Istanbul is by far the jewel of Turkey, if not the Near East – not sure if I’d go so far as to say that it is a cross between Asia and Europe though – not quite sure what Euro-philes mean when they say that anyway, but it felt more ‘Modern’ than many European cities I’ve been to. But without a doubt there is a sense of exotism which seems to follow you everywhere.
If architecture is your pleasure, Istanbul will be paradise. Probably one of the most recognizable mosques, The Blue Mosque, rises out along the shores of the Bosporus, with the architectural prototype for nearly all of the Ottoman mosques, the Aya Sofia, looming beside it. The Aya Sofia, originally a Byzantine Church, later converted to a mosque, is now a Museum, but if you’re lucky, you might be able to convince the guards to let you in for a private prayer on Friday mornings. I had the chance to attend Namaaz at the Blue Mosque, but I’m not sure how you’re supposed to pray though. The entire time you’re just looking around at the blue tiles (hence the name), lighting, design, etc. And I wasn’t the only one distracted – it was kinda funny that people were taking pictures with their camera phones during the ceremonies – only a matter of time til people start streaming the namaaz out…
My favourite site? the Topkapi Palace – the seat of the Ottoman Empire for centuries. You can feel the magnificence of the once mighty rulers with the opulence and grandeur. The beauty of the site is not a secret though, with Bollywood actresses taking photo shoots, and hordes of Turkish school groups intermixed with Asian tour groups milling about in every room I wasn’t sure what to think about the Room of Sacred Relics. Some reviews claim the items are fakes, while others note sources to the contrary. Among the items are the staff that Moses used, a footprint belonging to Prophet Muhammad, and a sword belonging to Prophet David.
The Harem rooms were where the full weight of the Ottoman palace hits you. There is an additional entrance fee, but it is definitely worth it – you can imagine the various tales of intrigue and cunning which you read about in tales of the eastern harem rooms (true or fabricated..) as you walk through the cobbled rooms which feel far removed from the city bustling about outside.
But to truly enjoy Istanbul, you have to soak it in – you gotta wander the maze like streets, sit at cafes and smoke narghil, visit a hammam (incredible experience), and eat loads of Turkish sweets which are way to tempting and inviting, or browse through the Grand Bazaar which is more of a mall with the Illy coffee stands and jewellery stores dotted throughout. I spent an afternoon at the cafe across from the Blue Mosque drinking apple tea (yeah, a bit of a tourist suckker spend, but it is good!) and reading my book. Without a doubt, one of the most interesting activities to experience is a visit to the Hammam. I was expecting that it would be like going to a spa, but it is uniquely Turkish (maybe i’ll post the details one day…)
The most overrated trip in Istanbul – the Boat cruise up the Bosphorus… well more specifically, don’t take the ‘ferry ride’ up. While the views are amazing, and you see some interesting historical buildings, in general you see the town after town all of which look similar and then finally drops you off at Kavagi which has some castle at the top of some hill (I didn’t bother to check out…) but it’s basically a tourist trap town and you’re stuck there for 2 hours til the next ferry returns to Istanbul. I ended up taking random buses to make my way back.
You’re better off arranging individual boat trips – the view in the Goldon Horn is worth it. and definitely try a fish sandwich from one of the street vendors at the launch point and if you do take the ferry, one of the stops is Kanlica – they have the most amazing yoghurt which is covered in powdered sugar.
What about the nightlife? well the nightlife around SultanAhmet area where the monument and sites are, are cheesy tourist joints. if you you really want to experience the nightlife, you have to head to the Ortakoy area and check out Reina – dress well though and expect to rub shoulders with Istanbul’s well-to-do, rolling up in their Ferraris and Porsches…
Overall, Istanbul was incredible – felt like I was being transported to a different world – modern yet still a very unique culture. Only other place I’ve felt like that is Tokyo – most other place I’ve been to either feel very unique in culture but lack in modernity, or are so advanced in trying to be ‘modern’ that their unique culture seems to have been washed away. Istanbul has the best of both worlds. Unique and modern. If I had spent more time there, I’m sure I would’ve tried to figure out how to stay permanently…