As a city, Istanbul is like a giant, open-air museum. It offers tradition and modernism; authenticity and evolution; historical places, food and fashion – while blending the magnificence of thousands of years of history with thrilling experiences of contemporary times, as the city’s tourism board lovingly describes it.
For first time travellers – who are sometimes overwhelmed by sheer number of things to see and do in Istanbul – a good way to begin exploring is by visiting the historic buildings around the city – many of which are located in the “Old City” district around Sultanahmet Square. The classics include the majestic structure of the iconic Sultan Ahmed Mosque – the “Blue Mosque” as it’s also known – which is an exquisite example of Ottoman period architecture in the region.
There’s also the awe-inspiring Topkapi Palace, which was constructed around 550 years ago and which served as the main residence of the Ottoman sultans until the mid-1800s; and the fascinating, Roman-built Basilica Cistern – the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city, and which holds many secrets. The iconic Ortakoy Mosque, which was built in the mid-1800s, is located right next to the Bosphorus Strait shoreline, and is another one of the city’s defining structures.
Also, don’t miss out on the Hagia Sophia museum, which was originally a Byzantine-era church constructed around 1500 years ago, before being converted into a mosque, and later, in the early 1900s, re-purposed as a museum which remains open to visitors every day.
Located on a small islet on the Bosphorus strait, is another landmark structure, The Maiden’s Tower. Constructed over 900 years ago as a watchtower, it now has a restaurant and café and you can access it via one of the many ferries that make trips out here every day.
Along with many more historic structures, there’s also the historic Taksim Square, which is packed day and night with cheerful tourists taking selfies, drinking Turkish coffee, people watching, taking rides on Istanbul’s historic tram, and enjoying a buzzing nightlife.
Cruise the Bosphorus
Istanbul is not only a meeting point for cultures and people, it is quite literally also the meeting point for east and west at the Bosphorus Bridge, which spans the Bosphorus strait – the waterway that connects Asia and Europe.
With this in mind, an essential Istanbul experience is a cruise along the Bosphorus. There are private charters offering various themed cruises (during the day and at night), but many travellers simply opt for one of the Sehir Hatlari ferry trips (Istanbul’s official ferry company) for a short, circular cruise around the strait.
A Grand Bazaar adventure
For an authentic shopping experience, Istanbul’s historical bazaars and traditional markets offer a treasure chest of delights. Top of the list is the city’s great, Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, and with an estimated 4,000-plus shops and stalls, stepping inside the bazaar feels like a journey back in time to the golden age of the Ottoman Empire.
There are exquisite textiles, pottery, spices, jewellery, Turkish lanterns, antiques, and much, much more on offer here – and it all goes best with the countless cups of sweet Turkish tea (offered to you by shop owners keen on striking up a sale) and, of course, your best bargaining skills.
For more modern-style shopping, the city has well over a hundred shopping malls stocking everything from designer fashion brands, to lifestyle goods, to contemporary jewellery, and the latest electronic gadgets and tech.
Istanbul: City of art and events
Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage and immense size mean that there is always something exciting happening on the live music, performing arts, nightlife events, food festivals, or sports scene.
The art scene especially has witnessed an explosion in recent years. Alongside the city’s established art museums that house many Middle Eastern masterpieces, contemporary works by Turkish and international artists are being displayed at an increasing number of independent galleries that are popping up around the city’s trendy neighbourhoods.
A taste of Turkey
It’s been said more than once that Turkey is worth travelling to just for its food. The Turkish art of cooking has a long and deep rooted past and the styles and tastes of cuisine vary across the country. Istanbul however, is the city where almost all kinds of cuisine can be tasted, due to the multicultural nature of its metropolis.
It’s here where you can drink Turkish coffee and watch life go by in the cafes facing Bosphorus waterway and bridge; or feast on authentic Doner Kebab, fish sandwiches, or traditional dishes like Borek pastries, stuffed mussels, roasted chestnuts, and steak tartare a la Turca at the many street food vendors around town.
You can also kick-start the day with a hearty Turkish breakfast, which comes with tasty circular Simit breads and local cheeses; or down a few spicy “Kofte” meatballs at foodie institutions like Köftecisi restaurant in the Sultanahmet district; or drink fermented smoothies made from grains and sugar – called Boza – in Istanbul’s old Vefa district. There’s also plenty baklava sweet pastries going around, which go perfectly with sweet Turkish tea.
Sweet adventures: “Lokum” Turkish Delights
Lokum, or “Turkish delights” as they are known around the world, are the delicately fragrant, gelatinous sweets made of slow-cooked sugar-syrup and corn flour, and dusted with powdered sugar – that are made with flavours like lemon, rose, orange, mint, cinnamon, ginger, coconut, chocolate, and apricot. They're largely said to have originated in Turkey, and offer a sumptuous confectionary delight for travellers, and a box of them bought from a local spice bazaar makes a great gift to take back home.
Smartphone savvy: “One Istanbul Guide”
Good news for tech-savvy travellers is that they make use of the city’s official tourism app – the “One Istanbul Guide” – by logging on to www.oneistanbulguide.com. There’s also the official “Istanbul Visitor’s Guide” booklet which you can download in electronic format at www.howtoistanbul.com
For more on what to see and do around Istanbul and Turkey, check out the official tourism sites www.howtoistanbul.com and www.goturkeytourism.com
To check out Oman Air’s latest Muscat/Istanbul flight schedules, and for bookings, go to www.omanair.com
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