By Dominic Waters
Turkey’s largest city may not be the capital but it certainly is the country’s social, cultural and historical centre. The meeting point of Europe and Asia, straddling the Bosphorus Strait, this metropolis has more surprises than it does minarets; it’s palaces will dazzle, it’s mosques will enchant and it’s bazaars will overwhelm. At just a four hour flight from the UK, it’s Eastern flair is a welcome difference to the rest of Europe, and makes it one of the best value city breaks on the continent.
Istanbul is divided into three broad areas: you have Sultanahmet and the Bazaar District, which encompass the majority of historical sights and bazaars; Taksim and Beyoğlu, which have huge shops, restaurants and nightlife; and the Asian side, Üsküdar.
The top sights are located in Sultanahmet, conveniently within short walking distance of each other. A visit to Aya Sofya (30TL) is an essential: this goliath has dominated the Istanbul skyline since 537AD. It was an Orthodox cathedral, then a mosque and is now a museum open to tourists. Christian mosaics of biblical figures stand above the Muslim mihrab and minbar surrounded by Islamic calligraphic medallions – it is a fascinating building.
Across Sultanahmet park is the Blue Mosque, adorned with thousands of hand-made blue tiles inside and out. It is a functioning mosque and as such is free but you must obey the rules: no shoes or exposed arms and legs, and head scarves for ladies.
On the other side of the road is the Basilica Cistern (20TL), a lesser-known sight but the coolest and most intriguing place in Istanbul. It starred in Dan Brown’s novel Inferno. It is a vast, flooded Byzantine underground cavern filled with imposing floor-to-ceiling stone columns. Make your way around the raised walkways, watching the schools of ghoulish fish swim under you; the sparse red lighting definitely creates a unique mood.
The labyrinthine markets of the Grand Bazaar are a short walk away and worth the trip, but don’t hang around for too long, as the stalls are very similar and everyone is trying to sell you something. You’re much better off spending your time at the Spice Bazaar by the Galata Bridge. Wandering around gazing at the wealth of spices, teas, baklava and roasted nuts, you’ll be salivating in no time, and the aroma from all the food is otherworldly.
You can visit most mosques in Istanbul and I suggest a visit to both Süleymaniye and Şehzade Mehmet mosques. They are within walking distance from the Grand Bazaar.
Defining experience: drinking apple tea on a cross-continental public ferry between Üsküdar and Eminönü at sunset.
Humble as it may be, the kebab is Turkey’s most famous dish and is much more than the hungover regret we take it for. Kebab stands and restaurants are everywhere in Istanbul. If you see Iskender kebab on a menu, get it. Chunks of crusty bread topped with marinated lamb and smooth spiced tomato sauce served with thick Turkish yoghurt and salad: a definite winner.
Another must-try is Turkish ‘pide’, flatbread pizzas that come in many varieties and flavours and make a tasty, filling and budget-friendly lunch or dinner.
Istanbul is a sweet-toothed traveller’s dream. A birthplace of baklava: filo pastry layered with nuts, baked and soaked in syrup. Turkey’s is the best you will have (see below for the best around). Real Turkish delight (lokum) is very different to what we find in the UK; that rose flavour that reminds you of your gran’s potpourri. It comes in loads of flavours: from lemon to raspberry, pomegranate and of course there’s the rose, if that’s your thing.
Tea is central to Turkish culture and don’t leave Istanbul without trying the apple tea. Some locals love it, others say it’s just for the tourists. Either way it’s delicious and taking a break from sightseeing to gather your thoughts in a tea house (çay bahçesi) surrounded by the locals smoking their water pipes (nargile) and sipping tea is a special experience.
Karadeniz Aile Pide ve Kebap Salonu (pide and kebabs 8-12TL)
Karaköy Güllüoğlu (best baklava in Istanbul 4-7TL)
Lale Bahçesi (cheap tea and nargile, hidden behind Süleymaniye Mosque in a sunken courtyard frequented by local students)
Istanbul has a buzzing nightlife. The majority of bars and clubs are located in the Taksim area, however taxis to Sultanahmet are cheap so don’t be put off because of where you’re staying. Bars are open from early evening and often have some local talent for live entertainment, so be sure to grab an outside table, get the drinks and a water pipe in and enjoy. Clubs open from 9pm onwards but the real stuff doesn’t start till 1-2am when the locals come out, and goes on until the wee hours.
Hostels and budget hotels are the way to go. Stay in Sultanahmet for the sights or Taksim for shopping & nightlife. Accommodation in Istanbul is cheaper than Western Europe so you can stay in a top-rate hostel a stone’s throw from Aya Sofya without breaking the bank.
Cheers Hostel (dorms between £12-17 p/n)
Bahaus Guesthouse (dorms between £11-16 p/n)
Hotel Ararat (£45 p/n for double room)
Fly direct to Istanbul from Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted or Luton with British Airways, Turkish Airlines, Pegasus Airlines or AtlasGlobal with low return prices between £100-120.
Istanbul has an efficient, easy-to-use and cheap public transport system with widespread buses, trams and a new metro network.
A 5 day 4-night trip will cost around £400 per person including flights, accommodation, food, drink and sightseeing.
Illustration: Mariam Hayat, Photograph: Dominic Waters