Istanbul is the ultimate city filled with adventure, sensuality and history.
Istanbul has long been the conduit between Europe and Asia, a gateway for ideas, people and goods. With the western banks of the Bosphorus marking the geographic start of the European continent and the eastern banks at the edge of Asia some might consider this straddling of history and heritage as an identity crisis but the confluence of cultures in Istanbul is what makes this city glow. Here, identity is experienced as action; it is in the traditions of family, art, music, mythology and food where the true Istanbul resides.
In my first trip to this city, I am overwhelmed by its beauty, which has been described by poets and travellers for millennia and is still the backdrop to works of literature and cinema. It was probably Sean Connery’s signature smirk and dark grey Duponi suit in Bond’s From Russia with Love that first alerted me to the chic mysteries of Istanbul. My love for this city grew deeper and more nuanced through the novels and memoirs of Turkey’s most beloved literary son OrhanPamuk. Any trip to Istanbul will be greatly augmented by reading his work in advance. Especially his memoir Istanbul and his novel The Museum of Innocence for which the writer has opened a brick and mortar museum in the Çukurcumaneighbourhood. Even if you haven’t read his books the museum is a wonderful introduction to the lives of everyday Istanbulites.
I called Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus (fourseasons.com/bosphorus) my home for the next few days as I explored the city. This nineteenth-century Ottoman palace contains all of my childhood fantasies about the opulent East while delivering the best service imaginable. Sitting in all its neo-classical grandeur along the Bosphorus, the hotel was refurbished under the stylish designer and architect Sinan Kafadar. Rooms are tastefully luxurious and understated with a colour palette that hints at post-modern retro while the fixtures are super savvy. Choose one of the Palace rooms for the floor to ceiling windows overlooking the flowing waters of the Bosphorus strait.
My usual travel style is to lose myself in the neighbourhoods of a city, but there is so much going on in Istanbul that it is one of the few cities where I recommend the services of a local tour company. Amaze by Neon designed a customised 3-day itinerary that would give me a flavour of authentic Istanbul. From visits to the city’s historic sites to its walking tours through its winding streets and up-and-coming neighbourhoods providing unique insights into the sounds, smells and tastes of Istanbul’s past and present; this was going to be a dive right into the beating heart of Istanbul.
The location of the Four Seasons at the Bosphorus is perfect. Right near the divine Yildiz Park, once part of the imperial gardens, is always an ideal people-watching spot as locals gather on sunny days to share picnics. Nearby is the chi-chi (and must-do) shopping district of Nişantaşı and the indomitable Dolmabahçe Palace, which is where a new visitor may as well start as it’s in walking distance or a short taxi ride from the hotel.
Sultan Abdülmecid I started building the Dolmabahçe Palace in 1843 and perhaps the reason I love this Palace so much is the fact that Abdülmecid is a kindred spirit, willing to break the bank in the quest for beauty. He used 35 tonnes of gold and today the construction would have cost upwards of a billion dollars and in a roundabout way was one of the factors that lead to the downfall of the Ottoman Empire. Dolmabahçe is deliciously over-the-top and even if the mix of baroque, rococo and neoclassical induces style overload you can’t deny the feeling of design schadenfreude – at least my own home renovation didn’t send a whole empire under.
Before Abdülmecid I moved into Dolmabahçe he and all the sultans before him inhabited the majestic Topkapi Palace. It’s where my imagination soars as the stories of salacious sultans, scheming royals and saucy concubines echo throughout the halls and rooms. Filled with jewels and religious relics including (apparently) Moses’ staff and Muhammad’s beard hair, this palace-cum-museum is a history nerd’s dream come true. My expert guide from Amaze by Neon, NazlıZobranli, painted this 15th-century architectural gem with stories of sultans, their consorts, the wazirs and an empire’s conquests as we strolled along the manicured gardens of this historic palace.
Amongst the more than 3,000 mosques in Istanbul, the Blue Mosque is the jewel in the crown. Despite the huge number of tourists and worshipers who come here in droves, the Blue Mosque is a must-do. It’s beauty and spectacle soon dwarfs any discomfort rendered by the crowds. Incorporating Byzantine and Islamic architecture the design was intended to generate overwhelming pride in Ottoman culture after a crushing defeat in the war with Persia.
The upper levels boast 20,000 hand-painted ceramic tiles while 200 stained glass windows filter sunlight onto countless chandeliers. It received a papal visit in 2006; only the second time in history a pope had visited a Muslim place of worship, a sign of its global significance. It’s a working mosque so your guide will time your visit appropriately. This brings me to the best piece of travel advice for Turkey and Muslim countries in general. I always carry a lightweight scarf and make sure my clothing covers my legs and arms. Most mosques popular with tourists will provide headscarves but I always prefer to use my own.
A visit to the Blue Mosque should be combined with a stop at the magnificent Hagia Sophia, a short walk away. Its name means ‘holy wisdom’ and on entering this striking building you’ll soon see why. It is 1,478 years old and contains many stories within its walls. Originally it was a Christian church with a wooden roof that was burned down during a riot in 404 AD. It was replaced with an enormous basilica which also burned down only to be rebuilt by the Roman Emperor Justinian who in-keeping with the ego fuelled building trend of the time was quoted as saying, “Solomon, I have surpassed you”. It was declared a mosque in 1453 by Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II and remained that way until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father, converted it into a museum. Once you have recovered from the marvel of the architecture you’ll be equally spellbound by the melding of Christian and Islamic art.
Anyone who travels with me will be used to my regular need for snacks. Istanbul is quite possibly the best city for snacking and before moving onto the next thing I always stop for a little something. Even though the morning rush hour is coming to a close, it is never too difficult to find a simit vendor on the streets of Istanbul. These delicious rings of dough dipped in molasses and coated in sesame seeds have been the traditional on-the-go breakfast choice for local Istanbulites since 1525 and I see no reason to break with tradition. Gulp it down with a heart-stopping Turkish coffee and you’re ready to keep moving.
If you can fit in a couple more mosques before heading to the Grand Bazaar make it the mighty Süleymaniye and the relatively diminutive Rüstem Pasha. The Süleymaniye Mosque references Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, which was meant to appeal to the sultan’s ego who liked to think of himself as the second Solomon, a running theme of the era. It’s a fascinating maze of colours and patterns, with detailed woodwork delicately inlaid with ivory and pearl.
A short walk from the Süleymaniye Mosque is one of Istanbul’s overlooked gems – the Rüstem Pasha Mosque is affectionately described as the little blue mosque. It’s in this small house of worship where you can find the largest collection of İznik tiles. There are over 80 different patterns in blue, sage green and dark manganese purple. Something is calming and cooling about this mosque that you don’t find amongst the crowds in the more popular ones.
The Spice Bazaar is a one-minute walk from Rüstem Pasha and most definitely worth a stop. Built in the 17th-century, it contains around 85 shops selling spices, Turkish delight, sweets, jewellery, souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts. Traditional Turkish spices include pulbiber (dried red pepper flakes), nareksisi (pomegranate reduction), saffron and çörekotu (Nigella seeds). This is where it helps to have a local guide because within all the fragrant spices are home remedies for everything from the common cold to a broken heart. You must try several flavours of Turkish Delight and be sure to stop at Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi where three generations have been brewing the best coffee in Istanbul. You’ll need one before heading to the Grand Bazaar.
The Grand Bazaar is the largest covered market in the world and has been in operation since 1461. There are 64 streets and alleys, 22 entrances, 4000 shops and 500 stalls. It’s big. Prepare to get lost. I headed directly for the jewellery section to satisfy my addiction and to stock up on some beautiful gifts. I’m also quite partial to the textiles. You’ll never really get your bearings so lean heavily on your guide but don’t be afraid to get into the bargaining charade, once you understand that its all in fun it can become compulsive.
Istanbul’s cosmopolitan personality is no better displayed than in its cuisine. There are a million places to sample the traditions that merge Ottoman, Greek, Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavours. My expert guide, Nazli had excellent recommendations. While I love to dip into the traditional, I’m fascinated with the new food scene in Istanbul.
Brunch is best had at Mürverwith its relaxed vibe and soundtrack provided by local DJs and sublime views. Never miss a lunch at Seasons located in Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, one of the most beautiful settings in the city; catch it in spring when the courtyard is brimming with tulips. Turkish sweets are some of the best in the world so make sure you try the baklava at KaraköyGüllüoğluand the pastries at Hafiz Mustafa.
Any trip to Istanbul will be incomplete without visiting a Turkish Hammam and Istanbul has some of the best. One of the oldest that still functions is the AyasofyaHurrem Sultan Hamam(ayasofyahamami.com). It was built at the behest of Roxelana the wife of Sultan Suleiman in the 16th-century and after the restoration, it has become an even more marvellous experience. Steps from the Hagia Sophia, this Turkish bathhouse is a paradise for relaxation. With separate areas for men and women, The Hamam’s ritual includes a soothing wash-down with continuously flowing hot water, a relaxing bubble massage on a warm marble stone, a body clay wrap, a body massage and finally a time-out in their relaxing zones with a platter of Turkish delights and fruits. This bath ritual lasts for just under two hours and one is thoroughly pampered like royalty. A good Hamam is addictive and stepping out from AyasofyaHurrem Sultan Hamam is always accompanied with a promise to return for this indulging experience.
Water plays a big role in Islamic art and architecture and one of the marvels of Istanbul is the Basilica Cistern. It’s one of the world’s largest ancient water storage facilities discovered and is now one of Istanbul’s most interesting attractions. Built in 532 using 336 columns salvaged from ruined temples its splendour is breath-taking and offers a cooling respite during the hot summers. Bond navigated its eerie waterways in an unforgettable scene in From Russia With Love. The Cistern is now a gorgeous subterranean place for art exhibitions with just a foot of water left at the base, a walkway that seems to float above the water doubling as the platform for events, surrounded by ancient columns subtly lit in gold and silver – the entire experience of stepping into this restored Cistern is jaw-dropping.
Two final things to fit in before you leave Istanbul is a walk through the hipster hangouts in the Karaköyneighbourhood. Surrounded by history, this up-and-coming area is full of boutiques, cafes and bars. You must stop by SALT, a former Ottoman bank with grand ceilings and marble floors now turned into a contemporary art institute before grabbing a tea in one of the many cafes for some prime people-watching.
Lastly, and especially for newcomers, a cruise down the Bosphorus is a spectacular way to end your trip. Ask your guide to arrange a private yacht or to recommend a reputable public one because seeing Istanbul from the waterways is a magical experience that will help you conceptualise, and get lost in, the historic beauty of the most captivating of cities.
Istanbul is the ultimate city. She is an ancient sensation that drifts across the Bosphorus. She’s a kiss delivered via the steam rising from a gold-rimmed glass of tea. Her colours are decadent silvers and golds, velvet reds and blues and elaborate brocades that weave into the depths of the soul. Her music is her people, a cacophony of emotion and movement. Her streets are a labyrinth where mystery and romance mix with history and modernity. And her taste? There is nothing else like it. She’s fragrant with the flavours of millennia. Rich with sweetness and spice blending her roots into delicacy and delight. This city is a sensuous otherworld where there is no boundary between dreams and reality. One visit is never enough; you will be compelled to return. I promise.
Turkish Airlines has direct flights from Singapore and Bangkok (turkishairlines.com). The best way to experience a city as diverse as Istanbul is with an expert local tour company. Amaze by Neon / Neon Tours has over 23 years of experience in organising customized luxury tours of Turkey (neontours.com). ◼
© This article was first published in Dec-Jan 2020 edition of World Travel Magazine.