New York City is the greatest city in the world, but Istanbul is the most beautiful (according to me). Here are 10 great reasons to go to Istanbul.
Sources: about.com, islam1.org, galata.com.tr, wikipedia.com, tripadvisor.com
First claimed Byzantium by Greek colonists in the early seventh century B.C., Istanbul did not become a full-fledged metropolis until Roman Emperor Constantine refurbished and augmented it to mirror the visual splendor of Rome, naming it Constantinople and making it the capital of the empire. Over the centuries, it became a major commerce center, falling into different hands including becoming part of the Greek Byzantine Empire and the Catholic Latin Empire. In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Turks conquered the city, renaming it Istanbul, and ruled until World War I, instilling mostly Muslim influences everywhere. In 1923, Istanbul became part of the Republic of Turkey, the architect for this new land being Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Today, Istanbul has more than 13 million residents.
Istanbul is the only city to span two continents, and a predominant question there is: “Are you going to Europe or Asia today?” The European side truly is connected to the rest of the continent, and contains much of the oldest history, including the Grand Bazaar, the Hagia Sophia mosque, and the Dolmabahçe Palace. The Asian side is rapidly growing side, mostly business and residential. But, what about all of the mosques? Yes, you are at the threshold of the Middle East, too with tons of Arab and Persian influence including the language. Turkey is considered by most as the most moderate and secular of all Muslim countries.
Though you’ll likely shoot awake at sunrise to the adhan — the first Islamic call to prayer, you’ll be entranced by the beauty and mystery of its music. There is nothing quite like walking down a street in Istanbul to the sounds of 10 mosques going off at once — a cacophony of beautiful reverence. The Blue Mosque, finished by Ahmed I in 1616, is a towering majesty, and often has a light show in the evenings. The Hagia Sophia mosque is beyond comprehension. Built in 537, it served over the centuries as Orthodox basilica and imperial mosque. Time it right to go inside the beautiful stone walls of these mosques during the call to prayer (all are required to remove shoes, and women must wear a head cover), and you will be stunned.
“Afiyet lsun” means, basically, “bon appetit” or “enjoy your meal.” You will hear this lots in Istanbul, and it’s not so much a demand as it is a certainty: you will absolutely enjoy all of your meals in this culinary jewel of a city. Most restaurants, if you get a main dish, will throw about 10 meze plates (cold starters) on your table for free. Ezme (chili tomato paste), patlican ezmesi (grilled eggplant and yogurt), haydari (mint yogurt dip), mashed fava…oh lordy. And then the main courses come. Istanbul does the meat kebab right here! Wash it all down with some rakι (anise-flavored alcohol). Not an alcohol drinker? Enjoy Turkey’s traditional tea by the Bosphorus (pictured above)…they drink it all day long!
Music often accompanies dining. It’s not unusual to see a restaurant patron, warmed up on rakι, stand up and start to sing a traditional Turkish song with the voice of an angel. Music and dining are traditionally married in this city. The best restaurant on the European side for this is called Galata, and features a full fasil band with violin, oud, tabor, and kanun, playing rousing traditional music while you dine on amazing food. Everyone gets up to dance eventually!
Everywhere you turn in Istanbul, there is the Bosphorus — the strait of water separating Europe and Asia, and the only waterway between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. A major commercial and maritime canal since the fifth century B.C., it has seen countless battles and ships sunk from many different empires over the centuries. Take a day cruise passing by the Golden Horn, the palaces, the cityscapes, and finally to the Rumelihisarι, an old Ottoman fortress from the 1400s.
One of the most massive and oldest covered markets in the world, this tunnel of treasures takes care of all of your souvenir shopping anxieties once you enter. In the 1400s, Sultan Mehmet II began construction of the market as a center for textile trading, but it was only completed in the 1700s. Fires ravaged it and forced many rebuilds. Today, it provides employment for roughly 26,000 people, nearly 6,000 shops, and a ubiquity of furniture, clothing, fabrics, spices, jewelry…the list goes on and on.
Hit the streets of the Taksim district after dark and you’re in for a totally unpretentious, rollicking long night’s journey into day. The main “drag” is called Istiklal (pictured above). Spanning a couple of miles, it gets more than three million visitors a day. Off on the side streets are bars, dance clubs, and restaurants. In the summertime, the winding, Byzantine streets fill up with people, dancing, singing, and drinking. Surprisingly, it’s safer than New York and entirely less idiotic than Las Vegas.
Want to be reborn in a steaming room of aqua rejuvination while the ghosts and angels of nearly six centuries watch over you? Go to the Hamam, aka the Turkish baths! The oldest known and most wonderous one in Istanbul is the Çemberlitas Hamami, built in 1584. It’s kind of like you’re in a dark dripping cave with a small hole at the top of the dome letting a little light in. Boys go to one side, girls to the other. And waiting for you is the most sinister person you’ve yet to encounter in this city: the masseusse! As Michael Palin once said, “Most masseurs are men of few words, but many pounds.” It’s daunting at first, but after that old giant digs his knee into your back, smacks you with wet towels, grinds stone against your skin, and lets the pores exfoliate like never before, you’ll come out of the sauna feeling 10 pounds lighter and toxin-free.
Easily accessible by bus or road are the other beautiful cities in Turkey: the capital, Ankara; the Mediterranean beauty Izmir; many Black Sea resorts. Pegasus Airlines offers cheap inter-country flights. Go to Cappadocia (pictured above) in the east and see the natural fairy chimney wonders. Head south to the popular seafront resort of Antalya, and swim in the bluest water imaginable. Closeby is Side, complete with Roman ruins and the Apollo temple columns, right near the sea. Use Istanbul as a home base and enjoy yourself in this marvelous, timeless country!