No other city in the world can claim a history as rich as Istanbul. No other city has been besieged so many times, saw the rise and fall of empires, and has been coveted by the most powerful. And no other city can claim the coveted crown of being the most multicultural in the world than Istanbul, or inspired art and literature to the extent Istanbul has. And for centuries Istanbul has remained a melting pot of cultures, beliefs, and ethos that have co-existed and grown. It is hard to put Istanbul in a set of words. It’s a blurring line between the old and the contemporary, where even today two seemingly different cultures and ideas exist at two ends of the city. It seems the Bosphorus hasn’t just divided Istanbul but also birthed two ideas.
Istanbul was never a shy, retiring city, but a confident center of commerce sailing on one of the most significant waterways in the world. The narrow channel that connecting the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, made it one of the most strategic cities in the world, a prize every empire coveted. The Bosphorus channel put Istanbul on the map of world commerce and connected two lands of riches. The growing trade brought political clout to the city and made it an alluring prize for empires. The constant wars and the sieges shaped its history, and the civilizational shifts brought an eclectic mix of ideas and beliefs. And this amalgamation of different cultures and ideas is evident in the neighborhood of Istanbul, and the art and architecture that thrives here.
Sailing on the Bosphorus allows you to view the city as it would have existed centuries ago with its seven hills bejeweled with grand mosques. Leave the ferry and wander up to the ruined castle that stands against the sands of time as a tell-tale sign and witness to the evolution of the city. Be its breathtaking views from the outskirts of the city, or the inviting chaos that marks the famed Turkish bazaars, Istanbul is a whole pack of emotions. And be it the chic boutiques of Nişantaşı, the bustling markets, or the splendid nightlife of Kadıköy, Istanbul is many cities in one, evoking many thoughts and emotions in travelers.
The mystic city, which is more like a bridge between the East and the West, is more modern than traditional now with showrooms of H&M, Sketchers, and even Gucci and Armani lining up the main streets. The authentic cafes and the lavish sweet shops, and the air filled with whiff of Shawarmas and kebabs, are the real giveaway. The authentic restaurants with a chic design but still the old, familiar feel of having Turkish meals cooked over charcoal flames, and old ladies making loaves of bread for the tandoors in one corner, make Istanbul the city it is.
And then there are its monuments and spots which have brought life to many movie scenes and novel plots. There is Basilica Cistern, the underground water complex built by the emperor Justinian in 532AD which features, famously, in James Bond ‘From Russia With Love’, and the Galata Tower and Armenian neighborhoods that form settings of Elif Shafak’s novels. And most of the must-see sites are in the same area – the Historical Peninsula – the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Blue Mosque. Art, history, and culture have inspired many literary and artistic pieces.
The Blue Mosque is entrancing a place of perfect serenity in midst of frenetic tourism. The place retains its unique character of sublimity and tranquillity even when filled with hordes of travelers. And then there is the Hagia Sophia, an emblem of Turkish history, a monument that changed from being a church to a mosque to a secular building and now back to a mosque. It captures the history and politics of the country. It was a catch that inspired Sultan Mehmud to siege Constantinople and give us the Istanbul. But the Hagia Sophia is so alluring even the onslaughts of time couldn’t diminish its sheen or significance.
And to find the best that Istanbul has to offer you, better slow down. There is no better way to capture the uniqueness of this eternal city, a timeless mesh of cultures and style, than walking through the old Sultanahmet area or taking the tram that runs through the Sultanahmet area. And there you get on for some retail therapy while being in a click frenzy mode to capture the best shots of Ottoman-era architecture that adorns the city. And from high-end boutiques to locally crafted and creatively flared home goods Istanbul has it all. Take to the Galata Tower where stores are lined up selling unique artwork and antiques upon antiques. And while it will be rare but if nothing catches your fancy to buy, you’ll always leave feeling fulfilled with a glimpse of Galata Tower soaring over the southern end of the street. Or you may hop down to Karakoy, where shops selling authentic jewelry, antiques, or local crafts are lined up selling some regionally inspired or off-the-wall quirky artifacts. Locals are also welcoming. It is quite common for shop owners to open the conversation with a hot cup of Turkish tea, another prized thing that makes Istanbul so dear. And that tea often leads to friendship. And so intense that sometimes when you happen to walk past that shop you might be invited in for another round of tea. Istanbul loves its travelers as much as travelers love it. And it shows back its love through these kind acts by strangers, where locals pass you a smile, walk along with you if you ask an address, try to strike a conversation, or offer tea or cookies. And then there are those random sights, plain yet filled with such characters, like a troop of cats down some alley, men wheeling cars selling ayran (a frothy yogurt drink), cobblers repairing a worn heel, and hawkers selling Pretzel or corn.