This magical meeting place of East and West has more top-drawer attractions than it has minarets (and that's a lot).
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.
Nineteenth-century French writer Pierre Loti described the stretch of the Bosphorus shore between Beşiktaş and Ortaköy as featuring '...a line of palaces white as snow, placed at the edge of the sea on marble docks'. Fortunately, his description remains as accurate as it is evocative. North of this palace precinct is the famous 'Golden Mile', a string of upmarket nightclubs running between the waterside suburbs of Ortaköy and Kuruçeşme, once humble fishing villages and now pockets of prime real estate.
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.
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.
'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 the national drink rakı (grape spirit infused with aniseed) or a glass or two of locally produced wine or beer.
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), kahvehanı (coffeehouses), meyhanes (Turkish taverns) and kebapçıs (kebap restaurants) – will be a highlight of your visit.
Many visitors to İstanbul never make it out of Sultanahmet. And while this is a shame, it's hardly surprising. After all, not many cities have such a concentration of historic sights, shopping precincts, hotels and eateries within easy walking distance. Ideally suited to exploration by foot, the neighbourhood is a showcase of the city's glorious past, crammed with mosques, palaces, churches and houses dating from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods.
In recent years, locals have been decamping from the European side of town to Asia in ever-increasing numbers, setting up home in the suburbs that are strung south from the Bosphorus Bridge. Of these, bustling Kadıköy is of the most interest to visitors, being the location of İstanbul's best produce market, great eateries, convivial cafes, grunge bars and a progressive vibe.
The high-octane hub of eating, drinking and entertainment in the city, Beyoğlu is where visitors and locals come in search of good restaurants, bohemian bars, live-music venues, hip hotels and edgy boutiques. Built around the major boulevard of İstiklal Caddesi, it incorporates a mix of bohemian residential districts such as Çukurcuma and Cihangir, bustling entertainment enclaves such as Asmalımescit and historically rich pockets such as Galata and Karaköy that have morphed into hipster central.
3 Western Districts
A showcase of İstanbul's ethnically diverse and endlessly fascinating history, this neighbourhood to the west of the Historic Peninsula contains synagogues built by the Jews in Balat and churches constructed by the Greeks in Fener. In recent times migrants from the east of Turkey have settled here, attracted by the vibrant Wednesday street market in Fatih and the presence of two important Islamic pilgrimage sites: the tombs of Mehmet the Conqueror and Ebu Eyüp el-Ensari.
2 Bazaar District
This beguiling district is home to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. Amid the thousands of shops that surround these centuries-old marketplaces are magnificent Ottoman mosques, historic hamams (bathhouses) and atmospheric çay bahçesis (tea gardens) where locals smoke nargiles (water pipes) and play games of tavla (backgammon). The streets between the bazaars are a popular stamping ground for İstanbullus, and seem to crackle with a good-humoured and infectious energy.