An eclectic city-break in Istanbul – World Meanderings (n°34)
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
Istanbul is like a plate of Turkish mezze, full of varied flavours, colours and sensations. Passed centuries and different cultures have each left palaces, churches, mosques, gardens, music, cuisine’ styles… Created during the 6th century BC, successively called Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul since 1930, it has since the beginning been an important trade centre joining Asia and Europe across the Bosporus. A few days are enough to discover its main sights and feel the pulse of this lively city.
Istanbul is a huge city but as a tourist your best choice will be to stay in a hotel located in Sultanhamet one of the old city district on the Western bank of the Bosporus, from which most historical sights are at walking distance. Over the last few years this area has largely been renovated and there are many good and fine value for money hotels. Many of them have a roof terrace where you will have breakfast or dinner enjoying a great view over the Bosphorus or the Blue Mosque.
One of them, the “Eresin Crown Hotel” located in a quiet street, does not only have comfortable rooms with free WIFI, a restaurant on the roof with a spectacular show of ships going up and down the Bosporus, it also is a small museum. As a matter of fact recent restoration works have brought to light Roman mosaics; statues, columns and other artefacts that are now on display in the lobby and the bar of the hotel. That makes it a unique place to stay in. http://www.eresin.com.tr/eresincrown/default-en.html.
In that same district you can go shopping at Arasta Bazaar, an old market place that has also been recently restored and where you will find typical crafts such as carpets, leather goods, spices or ceramic wares painted in bright colours… at better prices than in the Grand Bazaar, but with less choice.
If you like ancient monuments you will have plenty to see in Istanbul. Dating from Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods several of them are absolutely outstanding and if it is your first time in Istanbul you just can’t skip seeing them. Hagia Sophia or Sancta Sophia or Holy Wisdom is a huge building with a colossal dome built in only five years from 532 to 537. Its dome was the largest of the world for almost nine centuries until Florence’s cathedral was built in Italy. It was turned into a mosque during the 15th century when the Ottomans took over the city and now it is a museum (women don’t need to wear a veil to get in).
Sultanahmet Mosque better known as the Blue Mosque was until recently the only one in Istanbul to have six minarets. It probably is the most famous mosque of the 565 Istanbul’s mosques thanks to its blue and white ceramics. Since recently entrance is free for tourists. Getting out of the mosque you will be on Sultanahmet Square and only a 2 min walk from the Basilica Cistern. Built during the 6th century this huge underground cistern is one of many others built by Emperor Justinian. It feels like entering a cathedral when you get into this huge chamber 453 ft by 212 ft, supported by 336 marble columns. It could hold 100,000 tons of water! Today there is only a little water left in the bottom and you can walk on footbridges through the dimly lit cistern. Most people fall silent and it is a very quieting experience.
A little further away you will get to Topkapi Palace at the tip of the Golden Horn, facing the Bosporus and the Marmara Sea. It used to be the major residence of the ottoman sultan for 400 years and now it is a museum. High walls surround an immense park and you walk from courtyard to courtyard, visiting small buildings and pavilions that have been the sultan’s apartment, the harem, the Janissary’s barracks, the kitchens where thousands of meals were cooked each day, a music pavilion… They contain many collections of Ottoman jewels, all kind of weapons or armours, porcelain, clocks, robes, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts, Ottoman miniatures… You will need at least a half day to get an overview of all this.
The church of the Holy Saviour in Chora is another must see of Istanbul. Like Hagia Sophia this church was built during the Middle Ages, turned into a mosque in the 16th century and into a museum in 1948. From outside this Byzantine style church looks like many other ones with several domes of different sizes and stern brick walls. The enchantment begins when you get in. The walls are almost entirely covered with amazing mosaics and frescoes that have been rediscovered in 1948 when the church was restored. They were made during the 14th century and had been covered with a coating when it was converted into a mosque. Thanks to this “protection” they are in an exceptional condition with deep colours and glowing golden materials. Mainly they tell the story of Jesus symbolized as “the land of the living” and of Mary as “the container of the uncontainable”. At a time when few people could read they were used to teach them catechism.
There are many other places to visit in Istanbul, such as the Galata Tower from where you can get a panoramic view of the city, Istiklal Avenue to do some shopping, the Galata Whirling Dervish Hall, the Dolmabahce Palace… But if you are in Istanbul for just a few days save some time to share people’s way of life: food, hamams (Turkish baths), water pipes, bazaars and sailing on the Bosporus.
There are plenty of restaurants in Istanbul, so even if Turkish cuisine is not very sophisticated finding a place for a hearty meal never is a problem. Choosing a place where local families are dining is a good way to avoid touristic restaurants with touristic prices and touristic quality! Most of the time you choose your dishes from a counter and point your finger at what you would like to eat. No need to learn Turkish to get fed! There is always a good choice of mezze, chicken, beef, lamb or fish stews with plenty of vegetables. Ayran is a very popular Turkish drink tasting like a thin and sour plain yogurt and is worth giving it a try too. Close to Sultanamhet Square we had a very nice diner at Baran Restaurant, right at the corner of Divan Yolu street and Isik Street.
Turkish delights and baklava probably are the best-known Turkish desserts and are also easy to take back home. Avoid buying ready-made boxes. There are many shops selling fresh ones where you can taste before buying and even if they are a bit more expensive you know what you are buying. We found a very nice shop in the Egyptian bazaar where they make delicious walnut and pistachio baklava. Nicely packed they travelled without any trouble in our checked baggage. Develi Baklava is a small shop in a narrow street leading to the bazaar (address is: Hasircilar Cad. N° 37, Eminönü).
A cruise on the Bosporus is both interesting and relaxing. There are many companies offering Bosporus cruises in all price ranges. The more expensive ones are not necessarily the best ones. At Eminonu terminal next to Galata Bridge you can get on a boat for a two hours cruise for approximately 3£. This round trip cruise will take you upstream along the Western bank then back to your starting point along the Eastern bank. Many palaces, mansions, villages, fortresses have been built on the shores over the centuries and you will see many different architectural styles. All along the cruise a waiter offers to the passengers all kinds of food and drinks and time goes by quickly and pleasantly.
To get the best of Istanbul and make your visit an easy one, you can rely on New Faces Travel. This travel agency can arrange all your visits and airport transfers with a qualified English talking guide and a chauffeur car service. They are very reliable, punctual and will adapt to your desires and preferences. More at: www.newfacestravel.com
To enter Turkey UK residents need a visa. You can get it online before your trip on a dedicated official website: www.evisa.gov.tr (it costs 20 US $ and is valid for 90 days). Print it and have a soft copy on your phone, it will save you time at the airport where otherwise you would have to queue at the visa office.
For a comfortable and good for value flight to Istanbul: www.atlasglb.com/en
For practical information about Turkey and Istanbul: http://www.goturkeytourism.com/
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny