Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus Strait. Having served as an imperial capital for almost 16 centuries, its Old City reflects the cultural influences of the many empires that have ruled here.
Over time Istanbul has developed into a cosmopolitan municipal thanks to its strategic position on the historic Silk Road, and on the railway crossroads between Europe and the Middle East.
The minarets of Istanbul’s great mosques pierce the skyline, with rolling domes dominating the cityscape. The most famous is the renowned 1616 Sultan Ahmed Mosque, fondly known as the Blue Mosque, named for the colour of its interior tiles and fascinating mix of Byzantine and Islamic architecture.
Across from the Blue Mosque is the Hippodrome of Constantinople, for centuries the site of chariot races. While walking it lookout for The Kaiser Wilhelm German Fountain, an octagonal style feature constructed by the German government in 1900, as well as the Serpent Column and Walled Obelisk.
The iconic Hagia Sophia is architecturally enchanting and significant to both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. A former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, it was later an Ottoman imperial mosque and is now a museum. Known in particular for its soaring 6th-century dome, which stands tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, rare Christian mosaics, remarkable frescos and bold marble arches.
The expansive Grand Bazaar – the world’s oldest bazaar with thousands of stalls – is at the city’s pulse. As is the nearby Spice Bazaar, or Misir Carsisi – also called Egyptian Bazaar, that was built in the 1660s as part of the New Mosque complex and in order to support the schools, hospitals and several baths that the district housed.
A land built on time that takes you from the ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus to lavish Ottomans and the legacy of Ataturk.
It’s my first visit to Turkey and on the first night, Semsa Denizsel, a pioneer of the Turkish food movement hosts us at her restaurant Kantin in the upmarket Nisantasi district of Istanbul. Gathered for dinner at a table brimming with freshly baked bread, cured meats, hand-sourced cheeses and Mediterranean fair, we were eating generous portions of goodness as she told us about her farm-to-table philosophy. It was a suitable introduction to the warm hospitality that I’d encounter as I explored
Istanbul’s history stretches back two millennia. The Topkapi Palace guards the treasures of a bygone era and the Bosphorus, the strait that divides Turkey between two continents, makes for incredible river cruises. We did one, sipping on bubbly as we looked towards the crossroads of civilisation and the very bridge which connects east to west, Asia to Europe.
The minarets of Istanbul’s great mosques pierce the skyline everywhere, with rolling domes dominating the cityscape. A highlight of the tour and a must-visit is the renowned 1616 Sultan Ahmed Mosque, fondly known as the Blue Mosque. It’s named after the colour of its interior tiles and a fascinating mixture of Byzantine and Islamic architecture.
Across from the Blue Mosque and offering the best views towards it is the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which once held the political and sporting focus of the era with the open-air arena still shows traces of old horseracing tracks. While walking it lookout for The Kaiser Wilhelm German Fountain, an octagonal style feature constructed by the German government in 1900, as well as the Serpent Column and Walled Obelisk.
Nearby is the magical sunken palace of the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet Square, once the water source for the entire city. Also the Hagia Sophia, architectural beauty and an important monument both for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires that have seen a history that took it from church to mosque and now a museum. Known in particular for its massive dome, which stands tall enough to hold the Statue of Liberty, remarkable frescos, mosaics and bold marble arches. Here, I stuck my finger in the Weeping Column in the northern isle and made a wish. It would later come true.
If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul ― Alphonse de Lamartine
Shop ‘till you drop – Turkey style
No visit to Istanbul is complete without a shopping expedition to the expansive Grand Bazaar. And when you’re ready for a break, go to the old Egyptian Spice Bazaar, or Misir Carsisi. It’s just a short distance away and, lit by Turkish lamps, is both atmospheric and aromatic. We drank freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and snacked on mouth-watering Turkish street food: borek, a Middle-Eastern pie made of phyllo pastry, and dolma, a stuffed vegetable dish.
For weary shoppers’ bodies, booking a hammam or Turkish Bath is a must. I have never been scrubbed or soaked so clean – this invigorating ritual of health and wellness leaves no room for modesty.
If the Earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital ― Napoleon Bonaparte
The Gallipoli Peninsular
Refreshed and relaxed we headed to the Dardanelles on the west end of the Sea of Marmara, a narrow strip of water that has been of great strategic significance since ancient times. Here, you find the Gallipoli Peninsular that saw one of the most disastrous campaigns of World War I in 1915. To commemorate the centenary, we visited Anzac Cove for a moving walk through the cemeteries with a Battlefields expert. Touched by the significance of the location and the memory of the hundreds of thousands of lost lives, we quietly crossed to the picturesque town of Cannakale by ferry, where we spent the night.
Another culinary highlight of our trip was the Be My Guest-experience that we had in Demircidere, a tiny village just outside of Izmir. Here split into groups of four, we were taken to private homes and hosted in a traditional Turkish style. The Granny of the family, despite being bent with age, took great pride in preparing the food. I didn’t understand a word, yet the joy of the moment became our common language.
The Coastal City of Izmir
Izmir is Turkey’s main Mediterranean port and the Turkish headquarters for NATO; it is also the third-largest city in the country. From here we visited Troy, where Homer’s Iliad was lived out 3000 years ago. Discovered and excavated by the German historian and archaeologist Heinrich Schlieman, the remains offer a good idea of ancient living, while the replica Trojan Horse is a fun reminder of the legend, more recently depicted in the movie Troy, with Brad Pitt playing Achilles. Alas, he was nowhere to be seen.
The site of Ephesus, about 16km outside of Izmir, impresses as one of the best-preserved ancient classical cities with its ruins well intact. Around the end of the first century BC, Ephesus had a population of over 300 000 people and was one of the main ports on the Aegean Coast. Then the sea receded across the Menderes River plain, spelling disaster for the city. It was soon abandoned.
The exodus meant that it was left largely untouched and today you can experience the magnificence of the Library of Celsus, Arcadian Way, with its columns that once led down to the sea, and the Lower Agora with its 25 000-seat theatre carved into the rock.
But it’s the resident cats that have made the ancient ruins their home that will steal your heart. Most are up for a head scratch, a tummy rub and a quick photo. And with Ephesus as a backdrop, they’re some of the most photogenic felines in the world.
Returning to Istanbul and almost on my way back home, I couldn’t help but reflect on the Turkish nation with fondness. There’s a sense of ownership of language and culture, a deeply embedded pride among the Turks. Here is a Muslim country with Raki, an anise flavoured alcoholic beverage as it’s the national drink. Turkish delight is much more than a sweet treat, it’s a conviction, and their can sit proudly with the world’s best.
I left feeling teased by Turkey’s offerings, wanting to return for more, and enriched by the unique insider experiences and the new friends I shared it with, including the wonderful Semsa of Kantin Restaurant.
Interesting Facts about Istanbul
- Istanbul is not the capital of Turkey, Ankara is.
- There are an estimated 3,113 mosques in the city.
- Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ at the Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul.
- Leonardo da Vinci envisioned a bridge over the Bosphorus Strait, 471 years before the first one was built.
* This post forms part of my 100x Magical Places series which offers an introduction to my favourite destinations.