A big part of Turkey’s appeal as a destination is its imperious city of Istanbul. Here you get a real, heady East-meets-West brew; a legacy borne from the rich tapestry of its lengthy history. Straddling the mighty Bosphorous River, as well as being steeped in history, Istanbul almost acts as a modern-day gatekeeper between Europe and Asia, with all the attractions that entails.
The Aya Sofia is a case in point. The moment I stepped in to the sacred interior was inspiring enough: the ornate decoration, awe-inspiring masonry (especially the arches) and chandeliers that hang from the ceiling are all impressive.
But what sets this apart is the unique detail of the interior. Tiled Muslim inscriptions and well-preserved Christian mosaics co-exist in a fusion of Religious splendour, reminding the visitor of Aya Sofia’s rich, extensive and diverse history, as well as that of Istanbul itself. Be sure to check out the nearby Aya Sofia tombs too, each with its own distinctive interior decoration.
The Blue Mosque (real name Sultan Ahmet Mosque) is at least as impressive as the Aya Sofia on the outside, with its commanding dome and intricate minarets. But it does suffer a little by direct comparison, as its interior is not as jaw-dropping as that of its neighbour. It is impressive nonetheless, with the stained glass windows a particular highlight.
The service that was ongoing as I entered was a timely reminder that this is very much still a sacred place of worship. About five minutes after I entered, the sermon switched to English, with the prayer leader emphasising a message of unity between all religions across the world. It was a wonderful sentiment.
A short walk away from these two monuments is the Basilica Cistern. More than just a mere underground cavern, the cistern is impressively symmetrical as rows of carefully-crafted columns, submerged by carp-filled water, join floor to ceiling in floodlit style. The lighting is very evocative, giving the Cistern an air of moody grandeur all of its own, with the two Medusa heads at the very end of the walking route the icing on the cake.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a chaotic sprawl of a market in which everything from silk and spices to lotions and leather can be bought and haggled over, it certainly wasn’t quite as I imagined it would be, at least not for the most part. Anticipating something more akin to a Moroccan Medina, I was instead greeted by an almost Western-looking shopping mall, albeit with Arabic décor on the ceilings. It’s not really essential for a non-shopping enthusiast like myself. Heaven for shopaholics though!
Many Istanbul locals will tell you that the real architectural highlight of Istanbul is the Topkapi Palace. Dating from the 15th Century, this opulent Ottoman masterpiece is undoubtedly a sprawling treat. The extensive palace grounds have photo opportunities everywhere you look. Whether it’s the intricately carved doorways and terraced chambers or water fountains and wall hangings straight from your Ottoman Empire fantasies, there is something for everyone to admire. Throw in some fine Bosphorous views and immaculately manicured gardens, and you get a near-perfect attraction.
Highlights include the Harem – by turns both hauntingly melancholic and luxuriously splendid – the treasury with its 86-carat diamond, Topkapi dagger and assorted treasures from the world over (as a Brit, it was both charming and surreal to see The Order of the Garter) and the centrepiece Audience Chamber, where the business of Government took place. Whether your thing is military history (check out the unfeasibly large broadsword in the armoury), fashion and clothing (answer me this – how did the Sultans actually move around in those oversized Kaftans?) or architecture, you won’t be disappointed. The palace is very much recommended to all who visit Istanbul.
Also highly recommended is a Bosphorous Cruise. I opted for the short two hour cruise. This is certainly a great way to see a lot of this vast city in a short space of time, which is ideal if you were only in the city for a few days, like me. You get to see both the European and Asian sides of the city, each with their own particular places of interest, the most eye-catching for me being the formidable Rumeli Hisari fortress just before Fatih Bridge.
For cuisine, they say that you can’t really go wrong with kebaps, or cay (tea) from the vendors that patrol the atmospheric Sultanahmet Park that sits between the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Do look out for the fish sandwiches though – freshly caught from the Bosphorous no less – and I became a big fan of the traditional Turkish breakfast as well.
Turkey might be a Muslim country, but it’s not hard to get hold of an Efes Beer in Istanbul. It is certainly one of the more liberal destinations in this regard: the call to prayer can be heard one second, the beats of a nightclub the next. For me the best area of the city for a bit of night-time fun is the rather chaotic Taksim square, although it’s fair to say that there are plenty of great all-nighter places around the city.
Huge in scale – it has a population of approximately 14 million people, double that of London – and breath-taking in the scope of sights and activities it offers, Istanbul is truly a unique fusion of the best of East and West. Factor in its relative inexpensiveness, and it is truly deserving of its reputation as being one of the world’s great cities.