This magical meeting place of East and West has more top-drawer attractions than it has minarets (and that's a lot).
Some ancient cities are the sum of their monuments, but İstanbul factors a lot more into the equation. Chief among its manifold attractions are the locals, who have an infectious love of life and generosity of spirit. This vibrant, inclusive and expanding community is full of people who work and party hard, treasure family and friendships, and have no problem melding tradition and modernity in their everyday lives. Joining them in their favourite haunts – çay bahcesis (tea gardens), neighbourhood coffeehouses, meyhanes (Turkish taverns) and kebapçıs (kebap restaurants) – will be a highlight of your visit.
'But what about the food?' we hear you say. We're happy to report that the city's cuisine is as diverse as its heritage, and delicious to boot. Locals take their eating and drinking seriously – the restaurants here are the best in the country. You can eat edgy fusion creations, aromatic Asian dishes or Italian classics if you so choose, but most visitors prefer to sample the succulent kebaps, flavoursome mezes and freshly caught fish that are the city's signature dishes, washing them down with rakı, beer or a glass or two of locally produced and eminently quaffable wine.
An Artistic Powerhouse
The conquering armies of ancient times tended to ransack the city rather than endow it with artistic treasures, but all that changed with the Byzantines, who adorned their churches and palaces with mosaics and frescoes. Miraculously, many of these are still here to admire. Their successors, the Ottomans, were quick to launch an ambitious building program after their emphatic arrival. The magnificently decorated imperial mosques that followed are architectural triumphs that together form one of the world's great skylines. And in recent years, local banks and business dynasties have reprised the Ottomans' grand ambitions and endowed an impressive array of galleries, museums and festivals for all to enjoy.
İstanbul's strategic location has attracted many a marauding army over the centuries. The Greeks, Persians, Romans and Venetians took turns ruling before the Ottomans stormed into town and decided to stay – physical reminders of their various tenures are found littered across the city. And the fact that the city straddles two continents wasn't its only drawcard. This was the final stage on the legendary Silk Routes that linked Asia and Europe, and many of the merchants who came here liked it so much that they, too, decided to stay. In so doing, they endowed the city with a cultural diversity that it retains to this day.
Visiting a Hamam
In life, there aren't too many opportunities to wander semi-naked through a 16th-century Ottoman monument. Unless you visit İstanbul, that is. The city's world-famous hamams (Turkish baths) offer a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in history, architecture, warm water and soap suds – all at the same time. A hamam treatment offers a relaxing finale to a day spent pounding the city's pavements, and gives a fascinating insight into the life and customs of Ottoman society. You can surrender to the steam at baths on both side of the Galata Bridge.
Why I Love İstanbul
By Virginia Maxwell, Author
Why do I love this city? Let me count the ways. I love the locals, who have an endless supply of hospitality, good-humour and insightful conversation at their disposal. I love the fact that when I walk down a city street, layers of history unfold before me. I love listening to the sound of the müezzins duelling from their minarets and I love seeing the sun set over the world's most beautiful skyline. I love the restaurants, the bars and the tea gardens. But most of all, I love the fact that in İstanbul, an extraordinary cultural experience lies around every corner.
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