Only a short four hour flight away, Istanbul – with its minarets, mosques, bazaars and bars – will seduce travellers in search of a city break. Kaye Holland has the low-down
Built on seven hills, intriguing Istanbul (the only city in the world to straddle two continents) is an exotic patchwork of sights, flavours, smells and sounds. Istanbul is also the perfect antithesis to the soggy grey streets of the UK. While we Brits are already reaching for our winter wardrobe, the residents of Istanbul are still soaking up the sun. Sure it’s warm rather than scorching but a few hours of sunshine a day, is a distinct improvement on Blighty. What’s more, this unusual paradise doesn’t have a perturbing price tag: Istanbul isn’t in the Eurozone so you won’t get eaten up by your wallet. Yet one of Istanbul’s greatest assets is its gorgeous people, who will bend over backwards to help you. Go now… before the crowds catch on.
Must see and do
Istanbul is home to a wealth of historical sites, the lion’s share of which are concentrated in Sultanahmet over on the European side. Only a philistine would travel to Istanbul without seeing the beautiful Byzantine Emperor of Aya Sofia (the former Orthodox cathedral turned mosque, that is now a museum) and the Blue Mosque, named so because of the colour of its handmade Iznik tiles. Men must wear trousers when visiting the mosque (which is closed for prayer five times during the day) while women should cover their head and shoulders. At the northern edge of Gulhane Park, Topkapi Palace built by Mehmet 11 in 1459 as a retreat for Ottoman sultans, completes the essential check list.
Once you have gotten the blockbuster sights out of the way, it’s time for a Turkish hamman – you can’t consider yourself clean until you have been to a bathhouse. It’s not exactly pampering – cleansing takes place in a chamber and a rough scrub is followed by lots of slathering all in the name of well being but it will make for a great dinner party story on your return! For an authentic experience and an insight into Ottoman era Istanbul, try Gedikpasa Hamami (www.gedikpasahamami.com). Tip: you don’t need to bring a swimsuit to the baths (there’s no clothing policy) but prudish Brits might want to anyway.
It’s got to be the 15th century Grand Bazaar (open every day save for Sunday), with its 4,000 plus shops and stalls. Temptation abounds and, if you’re anything like the CD-Traveller team, it’s impossible not to wander around without returning with knock off jackets, jewellery and Aladdin-esque curly slippers (Geraldine) and cushion covers and carpets (Kaye). Even if shopping doesn’t interest you (maybe you’re from Mars or something), it’s a great place to sip a refreshing mint tea or if you want to look like a local, ayran (a ridiculously popular salty yoghurt drink) and simply enjoy the chaos!
For a post shopping sugar hit, head to the atmospheric Spice Bazaar (also referred to as the Egyptian Bazaar) which is choc a bloc with stalls selling aromatic spices, dried fruit andcolorful cubes of lokum – aka Turkish delight.
Acrosss the Galata Bridge on the other side of the Golden Horn, the pedestrianised shopping street of Istiklal Caddessi (Independence Street) is a lively place to stroll, lined with both boutiques selling trinkets to remind you of your visit and all the big name international chains.
Eating out in Istanbul is terrific value: visitors can feast on traditional Turkish and Ottoman delights at a lively meyahne (tavern) for Pizza Hut prices. Finish with sweet baklava – pastry soaked, nay drowned, in honey. On Divan Yolu, the world famous Pudding Shop is also worth seeking out. Run by the Coplan brothers, this was the gathering point for travellers heading overland to India back in the sixties. For lunch on the run, the freshly baked sesame seed coated bread sold from wheelbarrows costs only a couple of Lira and can’t be beaten.
When night falls, locals and tourists alike go to the Galata quarter which was, for a short time back in the 13th century, a colony of Genoa. Galata, dominated by the famous Galata Tower, is home to an array of excellent cafes and rooftop terraces such as the award winning 360Istanbul – the perfect place to try raki (the aniseed flavoured spirit that’s the tipple of choice for Turkish men and women).
However if you want to hang out with the Istancool crowd, make a beeline for the trendy waterfront bars in Ortakoy, on the banks of the Bosphorous. The hippest and hottest bar is arguably Angelique offering panoramic views of Asia from its stunning rooftop terrace, along with killer cocktails. But be warned: you’ll need to dress up to get past the clipboard Nazis.
Cruise down the mighty Bosphorus – the 30km straight connecting the Black Sea with the world and dividing the continents of Europe and Asia. A boat ride up the Bosphorous affords unrivalled views of Istanbul’s amazing skyline and was undoubtedly one of my highlights.
Most visitors stay in the Sultanahmet or else the areas of Sirkevi and Eminou. However if you want to escape the crowds, then make for the Mövenpick Hotel. It’s a rare place that makes me consider moving my toothbrush in permanently but the Mövenpick did just that.
Located in the business district of Levent, the hotel is all about understated luxury. The 249 guest rooms are tastefully decorated and boast all the mod cons (free wifi, spacious safes that can even accommodate laptops, and air con for those sticky late summer evenings) that the 21st century traveller could hope for. The hotel’s AzzuR restaurant also serves what is surely one of the best breakfasts in town: expect a range of Mediterranean, Swiss and modern Turkish cuisine to set you up for a day of sightseeing.
Taxis are cheap and Istanbul is also well served by the Metro, but walking is the best way to see the city. Everywhere has something of interest: wander around and feel Istanbul’s pulse.
Istanbul’s main airport – Ataturk – lies approximately 20km west of the city centre, but I flew with easyJet to the city’s second airport, Sabiha Gocken, 50km east of the centre. From Sabiha Gocken you can take an airport bus to Taksim Square – the hub of the new city. Regardless of which airport you fly into, all Brits must pay around £10 (cash only) for a ‘visa’ on arrival.