By Richard Varr
Istanbul is a whirlwind like no other – a crossroads between Europe and Asia, linking East and West cultures that come to life with a cluster of bazaars, food markets, street vendors seemingly at every turn, and mosques and palaces highlighting the city’s incredible historical legacy. Ferryboats crisscross the Golden Horn inlet and up the emerald-tinted waters of the Bosphorus Strait against a contrasting backdrop of towering minarets, shining skyscrapers and the landmark Galata Tower with its rounded stone façade. “Napoleon had said after seeing the beauty of Bosphorus,” says tour guide Serdar Dönmez, “that ‘if the world had been one country, Istanbul would have been its capital.’”
Pedestrians crowd the twisting streets of Old Town and the bustling Eminönü Port area as call to prayer chants echo through minaret loudspeakers from one mosque to another. And I have never seen so much food in the markets – racks of spices, vats of salty olives, white cheeses and freshly caught fish still squirming in tubs.
On Istanbul’s European side, I explored such historic sites and attractions as the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace (Sultans’ home), Hagia Sofia museum (formerly a church and mosque), Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar. But my real feel for Turkish culture and way of life came after catching a ferry across the Bosphorus and spending the day walking the crowded streets and pulsing markets on the city’s Asian side. It’s where hardly a word of English is spoken and where the only Westerners I ran into were a couple of German college students. After arriving by ferry on a Saturday morning at Kadiköy’s modern port area, and after walking through the busy market area, I hopped a bus along crammed shopping streets (think ethnic Queens or Brooklyn neighborhoods times 10) to Üsküdar with its mosques along the shining waterfront. Again, the markets here are the main draw, surrounded by squares with park benches and fountains where grandmothers in elaborately-patterned burkas sit and chat in the late afternoon sun. It was only a 20 or 30 minutes ferry ride back to Eminönü.
With Istanbul’s millennia of history, I could write thousands of words to include all the places I visited. Instead, here are some of my favorite highlights from my seven days in Istanbul.
– Eating fish sandwiches at Eminönü. Servers on bobbing boats scoop up the frying fish, handing out sandwiches at a rate of maybe five a minute at times! Price: 6 Turkish Lira, less than $3 USD.
– Crossing the Galata Bridge along the Golden Horn. The Golden Horn is the curved waterway off the Bosphorus on the European side, dividing Istanbul’s Old Town and New District. Fishermen cast their lines from atop this two-level bridge, while salesmen try to lure you into their waterfront restaurants on the first level.
– Views from the Galata Tower. This circular tower dates back to the 6th century and today offers some of the best city views. Perched above the New District north of the Golden Horn, ascending the hill’s narrow streets to reach the 196-foot-high tower is a hike within itself.
– Taking a Bosphorus Tour. Yes, a bit touristy, but with good weather it’s a great way to enjoy the sights, history and the waterway that divides Europe and Asia.
– Byzantine Mosaics. Istanbul’s mosaics are simply stunning, with some of the most impressive works – some dating back to the 10th century – in the Hagia Sofia and Chora Church museums.
– Underground Cistern. It’s hard to believe that this underground cavern, dating back to the 6th century, with Roman-like pillars, was once a massive water storage tank of sorts. Visitors walk on platforms between the columns and above shallow water with fish.
– Whirling Dervishes. The best place to see the spiritual ceremony is at the Galata Dervish Monastery. You can also catch performances around town – sometimes a bit more touristy – that showcase the unusual whirling techniques and capture the spirituality of the ceremony.
VIDEO: Whirling Dervishes
Serdar Dönmez, a licensed tour guide with the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism, joined me for my first two days in Istanbul. Serdar is an excellent guide – knowledgeable and passionate about his city – and I would recommend him to visitors wanting to get a real feel for how Istanbul’s past has shaped it into what it is today. firstname.lastname@example.org +90 532 506 55 48
Hotel Orient Express. Just a five and ten minute walk from main sites including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Eminönü Port, I was extremely pleased with this boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town (www.orientexpresshotel.com) Read my review on TripAdvisor: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g293974-d295519-r198458585-Orient_Express_Hotel-Istanbul.html#CHECK_RATES_CONT
VIDEO: Boats on the Golden Horn