Istanbul is a unique place to visit. Straddling two continents, there is an amazing amount of history and culture to experience in this city where two major civilisations meet. It’s a magical place and the former names of Byzantium (660BC) and Constantinople (330AD) hint at the exotic traditions and customs that hail from bygone eras.
A cruise on the Bospherous is a interesting way to get a view of the city before exploring more deeply. The boat took us up to the Bospherous Bridge that spans the river and connects Europe to Asia. On the way up the river you get a glimpse of some wonderful buildings.
Istanbul is home to over 3000 mosques but the 17th century Blue Mosque, with its 6 rising, slim minarets, is the iconic symbol of Istanbul, glorifying the skyline. The Mosque is known locally as Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Once you go inside you immediately know why it’s known as the ‘Blue’ mosque, with the 21 000 blue Iznik tiles that decorate the interior walls.
An added surprise for us on this trip was that our good friends Andrew and Jane, who were “in the area” (Europe) flew in for the weekend to say a belated Happy Birthday to Geoff. They were staying at the exquisite Kempinski Hotel and we joined them for a spot of morning tea (there couldn’t be a more delightful place in the city to do this!) while watching the boats cruise up and down the Bospherous. Awfully civilised. Built in the 19th century, the hotel gives you a taste of a genuine Ottoman Palace.
Time for a spot of local culture. The Topkapi Palace was originally the official residence for the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire for approximately 400 years. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1985. It used to be the main setting for state occasions and royal entertainment. Today it is a museum and gallery for displaying important holy Muslim relics (such as Muhammed’s cloak and sword).
The Hippodrome of Constantinople used to be a circus that was the sporting and social centre of the Byzantine Empire. Horse-racing and chariot racing were popular activities in Constantinople. Today it is a pretty public square named Sultanahmet Meydani. There are still some fragments of the original structure that have survived.
The Obelisk of Theodosius is made of red granite from Aswan. It remained in Alexandria until 390, when Theodosius I (379–395 AD) had it transported to Constantinople and put up at the Hippodrome.
The elaborate structure with the green dome is known as the German Fountain. It was built by German Emperor Wilhelm the 2nd, and presented as a gift to Sultan Abdülhamid II. It was first unveiled at the beginning of 1901. A symbol of the close relationship between the two empires.
Dinner on our first evening was at Neyzen which is a popular seafood restaurant in Kumkapi, a fishermen’s village located in the old city. The restaurants are all located next to each other in a vibey pedestrian area. We had fresh bream, that tasted delicious. We were also treated to some interesting entertainment.
Cats in significant numbers have roamed the metropolis of Istanbul for thousands of years. Cats are honoured in Islam and there are some touching stories about how the prophet Muhammed was a cat-person. Although the kitties we saw were street cats – you could see that they were being taken care of by the community. Biscuits and water is put out on the steps and sidewalks for them. It is estimated that there are almost 30 000 stray cats surviving in this city.
“If you kill a cat, you need to build a mosque to be forgiven by God.” (Turkish proverb)
The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest, covered bazaars in the world. The size is staggering. The sprawling complex stretches across over 60 street and alleys and is more than 30 000 square meters in total. Thousands of shops overflow with colourful spices, gorgeous carpets, intricate lamps, brass work, pottery and of course Turkish delight.
Tea is an important part of Turkish culture and offering this refreshment to guests is part of Turkish hospitality. We got offered delicious hot apple tea, served in traditional glasses in many of the shops that we visited. Of course it makes it awkward to say “no thanks” to purchasing any goods afterwards, and the shop owners can be very persistent!
For an exciting taste of Istanbul nightlife, we visited Reina, a nightclub which is known to host the young and the fabulous as well as a host of movie stars, the F1 set and of course, us tourists. It’s wonderful to recline on the white couches overlooking the Bospherous, getting served delicious cocktails. After dark the bridge is colourfully illuminated with a dazzling light show.
2018 Update: I was saddened to read that in the early hours of 1 Jan 2017 a terrorist entered the nightclub (dressed as Santa Claus) and shot 39 people, wounding another 70 others with an AK-47, as the New Year was being celebrated. The attacker slipped away by removing his costume and blending in with the crowd. He was arrested a few weeks later.
Istanbul is a vibrant and vivid city that demands so much more of your time than just 48 hours can allow. Definitely a destination that we would like to return to, but then aren’t they all?