It is time to leave well-known tourist destinations of Europe and move to the edge of the continent – a place where the sophistication of the West meets the mysterious and unknown East. Yes, I am talking about Istanbul. It is becoming a trendy place with young crowds and shoppers but keeps its traditions where religions co-existed for centuries.
The origins of the city can be traced back to 6th Century B.C. In the early 100’s BC, it became part of the Roman Empire and in 306 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium capital of the entire Roman Empire. From that point on, the city was known as Constantinople. After hundreds of years of constants attacks, the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II conquered Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it as Istanbul.
Istanbul borders with Marmara Sea in the south and with the Black Sea in the north and divided into two parts: The European side, in the west, and the Asian part in the east of the Bosphorus Sea, which centuries ago put the city firmly on the main trade path between the two continents.
These days Istanbul is a metropolis and home to over 16 million people and one of the greatest business and cultural centre of the region – the place is huge, literally. The language is obviously Turkish and, not surprisingly, your knowledge of French, Spanish or German will be of little help. All is not lost, as many speak English, as well as most of the European languages if you are around Grand Bazar.
Start your visit with a good cup of Turkish coffee (or tea) and head for Sultanahmet area – the heart of historical Istanbul – the Topkapi Palace, to be precise, which has been the house of the sultans for almost 500 years. Don’t expect an imposing building with high ceilings, as you will be disappointed. Topkapi Palace is a little town with gardens and small, but beautifully decorated buildings. It also hosts an amazing collection of priceless treasures.
The next on your “must see” list would be the two most places of worship. The Blue Mosque, built by Sultan Ahmet I in the 17th century it is still a working mosque (There are about 3000 mosques in Istanbul) and, opposite, the incredible Church of Hagia Sophia, a supreme masterpiece of Byzantine architecture.
The Yerebatan Cistern is another historical attraction and well-kept secret. The cistern was first constructed by Constantine and enlarged by Justinian. One of the scenes of the Bond movie “From Russia with Love” was filmed there. Other sites to visit are The Archeological Museum, the Bizantine Hipodrom and Dikilitaş.
In another historical district of the city (Tophane) is Dolmabahce Palace with its famous glass staircase.
After the sightseeing, it is time to relax in one of the Nargiles near the Palace and have a coffee with Nargile (waterpipe). Carry on relaxation at the Cagaloglu Hamam in Sultanahmet (Turkish bath).
The Turkish gastronomy is little known in the West, so make the most of the delicious food on offer. Try authentic kebabs, eggplant salad (made of aubergine) and Dolma, pilav (rice dish). The dessert baklava is a national institution, but there is an endless variety of other sweets. If you like alcohol try Raki made of anise.
The nightlife is fantastic! One of the famous clubs is Reina, with spectacular views of the Bosphorus. The entrance is free. Paparazzi and flash photography are quite frequent.
For shopping in Istanbul head to The Grand Bazaar and you will see why the city has been the most important trading point between Europe and Asia through the centuries. If you go for leather, bags, gold or carpets you are in the right place. The Spice Bazaar offers a huge variety of spices, smells and colours.
The best times to visit Istanbul are from April to June and September to October and decide for yourself if Istanbul is the West or the East.
How to get there:
BA flights from London Heathrow.
EasyJet operates flights from Luton Airport.