“If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
Istanbul exceeded my expectations in almost every way. It is a cosmopolitan, vibrant and historic city. The first thing that strikes you about it is its natural location – the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya, sitting atop the hill of Sultanahmet, at the confluence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, are a wondrous sight. The Bosphorus itself is the defining feature of the city – a busy waterway filled with cargo-laden ships, but also a sight of myths and history, and the dividing line between East and West, Asia and Europe. Istanbul is also a battleground for the colliding worlds and intertwining tensions that make Turkish politics so fascinating – most prominently the ongoing battle between Western secular values, as enshrined in the republican vision of the Ataturk, and those of resurgent political Islam. Having returned from Istanbul, I’m currently reading Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, and would recommend it to those interested in the subject.
The main sights of Istanbul can be seen in a few days, but to do so misses the opportunity to soak up the atmosphere of the city. The historic centre on Sultanahmet is compact, and allows easy access to the main attractions – the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace. Travelling west from there you can visit the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, as well as the impressive Sulemaniye Mosque, built by Suleman the Magnificent. Further west still, up the Golden Horn, the Chora Church is certainly worth seeking out, as is Piere Lotti – a cafe perched atop the hills with magnificent views. The area south of Sultanahmet is cited as good for strolling – but the streets are steep, and I found the area west of Chora Church by the city walls a nicer place to walk. Here the hustle and bustle of the city and its main thoroughfares recedes amid quiet streets. You can start from the Chora Church, head west and north, and end up by the Golden Horn, where you can take a boat back in the direction of Eminonu. This should provide some welcome relief from the madness of Istanbul’s roads.
The Aya Sofya
One of my favourite areas in Istanbul was the Galata Bridge. Upon first seeing it, I recognised the tramlines stretching across from a black and white photograph in Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul. It is a centre of frenetic movement – trams, traffic and people rushing back and forth, but also a place where patient fisherman stand for hours, hoping to catch fish (I never once saw one manage this) and street sellers try in vain to sell pocket watches from suitcases. To the north and east of the Galata Bridge is Beyoglu – home to the Istanbul Modern, the cities premier modern art museum. Up the hill, past the Galata Tower, you reach the Istiklal Cadii, the main thoroughfare complete with a ‘nostalgic tram’. After walking about 15 -20 minutes you can reach Taksim Square – the hub of young, modern Istanbul. Along the way are some of the city’s main bar streets – there is one in particular containing a number of bars with low stools and tables for quaffing beer – all with the same blue neon Efes sign (Efes seems to have a monopoly on lager in Istanbul). There’s also Algeria Alley – a steep street full of trendy, fashionable bars – that’s worth checking out. For evening entertainment it’s also worth heading across to Kadikoy on the Asian side of the city – a more relaxed location for a night out with a higher concentration of students. A Turkish Couchsurfer I met was telling me about the graffiti in the toilets of a bar we went to that said “Fuck the AKP” – the right-wing party that supports political Islam. She said it was indicative of the fears that many young Istanbulis have that Turkey may one day turn into the next Iran.
After some initial average kebabs, I quickly warmed to Turkish food. Highlights include the breakfasts of salty cheese, tomatoes and cucumber, washed down with Turkish coffee, kofte (meatballs) with amazing lentil soup in Sultanahmet, balik ekmek (fish bread) on the Galata Bridge for TL5, yoghurt dip with mint, midyer dolma (stuffed mussels with lemon) for TL1 apiece in Istiklal Cadii, begendi/haydari (a dip made of yoghurt, blended aubergine and garlic) and some top-notch kebaps – particularly the paticanli kebap, with aubergine (which seems an extremely popular vegetable in Istanbul). The baclava was also amazing – and it’s worth trying a strange pudding made with chicken, tavuk gogsu. Finally, thanks to this article in the Guardian for recommending the most fantastic fish restaurant, Asmali Cavit – definitely worth checking out.
Make sure you catch a Turkish super League game in Istanbul. Galatasaray have one of the bigger stadiums and they’re the team I went to see – they beat Eskisehirspor 2-0. But having seen enthusiastic Besitkas fans the day before, I think they might be worth seeing too. The other big team – Fenerbache – play on the Asian side of the city. Finally, don’t miss the opportunity to be massaged by a fat middle aged Turkish man at a hamam – surely every tourist’s Istanbul dream.