When we talk about Turkey as a country, things that generally strike us are “Turkish Bath”, “Turkish Towel” and “Turkish Delight”, which is a candy made of starch and sugar. All are available in Istanbul, but the nation’s principal city has much more to offer.
With more than 2500 years of history behind it, this ancient settlement uniquely stands astride two continents – Asia and Europe. It was founded by the Greeks in the 5th century BC as Byzantium, renamed Constantinople 800 years later by The Roman Emperor Constantine and finally titled Istanbul by the 15th century Ottoman Sultans.
Edging on the shores of turquoise blue Bosphorus with its majestic skyline dominated by palace domes, mosque minarets, church spires and regal monuments, Istanbul is reputed to charm anyone who lands on its soil. It is an ensemble of marvels, all of which can’t be captured in one visit. We can, however, get a feel of the place by visiting the “10” listed below.
1. Blue Mosque
Like Taj Mahal is to India and Great Wall to China, the 1650 built Blue Mosque in Istanbul holds similar status in Turkey. The exterior of this 400-year-old shrine has no pinch of blue at all; the name comes from its 20,000 odd hand-made ceramic blue tiles that gracefully decorate the inside. With 6 minarets and 8 domes, it stands within a spacious courtyard as a great sample of Islamic architecture from the classical period.
2. Süleymaniye Mosque
Istanbul can be easily termed as “City of Mosques”. You can see one almost in every corner. All of them are architecturally impressive and demand notice, however apart from Blue Mosque the other that comes up in most visitors itinerary is the Süleymaniye Mosque. It’s the city’s largest and considered as the greatest achievement of famous 16th century Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan.
3. Topkapi Palace
Residence of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years, Topkapi Palace is not a single edifice but a band of many, like the Forbidden Palace in Beijing, all dotted on an expansive garden-courtyard. Many ancient buildings have been restored and converted to museums that display Ottoman memorabilia from their precious jewels and royal clothing to sturdy swords that have beheaded the challengers. However most interesting in the precinct is the harem quarter where Sultan’s numerous wives and mistresses used to live.
4. Dolmabahce Palace
When Topkapi Palace was abandoned in the mid 19th century, Dolmabahce Palace became the royal quarter. Edged on the Bosphorus with a 600m waterside frontage, this grand-white edifice impresses visitors with its excessive display of ostentatious wealth. One good example of that is a 4000 kg chandelier with 750 bulbs, one of the largest ever made, adorning the hugely ornamented throne room.
5. Hagia Sophia
If you have time for only one thing to see in Istanbul, after the Blue Mosque of course, then it has to be the Hagia Sophia, the legendary legacy of the Christian Byzantian Empire. Originally built as a church, it was later converted to a mosque by the Islamic Ottomans. For almost a millennium it boasted to be the largest enclosed space in the world, designed lavishly to show locals and foreigners the strength and wealth of Turkish emperors. The stunning inside mosaic artwork testifies that claim. Since 1934 this iconic sanctuary has been opened to the public as a museum.
6. Grand Bazaar
You can feel the pulse of Istanbul when visit the mystic Grand Bazaar, said to be the largest covered market in the world. There are around four thousand shops selling an array of merchandise from cheap souvenirs, home ware, Turkish Towels and delicious Turkish Delights to expensive handbags, carpets, shawls, scarves and shoes. It’s a paradise for shopaholics. Also worth visiting is the nearby Spice Bazaar which has been the city’s premier spice outlet for several centuries.
7. Bosphorus Cruise
Cruising in the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe and Asia, gives visitors the opportunity to see the silhouette of Istanbul from another perspective. Taking the cruise it’s possible to visit the suburb of Uskudar which lies on the Asian side and offers far more Middle Eastern flavours than its European counterpart.
8. Galata Tower
The 1349 built, 61 metre high monument dominating the city’s skyline finds a place in this list because from the viewing gallery of this round tower one gets the best 360 degree panoramic view of Istanbul.
9. Istiklal Street
It’s the city’s liveliest thoroughfare through which thousands trundle everyday; the only vehicular movement breaking the flood of human activity is the slow passage of nostalgic wooden trams, which sometimes stops service if the crowd is too thick to penetrate. Both sides of the street are lined with elite shops selling high class accessories and jewelleries, art galleries, cafes where discussions are vibrant and passages where drinking joints are dotted. Most of the buildings surfaced here at the turn of the 20th century under the influence of art nouveau movement.
10 Cagaloglu Hamami
Without a traditional Turkish Bath at a public bathhouse, visit to Istanbul is incomplete. There are almost hundreds to choose from, but the best place to take a watery plunge is the 1741 built Cagaloglu Hamami where many renowned, from King Edward John VIII and Florence Nightingale to John Travolta and Cameron Diaz have experienced the traditional practice. It’s so famous and popular that American author Patricia Schultz’s has listed it in her popular book “1000 Places to see before you Die”. The hour long exercise generally comprises of a steam bath, body massage and finally a splurge with bucket loads of water, soap and shampoo to bring a clean and happy ending to the ritual. Of course, there are ample plush Turkish Towels for wiping and drying.
Getting There – Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from major Indian cities to Istanbul via Dubai.
Stay–Istanbul has no shortage of hotels to suit budget. Crown Plaza (www.crowneplazaistanbul.com) in the Old City is one option. Otherwise see http://www.expedia.com.au or http://www.booking.com for best deals available
Currency – Turkish Lira (TRY), 1 USD = 2.12 TRY
Visa – Check with Turkish Embassy in New Delhi (firstname.lastname@example.org)