By Leigh O’Connor.
Capital of the two greatest empires in history – Roman and
Ottoman – Istanbul has long been a melting pot of mosques, markets and
minarets. A huge city spanning two continents, in recent times Istanbul has
cemented itself as a must-see destination for any European adventurer.
The Old City reflects cultural influences of empires gone
by, the site of chariot races, Egyptian obelisks and rare Christian mosaics. While
modern Istanbul is a hive of foodie tours, concerts, nightclubs and
restaurants, a place where Europe and Asia collide in an explosion of sights,
sounds and culinary delights.
With a city so rich in history, a walk down every street
unveils a piece of the past. Tourists are spoilt for choice – listening to the
call of prayer between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, watching the sun set
over the skyline and embracing the cultural diversity that abounds from
centuries of trade along the Silk Road.
Turkish people possess an infectious love of life that
transcends ethnic boundaries - they work and play hard, treasure family and
friendships and meld tradition with the modern world. They long to share their
city with visitors and are more than helpful when asked for directions,
recommendations on places to go or where to eat.
With history, art, culture and cuisine in mind, here’s an
insight into 10 tantalising tourist stops in this multi-cultural city, which
fuses the past with the future…
Hagia Sophia at dusk, photo: Pedro Szekely, flickr.
Hagia Sophia and the
For more than a thousand years, Hagia Sophia was the largest
church in the world. Now a museum it still retains a prayer room; and the most
haunting and magical sound you will hear while in Istanbul is the call to
prayer between Hagia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque - from minaret to minaret,
muezzins answer each other as the city below listens.
Known as the Blue Mosque for the intricate tiles adorning
interior walls, Sultan Ahmet is steeped in history. Built on the site of
Byzantine emperors and facing Hagia Sophia, it is one of two mosques in the
city with six minarets, and houses its founder’s tomb, as well as a finely
carved and sculptured marble mihrab, marking the direction of Mecca for those
who pray there.
This palace was the official and primary residence of
Ottoman Sultans and at the height of its existence as a Royal residence, was
home to up to 4000 people. Transformed into a museum in the 1920s, Topkapi contains
large collections of porcelain, robes, weapons, Islamic manuscripts, treasure
and jewellery. The grounds are huge, but most impressive are the Harem
Apartments - more than 400 rooms where each Sultan’s many concubines, wives,
children and extended family lived in luxury.
Take a Turkish Bath
A hamam is not for the modest… whether you visit an
historical bath or one in a hotel, nudity is usually required. Rest assured the
baths are segregated with attendants the same sex as you and to appreciate the
full experience, go for a body scrub and massage. Once there were 237 hamams in
Istanbul, now about 60 are still in use and most are housed in lavish marble
surrounds, where a three-step process of a sauna, steam and full body wash is
employed. More modern hamams include variations of spa and treatment options to
Bosphorus Boat Tour
Taking a cruise down the Bosphorus is a great way to see the
city if you are short on time. Bosphorus Strait divides Istanbul in half and
connects the Black and Marmara Seas, while cruising its 32 km length you sail
under suspension bridges and past an unending stream of boats. An amazing
panorama of the city unfolds and many of the important monuments, such as the
great palaces of Dolmabahce and Beylerbeyi, are visible. The shores of the
Bosphorus are one of the greenest parts of Istanbul, as it is now forbidden to
build on its banks.
Whirling Dervish Show
A spiritual journey of dervishes whirling for divine love,
the Sema Ceremony is one of the most important Turkish cultural traditions,
dating back more than 800 years. Today the dance can be seen in public, but
this hasn’t always been the case, as it was perceived with suspicion and banned
in 1925 soon after Turkey gained independence from the Ottomans and became a
republic. It wasn’t until 1954, when as a way to draw visitors to Istanbul,
dervishes were allowed to publicly perform again. Most performances last for an
hour as dervishes begin to gently spin counter clockwise with their hands
raised to the heavens - the faster they spin, the more their skirts begin to
flair and rise.
A spice merchant who has just opened his store, contemplates the order of business for the day next to his display inside the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul. Photo: Shankar S, flickr.
Visit the Spice Bazaar
Vibrant spices, Turkish delight and every stall imaginable
can be found at the Istanbul Spice Bazaar. Stalls sell caviar, dried herbs,
honey, nuts and dried fruit, as well as tourist trinkets and edible souvenirs. Constructed
in the 1660s as part of the New Mosque, in its heyday the bazaar was the last
stop for camel caravans travelling the Silk Road from China, India and Persia. Some
prices are marked, but a little haggling is expected and enjoyed by vendors,
don’t forget to stock up on some Turkish coffee and olive oil soaps.
Take a Turkish Food
Awaken your culinary senses with a Turkish food night
walking tour of Istanbul, where you can eat like a local, grill your own kebabs
on an open fire in a barbeque restaurant and party the night away at a tapas
bar with live music. Most tours are for small groups for more personalised
attention from the guide and take between three to five hours, strolling around
hidden streets and neighbourhoods, scouting out the best food haunts the city
has to offer. Taste treats such as ‘borek’ (flaky pastry), nibble on mezze
plates and sip on ‘raki’ – locally loved anise flavoured firewater – arriving
back at your hotel fully satiated and with a greater appreciation of Turkish
Taste Turkish Tea
By the time you leave Turkey, you will have drunk your
weight in tea – they serve it with everything. There is never a bad time to
drink tea, usually drunk in a special curved, see-through glass with a small
plate underneath to make it easier to carry and serve. Traditional Turkish tea
is black, although some locals do imbibe herbal varieties such as rose hip and
linden flower, one tip for tourists is that the famous apple tea is actually
something concocted for foreigners. Most hosts will continue to keep refilling
your glass as it is considered not kosher to run out, so if you have had enough
place your spoon on the top of the glass as soon as you finish, which signifies
‘no more, thank you.’
Ramadan Street Scene. Photo: Harold Litwiler, flickr.
Smoke a Hookah
A hookah pipe is called a ‘nargile’ in Turkey and smoking
one is a surprisingly popular activity among locals of all ages. You can order
tobacco in a variety of flavours such as apple, cherry, banana, coffee or
orange and spend hours lounging around, smoking and of course drinking tea.
Long a prominent part of Turkish culture, the hookah suffered a serious decline
in use with the advent of cigarettes, now it is making a comeback as it is
considered more social and a lot more tranquil than hurriedly puffing down a
smoke on the sidewalk. The Perla Kallavi rooftop café of Istiklal Caddesi is
one of the best places to try this practice and enjoy city views.
Get your Groove on at
a Belly Dancing Show
Probably one of the best known cultural activities in Turkey
is a belly dancing show and night clubs are the most common venues to find
dancers in action. An old art form still enjoyed by Turks of all classes, the
dancer is usually a woman with exceedingly well-trained abdominal muscles. One
of the best shows, albeit a little touristy, is at Sultana’s 1001 Nights where
as well as plates of Turkish meze and bottomless glasses of red wine, you can
see the "world’s best belly dancer Didem” in action.
Now that we have piqued your interest, click here