Welcome to part two of our Istanbul series. This time we explore the sights, sounds and tastes of this historic destination.
Of course, the main reason most visitors head to Istanbul is to take in the city’s incredible history and culture. Sites like the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar are iconic landmarks, as recognizable around the globe as the Eiffel Tower, but with centuries more of history behind them. After all, from Constantinople to Istanbul, this is a city that has witnessed the rise and fall of multiple empires, that has been both Christian and Muslim, Ottomon and Byzantine.
Built in 537 CE, Hagia Sophia was began as a church, but became a mosque, as Istanbul passed through Byzantine and into Ottoman rule. In 1931, the site was converted into a museum and Christian mosaics that had been plastered over during the Ottoman Empire were revealed once again. Today the artwork adorning the walls is a surreal mix of Islam and Christianity.
The Grand Bazaar is where you go to find all those Turkish treasures to take home, like glass lamps, tea sets and evil eyes. But if you want something truly special, head to the nearby Spice Bazaar, to discover rows upon rows of colourful spices, fragrant teas and delectable Turkish delights.
Armaggan, in the Nisantasi neighbourhood, is strictly dedicated to preserving traditional Turkish cuisine, clothing, art and architecture through a modern-day clothing and home décor shop, art gallery and restaurant. If you want a handmade dress featuring Anatolian embroidery or throw pillows made by traditional handlooms, Armaggan is your place.
Nicknamed for the blue tiles lining its inside walls, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque is the most famed mosque in Istanbul. The mosque dates back to the 1600s and is still used today for prayer; as such, it’s closed to non-worshipping tourists for a half hour five times a day.
Once limited to an underground movement, Istanbul’s contemporary art scene has become a force over the past few years, garnering international attention (and criticism) as it attempts to find its feet. The Istanbul Modern art gallery is the most prominent of the city’s galleries and features a mix of canvas work, sculpture and multimedia presentations.
For a truly Turkish-inspired place to lay your head, a night at The Marmara Esma Sultan is pure indulgence. Formerly the mansion of Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdülaziz, today the site is a boutique hotel offering guests the chance to sleep and eat in rooms inspired by traditional Turkish design, and to lounge on a patio that sits directly atop the Bosphorus. And if knowing your sleeping quarters once belonged to royalty isn’t enough, how about modern-day celebrities? Kevin Spacey, Joss Stone and Chris de Burgh have all stayed at the estate.
There is Life in the Streets
Istanbul is a city of neighbourhoods, from the glitzy Nisantasi shopping district to the lively Ortaköy on the banks of the Bosphorus. When the weather is warm, crowds spill out onto café patios and into the streets, and street vendors tempt you with everything from deep-friend Turkish treats to typical souvenir fare. In each of these neighbourhoods, you’ll see the same sign again and again, hanging over the alleys and summing up the scene: sokakta hayat var, which translates to “there is life in the streets.”
Food vendors are everywhere in Istanbul, and there are two must-tastes for foodies. Grab a plastic cup of pickles from one of the street vendors (served with pickled carrots and cauliflower and a dash of hot sauce) for a tangy hot-weather snack. For lunch, deep-fried mussels, battered and doused in creamy garlic sauce and served up on a stick are greasy seafood perfection, especially when paired with a pint of Turkey’s own Efes beer.