By Tharik Hussain
Napolean Bonaparte once said, “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
Straddling two continents, the former center of the Ottoman Empire has staged some of history’s most spectacular clashes and remains the home of oriental romance, legends and stunning architecture. Meanwhile modern Istanbul is a buzzing hive of excitement, culture and hipness. In fact, the unofficial capital of Turkey can seem a tad intimidating and a little overwhelming for anyone wanting to get the best out of it in one visit.
But don’t worry; whether you want to check out the prophetic relics in the Topkapi Palace or hang out at a bohemian cafe in trendy Cihangir, Travel Trends has covered it in just seven.
1. Be Mesmerized by the Blue Mosque
From every angle 200 colorful stained glass windows stream in rainbows of light while hanging low above the heads of worshippers are spectacularly large wrought iron chandeliers. There is definitely something of a Byzantine church-feel about it all. This is hardly surprising as Sultan Ahmed I commissioned the mosque to compete in size and look with the Hagia Sophia, Byzantine’s greatest cathedral, which sits directly opposite.
2. Visit the Grandest of Bazaars for Antiques
The oldest part of the Grand Bazaar dates back to the middle of the 15th century and when eccentric Ottoman traveler, Evliya Celebi strolled through it in 1638 he counted 3,000 shops plus a further 300 in the surrounding caravansaries.
Celebi probably had his servant carry an umbrella around because back then it wasn’t covered. Today, beautifully painted arcades connect solid brick domes held up by white pillars above what is the largest covered bazaar in the world.
Several gates displaying royal emblems of the Sultans who consecrated them lead into 61 streets dedicated to different trades. There are jewelers, carpet sellers, leather goods makers, ceramics and of course antique dealers sitting in their little ‘coves’ surrounded by history.
3. Classical Ottoman Art at the Old Book Bazaar
“I charge only $1 for each year,” declares Mehmet as I stare entranced at the two-framed pages from a 1,000-year-old Mamluk Qur’an. The letters on the ancient manuscript are tall, elongated and black. They sit in a border of intricate gold geometric patterns; a genuine piece of Islamic antiquity for sale.
Most tourists come for the Turkish miniatures, delicate, colorful scenes hand painted by skilled artisans, some of whom can trace their student-teacher lineage right back to the Ottoman era.
Old Persian or Arabic books with no real value beyond age are used to paint miniatures in the classical style.
“We buy old Persian or Arabic books that have no real value beyond age and we use each page to paint miniatures in the classical style,” explains Mehmet. “Only four real artists of any quality are alive in this field today. There is no appreciation for their skill anymore so not many are being trained properly,” he laments as he shows me a court scene painted by one of these real artisans. It is quite stunning.
4. Grab a Balik Ekmek (Mackerel Sandwich) and Cruise the Golden Horn
“This is the freshest fish in Istanbul,” explains the vendor, skillfully flipping mackerel fillets one by one on his hot plate. Perched on the end his partner is rapidly stuffing soft white baps with handfuls of lettuce and thinly sliced white onion. As soon as a fillet is the right color it’s lifted into a bap and handed to someone in the long queue waiting for their simple and delicious Balik Ekmek.
Biting into one causes an audible crunch from the crispy salad that complements the soft fleshy fillet – salted just right by the waters of the Marmara it swam in hours earlier. The perfect companion for a cruise up the Golden Horn which passes palatial buildings rubbing shoulders with crumbling Ottoman mosques, an old Albanian village in the hills, the modern Fatih Bridge and of course a view from afar of the world’s most romantic skyline.
5. Stare in Awe at the Hagia Sophia
Imagine you are a sixth century Christian fulfilling a lifelong ambition, a pilgrimage to the center of your world, Constantinople. Your head is filled with legends about the city’s mythical cathedral built by the Holy Roman Emperor Justinian. As you recall the words of a returning pilgrim who claimed the church’s dome to be so immense only angels could’ve placed it there, you hear the first gasps of those sharing your boat on the Sea of Marmaris.
Rising from the horizon, the cupola of the pinkish red mega-structure comes into view long before your eyes can make out even the city’s walls. It leaves you stupefied. Nothing in your world has ever compared.
The UNESCO World Heritage site had the same effect on Sultan Mehmet II in the 15th century, who immediately turned it into a mosque, with minarets being added thereafter. In the centuries that followed, the Hagia Sophia became the inspiration for most of the city’s iconic mosques, including the Blue Mosque.
6. See Relics of the Prophet in the Imperial Topkapi Palace
The authenticity of the relics are open to debate, but their significance to Muslims, normal and royal, has never been in question.
During the holy month of Ramadan for example, the Ottoman Sultan would pay a ceremonial visit to them as part of the Baklava Procession, named after the ancient Ottoman sweets that were handed out to royal soldiers
7. Gourmet Coffee at a Trendy Cafe in Cihangir
Huffing and puffing up the European Turkish streets, you will pass by little art galleries, ethical clothes stores and organic grocers, while every now and then the tall apartment blocks will give way to breathtaking views across the Bosphorous Straits into Asia.
Near the top, pick a spot like Cafe Susan to sip gourmet coffee and watch life go by in Istanbul’s trendiest suburb.
Currency: Turkish Lira
Official Language: Turkish
International code: +90
• Direct flights from Jeddah to Istanbul via Turkish airlines start at approximately SR 1,662.
• Check if your nationality makes you elegible for an e-vhisa, otherwise you may need to visit the Turkish Embassy.
• Purchase an Istanbul card when you arrive. Only one is needed for everyone.
• Read an Orhan Pamuk book before you arrive. No writer quite understands Istanbul like its most famous literary resident.
• Visit at least one of the numerous art galleries – Istanbul is Turkey’s art capital.
• Visit the Sulimaniye Mosque, built for Sulayman ‘The Magnificent’ by Ottoman master architect Mimar Sinan – this is architecturally the finest mosque in the city.