At dusk on my last night in Istanbul I stood atop Galata Tower, a landmark stone lookout. In the distance, freighters lumbered beyond the Golden Horn to the Sea of Maramar. Below, commuter ferries swarmed the Bosphorus River. All around, slender minarets of some of the nearly 2,900 mosques glimmered against the seven hills of the old city. On cue, the lyrical, doleful sounds of the adhan — the call to prayer — rang from loudspeakers on all corners and seemed to echo from every mosque in this sprawling, overwhelmingly Muslim capital of 13 million people.
Long known in Western history books as Constantinople, an ancient crossroads where empires rose and fell, Istanbul today is a city of ancient tradition and modern culture, a place to wander amid ruins and palaces, tangled streets and rambling markets of Old World Turkey, and in the same trip, eat exquisitely, shop eternally and embrace the teeming energy of a world-class city.
The city straddles Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosphorus Strait. In Old Istanbul, where most visitors roam, historic landmarks are plentiful. Must-sees include Topaki Palace, the harem of the Sultans, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya and the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Market, and Turkish baths. But just as impressive are the everyday encounters with the Turkish people. Warm and inviting, worldly and colorful, they are proud of their heritage and want you to experience it.
A Welcoming Culture
On a rainy Saturday in the fishing village of Anadolu Kavagi, for example, I visited a men’s cafe, a place of cards, dominoes and wagers on horses. As I sipped traditional Turkish chai in a glass, I was welcomed as a guest.
In local markets the mood is also jovial. Women in the organic food market, rolling dough for fresh-made börek pastries, enjoyed being photographed as they cooked and chatted with customers. As men and women came to daily prayers in mosques, I was invited to join them and take photographs — a surprising offer for an Islamic culture.
Frequent visitor Dan Kitchens, who travels to Istanbul for his tour business, agrees: “The Turkish people are very proud of their culture and the history of their land. They welcome you as part of their family.” Kitchens also points out that not only does Istanbul give visitors the chance “to mix their beach vacation with some kind of historic and cultural experience,” but travel there is also a bargain in this economy. “Our dollar goes a lot further in Istanbul than in Paris or Rome.” And since Turkish Air offers stopovers in Istanbul with free hotel or city tours included, savvy travelers are taking advantage.
Istanbul’s Bucket List
Aya Sofya, called Hagia Sofia in Greek, dates back to 532 A.D. and for 1,000 years was the world’s largest Christian church. When Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453, the Ottomans converted it to a mosque. Minarets were added and many mosaics covered, but its golden interior dome survived. Now a museum, gold mosaics, pillars and urns tell stories of its turbulent history.
The Blue Mosque, built from masses of blue tile, is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. As Muslims pray, tourists quietly mill about in awe. Photography buffs lie flat on the floor, their cameras pointed upward to the luminous domes.
Topaki Palace is crowded but well worth the maneuvering needed to glimpse inside the chambers where sultans lived, served by their wives, eunuchs and slaves. Don’t miss the royal treasury and its display of swords, crowns and clothing crafted with gold, emeralds, rubies and jade.
The Basilica Cistern once held the city’s water, delivered 12 miles from a reservoir near the Black Sea. Tourists now wander its dramatically lit, cavernous walkways. Two of the roof’s 336 support columns rest on blocks bearing Medusa heads, created, some say, to ward off evil spirits.
Shopping in Istanbul
Don’t forget to engage in another piece of the city’s history — haggling. The Grand Bazaar is nearly a city in itself, with more than 60 streets and up to 4,000 shops. On the busiest days, as many as a half-million visitors wander through, perusing gold, silver, textiles, water pipes, mosaic lamps, tea sets, antiques and tourist trinkets. Each street is numbered, but getting lost is still easy.
The bustling corridors of the nearby Spice Bazaar have beautifully arranged displays of lokum (Turkish delight), pistachios, figs, olive oil soaps, pomegranate tea, black chili and large, inexpensive bags of saffron. You can even find the occasional virility herb or aphrodisiac from a ram’s horn.
If your mission is finding a Turkish rug, educate yourself before bargaining. A good place to start is with Ibrahim Kotooglu, who operates Orient 100 carpets. From tribal pieces out of Turkish villages to masterpieces fit for palaces, Kotooglu is happy to describe the value and history of his rugs. His assistants unfurl rug after rug as he explains the use of hand-spun wool, cotton or silk and plant-based dyes such as saffron and indigo.
He says carpet weavers express their emotions in the making of each rug, which is why they can’t replace a weaver in the middle of a piece. “Each and every motif tells a unique story,” Kotooglu says. “You can never find two expressed the same. You have a better chance of finding two identical diaries.”
Soaking It In
The Turkish Baths, or public hamams, have changed little from the time of the Ottomans. Once a place for social gathering and religious cleansing, the baths are patronized now mainly by tourists.
One of the most beautiful is the 276-year-old Cagaloglu Hamami, which is listed in The New York Times best seller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. It has also served as a backdrop in 138 films, including one in the Indiana Jones series.
This type of public bathing is an essential Turkish experience, but it may not be for everybody. You lie on a communal heated marble slab as an attendant douses, scrubs, lathers, then scrubs you again with a coarse soapy mitt until you wonder how much cleaner a human body can possibly be. Then comes an invigorating, if rough, massage on the cushion-less marble. Spa comfy it’s not. But it is a steamy, relaxing cleansing ritual that imbues you with a sense of centuries long past.
A Modern Take on Traditional Culture
I was lucky enough to stay at the exceptional Ciragan Palace, the last residence of the Ottoman emperors. Built in the late 1800s, it’s now a five-star Kempinski hotel with views of the Bosphorus from the European side. The palace boasts the second-largest private suite in Europe, which comes with its own helipad. The main hotel is lovely, with original masterpieces, a courtyard pool, a luxury spa and impeccable service.
At Tugra, the palace restaurant, executive chef Ugur Alparslan combines Ottoman cuisine with modern flair, such as lamb kulbasti with hunkarbegendi — char-grilled lamb loin with smoked eggplant purée plated with a walnut and root vegetable–stuffed red pepper with pomegranate-onion sauce.
Istanbul’s trendy club scene has been the subject of much press, rivaling other major cities for chic, wee-hours hedonism. Crowds line the streets in front of clubs in Taksim Square and Ortaköy, and the music pulses almost till dawn.
Before daybreak on my last morning in Istanbul, I strolled from the Ciragan Palace to the quaint area of Ortaköy and stopped at the harbor to photograph the lights of the Bosphorus Bridge aglow over the Büyük Mecidiye Camii mosque. A few other early risers were walking toward the mosque for morning prayer. Passing them in the other direction, a group of stylish young men and stiletto-wearing women were teetering home from the clubs. Istanbul offers a mix of the very old with the very new and, fortunately, a little bit of everything in between.
If You Go
• Ciragan Palace Kempinski — kempinski.com/en/Istanbul, 90 212 326 4646
• Turkish Air — Offers a new nonstop from LAX to Istanbul, turkishairlines.com, 800.874.8875
• Sea Song Tours — Friendly staff, very nice guided tours of historic sites, the city and all of Turkey, 90 212 292 8555, seasong.com
• Topaki Palace — 9 a.m.–5 p.m., closed Tuesdays, $15 (harem section can be visited only by a guided tour and separate $10 ticket), 90 212 512 0480
• Blue Mosque — 9 a.m.–6 p.m. daily except during prayer times, about 30 minutes five times a day, free, donations accepted
• Aya Sofya — 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., 7 p.m. in summer; $5 admission, closed Mondays
• Basilica Cistern — 9 a.m.–6.30 p.m. daily, $6
• Cagaloglu Hamami — Yerebatan Caddesi 34, a short walk northwest of Sultanahmet, separate entrances for men and women, approximately $30 for a treatment, cagalogluhamami.com.tr
• Orient 100 Carpets — Weaving demonstration and sales, Nuruosmaniye No.100 Cagaloglu, 90 212 520 0300, orient100istanbul.com