are many sides to Istanbul. It is both a modern thriving metropolis which exudes a new confidence and also an ancient backwater that clings to conservative ways. The beauty is in the discovery.
The Sultanahmet area is host to a number of Istanbul’s shining gems. The Hagia Sophia is perhaps one of the greatest examples of Byzantine architecture to be found anywhere on earth. Built in 526AD it is a feat of engineering that stood as the world’s largest building for well over 1,000 years. Underneath its giant dome are dozens of intricate mosaics depicting everything from Alexander the Great to Jesus and Mary, although many were destroyed in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 AD.
Just across from the Hagia Sophia is the instantly recognisable Sultan Ahmed Mosque, commonly known as the Blue Mosque. This is undoubtedly one of Islam’s greatest buildings and has a major advantage over others in that non-Muslims are allowed inside, provided long trousers are worn and shoulders are covered. The outside is decorated with six minarets and domes that appear to cascade from one another. Inside there is space for well over 3,000 pilgrims. Adjacent to the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome where the Romans held chariot races. The obelisks and sculptures of Roman gods from the 4th century still remain.
Another unmissable sight in Istanbul is that of Topkaki Palace which was the seat of Ottoman Sultans for over four hundred years. The palace itself is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site and it is not hard to see why as you stroll through the Imperial Gates. Inside, dozens of buildings make up this regal complex; everything from the stunning collection of war bounty in the Imperial Treasury to the soothing mosaics of the Circumcision room (where young princes went for a snip) is on display. The Imperial Harem is perhaps the highlight of any visit; these were the Sultan’s personal apartments where he and his several wives and concubines were housed. The Harem contains well over one hundred apartments which all face onto their own courtyards.
A delight of Istanbul is its waterways. Getting around the city is quite easy with a choice of metered taxis, trams, buses and a metro but perhaps the most enjoyable way is to take one of the dozens of ferries that ply the Bosphorous every day. A trip up the Bosphorous to the mouth of the Black Sea is well worth the journey, even if only to relax and view the waterside mosques and mansions.
Istanbul comes alive at nighttime. In the modern Taksim Square area the streets that radiate from the square are full of lively bars, cafes and nightclubs. Food in the city is far more than doner kebabs; do not leave without trying Mahmudiye, a chicken dish that is infused with almonds, apricots and honey. The well-known Turkish dessert of baklava, which is made with pistachio nuts, is both delicious and ubiquitous. Fans of seafood will not be disappointed in Istanbul either; swordfish, sea bass and turbot are regularly featured on menus.
For nightly entertainment that is slightly different try to track down a show with some whirling dervishes. Enquire at the tourist office if there are any on at Monastir Mevlevi. Although there are many whirling dervish shows in Istanbul few are authentic dervishes that are dancing in a trance, so many can’t whirl for longer than a few minutes before dizziness takes over. The Mevlevi dervishes are from the Sufi religious sect and can whirl for hours on end. For those who like to shop till they drop there is no better place than the Grand Bazaar.
Hosting over 4,500 shops the this gigantic shopping centre has become a tourist attraction in itself but for those who duck down the less frequented alleyways a small piece of old Istanbul remains. Traders sell everything from camel skin to beach balls, gold jewellery to replica mosque alarm clocks. Just down the road from the Grand Bazaar one can find the Egyptian Bazaar, otherwise known as the Spice Market. Here traders do their best to entice you in with promises of natural Turkish viagra and aphrodisiacs.
Istanbul is a vibrant, up-and-coming city which more and more inter-railers are discovering.
With more than enough to see on a long weekend and a plethora of entertainment, expect to see this city gain in popularity over the coming years.