We’ve all heard the descriptions of İstanbul being a bridge between Europe and Asia, a place where East meets West and where cultures have happily coexisted for centuries. But not everyone is aware of its endlessly fascinating contradictions. Here are the top ten ways to see how the different cultures of Istanbul unify.
1. Marvel at one of the world’s truly great buildings: Aya Sofya
İstanbul has many architectural masterpieces, but one building surpasses the rest due to its innovative form, historical importance and sheer beauty. The somewhat squat exterior doesn’t promise much, but wait till you see the mesmerising interior. Words can’t do it justice; this space truly makes the soul soar and the senses sharpen. It is simply sublime. Close your eyes and imagine Byzantines celebrating the liturgy, Crusaders storming the main door, Muslims bowing their heads to Allah and the staunchly secular Atatürk striding in to declare it a museum in 1935.
2. See the world’s most stupendous skyline
Most great cities have a signature skyline view that graces a million postcards – İstanbul has enough of them to fill an entire album. The seven hills of the Old City are crowned with a collection of imperial mosques that offer a visual wham-bam unlike any other. With their delicate minarets, distinctive domes and curvaceous outer casings, they dominate the peninsula’s skyline and provide romantic backdrops for diners at terrace restaurants around Eminönü and Beyoğlu.
3. Lose yourself in the bazaar district
The bazaar district is chaotic and colourful. While glam Kanyon may be ground zero for sophisticated shoppers on the other side of the Golden Horn, serious bayanlar (ladies) bring their sharpened elbows here. Stroll through the hidden Ottoman hans (caravanserais) and labyrinthine shopping streets, where the waft of cinnamon and clove intensifies as you approach the historic Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı).
By the shore at Eminönü, ferries belch grey clouds over seagulls circling for scraps of simit (small rings of bread decorated with sesame seeds), and street vendors sell everything from fresh fish sandwiches to fake Rolexes.
4. Climb aboard Istanbul’s ferries
Spanned by two mammoth bridges, and with a third on the drawing board, the Bosphorus is traversed on a daily basis by thousands of cars, ferries, fishing boats and launches. Travelling in the famous public excursion ferry alongside massive tankers and cargo ships making their way from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea certainly makes a memorable day trip. Climb aboard a ferry at sunset, when the grandiose silhouette of the Old City is thrown into relief against an orange-red or dusky pink sky.
5. Wine, dine and gallery hop on İstiklal Caddesi
İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Ave) is a perfect metaphor for 21st-century Turkey. At one extremity is frantically busy Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of modern İstanbul. At the other extremity is Galata, home to meandering cobblestone lanes that have seen the comings and goings of umpteen imperial powers. This part of town retains a slightly louche and laid-back flavour, beckoning the traveller with its unexpected mix of churches, mosques, shops, hotels and gay hamams (bathhouses). İstiklal is as European as anything east of the Champs Élysées.
6. Join the in-crowd at the city’s amazing art galleries
Socially aspirational İstanbullus know that there’s one foolproof way to build a public profile. All they need to do is build and endow an art gallery, preferably one dedicated to modern art. We can’t explain why the botox-and-bling brigade has recently taken to culture with such alacrity, but this is indeed the case. This trend is the best thing to hit the city since the tulip bulb arrived. First cab off the rank was the Proje4L/Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art in Levent, closely followed by İstanbul Modern in Tophane and the Pera Museum in Beyoğlu. All of this is great news for the visitor, who can see world-class exhibitions in drop-dead-gorgeous surrounds complete with stylish gift shops and quality cafes.
7. Listen to world-class performances
In life, there aren’t too many opportunities to hear world-class classical music and opera performed in magnificent Byzantine churches and ornate Ottoman pleasure palaces. The International İstanbul Music Festival (held in June/July each year) is one of them. The biggest event on İstanbul’s cultural calendar, this festival has been enticing locals to its performances for decades and is progressively building an international profile. The main venue is the austerely beautiful Aya İrini, which offers superb acoustics and an overload of atmosphere.
8. Surrender to the steam in a bathhouse
In life, there aren’t too many opportunities to wander seminaked 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. Many of the imperial mosque complexes include a hamam, and there are innumerable examples of historic neighbourhood baths dotted throughout the streets of the Old City – most, alas, now derelict or converted to shopping centres. Exceptions include the famous Çemberlitaş Hamamı, built by command of Nur Banu Valide Sultan, wife of Selim the Sot and mother of Murat III; and the Cağaloğlu Hamamı, commissioned by Sultan Mahmut I.
9. Sample the flavours of İstanbul
More than anything else, İstanbullus love to eat. Here food is much more than mere fuel. Instead, it’s a celebration of community. Meals unfurl with great ceremony – they are joyful, boisterous and almost inevitably communal. The national cuisine has been refined over centuries and is treated more reverently than any museum collection in the country. That’s not to say it’s fussy, because what differentiates Turkish food from other national noshes is its rustic and honest base. The meze (hors d’oeuvres) you’ll eat will be simple, the kebaps austere, the salads unstructured and the seafood unsauced. Flavours will explode in your mouth because ingredients are used in season.
The country’s best chefs come to İstanbul to perfect their art, and you’ll be able to order a better executed Italian pasta or fiery Thai curry from here. There’s a mind-boggling array of options so the possibilities are endless. As the Turks say, Afi yet olsun! (Good appetite!)
10. Party through the night at a golden mile superclub
İstanbul’s superclubs are as famous for their tough door staff and wallet-decimating bar prices as they are for their magnificent Bosphorus views. They’re worth it, though. The sybaritic strip between Ortaköy and Kuruceşme is home to a clutch of nightclubs that epitomise the word indulgence – here patrons enjoy luxe surrounds, wonderful food, perfectly executed cocktails and a passing parade of Armani-clad businessmen, models on the make, one-hit celebs and local lasses squeezed into diamante-decorated jeans so tight their reproductive futures must be in serious danger.