Istanbul is a city so exceptional that it’s difficult to summarize its history, geography, culture and people in the space of a few pages. Even its location is an enigma capable of sparking debate among the most seasoned travelers.
Istanbul, indeed all of Turkey, presents a geographic quandary. Is it in Europe? Asia? The Middle East? Travel Web sites offer little help, and a random search through world atlases shows it is often included in maps of both Europe and Asia. The city of Istanbul undeniably straddles both with its European and Asian components separated by a 10-minute ferry ride across the Bosporus Strait. The European side is divided yet again into the Old City and the Modern Section by the Golden Horn (spanned by two bridges), a miles-long natural port that made Istanbul a trader’s paradise for hundreds of years.
Istanbul is a teeming, cramped and, at times, awkwardly developed city. There are few streets in the Old City where you can swing your bag a full circle without hitting at least a dozen people, three cars and a couple of carpet shops. You can find streets with more personal space, of course, but that space exists because the streets are so steep and dauntingly uneven that most people wouldn’t dream of ascending them without a defibrillator on hand.
On paper, Istanbul seems like a place that would push your buttons. The bad ones. The crowds are endless, the noise is potent, the air quality is at times gruesome and the touts from the shops, restaurants and street vendors are insufferable. But when you’re in the thick of it, these minutiae blend into the background in the face of the giddying intrigue that comes with knowing that you are exploring a city that is unique. Gigantic, otherworldly mosques with soaring spires are visible in every direction. The Muslim call to prayer resonates over the din five times a day from loudspeakers peppered throughout the city. The physical history left in the wake of three powerful empires — Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman — in the form of walls, aqueducts, monuments, cisterns, churches and lavish palaces confront you at every turn. The sights in the European Old City are so abundant and in such close proximity that a full-day guided tour won’t take you beyond a 500-yard radius. The wealth of history, stupefying structures and “oh-wow” moments will affect you so deeply you will forget all about the car horns, the sea of people and even your need for food and sleep.
Steeped in more than 2,000 years of history, Istanbul could take weeks to tour thoroughly. Start at the centrally located Atmeydani (Hippodrome). Elections be damned. This is where Byzantine emperors won or lost their seats by competing in gutsy, boisterous chariot races around the Hippodrome. Today it is a rectangular park, bulls-eyed by an Egyptian granite obelisk, circa 1450 B.C., that looks as if it were carved yesterday.
Mere steps from the Hippodrome are the equaling awe-inspiring Ayasofya Church (Church of the Divine Wisdom) and the Imperial Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque). Ayasofya was the greatest church in all of Christendom for more than 900 years until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, when it was put into use as a mosque. Built on the orders of Emperor Justinian in A.D. 537, in an effort to reinvigorate the prominence of the Roman Empire, Ayasofya’s brain-scrambling interior will likely induce an unintentional, transcendental stupor. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and that’s just as well since the golden mosaics, tiles, carvings, marble columns and ornamentations cannot be done justice in print. The church was closed for worship and declared a museum in 1935.
The short walk to the Blue Mosque is barely enough to absorb the Ayasofya experience. So named by European tourists due to its overwhelmingly blue interior, this massive edifice, built in a scant seven years (1609 -1616), is highlighted by the 141-foot-tall, 75-foot-wide main dome, supported by gigantic elephant -leg columns and surrounded by a medley of smaller domes. The gaping interior is wallpapered with intricate stained glass windows, tiles and trim that will draw your gaze upward in awe as you slowly circle in an awkward attempt to take it all in. The exterior is framed by six towering spires, making the overall structure appear to have been the inspiration for Jabba the Hut’s palace in George Lucas’ classic “Star Wars” series. Like all of Istanbul’s many mosques, the Blue Mosque is still functional. Take care not to stumble over or interrupt worshipers when you get lost in your own moment of reverence.
The last of the Big Three of Istanbul’s attractions is Topkapi Palace. The size and marvels of the palace, constructed by order of Mehmet the Conqueror in the mid- 15th century, can be covered in a measured half-day amble — or a two-hour sprint — depending on your schedule or exhaustion-fueled desire to collapse into a chair and plead for someone to bring you a cup of apple tea. The sticker shock of the entry price ($15) will soon be eclipsed by the sensory shock of the palace’s features. In no particular order, the highlights include the Imperial Council Chamber, the Imperial Treasury (alas, photography is prohibited), the Sacred Safekeeping Rooms, Baghdad Kiosk, the Tower of Justice and the Harem (if you are fortunate enough to arrive on one of the select days that it is open to the public). The palace’s four courtyards provide a picturesque, serene and welcome setting for a lingering break.
Countless cisterns, churches, ruins and smaller, but notable, mosques are scattered throughout both the European Old City and the Modern Section. If you choose to navigate the city and seek out these sights unassisted, you will inevitably find yourself hopelessly lost for a fair portion of the day. That isn’t necessarily a bad turn of events, as accidentally finding Istanbul’s smaller treasures is half the fun once you’ve surrendered your fate to indiscriminate wandering. But if you’re pressed for time and would like the luxury of walking straight to a sight without circling the block twice or want a quick and painless van ride to the sights that are farther out, it would behoove you to take a guided tour. I enjoyed the company of Ms. Nesli from Pacha Tours (Turkey tel 0212 234 39 79 ext. 202 or U.S. tel 800 722 4288, www.pachatours.com), who was a wealth of information, not only on the sights she guided me through, but on just about every other Istanbul-related subject. I quizzed her at great length as our van driver deftly maneuvered through the tight Istanbul knot of streets, allowing us to cover seven major sights in two days. I was also ferried to and from Istanbul’s nicer pedestrian areas, allowing me to have some unsupervised strolling time before being whisked back to my hotel. Her advice on shopping, restaurants, hotels and nightlife saved me hours of legwork.
After all that walking and mind-boggling amazement, you will need to unwind. An unrivaled Turkish mainstay is the hamam, or bathhouse. The granddaddy of them all is the Cemberlitas Hamam (Vezirhan Caddesi No. 8, tel 0212 522 79 74, www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr), built in 1584. Open from 6 a.m. to midnight, the bath has large, marble “hot area” chambers, divided for men and women patrons, to laze and sweat, scrub themselves or be scrubbed by an attendant into a marshmallow-shaped ball of lather and/or partake in a rigorous massage treatment. Towels and a pestemal (printed cotton body wrap) are provided for you, so an impromptu midday stop is entirely feasible. When you emerge with scrupulously cleansed pores, as relaxed as an overcooked noodle, you can retire to a tea garden where smokers and nonsmokers alike might enjoy sampling the mild tobacco tastes from a traditional narghile (water pipe) with a variety of flavors, including mocha, rose petal, cherry, orange and lemon. Once you’ve exhausted your pursuit of the perfect smoke ring, watch or join a vigorous game of backgammon, which may sound like an oxymoron, but you should see these guys play!
There are few places in the world where you can literally buy anything. Istanbul’s Kapal Çar (Grand Bazaar), open Monday through Saturday, is one of them. What started out as a small warehouse in the mid-15th century has swelled into a labyrinthine network of 4,000 shops where escaping in less than two hours — especially without at least two bags of intently haggled plunder in tow — is considere d a modern miracle. Every nook and cranny has been turned into shop space, some of claustrophobia-inducing size (think MRI chamber), with goods displayed on every reasonable square inch of surface. Among other things, you will be overwhelmed by the variety of jewelry, leather, wood crafts, clothing, porcelain, fabrics, ceramics, tea, and of course, carpets.
Carpets are an intrinsic part of an Istanbul shopping excursion. Carpet vendors are so adept at ferrying shoppers into the showroom, you will likely find yourself seated on a couch, sipping a cup of apple tea and watching a carpet exhibition unfold in front of you before you can lift a hand in protest. While some will argue that you can get the same quality carpets for a better price on eBay, nothing beats the spectacle of a live carpet show. Of course, even after a 45-minute presentation and four cups of tea, you are not obliged to buy anything. Still, unless you want a cargo shipping container to start chugging its way to your house, it’s best to leave your wallet at the hotel. Carpet merchants put on a hard sell that would humble even the most successful life insurance agent.
I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of Sisko Osman. One of a dwindling population of authentic old-world carpet masters, Osman continues to make the two-hour daily commute to his family-run, 106-year-old four-showroom shop (tel 0212 528 35 48, fax 0212 526 72 87, www.siskoosman.com) in the old Zincirli Han Hotel portion of the Grand Bazaar despite his declared retirement. Osman, his son and army of nephews do a brisk business when they aren’t putting on perfectly choreographed carpet shows for wide-eyed travelers. Their mainstay is old and restored classic carpets, some of which date to the Ottoman Empire when they were made specially for imperial functions. Osman traverses the Turkish countryside acquiring the old carpets that can require up to two years of painstaking restoration before they’re ready for the showroom. He also contributes to carpet exhibitions around the world from his private stash of 1,755 traditional carpets. His boundless knowledge, coupled with the dazzling display of carpets woven with silk and fabric dyed with volcanic stone and even gold fiber will keep you agog with delight.
Finally, I must mentioned that the Turks are the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever encountered. Hotel staff, tourism officials, shopkeepers and strangers on the street, some lacking even basic English language skills, will not hesitate to stop what they are doing to lead wayward travelers six blocks to their intended destination. Even the carpet touts, aggressive as they are in their pursuit of business, will lavish you with kindness and assistance, almost to the point of absurdity, expecting nothing but a smile and a “thank you” in return.
The Conrad Hotel
The Conrad might be slightly off the beaten path in the Modern Section of Istanbul, but when you see it, you’ll understand why. Its 584 guestrooms and suites and expansive property would flatten three mosques if they were plopped down in Istanbul’s Old City. The five-star hotel boasts beguiling views of the Bosporus Strait, fully equipped meeting rooms, ornate ballrooms, a 24-hour business center, pools, fitness center/health club, tennis courts and a trendy restaurant — Prego — which is open to the public. The acclaimed restaurant’s new master chef has designed a mouthwatering Italian/Asian hybrid menu. On the 14th floor, the Summit bar serves light snacks. In the summer, the terrace offers panoramic views of the city.
THE CONRAD HOTEL
tel 0212 227 30 00, fax 0201 259 66 67
The Four Seasons
The Four Seasons Hotel is among the most luxurious of luxury hotels. Housed in a former prison, built in 1919, its exterior neoclassical façade remains unchanged. The interior was renovated in 1996. Some of the more eye-catching ornaments from its days as a prison have been preserved, including tiles and marble columns with messages etched by former prisoners. The hotel’s 65 guestrooms are cool, soothingly lit and pleasingly furnished. The relaxing ambience is an intentional part of the hotel’s design — an effort to counter the total sensory overload guests experience on Istanbul’s streets. The hotel features an indoor/outdoor pool and an inner courtyard restaurant that offers a three-course dinner with wine for approximately $55. It’s a five-minute walk from the Hippodrome, Blue Mosque and Ayasofya Church.
THE FOUR SEASONS
Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1
tel 0212 638 82 00, fax 0212 638 82 10
Aziyade Hotel is a surprisingly affordable four-star hotel within easy walking distance of the Grand Bazaar, Blue Mosque and Ayasofya Church. It has a top-floor restaurant with a view of the Marmara Sea and the Old City, business facilities and its very own Turkish bath. Breakfast is included in the price of a room.
Piyerloti Caddesi No. 62
tel 0212 638 22 00, fax 0212 518 50 65
The Hamdi Restaurant has been treating people to views of the neighboring Rüstem Pasa Mosque and Golden Horn Harbor since 1970. Its air-conditioned dining room offers beautiful views, and the vista from the outside terrace is even better. Outside, you might catch a whiff of the nearby spice market. Ask about the hashish kebab. No kidding. Meals, including a glass of wine, cost about $19.
tel 0212 528 03 90, fax 0212 528 49 91
Built in 1349, Galata Tower catches your eye as you cross Galata Bridge into the Modern Section of Istanbul. It has served as a prison, as a fire tower and as the launching point of what is said to be the first winged-man flight, though the details of the success or failure of that endeavor are sketchy. Now the top of Galata Tower is a sightseeing platform with unparalleled panoramic views and a cafeteria. At 8 p.m. it turns into one of Istanbul’s best Turkish dinner clubs. At $60, the fixed-price menu consists of a four-course meal, drinks and a 2 1⁄2-hour show — a belly dancer, two Turkish dance routines and a harem show that begins at 9:30 p.m. Reservations are required.
tel 0212 293 81 80, fax 0212 245 21 33
Adjacent to Süleyman Mosque, Darüzziyafe features typical Ottoman/Turkish cuisine with a frequently changing menu, served in a seasonal, outdoor courtyard. A four-course meal, including beverage, costs about $20. Due to its proximity to the mosque, alcohol is not served.
Sifahane Caddesi No. 6
tel 0212 511 84 14, fax 0212 26 18 91
Just the Facts
Location: Istanbul is situated on an isthmus bordered on the south by the Marmara Sea and on the north by the Black Sea.
Business Basics: It is customary for business visitors to address new acquaintances by their first names followed by bey (sir) or hanim (lady).
Entry/Exit Requirements: A passport and visa are required. Currently, holders of all types of passports can purchase a 90-day sticker visa at the port of entry for $20 cash, if they are traveling to Turkey as tourists.
Government Type: Multiparty republic, including an elected national assembly, president and prime minister.
Population: About 7,817,000
Time Zone: GMT+2
Phone Code: 90
Electricity: 220 volts AC, 50Hz; round two- or three-pin plugs are standard.
Currency: Turkish Lira (TL)
Official Language: Turkish
Key Industries: Textiles, food processing, autos, mining (coal, copper, chromite, boron), steel, petroleum, construction, lumber, paper.
Info to Go
Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport (IST) is Turkey’s busiest. Sabiha Gokçen International Airport (SAW), on the Asian side of the city, opened in 2001, but most flights still arrive and depart from Atatürk. Upon arrival, the quickest way into the city is a 30-minute taxi ride (make sure there is a meter and that it is running), but the 14-mile journey coupled with Istanbul’s traffic congestion can result in a hefty fare. Alternatively, there are airport buses that will drop you off at a number of locations in central Istanbul for a fraction of the taxi fare, but twice the driving time. When departing, be sure to arrive at least two hours before your international flight. Lines are long and security is tighter than a Vegas nickel-slot machine.
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