A French poet by the name of Alphonse de Lamartine boldly claimed, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.” In a way, I have to agree, for Istanbul is a spectacular world within a world – a rich melting pot of complex cultures, man-made masterpieces, spiritual undertones, historical nuances and modern luxuries.
One of the key ingredients feeding this unparalleled diversity is the fact that Istanbul is the nexus between Asia and Europe, and the only country in the world to straddle two continents. Add to that a turbulent past, which stretches as far back as 660 BCE and weaves its way through four great empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman), there is a depth of history which remains tangible in Istanbul today. Currently knocking on the door of 14 million residents, this city’s mammoth population boasts a wild mix of backgrounds, ethnicities, creeds, interests and persuasions. For all of these reasons (and more), it’s little wonder this heaving multicultural hub has become one of the fastest growing tourism destinations on earth.
Unfortunately, I only had 48 hours to explore what is unquestionably one of the world’s Great Cities. While it wasn’t nearly enough time to get under the skin of the place, my “taster tour” certainly fuelled my appetite for a future visit. Here are the highlights I enjoyed during my whirlwind adventure in Istanbul…
Whenever I visit a major city, my favourite way to get the lay of the land is to jump on a cycle tour. While in Istanbul, I had the pleasure of exploring its European banks and vibrant central suburbs with Istanbul On Bike. Making my way along the Golden Horn, a picturesque harbour which separates old Istanbul from its modern pockets, I was instantly struck by the city’s contrasting communities. Wildly different ways of life were intimately juxtaposed and the outcome was fascinating.
One minute, we were winding our way through a crowd of devout Muslims in the traditionalist Eyüp district; the next we were dodging punk-inspired students in a state-of-the-art university. As our tour group explored the plush parks along the waterfront, we witnessed a legion of luxury cruise liners unleashing their cashed-up tourist on the town. Later on in our tour, we entered a maze of gritty backstreets where cheeky street kids smiled for bottled water and a few Turkish lira. Rich, poor, ancient, modern, liberal and conventional – Istanbul’s different communities seemed to enjoy a relatively harmonious coexistence.
Our delightful tour guide and newfound friend, Yunus, was another case in point. Born into a conservative Muslim family, he’d chosen dance as his religion. Having recently parted ways with the love of his life, a male army recruit, Yunus was eager to assert his newfound independence (and heartbreak?) with a nose piercing. Listening to stories about his life in Istanbul was just as captivating as the tour itself. Thank you Yunus and Istanbul On Bike for a wonderful introduction to your multifaceted city.
Before arriving in Turkey, one of the iconic images I associated with this country was that of the Whirling Dervishes. While I was eager to witness these white-skirted men performing their “dance trance” firsthand, I had no idea what the their signature ceremony was all about. So, I tucked into some research and here’s what I discovered…
Whirling Dervishes are members of the Mevlevi Order, one of the many factions within the mystical dimension of Islam known as Sufism. Their whirling (Sufi spinning) is a form of active meditation and is performed during a ceremony of worship called the Sema Ceremony. This ritual moves through four phases, during which the dervishes aim to reach the source of all perfection (kemal). This is sought through abandoning one’s egos and personal desires by listening to music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.
While there are many locations to witness the Sema Ceremony, from the highly elaborate to the more traditional, my hubby and I hit up Sirkeci Hall. After a quick sample session of apple and Turkish teas, a group of musicians entered the large chamber and silenced the audience with their commanding, yet jovial tunes…the had ceremony began. When the dervishes appeared on the floor, a wave of anticipation washed over the entire audience. While their routine extended far beyond whirling, it was easy to understand how this move had become the hook that lured in tourists. As their skirts took flight and their hands drifted into the air with an angelic weightlessness, I was instantly hypnotised. The dervishes managed to create a sense of energy and stillness – they were beautiful to watch.
Having said that, I also felt like an intruder. An intimate spiritual occasion had become commercialised by tourism and I was perpetuating the problem. On the flip side, having access to such a unique religious experience proved very enlightening. The Sema Ceremony inspired me to research and better understand an aspect of Islamic culture that was completely foreign to me, and that can’t be a bad thing, right?
In light of Istanbul’s eclectic culture and history, the local cuisine is rich with international accents – European, Central Asian and beyond. This food-crazed city presents a gastronomic adventure like no other, tantalising tourists with exotic morsels at every possible moment. To uncover Istanbul’s best food experiences, Ben and I sampled everything from cheap ‘n’ cheerful street eats to fine-dining fare.
For a night of unabashed decadence, we visited the highly acclaimed Nicole restaurant. Tucking into an eclectic degustation menu, which was perfectly paired with Turkish wines, the experience was an absolute treat! I adored the restaurant’s signature beverage, Hugo, a refreshing cocktail of elderflower, mint, lemon and prosecco. But, the highlight of my night was the choc-lemon mille-feuille; the pastry was softer than angels’ wings and the citrus kick sent my tastebuds into overdrive. Ben championed the “onion leather”, melt-in-your-mouth duck dish and Atlantic Bonito – a popular local fish which waves hello to Istanbul during its annual migration between the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Ultimately, every mouthful earned instant praise thanks to the chefs’ ingenuity and dedication to fresh, seasonal ingredients. Nicole Restaurant was a great way to taste Turkish cuisine at its best!
While Ben and I revelled in our night of fine dining, Istanbul’s street foods and humble restaurants proved just as delightful. We hit up the popular tourist haunt of Taskim and ate our way through mountains of meze, kebaps, baklava, simit, lahmacun and Turkish delight. But there was one iconic local dish, which really stood out from the cuisine crowd. Famous for its seafood, Istanbul’s signature fish sandwich (balık-ekmek) is a must-try – served with a glass of rakı, of course! While the ingredients seemed basic enough – a fresh fillet of fish and simple salad kissed with squeeze of lemon juice and served on a crusty baguette – the flavour combination really packed a punch. We joined the horde of tourists under the Galata Bridge and feasted on a sandwich at a restaurant, but it’s best to follow the locals’ advice: “The balık-ekmek you’re served at a table isn’t as good as the one you enjoy on your feet.”
A trip to Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is like entering Aladin’s cave of treasures – so many pretty, shiny things! In operation since 1461, it’s one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. Jam-packed with over 5,000 bustling shops and up to 400,000 visitors per day, the labyrinth of laneways is brilliantly hectic…and a little overwhelming.
Once I’d joined the masses in the belly of the bazaar, I soon discovered it was divided into sections, from jewellery and souvenirs to antiques and fashion. No matter which zone I was in, the walls were absolutely drenched with vibrant, sparkly colours. It was the kind of place I longed to get lost in at first but couldn’t wait to escape after a few hours. Drowning in a sea of “Take me home!” products and turbulent prices, my sense of buyer’s anxiety (and potential remorse) reached fever pitch very quickly. I had to escape the madness!
If you’re a patient, prudent and restrained shopper (unlike me), you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time at the Grand Bazaar. It deserves a good half day visit and once you’ve waded through the tourist tat (genuine fakes which are probably made in India and China), there are some real gems and exquisite bespoke items to be discovered. Whatever takes your fancy, just be sure to haggle like your travel budget depends on it!
MAZE OF MOSQUES…AND CHURCHES
With nearly 100% of the local population being Muslim, it’s no surprise Istanbul is home to a lot of mosques – over 3000 in fact! As such, a visit to this city isn’t complete without a tour of one (or more) of these magnificent structures. With so many of them boasting archaeological, historical and architectural significance, it’s hard to know which ones deserve your time. An obvious starting point is Istanbul’s seven major hills, which are all topped by an imperial mosque. I focused on the city’s First Hill, as it’s home to two of Istanbul’s (if not the world’s) most notable religious sites: Hagia Sophia and Sultan Ahmed Mosque (a.k.a. The Blue Mosque).
Constructed in 537 AD, Hagia Sophia was originally a Christian cathedral and the world’s largest cathedral for nearly a thousand years. In 1453, it became a mosque under the rule of the Ottoman Empire along with many other churches in Istanbul. Today, this beautifully preserved structure is a museum which allows visitors to step back in time and relive Istanbul as the centre of two world empires and two religions over sixteen centuries. Famous for its massive dome, Byzantine design and significant influence on Ottoman-Islamic architecture, Hagia Sophia still manages to attract over 3 million tourists annually.
Istanbul’s Sultan Ahmed Mosque is equally impressive visually speaking, but it offers a completely different and more intimate cultural experience. Having taken the reigns from Hagia Sophia and established itself at Istanbul’s principal mosque, locals flock to this magnificent structure as much as tourists do. As an active mosque, it closes to non-worshippers during the five daily prayers and the sound of the azhan being chanted from the minarets is the cue for non-Muslims to wait a while. All visitors must remove their shoes prior to entering the mosque and adhere to the traditional dress code (women need to cover the legs, shoulders and hair while men need to cover their legs). Luckily, there are free scarves and pants available for those, like Ben and me, who forget to cover up. While tourists have a separate entrance to the locals, they still have the opportunity to view the mosque’s interior design in all of its blue-tiled glory and observe worshippers while they prey – though, I’m not sure if the latter is polite!
As you can see, Istanbul is the ultimate cultural playground for tourists and residents alike. This complex city offers a rich multi-cultural and historical experience like no place on earth. While Istanbul has strong local roots, it also seems to embrace whole world. Stretching its open arms around the East and the West, the city unites people from all walks of life and the result, a mad mosaic of international influences, is nothing short of exhilarating. I loved having the opportunity to explore Istanbul, from its iconic highlights through to its clandestine corners. My only regret was not being able to stay longer.