A minaret-dotted skyline, bustling bazaars, fabulous food and monumental museums provide a compelling invitation to visit Istanbul, that gargantuan metropolis connecting Europe to Asia.
Istanbul deserves at least a week of your time as there are opportunities for memorable experiences which you will talk about for months. Many of these will be found in the backstreets and on the waterways of this intriguing city where nothing is exactly as you might expect.
Istanbul's 14 million residents occupy an area that has been a world-city for two millennia. While many lead a thoroughly modern lifestyle, there are ever-present reminders of the city's Ottoman, Byzantine and Roman past. No visitor should ignore the wonderful churches, mosques, museums, palaces and other remnants from the past, but equally you need to visit the ultra-modern shopping centres, the amazing bars and clubs, and the picturesque wealthy villages along the Bosphorus.
I like to start my day with a visit to the area adjacent to the historic Galata Bridge. As the morning mist rises the seagulls, fishermen and morning commuters are revealed. Street hawkers offer freshly baked bread rings while the Imam's call to prayer from the New Mosque drifts past. Walk uphill to Gülhane Park and find a seat in the terraced tea garden with its lovely view of the Bosphorus, order a tea, and be content.
Many of the major attractions of the Old City are near here and you can spend a day or more exploring the Hagia Sophia, the greatest church in the world for 1,000 years; the Blue Mosque with its instantly recognized exterior and its six minarets; the Great Palace Mosaic Museum; Topkapi Palace where the ruling Ottoman sultans lived for 400 years; the wonderful Basilica Cistern and so much more.
The New City across the Golden Horn is a huge area. Probably the most interesting part is along the shore of the Bosphorus so I suggest you take a bus to Bebek or Emirgan. These are two of the wealthiest areas of the city and are fascinating to walk around. In fact the walk from here back towards Ortaköy along the coast provides wonderful vistas, some nice museums and places to stop for a drink or snack. A visit to these quaint seaside neighbourhoods is a must for those who want to catch a glimpse of how Istanbul's young and well-to-do spend their days.
Ortaköy itself is an artsy neighborhood dominated by the baroque Ortaköy Mosque and the First Bosphorus Bridge. The charming waterfront hides a lattice of narrow cobbled streets filled with nice cafés and trendy small clothing boutiques. When the sun goes down, this becomes a hotspot for Istanbul's young and trendy set.
Nearby Galatasaray Islet is a small island on the Bosphorus owned by the Galatasaray Sports Club. It has an Olympic-size saltwater swimming pool, expensive restaurants, great parties and fantastic views. You can spend a day relaxing by the pool, and then treat yourself to a romantic sunset dinner. There's a free boat service to the island from Kuruçe¸sme.
Another place in the New City that cannot be missed is Istiklal Caddesi, one of the most important streets in the city. This is also the original diplomatic district when Istanbul was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. See the antique red trams, the lively bookshop-cafes and a couple of beautifully restored arcades. I particularly like to walk up and down this pedestrian street on a weekend evening simply people watching and enjoying the atmosphere, but there are many bars to drop in on if you feel so inclined.
So far we have stayed in Europe but now it is time to visit Asia where there are vast suburbs generally ignored by visitors. This is perhaps not a surprise because there are few grand tourist attractions here but the whole area is different and more conservative compared to much of the European shore.
The best way to start exploring the Asian side of Istanbul is by taking a ferry to Kadköy. This is a lively place with a local feel. I never tire of watching the scene from the back of the boat with a glass of hot tea and Turkish-style bagel in hand. There are the seagulls, the call to prayer coming from a distant minaret, and the whistle of other boats to listen to, and just being out on the water produces a feeling of peace.
There are several alternative ways to go once you leave the ferry. One option is to turn right, then start walking the boardwalk. This lines the entire neighborhood, is several kilometers long, and has some neat bazaars, antique shops, and restaurants along its length. If you happen to be in town on a Tuesday, then you should head to the famous Tuesday market.
Undoubtedly the most famous street on the Asian side is Bagdat Caddesi, a brand-name shopping destination. If you thought of Asian Istanbul being behind the times, come here and be amazed. It easily ranks with London, Paris and New York for sophisticated shopping. Elsewhere there are tiny villages along the Bosphorus and some of the city's most expensive waterside homes.
Getting around has been made much easier by the construction of the undersea rail tunnel connecting Asia and Europe and various tram and train extensions that fit in with this new development. Buy an Istanbulkart and it becomes even easier because you don't have to buy individual tickets. It can be used as a ticket on buses, trams, suburban trains, metro and even the cross-Bosphorus ferries.
I particularly recommend the modern air-conditioned trams that operate in both the New and Old City by crossing Galata Bridge. They are comfortable and frequent and go close to many of the major attractions of the city. If you stay in a hotel near this route it makes sightseeing so much easier.
If you go:
There are no direct flights to Istanbul from the Canadian West Coast, however, there are numerous one-stop services. The fastest are KLM via Amsterdam, Lufthansa via Munich and Swiss via Zurich. Air Canada flies via Toronto and British Airways via London.
Information on Istanbul is available at: www.istanbul.com/en/travel
The latest edition of my Istanbul guide book, Experience Istanbul 2016 is available as an e-book or paperback from: www.amazon.com/Experience-Istanbul-2016-Guides-ebook/dp/B01CNJ6MTS