A geographic and metaphoric melding of East and West, Istanbul is the world’s only city covering two continents — the Bosporus Strait runs through the center, with Europe lying to the west, Asia to the east.
For nearly 2,000 years, the ideally situated metropolis has been the keystone of some of the world’s great empires, serving as the capital city for the Romans (under the name Constantinople, as noted by the informative “They Might Be Giants” tune), Byzantines and Ottomans.
Inside the sprawling city, the secular and the sacred mingle: minarets and nightclubs, dusty prayer rugs and designer digs. The idea of Istanbul as collision between East and West reveals itself immediately, with monumental churches cum mosques (the Hagia Sophia), Roman ruins (the Hippodrome, where horse and chariot races were held in Roman times) and unadulterated symbols of consumerism (the Grand Bazaar with its thousands of shops).
Exploring Istanbul fully would take years, but you can see the highlights in about three days.
A note for Western travelers: In deference to Istanbul’s beautiful mosques, churches and synagogues, it’s advisable to wear respectful attire (long pants or long skirts) if you want to enter these historic sites. Women may be required to wear a head covering — you can usually buy cheap scarves from vendors outside.
The Hagia Sophia (Divine Wisdom in Greek) is one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture. Once a church, then a mosque, it was made into a museum in 1935 after the secular Turkish Republic was founded. The museum consists of two major parts: the church itself and the gallery of mosaics.
One of the major attractions at Topkapi Palace, originally a summer residence in the pre-Christian Byzantium era, is its exhibits of simply over-the-top gorgeous jewels, religious artifacts, silk ceremonial robes and a manuscript collection.
The Blue Mosque (officially known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque) is another of Turkey’s icons. Built in the 17th century as Islam’s take on the Hagia Sophia, the mosque today is still a center for religious demonstrations. The vast dome is an incredible spectacle. The Imperial Pavilion, which is part of the Blue Mosque, houses a carpet museum with exhibits dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Behind the Blue Mosque is another attraction worth catching. The Great Palace Mosaic Museum, nestled into an alleyway of tourist shops, exhibits the flooring of the Bucoleon Palace of the Byzantine era. These mosaics were only (relatively) recently discovered in the 1950’s and are believed to date back to 527 – 565 A.D.
The Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum, housed in a 16th-century palace, features exhibits from the Islamic period of the seventh century to the 1800’s. Highlights include illuminated manuscripts, an extensive collection of carpets (check out a series depicting works of famous European masters) and tiles.
James Bond film buffs should check out the Basilica Cistern, which “From Russia with Love” used as an extremely atmospheric location. Also known as the “sunken palace,” the cistern was at one time a reservoir for the Byzantine Great Palace and dates back to about 500 A.D. A neat curiosity: Some of the columns that support the cathedral-style ceiling were taken from pre-Christian temples.
Ortakoy is a fabulous, historic neighborhood that lies on the Bosporus. Its claim to fame is the fact there’s a church, a synagogue and a mosque — the last is quite elaborate — located within its boundaries. Beyond that, it’s a pleasant place for wandering, poking in at various antique shops and art galleries, lunching at a bistro, and sipping coffee at one of the waterfront restaurants. Sunday is an especially good day to go because there’s a street market, where locals sell all kinds of merchandise.
Take a day cruise on the Bosporus to Prince’s Islands. These islands, south of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara, were once a haven for exiled royalty (and luminaries like Leon Trotsky, who came here after being expelled from Russia). Today they’re a wonderful — and peaceful — place to get away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul. Attractions include horse-drawn carriage tours, churches and monasteries, and quaint old mansions. There are hotels (and restaurants) on the main islands. Commuter ferries depart several times daily from Kabatas.
A resort/spa in the Turkish tradition, Termal has been famous since Roman times. It’s located about 24 miles southeast of Istanbul and features a historic hamam (Turkish bath), a swimming pool, and hotels and restaurants. To get there, take a sea-bus from Kabatas to Yalova (it’s a 20-minute ride and the sea bus operates around five departures per day), then a quick taxi.
Istanbul is a great place for seafood, grilled meats and small dishes called mezes — not to mention raki, an anise-flavored spirit. The Old City area has few stand-out restaurants. Instead, look elsewhere — Istanbul’s bustling harbor, known as the Golden Horn, rings the waterfront and is a good place for snacking at outdoor markets and food stalls. The Beyoglu district, in the heart of Istanbul, has numerous cafes — and offers great people watching. Another good noshing neighborhood is Ortakoy, where you’ll find waterfront cafes and wonderful bistros tucked into its narrow streets.
You’ll have to cross over to the Asian side of the city to get there, but the authentic Turkish dishes at Ciya are worth the trip. Menus change regularly, but recent offerings include lamb chops with quince, and dried eggplant stuffed with rice, pepper, onion, garlic and mint. Save room for desserts like “Heaven’s Mud” — a pastry with thick cream, cinnamon and sugar.
During the summer months, the open-air terrace at the Sunset Grill & Bar is the place to be for warm breezes and stunning views over the Bosporus. The food’s nothing to sneeze at either; the eclectic menu is a showcase of various cuisines from around the globe, including Japanese, Italian and (of course) Turkish. There’s a sushi bar too. Reservations are highly recommended.
Seafood lovers will enjoy the Sultanahmet Fish House, which offers a dizzying array of dishes from the sea — including balik corbasi, a traditional Turkish fish soup. Salads and kebabs round out the menu. The colorful dining room is adorned with beautiful handmade lamps.
There’s a full menu of affordably priced Turkish dishes at Saray Muhallebicisi, but most people come here with one thing in mind: dessert. The patisserie divides its sweet options into “milky desserts” (rice pudding, ice cream, milk pudding with almonds) and “pastry desserts” (baklava, syrup-fried cake balls).
On the menu at the charming Sofyali 9, located in the Beyoglu neighborhood, are a variety of delicious meze dishes, as well as fresh fish and plenty of raki.
Shopping in Istanbul
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is an amazing scene, dating back to the 15th century. There are more than 4,000 stores sprawling across 60 streets, selling a breathtaking array of wares, from spices to furs, and from leather to rugs. There are even two mosques wrapped into this vast, sprawling mercantile temple.
Shoppers who’ve “done” the Grand Bazaar and want to see where the locals hang out should head over to Beyoglu, the Istanbul equivalent of New York’s Fifth and Madison Avenues; it’s full of fashionable boutiques and cafes.
For traditionalists, the best souvenir (and the one you’ll be most encouraged to buy by the locals) is a Turkish rug. But Turkey also has a number of internationally regarded craftspeople in the art of contemporary ceramics.
A word of warning: In Istanbul’s bazaars and also in many tourist-oriented shops, sellers can be quite brazen and annoyingly persistent. When shopping for rugs, know that it’s customary for the seller to offer shoppers a cup of tea. It’s considered good manners to accept, particularly if you are genuinely shopping (as opposed to browsing casually).
–written by Carolyn Spencer Brown, with contributions from Sarah Schlichter and Dan Askin