A flight to Istanbul is your doorway to a city of contrasts and contradictions. As dawn arrives, people make their way home from nightclubs while others heed the call for prayer. Donkey carts jostle for space with top-of-the-range cars. Opulent mosques can be found on the European side of the Bosphorus strait and Western-style suburbs on the Asian side. Istanbul has been at the crossroads of continents and cultures for so long that it’s arguably one of history’s most important cities.
As centuries of imperial conflict will attest to, Istanbul’s location is a dream, whether for the diverse terrain, breathtaking waterways or relative proximity to other great destinations in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. For such a stunning city, it’s no surprise that its people spend a lot of time outdoors and this bustling streetlife is particularly pronounced in its bazaars and more modern districts.
That so many have passed through here down the centuries is profoundly apparent, and no less so than in Istanbul’s cuisine, where inspiration from East and West has long been a fixture of the city, albeit adapted to regional ingredients. The traditional manti – sometimes referred to as Turkish ravioli – are a good example, reminiscent of Central Asian dumplings but usually stuffed with ground lamb and served with cold yoghurt and spices.
People and Traditions
Having been a melting pot of cultures for centuries, the character of Istanbul’s population is particularly hard to define. However, it’s safe to say that most people will be good-humoured and tolerant, if not extremely hospitable. You can also expect the city to be be loud and vibrant, complemented by an orchestra of car horns. If visiting during Ramadan, expect to be awoken each morning by one of your neighbourhood’s Ramadan drummers – an Ottoman-era tradition that still exists despite the invention of alarm clocks.
If you’re eager to try traditional homemade cuisine, keep an eye out for one of the many Keskek festivals. Keskek is a stew made from wheat and barley and you’ll often find cauldrons of the stuff being brewed to celebrate special events. If your visit coincides with a religious holiday, there’ll almost certainly be a Keskek festival near you.
Istanbul has several regional microclimates caused by dual coastlines and its incredible diverse topography. This means that the weather and temperature can change quickly and unpredictably. In general, Istanbul tends to be cooler than most Mediterranean countries for much of the year, however, it’s also more humid than most, which causes frequent morning fogs. Rainfall is rare during the summer months but when it does rain it storms. Be prepared.
The Grand Bazaar is a great place to visit even if you don’t plan on buying anything. Quality goods from carpets, fabrics and clothing to antiques, art and jewellery can be picked up at bargain prices if you’re not afraid to haggle. The Spice Bazaar is worth visiting for its cornucopia of scents alone, although it’s also great for light bites such as stuffed figs and Turkish delight.
Spending time on the water is a must. The Bosphorus is as beautiful as it is busy, particularly along the Golden Horn, and there are many boat tours and cruises that offer a striking new perspective on the urban sprawl. Finally, no trip to Turkey is complete without experiencing a Turkish bath. The Cemberlitas Hamami is one of the best and most atmospheric, dating back to 1584.
Istanbul’s rich history is impossible to ignore, with grand mosques, churches and palaces dominating the landscape. The Hagia Sophia – a Byzantine church turned Ottoman mosque turned museum – might be most famous for its impressive dome, but even more stunning is the smaller Süleymaniye Mosque. Also known as the “Blue Mosque” due to its opulent blue tiles, it remains a monument to Süleyman the Great’s extraordinary riches. Then there’s the Topkapi Palace. This magnificent former residence to Mehment the Conqueror boasts so many decadent tales that a knowledgeable tour guide is a must.