Turkey’s pulsating cultural capital can be overwhelming – so let Andrew Forbes reveal the most important city experiences.
It’s the world’s only city to straddle two continents; it’s a metropolis where exotic eastern culture collides with European styles; a place where life is celebrated through art, cuisine and culture. It can only be Istanbul. It’s crowded and chaotic, yet also sophisticated and clean, where one moment you might be walking down a European-style Belle Époque avenue and then moments later be surrounded by colourful ‘Arabian Nights’ architecture. Istanbul is also a city of excess and luxury, and is home to many high-end hotels, including properties from all the major luxury brands from Kempinski, Four Seasons, to Ritz Carlton. So sometimes the hardest decision is choosing which beautiful palace of indulgence to call home whilst in Istanbul. The Ritz Carlton makes a fine choice as it is housed in one of the city’s striking towers and offers stunning views across the city and the Bosphoros straits; vistas that are one of the city’s essential experiences. History shows that many civilisations have embraced Istanbul’s strategic position, and as ‘Byzantium’, ‘Constantinople’ and now ‘Istanbul’, it has been the capital to some of the world’s greatest empires. This extraordinary past has left a rich architectural legacy, including the quintessential Eastern minarets of the city’s historic mosques in the Sultanahmet district. However Istanbul is very much a modern city. To capture the essential experience of modern Istanbul, explore the eclectic, creative districts where the locals live. ‘Beyoğlu’, for example, on the European side of the city, separated from old town by the Golden Horn waterway, is the young and innovative area. It has distinct quarters, including Tünel, and Ka- raköy which includes the increasingly fashionable Galata. Amongst the cobbled streets of loft units and period buildings are coffee shops, cafés, bars, restaurants and late night venues where there are more residents than tourists. This is the area to soak up the city atmosphere during the day and then party the night away.
People are warm, friendly and talkative, eager to share the best of their city. With the boutiques and galleries that sell works from emerging Turkish artists, and the street art and graffiti, these areas have a distinctly urban, creative buzz that reflects Istanbul’s acknowledged position as the cultural capital of Turkey. The city’s annual ‘Art Istanbul’ and ‘Contemporary Istanbul’ festivals, together with the visual arts ‘Biennale’, and international film, theatre and music festivals make Istanbul one of the most culturally dynamic centres in the world. Another truly essential experience is to visit the Asian side of Istanbul. Although a new metro-line, the first sub-sea tunnel in the world, now joins the two sides of the city, (together with two striking suspension bridges) the best way to travel is on the water. There are a host of visitor boats trips to choose from, and standing between the many street vendors selling grilled or poached corn on the cob, there are plenty of touts willing to sell a ticket. But a more authentic alternative is to take one of the vintage commuter ferries across to Kadıköy on the Asian side of the city, taking in some spectacular vistas on the way. The Ritz Carlton hotel has the only city spa that includes a rooftop area. So as you are pampered with the Turkish Hammam inspired treatments or take a swim in the pool you can also enjoy an unforgettable view of the Bosphorus and the minarets of old town. Spa culture is nothing new to the Turks and a traditional hammam is an essential part of the Istanbul experience. At first it can be confusing to the uninitiated, so taking a hammam at a luxury hotel gives you a chance to get to grips with the bathing etiquette whilst at the same time being truly pampered. There are also traditional baths in every neighbourhood, but the most famous is probably the historic Cagaloglu Baths. Based on bathing techniques that have been passed down from the Romans, to the Byzantines and onto the Turks, a hammam here has a real classic Ottoman flavour. A visit to the city’s Sultanahmet district, the Old Town, although very ‘touristy’, is a requisite. The area is full of ancient buildings from the Middle Ages and more recent Ottoman Palaces, each giving some clues about the city’s colourful past. The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque), with its distinctive six towering minarets, at-tracts the most visitors, and is still used as a place of worship, so visits fit in around the regular prayer times. As is customary, one has to dress conservatively and take off shoes before entering. Sit on the carpeted floor and look up, and take in the vast array of pastel blue ceramic detailing of the interior.
Opposite is the Hagia Sophia museum, a 6th Century Roman Christian Basilica, that later became a mosque in the 15th century. It is one of the most extraordinary buildings architecturally and culturally, and now, as a secular museum, it celebrates both faiths. Below the streets of Sultanahmet is the Basilica Cistern. This is giant cistern built in the 6th century to store water in the event of a city siege. Now an elevated walkway above the remaining water allows a privileged view of the huge columned space.
Any list of things to do in Istanbul surely includes trying a Turkish coffee. Some of the best can be found in Café Fes, in the Grand Bazaar. This vast covered market is an unexpected treat. It’s not a chaotic or disorganised frenzy like a North African souk; instead it is an immaculately presented covered market of small retailers, where you can find carpets, classic tulip shaped Turkish tea glasses, jewellery, intricately decorated lamps and plenty of ceramics. Amongst the shops are cafés and bars including the Fes Café that presents its Turkish coffee on a silver tray, accompanied with a shot of delicious almond liqueur, a handmade Turkish delight and a glass of fresh water. To satisfy an appetite for exotic eastern products, visit the Egyptian Bazaar, or spice bazaar as it is also known. This is as much a working retail centre as it is a city attraction, offering striking and vibrant scenes of spices piled high; extravagant handmade Turkish de- light and displays of colourful Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods. When it comes to food, there is only one way to eat in Istanbul; sharing a meze. These small dishes are the perfect appetiser to any meal, and include tasty snacks such as hummus, fried vegetables, cheeses, meat balls, skewers and so much more – together they make up lively and social meal. A journey to Istanbul is one of life’s essential and unforgettable experiences.
From the Dec/Jan edition of Le City Deluxe USA Magazine