ISTANBUL

Once known as Constantinople, Istanbul is the only city in the world that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia. It has been the capital of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires. It is a busy metropolis, evolving every minute, imbibing the best of all the cultures that has been a part of its glorious past as it beautifully blends the cultural chaos of two culturally and spiritually different continents through its innate inventiveness, to become one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world.

The city genuinely and spectacularly juxtaposes the old and the new, and the East and the West. Historic palaces make a spectacular backdrop for modern edifices. Be it the long skirts and head coverings worn by conventional women and the chic designer outfits of their modern counterparts; be it the battered old Fiats and the shiny BMWs; be it the narrow streets of Grand Bazaar and the modern shopping malls; there is a peaceful co-existence of the two polar worlds. There would still be some merry men heading home from the night clubs and bars at dawn, when the muezzin’s call to early morning prayer resonates from the ancient minarets. Connecting the Sea of Marmara in the south and the Black Sea in the north, the narrow strait, Bosphorus, cuts the city into two. The blue waters set off by a skyline of domes, steeples interspersed with modern towers, is a beautiful sight to behold.

Though it is an ancient city founded by the Greeks in the 7th century BC, Istanbul, today, with a population of 15 million plus and a pulsating stock exchange, is a booming megacity, especially its skyline of its business districts located beyond Beyoğlu, have begun to resemble Manhattan.

The city was called Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Christian world that kept the warriors of Islam at bay for several centuries from Western Europe. It eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The old quarter is studded with the relics of these great powers, from its Byzantine Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), to the splendid pavilions of the pivot of the Ottoman Empire, The Topkapi Palace.

The armies that conquered in the ancient times, ransacked whichever cities they conquer, but the Byzantines changed this. They settled in the city, built churches and palaces and they decorated them intricately with mosaics and frescoes. Many of them are still around to be admired. The Ottomans built many historic edifices after their emphatic arrival. They proved their architectural expertise in the majestic, magnificently decorated mosques they built that formed the Istanbul’s exemplary skylines. In an ode to the bygone Ottoman’s empire’s passion for art and culture, not to mention their grandeur, present day banks and business empires have started curating and endowing famous galleries, museums and art festivals.

Over the centuries, many marauding militias have been drawn to Istanbul, due to its strategic location. Relics of the rules of the Greeks, Romans, Persians and Venetians before the reign of the Ottomans are found everywhere in the city. It was not just the empires but traders too who loved the city so much that they decided to settle down. Istanbul was the last lap of the legendary Silk Routes linking Asia and Europe. This renders diversity to the city’s culture that is kept alive till this day.

Istanbul ranks among the list of cities with the largest population, pegged at 15 million in the last count, becoming the one of the largest metropolitan areas of Europe. The city’s character is secular and commercial, as is most parts of Turkey. In a country where almost the entire population is Muslim, there is still a choice for people on aspects like their dress code. While in the Old City, most of the Muslim women wear burqa to cover their head or sometimes, even the entire face, the women in the New City do not shy away from being cosmopolitan and wear clothing of all brands and styles as would have any woman in the Western world.

Istanbul’s locals take their food and drink very seriously, with the best restaurants of the country running their business here. Be it a fusion of culinary creations, an aromatic Asian delight, an Italian classic, or the authentic succulent kebabs, mezes and fresh fish, Istanbul caters to connoisseurs of varied cuisines. The national drink,raki, which is a blend of grape fruit and aniseed, as well as locally produced wine and beer are famous too.

The legacy of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires can be seen in the architectural splendour of the Old city, like the spectacular Hagia Sofia and the majestic mosques built by the architect Sinan. The historical peninsula has an abundant wealth of such attractions.

Contemporary Istanbul is equally alluring. Its vibrant night life driven by youngsters and its admirable art scene that has received international focus and acclaim, has helped Istanbul acquire the title “the city that never sleeps” and the crowning of Istanbul as the European Capital of Culture in 2010, has been a major contributor to this.

The travel and tourism infrastructure of Turkey, particularly Istanbul, makes it a place worth a visit. The city became the world’s 10th most popular tourist destination in 2010 and Turkey ranks 6th. You will not be alienated in Turkey just because you don’t speak their language. The locals always believe that it is their responsibility to communicate in the language of the visitor. Communication is never a problem as most Turks speak fluent English. The Turkish travel agents, guides and hotel or restaurant personnel are well-informed and are very helpful. Most are university trained and are experts in the history of their country and its treasures. The ease of visiting and touring Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, is certainly a pleasant surprise.

One of the major attractions of the place is the love of life and generosity of the locals. They treasure family and friends, and work and party hard too. Their vibrancy and inclusivity help them seamlessly adopt tradition and modernity. You can join them in their favourite rendezvous, like, çaybahcesis (tea gardens), kahvehanı (coffeehouses), meyhanes(Turkish taverns) and kebapçıs (kebap restaurants), and you will never feel out of place and these experiences are sure to be the highlight of your visit.

ISTANBUL DINING

The Mediterranean, Asian and Middle Eastern cuisines blend together in blissful harmony to add layers of flavour to the Turkish cuisine, in its kebabs or small tapas-like plates called mezes. Meats, fresh vegetables, beans and nuts form the major part of the dishes prepared. Yoghurt, a main component is usually served with meat entrees and breads. Simit, a bagel-like portable snack, and various other street food, including döner (made from lamb meat) are popular both with the locals and visitors. The strong Turkish coffee and the dessert, Turkish Delight, are not to be missed.

There is a wide variety of restaurants in Istanbul, be it the high-end restaurants with well-trained chefs specializing in cuisines from all over the world to the traditional restaurants and bars called mehyanesto the no-frills kebab joints. Turks just love food.Mehyanes are the local bars that are loud and fun filled where mezes and alcohol flow without any restrictions.

The national alcoholic drink,raki, is made from the aniseeds and is servedmixed with a glass of chilled water. The raki is a colourless liquid, but when mixed with cold water, it becomes a white liquid that looks like milk, hence the nickname, aslansütü, (lion’s milk).

The tourist-oriented district of Sultanahmet, serves overpriced and mediocre food in its restaurants and is best avoided. You can reach Beyoğlu, which is a short tram ride north across the Golden Horn, where you will find authentic and quality food, most of it home made style, though there are high end restaurants too, but served with love and care at a moderate price.

WHEN TO VISIT ISTANBUL

The best time to visit Istanbul is from September to November when the crowds are more manageable, the rates of hotel rooms drop and the weather is pleasant. Summertime is peak season, when there is an increase in temperatures and prices. Spring or fall is the ideal time to visit Istanbul to avoid sweat and surge in the price. Spring could be a little chilly though. The winter months bring in rain, some snow and cold. The dip in temperatures triggers a dip in tourism also, resulting in good bargains in hotel rates. If you are on a cheap budget and can brave the weather, visit the city in December or January. Istanbul under a cover of snow is just indescribable.

HOW TO REACH ISTANBUL

Air Travel

Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport is where most of the international and domestic flights arrive, though, SabihaGökçen airport is where low-cost carriers, besides an increasing number of domestic and international flights fly, on the Asian side of the city. Turkish Airlines offer direct services from Mumbai and Delhi.

A slow metro operates directly from Atatürk Airport to the Aksarayneighbourhood from where Sultanahmet is easily accessible by tram though it is a short walk between the two lines. It is better to take the regular shuttle buses of the Havataşcompany (10 TL to Taksim) or a taxi from the main exit of the terminal building. Since there is no rail link to SabihaGökçen Airport, you would have to take aHavataş shuttle bus (13 TL to Taksim) or a taxi.

GETTING AROUND IN ISTANBUL

By Bus

The efficient bus service of Istanbul connects throughout the entire city. A route map at the terminal will help you to plan to where you are headed to. AKBIL, an electronic plastic ticket, would be useful if you plan to stay for a few days. It can be refilled at bus and metro stops and is acceptable in local buses, trams and metros, with a 10% discount on the cost. Alternatively, a standard ticket can be purchased on a public transport vehicle, starting from about 1.2 Turkish Lira.

Tram

Tram rides are an excellent way to go around the city as they access almost all tourist areas and provide a leisurely alternative for local transportation. The Zeytinburnu-Kabatas tram line would be your best option if you decide to visit the places of interest by tram.

Metro
Though not covering the city extensively, the metro helps reach the airport and the central bus station through its two lines. Since the tracks are underground, it is advisable to use the metro during rush hour.

Ferry
There are many ferry departing points on both sides of the Bosphorus on the Asian and European sides and serviced almost at all times. The prices may vary with different ferry companies, and it would be prudent to always check the costs before you decide to take the ferry. Though you will get a unique perspective of this huge metropolis from the water, if time is of the essence and transportation from point to point is your only objective, then you will be much better off sticking to a bus instead.

Taxi
Istanbul has plenty of taxis that are cheap and convenient too. The usual taxi scams that are a part of a big city are always unavoidable and it is up to the tourists to keep your bearings in check. Always ensure that you are not being charged the higher night time fare during daytime. Clearly communicating your destination to the cab driver will be helpful and sometimes a handwritten note of the destination address or a visiting card would help.

PLACES OF INTEREST

Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom)

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) is a prime example of Byzantine architecture and for centuries by gone, since its completion in 537, it was indeed the world’s largest monument dedicated to religion. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian, the imposing building is bound to have a lasting impression on the beholder, especially its dome. The half dome, which is a surprise in itself, as you do not envisage it to be so, leads into the open space with a mammoth dome, almost 18 storeys high and more than 30 meters (100 feet) across, with a spectacular show of bright light shining through 40 windows and making the gold tiles glitter, like they are set on fire.

The only other church to match Hagia Sophia in its size and grandeur is the St. Peter’s in Rome, which was only constructed in the 17th century.

Hagia Sophia was the heart of the city and as its cathedral, the site for royal coronations and was home to the spiritual ethos of the city. It survived several earthquakes and looting crusaders until the city fell to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. Even the Muslim ruler, had a great respect for the church and he sprinkled dirt on his head as a sign of obeisance before entering it. He ordered the holy place to be turned into a mosque and keeping with the Islamic tenets against image worship, the statues, images and mosaics were covered with plaster.

The four minarets, mihrab (prayer niche), minbar (pulpit for the imam) and the large black medallions with Arabic inscriptions of the names of Allah, Muahmmad and the early caliphs, were all added by successive Sultans. Kemal Atatürk, converted the mosque into a museum in 1935 and the mosaics were uncovered as a result of the restoration project.
Visitors are allowed at Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays through Sundays. Admission cost is $13 USD.

Blue Mosque

It is only after you enter the Blue Mosque do you understand why it has been named thus.Its vast interiors are covered with almost 20,000 shimmering blue-green İznik tiles that are juxtaposedalong with 260 stained-glass windows and with intricate floral patterns of calligraphic art painted exquisitely on the ceiling. In comparison to the solemn and dark interiors of the Byzantine mosaics in the Hagia Sophia, this mosque feels gloriously airy and full of light and it was indeed this favourable comparison that was the intention of architect Mehmet Ağa (a former student of the famous Ottoman architect Sinan), whose goal was to surpass Justinian’s crowning achievement , the Hagia Sophia. At the behest of Sultan Ahmet I who ruled from 1603 till 1617, that Mehmet created this masterpiece of Ottoman craftsmanship, starting in 1609 and completing it in just eight years, and many believe he indeed succeeded in outdoing the splendour of Hagia Sophia.

In fact Mehmet was so immersed in his goal of grandeur and perfection for the Blue Mosque that he built a total of six minarets around it, unknowingly overshadowing the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, which was something that couldn’t be allowed. To restore the pre-eminence of the al-Haram mosque, Sultan Ahmet I sent Mehmet Aga to the Holy City to build a seventh minaret. The Sultan and a few of his family members are entombed in the mausoleum in a corner of the mosque.
The genius of Mehmet Aga is best appreciated and understood when the Blue Mosque is seen from the outside. He created successive domes of various sizes so as to cover the massiveness of the central dome, instead of creating one central dome, so as not to surpass the great Hagia Sophia.

Dress code is conservative, as it is an active religious site. Women are expected to wear headscarves, which can also be borrowed from the mosque.

Located in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood, the Blue Mosque is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance is free but is restricted during prayer service, especially on Fridays.

Dolmabahçe Palace

The Palace’s name, Dolmabahçe, means “a garden that was filled”, which was in recognition of the fact that Sultan Ahmet (1603-17) had a garden at this very place that was on land reclaimed from the sea. This palace,though, was built from 1843 to 1856, by Abdülmecid I, as a symbol of Turkey’s adoption of European modernisation. He gave the architects, the father and son duo of Garabet and NikoğosBalyan, born to a renowned Armenian family of late Ottoman architects, complete freedom and an unlimited budget to build this behemoth. His only demand was that the palace should surpass all other palaces of the world in its beauty and grandeur. The duo amalgamated Turkish and European architectural styles into one ornate gargantuan piece of architecture that could only be called spectacular. Huge mirrors, gilt Corinthian capitals embossed marble columns, trompe l’oeil painted ceilings, rich brocade, and in-laid parquet floors are just a few architectural marvels that reflect its splendour. The bed of Abdülmecid ismade of solid silver. His marble paved bathroom has translucent alabaster tub and basins. A total of over 200 kilos of gold were used throughout the palace. Even European royalty contributed to its splendour. A Bohemian crystal chandelier weighing 4.5 tons was gifted by Queen Victoria. Polar-bear rugs were provided by Czar Nicholas I. DolmabahçePalace is indeed a manifestation of outlandish opulence and garish grandeur combined together to give Versailles a run for its money.

Divided into the public area ‘Selamlik’ and the private area ‘Harem’, Dolmabahçe can be best seen on separate guided tours, which can easily take 90 minutes. The opulent Selamlik befits its ceremonial purpose. Traditional social hierarchies and living arrangements can be seen in the Harem, despite the exterior European décor. The founder of the Turkish republic Atatürk, spent his last days here. His deathbed can be seen as part of the tour. All the clocks of the palace remain stopped permanently at 9:05 a.m., the hour of his death on November 10, 1938.

The half km long waterfront façade and the formal gardens offer a relaxing ambience for a stroll after completing your tours. The Crystal pavilion and the Clock museum are housed in two buildings that are set in separate smaller buildings that can be visited without a tour. The Crystal pavilion has, well, a crystal piano, a crystal fountain and a glass conservatory whereas the Clock Museum exhibits, not surprisingly, clocks, albeit, the most elaborate clocks ever seen. As there is a maximum limit of admission, call the reservation number a day prior to reserve your tickets.

Grand Bazaar

This maze of 65 covered streets with around 4,000 small shops, cafes, restaurants, mosques and courtyards, is one of the highlights of Istanbul and a never to be missed opportunity. The Grand Bazaar, is an early version of the shopping mall of our days, and is the largest complex in the world with so many stores under one roof. This is also a place known for its over-the-top aggressive salesmanship that would put to shame our local vendors in Chandini Chowk or Crawford market, and one should be prepared for the in your face haggling and salesmanship. Even then, given the high decibel chaotic atmosphere of the Grand Bazaar, the sheer volume of the goods sold here, and the number of shops that encompass this complex means, that you will be spending at least a couple of hours taking in this unique atmosphere that is not seen anywhere else in the world.

The overhead signs show you the directions of the exits apart from telling your current location and direction of the street that you are in. Relax and enjoy the ambience, as you will eventually get lost. But don’t worry, the overhead signs will get you get you back on track. Crowds and tourists are natural magnets for pickpockets. Keep an eye on your belongings.

Topkapi Palace

On Sarayburnu (Seraglio Point) above the convergence of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, towers majestically the huge Topkapi Palace, which was the residence of the erstwhile Sultans and their harems. It was also the seat of the Ottoman rule from the 1460s till the mid-19th century. This royal residence tops the chart when it comes to mystery, intrigue and lavishness.

The original Topkapi Palace was built between 1459 and 1465, closely following the conquest of Constantinople, by Sultan Mehmet II, and was known as the New Palace. Successive Sultans added to its architectural splendour resulting in the palace having four courtyards, quarters for about 5,000 full-time residents that included slaves, eunuchs and concubines, many of whom who have spent almost their whole lives within the four walls of this palace. The palace often was witness to bloodshed and drama, as the members of Sultan’s entourage schemed to advance their favourites, which sometimes led to the assassination of the Sultan himself. When SultanAbdülmecid I moved his court to Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus, the Topkapi palace was abandoned in 1856.

The First Courtyard, the main entrance, or the Imperial Gate, leads to the Court of the Janissaries, which was freely accessible to the general public of that time and a sort of assembly point. The grandeur of the palace can’t be missed once you pass through the Bab-us Selam (Gate of Salutation).

Rose gardens and ornamental trees beautify the Second Courtyard, which was once the administrative hub of the Ottoman Empire. The ornate köşks and pavilions were used for the high table events like business of the state and as well as for more down to earth things like feeding servants. More than 1,000 cooks toiled in the palatial kitchens handling vast rows of huge massive ovens that cooked sumptuous food for all the residents of the palace. Special occasions saw the number of mouths to be fed increase to 10,000.

As you continue to walk forward, you will find yourself in the Assembly room of the Council of State (Divan-ıHümayun), which was usually presided over by the grand vizier. Sitting behind a latticed window hidden by a curtain, the Sultan chose when to be seen pulling the curtain aside to comment. As the window was always covered, one could never know if the Sultan was indeed present in the Assembly behind the curtains.

A maze of 400 halls, terraces, rooms, wings and apartments form the massive harem that surrounded the Sultan’s private quarters. The harem reflects the Orientalist fantasies of the Ottoman Empire, evoking exoticism. These slaves had suffered regimentation and even barbarity sometimes, as is evident in this enclosed enclave of about 40 harem rooms that are open to the public. A separate ticket has to be purchased to this visit.

The first compound of the harem housed 200 concubines and eunuchs in tiny cubicles, like in a monastery. The rooms get larger and opulent as you go further inside. The chief wives of the Sultan (Islamic law permitted up to four wives but the number of concubines was limitless) occupied the private apartments around a shared courtyard. Lavish apartments, courtyards and the marble bath of the Sultan’s mother, the absolute ruler of the harem, are farther inside. The Sultan’s private rooms come finally, which are embellished with brocades, murals, coloured marble and ornate furniture, gold leaf and exquisite wood carvings. The fountains inside the harem made eavesdropping on royal conversation impossible, besides beautifying the place.

The third courtyard beyond the harem is covered with regal old trees and ornate pavilions. Access to this courtyard was highly restricted, as it housed the treasury. The treasury has four rooms filled with imperial thrones and extravagant gifts bequeathed upon the Sultans for generations. The treasure also included the spoils obtained in war. The famous pieces among the jewels are the 86 carat Spoonmaker’s diamond and the emerald-studded Topkapi dagger. Two uncut emeralds weighing several kilos each, once hung from the ceiling. They are now displayed behind glass. An assortment of treasures, including relics of the Prophet Muhammad (including hair from his beard) that are considered holy by Muslims, the Sultans’ garments, etc., are displayed in the other pavilions. Some of the robes of the Sultans are bloodstained and torn by assassins’ daggers. All garments are decorated with gold and silver threads, tooled leather and gold and silver jewels.

Next comes an open terrace, which was the fourth courtyard and the private area of the Sultan. Elegant pavilions, fountains, pools, mosques, are all scattered in the gardens overlooking the Golden Horn and Bosphorus.

Admission fee is $13 USD. The tour of the harem costs $10 USD more. The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is closed on Tuesdays.

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

In a forecourt of Topkapi palace, spectacular archaeological finds are housed in a three-building complex which houses the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. The number of civilizations that have thrived in and around Turkey for thousands of years, amount for the vastness of this repository. Established in 1891, the native antiquities and some other items from former countries of the Ottoman Empire, were all housed in this museum, as a result of the campaign run by the forward-thinking archaeologist and painter Osman HamdiBey. The sarcophagi include the Alexander Sarcophagus, carved with scenes from Alexander the Great’s battles, and which was found in Lebanon and wrongly believed to be his final place of rest, is the most stunning piece. Istanbul Through the Ages exhibits artefacts and fragments from historical sites around the city that throw light on its complex past, dating from prehistory through the Byzantine period.

The admission fee to the Istanbul Archaeology Museum is $8 USD. It is closed on Mondays and open the rest of the days from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

YerebatanSarnici

Lack of fresh water was a major problem with Byzantium. A system of aqueducts and cisterns was built to enable agriculture in the city, of which Basilica Cistern is the most well-known. Its present form dates to the reign of Justinian in the 6th century. This underground waterway leads through dimly lit walkways, weaving around 336 marble columns, 26 feet in height, in order to support Byzantine arches and domes, from which there is an incessant drip of water.

Two columns are renowned for the upturned Medusa heads featured on them. As a precaution against long sieges, the cistern was kept full always. The cistern can provide a serene, cool, shadowed stillness, with the ambience enhanced by lilting Turkish instrumental music playing softly in the background, as against the busy bustle of the Old City. Make sure you are there early to avoid the crowds.

Church of St. Savior in Chora (KariyeMüzesi)

The Church of St. Saviour in Chora was originally built as a Byzantine church and was later converted to a mosque and now is a secular museum. Magnificent mosaics and frescoes are excellent examples of Byzantine art.

The edifice as it is now, was constructed in the 11th century, though parts of the structure were built in the 400s. The mosaics were covered up with plaster when then building was transformed into a mosque in the 1500s. They were officially unveiled again as a museum in 1958.

Located about 3 miles northwest of Sultanahmet, the museum is open every day, except Wednesday between 9:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. Admission fee is $6 USD. A taxi ride would cost about 10$ US and could be the best way to get here.

SüleymaniyeHamam

A historic Turkish bath, SüleymaniyeHamam, is located near the Suleymaniye mosque. Catering to mostly tourists, the bath is well maintained, clean and is a reliable and not a rip off establishment, which may not be the case with other baths in the city.
This bath is common for both genders. The masseuses (Tellak) are all male.

Lockable changing room, use of clothes or slippers for the baths and 1.5 hours of scrubbing and massaging, can all be availed for about $45 USD. The bath is open from 10 a.m. till midnight, daily. Last entry is closed by 10 p.m. Though reservation is not a must, calling ahead would assure you your slot.

Taksim Square

Located in the European side of Istanbul, Taksim is a vibrant and modern neighbourhood. There are many restaurants and bars to allure travellers and also major hotel franchises like Ceylan Inter Continental and the Grand Hyatt Istanbul. There are a few fast food joints too. (the Burger King, is very popular).

Once a traffic circle, with crazy traffic snarls and a public transportation hub, Istanbul’s largest public square is to be entirely pedestrianized, to create an open plaza. The traffic would be rerouted through underground tunnels.

CumhuriyetAniti, the Republic Monument, built to celebrate the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, is located at the western side of the square.

With a bus terminal and subway station, Taksim is one of Istanbul’s important transportation hubs.

Ortakoy

Ortakoy is a cool enclave, north of Beyoğlu, along Bosphorus. It is a hub for nightlife in Istanbul for the affluent, younger and the more hip generation. Hence the cost of the food and drinks could be on the higher side. The enclave provides a spectacular view of the Bosphorus. It can be reached by bus from Kabatas tram stop. Taxi will be necessary during the night. The crowd is more Turkish with few tourists, but the trip is worth it. The narrow streets cut through the maze of market stalls and shops that can be explored during the day. Restaurants and bars take over once the sun sets.

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