With one foot in Asia and the other in Europe, Turkey offers travellers the best of both worlds. Ujala Ali Khan travels to Istanbul to discover its varied offerings.
"Istanbul is so lovely it will give you the goose bumps,” said a friend when she learned I was about to go there for the first time. By far the most popular destination in Turkey, this unique city straddles Europe and Asia not just geographically, but culturally too. As your plane touches down, the first view you have is of the minaret-dotted horizon. You will find yourself instantly enamoured by the bustling metropolis with its quaint street bazaars and glorious museums. Choose your preferred mode of relaxation – haggling over souvenirs at the Grand Bazaar or cruising down the Bosphorous in a ferry. Your days will be filled with sights to see, and your nights can easily be a frenzy of sampling the best of the local cuisine and toe-tapping to Turkish beats, offering an unforgettable insight into the country’s rich culture.
A stay in Istanbul would not be complete without a visit to The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia Museum, The Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. You don’t have to go very far to get your dose of history and culture in this town – most of the major attractions are walking distance from each other, and anything further out is an easy tram ride away.
The Sultanahmet mosque, built between 1609 and 1616 for Ahmet I, should not be missed. Present inside the mosque are the mausoleums of Ahmet I, founder of the mosque, and Ottoman emperors Osman II and Murat IV. Right outside the Blue Mosque is the Egyptian Obelisk, which was brought to Istanbul (then Constaninopolis) in 390 AD by the Byzantine emperor Theodosius I. It was originally erected by Tutmosis III, before the temple of Karnak at Heliopolis.
The Topkapi Palace Museum, which was built by Mehmet II not long after the conquest of Istanbul, is a nice place to get a historical perspective on the city. The palace housed lodges, pavilions, state offices, barracks, libraries, a mosque, kitchens and the harem. The Harem alone contained more than 250 rooms. Today, it houses museum exhibits, the most popular of which are the Portraits of the Sultans, the Ottoman Costumes and the Religious displays.
If you have time, squeeze in a half-day tour of the Prince’s Islands by ferry, stopping at Buyukada (Big Island), the biggest among the Prince’s Islands (which get their name from the Byzantine princes who used to spend their holidays there) dotting the Marmara Sea.
A cruise down the Bosphorous, the straits of which mark the Asian-European divide of not just the city, but also of the country, is a great way to spend a lazy afternoon. The cruise will give you the chance to see a number of historical sights at a distance, including Dolmabahce palace, Beylerbeyi palace and the fortresses of Rumeli and Anadolu. Famous for having been built in a mere four months, the Rumeli Fortress was built by Mehmet II. The fortress houses a mosque, a fountain, cistern, cellars, stores and barracks for the army. On the opposite side of the Bosphorous, right across from the Rumeli, is the Anadolu Fortress. Between the two, the Ottomans had the total control of the Bosphorous that they were looking for.
As much a tourist sight, with its dazzling display of colourful wares set in labyrinthine alleys, as a retail haven, don’t miss out Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. With its 3,000 shops, it is the largest covered bazaar in Turkey. The shops sell everything from crystal and silver to rugs and pashminas.
Whether it’s culture vultures or shopaholics, there is something for everyone, so why should gourmands be left behind? In fact, delicious Turkish staples – be it scrumptious kababs served with rich sauces or Turkish-style pizzas – mean that Turkey, and particularly Istanbul, is a real foodie’s dream come true.
Istanbul’s famed Istiklal street, lined with shops and eateries, is a safe bet for a spot of Turkish cuisine. From fast-food style joints such as the Marmara Café, to veritable institutions such as Saray Muhallebicisi (which has been around since 1935) authentic cuisine from either end of the spectrum is on offer. Don’t miss the Iskender Kebap, a Turkish classic, both at Maramara café and at Saray Muhallebicisi – reflecting how each restaurant and cook gives this dish their own spin, the difference in preparation and presentation is obvious, but both were delicious in their own right.
Another Turkish staple you cannot leave the city without sampling is Lahmachun – a thin bread with a layer of tomato paste and spiced, minced meat, Lahmachun is served with lemon and chopped parsley on the side. Easily available at most street side stalls or cafés, the Turkish way to eat it is to squeeze on the lemon, sprinkle on the parsley, roll it up, and enjoy.
On Guneslibahce Sokak (Sunny Garden Street), near Kadikoy’s fish market, with a few basic tables and chairs set up in the shade and plenty more seating inside, is Ciya Sofrasi – where you can find Istanbul’s finest home-style southeastern and Anatolian cuisine. The man behind Ciya is Musa Dagdeviren, who hails from Southern Turkey, and is committed to reviving authentic, traditional cuisines that are rapidly disappearing. Most of the cuisine at Ciya hails from Turkey’s Gaziantep region, which is slightly different from the cuisine of Turkey at large, due to the influences from Oguz Turks, and its vicinity to Aleppo, which gives it an Arabic influence. The laid-back, relaxed vibe, the lack of printed menus, the glass-fronted open kitchen, which produced – among other things – a steady stream of doner kebabs plump with juicy slivers of meat, make this an ideal pit stop for a busy, touristy day. After a mezze spread including muhammara (tomato spread with ground walnuts), hummous (which needs no introduction, of course!), barbunya pilaki (beans cooked in tomato paste), cacik (yogurt with cucumber and dried mint, often referrred to as Turkey's national dish), various salatasi (salads) including patilcan salatasi (eggplant salad), and soups with lentils and bulghur, you may be full, but leave room for the mains. Apart from Turkish mainstays such as kebabs and yoghurt-based curries, don’t miss unique delicacies like the Gaziantep specialty of stewed tender veal meatballs with morello cherries, a juicy and tangy creation.
Right next to the medieval Rumelihisari fortress, on a Bosphorous boat dock dating back to the Ottoman era, is the fish house Rumelihisari Iskele, which is venerated as one of the best in the city, if not the country. The salt-crusted fish is a must-try, as are the imam bayaldi (puréed aubergine with grilled lamb and tomato sauce) and borek (spiced ground meat and pine nuts).
These are but just a few nuggets of the culinary delights on offer in Istanbul. The charms of Byzantine architecture, the wit of Turkish carpet-sellers, the fading glory of Roman ruins, the warm hospitality of the Turks, and the delicious flavours – yes, everything about Istanbul will not only give you goosebumps, but will make you want to go back!
A variety of hotels are dotted around the city, to suit all budgets. The World Heritage Hotel, in Sultanahmet Square is a convenient option located close to all the action. Room rates start from around Dhs2,000 per night, www.worldheritagehotel.com.