Timeless and beautiful, Istanbul needs our support now more than ever
Istanbul is like nowhere else in the world. It is truly where East meets West, geographically as well as culturally, where you can walk over a bridge on the Bosphorus Strait from Europe to set foot in Asia.
It is a city of contrasts: modern and vibrant in a timeless setting; Muslim, Christian and secular; on the water but very land based. While the line about a city as old as time wasn’t written for Istanbul it could well have been.
Sadly, with the current terrorist situation, it’s reasonable to wonder about whether a visit to Turkey is wise, but a recent article in The Telegraph cites Foreign Office advice – available here – which encourages vigilance and common sense but says Istanbul is generally safe.
Traditionally ranked among the top ten most-visited city destinations in the world, Istanbul and its people arguably need the support of tourism now more than ever – so here are my tips on when and what to visit this beautiful city.
How and when to visit
Istanbul is easy to reach, with regular flights to two international airports. Hustling and bustling in the summer, the city is just as vibrant off season – although you may have fewer opportunities to buy genuine Turkish carpet from the street vendors!
Spring and autumn are good times to visit, and arriving in a watercolour sunset – with the tops of the minarets disappearing into a pink mist – is a sight to take your breath away, and one that will stay with me forever.
What to see and do
In the old city on the peninsula, the Sultanameht, there are reminders of worlds gone by everywhere you look: a Roman hippodrome where chariots hurtled at alarming speed, and underground cisterns, immaculately preserved and used as a film location for the James Bond film From Russia with Love.
Haghia Sofia, which served as Istanbul’s cathedral for over a thousand years, is a testament to the city’s ever-changing character. Originally built by the Romans, it turned from cathedral to mosque in 1453 and was then transformed into a secular museum in 1934. Simply stunning, Haghia Sofia is the result of two millennia’s worth of architectural change and restoration.
The other ‘must see’ of Istanbul directly faces Haghia Sofia across the main square: the Blue Mosque. Equally stunning, with its minarets and domes, it takes its name from the blue mosaic inside. There are many mosques across the city which you are welcome to visit, but do remember to dress appropriately. From here it is just a short stroll to the Topkapi Palace complex, once the seat of power for the Ottoman Empire, with many immaculately preserved buildings including the harem.
The Bosphorus is the lifeblood of the city, and the river cruises are very popular. If you want to venture out of the city you can visit the Princes’ Islands, an hour away by ferry. No cars are permitted on the islands, so you can enjoy a horse-drawn carriage ride and imagine yourself in times gone past.
Where to stay, eat and drink
There are a variety of hotels in different districts, catering for all budgets, and the city centre is a perfectly walkable size. There is a good tram system too, which runs through the city.
Restaurants and cafes are plentiful, serving both traditional Turkish coffee and the western instant that is seen as a sign of prosperity. There are also plenty of street stalls selling delicious traditional grilled meats and other Turkish food if you want to eat on the move.
Once you near the harbour area you will not be able to mistake the smells and sounds coming from the Grand Bazaar, where you can buy fresh spices and the locally made Turkish delight by the kilo.
We had to return several times, having eaten the original boxes that we’d bought to take home – and as you explore Istanbul, you’re bound to find your own indulgence!
Photo credit: Viajero Viajero at Freeimages