Often mistaken as Turkey’s capital, Istanbul can be exhausting. It’s home to 13 or 15 million people (in truth no one seems to know) and it can often feel like each and every one of them is on the city’s roads or mulling around its numerous – and sometimes breathtaking – attractions.
The old man in the Spice Bazaar looked both incredibly comfortable and strangely unnatural as he sat on a stool barely 12 inches off the ground. It was a stool that would have suited a two-year-old perfectly.
All around was sweetness and colour. Golden-shelled pistachios, rose petal pink Turkish Delight and small pastries oozing sticky syrup engulfed him, giving the white-bearded stall-keeper a look resembling that of a rather faded bloom in an immaculately prepared bouquet.
Setting aside the cliches, Istanbul truly is a city of contrasts. The old man in the bazaar is firmly of the traditional, the unchanged, but elsewhere commercial and residential blocks dominate a skyline punctuated by mosques and minarets; traditional cafes serving apple tea in delicate glass cups hold steadfast against the arrival of that Seattle-originated coffee mega chain, and the young of this vibrant – and Islamic – city wear their designer labels with confidence and their iPhones like a third hand.
This is also a city that conjures up memories of the classroom. Eight and a half thousand years old, it was capital of the Byzantium, Roman and Ottoman empires and it is, of course, the only city in the world that straddles two continents.
Often mistaken as Turkey’s capital (“No, that’s Ankara,” says my guide Aziz. “Where the trouble makers live!”), Istanbul can be exhausting. It’s home to 13 or 15 million people (in truth no one seems to know) and it can often feel like each and every one of them is on the city’s roads or mulling around its numerous – and sometimes breathtaking – attractions.
Taksim Square is the heart of the “new” city. It’s a meeting point, a nucleus; all concrete and shifting human form. In truth, there is little to recommend it. Around the square itself, locals get on with the day, kebab shops spill out onto busy pavements and the city’s signature yellow taxis negotiate both busy, narrow streets and tourists attempting to get their bearings.
But head away from the square and down one of the roads that branch off it like spokes on a bicycle wheel and you’ll find stylish hotels, bars and restaurants forming orderly queues down tree-lined streets and something resembling a village feel takes over. At night courtyard bars play music at a level over which you can still hear yourself speak and tiny cafes host musicians performing jazz or a traditional Turkish repertoire.
Taksim is a little rough around the edges, slightly bohemian and an area in which, no matter how dense the tourist throng, retains an authenticity. If, however, you’re looking for a base a bit more upmarket, then head across the Bosphorus river for the old town area of Sultanahmet.
It’s here you’ll find chi-chi boutiques, pavement cafes, superb dining and carpet shops. If you’re in the market, look out for retailers that are government approved. Turkish rugs, being the only ones produced using a double knot, are said to be the world’s finest but be prepared to max that credit card – Carpetright this is not!
The other attraction of Sultanahmet is that you’re right on the doorstep of the city’s iconic sites such as Hagia Sofia. Inaugurated in 539, it was – until 1453 – a place of Christian worship before Emperor Justinian got his minions to spend three days covering mosaics with plaster, painting the interior with Islamic images and calligraphy and converting it to a mosque. The foundations, tombs and minarets you see today date from that time.
If it were still a church it would be the fourth largest in the world but in 1935 it became a museum – and a hugely impressive one where marble dominates and Byzantine frieze, mausoleums and galleries are waiting to be viewed and explored.
Within walking distance of Hagia Sofia is the majestic, dominating Blue Mosque (you actually need to go inside to get the colour reference); the expansive and – despite the crowds – comparatively tranquil Topkapi Palace and, perhaps most unusual, the Basilica Cistern – a vast Roman-built subterranean water source supported by 336 marble columns covering almost 10,000 square metres.
It’s from the Bosphorus, however, that you get a true sense of Istanbul; not just that blend of old and new but the strategic position it occupies and which inspired the great empires of history to conquer, settle and exploit.
Palatial, wooden-built houses nestle on the riverbanks with private jetties, beautifully-kept gardens, ornate lamps – and price tags anywhere up to US$100 million. As you glide down this nautical artery you pass small towns that wouldn’t look out of place in the south of France and where chic cafés, private sports clubs and ice cream parlours with a distinctly European air look across the water to another continent.
There is more than enough to keep the history lover, art aficionado and culture vulture suitably occupied for three or four days in Istanbul, but don’t forget to devote some time to shrugging off the crowds and go exploring. That is one of the real charms of this Turkish delight.