I always thought of Istanbul as an ancient city full of culture and tradition, kind of religious, powerful and stiff and powerful like its predecessor Constantinople was once in the old days. That was until I came across Kedi, a documentary about cats in Istanbul. Yeah cats. I was baffled by how multicultural, colourful and vibrant the city is. Despite of the current political developments Istanbul is still a prominent travel destination and self-proclaimed “World’s Hippest City”. Clubs, bars are galleries are springing up alongside Ottoman Mosques like mushrooms after rain and curious people from all over the world flock to this unique city. Istanbul is slowly becoming a pop culture icon. Istanbul is also more tolerant, liberal and multi-cultural than someone would expect. No matter how hard conservative powers will do their best to fight it; under the surface there is still a vibrant gay and trans-sexual nightlife scene. And do not forget despite the current trends there’s still a huge number of foreigners and expats living in this amazing city. And they know where to have their fair share of fun and meet like-minded people. At my first night out in Istanbul I got acquainted with a passionate Kurdish journalist and a crazy female opera singer from Argentina and we painted the night red. We ended up in some sleek top-roof bar, which at least in those days was very popular with the local gay community, and granted stunning views over the Bosporus. From that moment I genuinely felt what you would read everywhere: Istanbul is many cities in one and in culture and mentality completely different from the rest of the country.
If you’re looking for historical landmarks you can eat your heart out in Istanbul. Of course there is the world-famous Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya). This architectural masterpiece went through some turbulent times during its long-standing history. First it was an orthodox church, later turned into a roman-catholic church, before it became orthodox again, after that it became a mosque, and now it functions as a museum, but there is still a prayer room. From the outside it might not be the most impressive landmark in town; but the real beauty is inside with its overwhelming domes and magnificent mosaics. If you are lucky you can listen to the call of prayer between the muezzins in Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Blue Mosque, officially the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, is famous for its 6 minarets and blue domed exterior. Since it is still a functioning mosque you will need to dress properly when you want to have a peek inside. The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are without doubt the most famous landmarks and visited by 1000s of visitor each day. Especially when you to prefer a more quiet and intimate setting you should visit the Süleymaniye Mosque, the largest and also magnificent mosque in Istanbul. Many visitors come also to see the tombs of Süleyman and Roxalana, and the tomb of Sinan outside the complex.
The former sultans of Istanbul liked to be surrounded by comfort and luxury and had 1000s servants at their disposal. Not forget to mention the intriguing harems where they could relax a bit from all the stress and tensions that comes along with ruling the country and making war. Therefore a visit to Istanbul is not complete without seeing a few of these magnificent palaces. By far the best known is the Topkapi Palace, a huge complex with lush green gardens and magnificent courtyards, which was the home of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. The famous Harem Apartments consisting of more than 400 rooms for their concubines, wives, children and other relatives and also the treasury (hazine in local language) displaying the world-famous Spoonmaker's Diamond and Topkapi Dagger and the arms room full of swords and bows are the hotspots. For breathtaking views of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn you have come to the right address as well. Another popular palace is the Dolmabahçe Palace where the last sultans of the Ottoman Empire had their residence. Its purpose was to beat the Topkapi in luxury and demonstrate that the empire was still alive and kicking while in reality it was slowly but inevitable falling apart. The amount of gold leaf, marble and crystal is simply overwhelming and the ceremonial hall is home to the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the founder of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk moved in. As a tribute to the great leader, all clocks in the palace show 09.05 am which was the moment he passed away on November 10, 1938.
For another intriguing site in Istanbul you will have to descend and go under street level to visit the Basilica Cistern (in Turkish: Yerebatan Sarnıcı or Yerebatan Saray). It is an ancient masterpiece of Byzantine engineering, which was bringing drinking water to the city via aqueducts from current Bulgaria. Prepare for a mystical atmosphere with dimmed lights, columns with Medusa’s head, pools full of fish to the backdrop of classical music and the sound of dripping water. It’s truly magic and some might find it even a bit spooky. For a more lively ambiance and the mandatory shopping you can visit on of the many bazaars in the city. The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar are the largest and most famous covered markets in town. Especially the Grand Bazaar is pretty huge with more than 3,000 shops and spread over 60 streets so be sure you do not get lost there. The best panoramic 360 degree view over the city you could enjoy from the Galata Tower, a 60 meters high tower which looks a bit like Rapunzel’s home in a fairy tale.
When you see the magnificent Bosporus and on a clear sunny day even the Princes’ Islands you will certainly get an appetite for booking a boat cruise trip. This is definitely worthwhile doing, maybe especially when you do not have much time since it offers you the opportunity to seem many palaces, mosques and stunning mansions at both the European and Asian banks in a relatively short time. No matter the type of cruise you would book you will certainly pass the Maiden’s Tower (Turkish: Kız Kulesi). There are many legend about this place, the most popular tale is that it was build in order of a local rich man who wanted to protect his only daughter from a deadly snake bite which was predicted in a nasty prophecy. You probably will not have need a lot of imagination to guess how the story ended when the father left his daughter unattended to do some shopping. Your boat will also pass under the famous Galata Bridge. It is a great experience to cross this bridge by foot instead of talking the light rail and enjoy the typical local scene such as the local fishermen and vendors selling sesame covered pretzels.
The Asian side of Istanbul is worth visiting anyway since it offers a different and some will say a more local look and feel compared to the European side which better known by tourists. Visiting a hammam, the renowned Turkish steam bath, is almost mandatory. Do a little power nap on the cool marble in a hot steam room and have a good scrub and strong massage. After that your skin will be as fresh and soft as of a baby and you will be ready for the night. Last but not least: indulge yourself in the wonderful local food scene. Turkish cuisine is without a doubt one of the richest and most varied in the world. If you are tight on budget you could also survive on the wonderful street food this city has the offer. Eat a kumpir; a baked potato, mixed with cheese and butter. Sink your teeth in a börek or döner kebab. And don’t miss out on lahmacun, the thin and lovely Turkish equivalent of pizza, topped with minced meat, vegetables and herbs. If you are a sweet tooth you will be stunned by the variety of baklava. I bet you are getting hungry already, right?