Turkey’s largest city owes much to history and geography
Situated where east meets west, Istanbul’s alluring architecture and air of mysticism make it unlike any other city. Despite being a desirable tourist destination, given the volatility of Turkey’s neighboring countries, and the recent political demonstrations in the city, it’s worth consulting the State Department website (travel.state.gov) before you travel there for pleasure or business.
Then again, a number of hotel groups have given the city their stamp of approval, with an abundance of luxury openings. These include a 180-room Raffles hotel and a 118-room St Regis. The biggest-ever Soho House members’club – complete with 88 bedrooms – is also due to open in 2014 in a former US embassy building.
If your travels take you to this cultural crossroads, be sure to set aside some time to soak up Istanbul’s idiosyncratic character. Here are just a few of the city’s landmarks, the well-known and the not so well-known.
The Blue Mosque on Sultan Ahmet Square has a beautiful interior, but the Hagia Sophia, at the other end of the plaza, is a far more fascinating structure. With Christian imagery displayed alongside calligraphic representations of the names of Allah and Muhammad, it is an embodiment of Istanbul’s multi-layered and turbulent past.
Originally built as a Greek Orthodox church in the sixth century, the commanding building was transformed into a mosque in 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Constantinople (as Istanbul was formerly known). As a result, it was given a rather drastic makeover. The altar was removed, the frescos of Christian icons were plastered over – along with millions of mosaics – and the floors carpeted to enable Muslim prayer.
It remained a mosque until 1935, when on orders from Mustafa Ataturk, the first president of the Republic of Turkey, it became a national museum. The plasterwork and carpets were removed, and the immaculately preserved frescos and floors were revealed beneath. Today, its Christian iconography and Islamic motifs are juxtaposed under the same roof.
The hybrid history of the building gives it an almost indefinable quality. There’s something strangely gothic yet exotic about the ash-gray marble surfaces illuminated by Arabic lanterns, and the ghost-like paintings upon the rich yellow ceiling. Allow plenty of time to explore the building’s sprawling structure and galleries, discover partially recovered mosaics and gaze in wonder at the magnificent 105-foot-wide dome surrounded by seraphim angels.
Open Tue-Sun 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM (Apr-Oct), 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM (Nov Square; hagiasophia.com
Not far from the Hagia Sofia, on the other side of Sultan Ahmet Square, the mysterious underground Basilica Cistern is another must-see – and a great way to escape the heat. Of Istanbul’s network of underground cisterns built to collect and store rainfall to supply the city with drinking water, the Basilica Cistern is one of only two that are open to the public. It was constructed in the sixth century to provide water for the Great Palace during the rule of Byzantine emperor Justinian I.
Also known as the“Sunken Palace,”the 100,000-square-foot structure is a labyrinth of 336 marble columns supporting the vaulted ceiling 30 feet overhead. Neon lighting provides dramatic illumination, making it possible to survey even the darkest corners. Brown carp lurking in the water beneath the wooden walkways that cross the pools contribute to the ominous atmosphere, which lends itself well to the concerts and poetry readings that take place here from time to time.
Look out for the two large Medusahead column bases at the far end – one of them is upside down, while the other is on its side, and the reason for their curious positioning has never been explained.
Open daily 9:00 AM – 6:00 PM. Entry yerebatan.com
While Istanbul’s vast Grand Bazaar is where you’d go to haggle for fake designer bags, and its colorful Spice Market is the place to pick up myriad flavors of Turkish delight, the district of Cukurcuma is where you’re likely to find a more unusual and inspiring souvenir.
Its hilly, cobbled streets are lined with independent antique dealers, their shops piled high with items from a cross-section of cultures and time periods. Their quality and authenticity can vary (and it’s likely you’ll come across a fair amount of junk), but there are some stores that are so full of curiosities that they feel more like handson museums than retail outlets. Intricate iron keys, an art nouveau mirror adorned with emeralds, and a Nazi passport were just a few of the things I encountered during my visit there.
Reputable shops include A La Turca (alaturcahouse.com), Kayabek (Altipatlar Sokak 19) and Karadeniz Antik (Firuzaga Mahallesi Cukurcuma, Caddesi 55). The latter boasts a vast collection of goldframed oil paintings, brass busts and glassware dating back to the Ottoman Empire. Most good dealers will be able to arrange to ship items back to the US if you do end up falling in love with something too bulky to hand carry.
Museum of Innocence
“I think that if museums, like novels, were to focus more on private and personal stories, they would be better able to bring out our collective humanity,”said Turkish writer and 2006 Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk in a Newsweek article, after opening the first museum inspired by a book.
The Museum of Innocence was first published in 2008, and tells the love story of a young couple growing up in 1970s Istanbul. In April 2012, he opened a museum in Curkurcuma, where each of the 83 display boxes corresponds to the 83 chapters of the book, presenting everyday objects that Pamuk sourced to bring the storyline of his novel to life.
It’s amazing how well these objects alone reveal the book’s narrative as you walk from one box to the next, so it isn’t necessary to have read it before your visit (though there are copies available in
the museum’s exhibition space, and it’s possible to pre-book a place on guided tours for TL5 ($2.40) if you’d like more clarification about the plot).
The plain crockery, simple butterflyshaped earrings and cigarette butts wouldn’t seem to amount to much in any other museum, but their significance for the protagonist is revealed in the novel, and on their own they paint a surprisingly vivid picture of the lives behind them. Pamuk captures the way that our subconscious attaches memories and feelings to objects, and the exhibition makes you feel more mindful of this in your own life.
With one exhibit being a newspaper from the 1970s, visitors also gain insight into how the era was a transitional time for Istanbul, as Western values and ways of living began to clash with Turkish and Islamic traditions.
Open Tues-Sun 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM (9:00 PM on Fridays). Entry masumiyetmuzesi.org
For a bird’s-eye view of Istanbul, take the elevator up the nine-story Galata Tower (you have to walk up the final two floors) to its 360-degree panoramic balcony. Erected in 1348, the stone structure stands proudly in the peaceful cobbled district of Galata and, on a clear day, the views across the Golden Horn are well worth the climb.
Galata’s compact feel and romantic charm have attracted an influx of trendy boutiques in recent years, with many of them popping up inside century-old buildings that were formerly apartment blocks, their iron balconies and patterned linoleum floors still intact. For artwork, homeware and designer clothing, there’s Atelier 55 (Serdar-i Ekrem Sokak 55; atelier-55.com/tr) and Simay Bulbul (Sahkulu Bostan Sokak 22) for edgy women’s wear.
Robinson Crusoe bookstore (Salt Galata, Bankalar Caddesi 11) is full of Turkish tomes translated into English, while Aida Pekin (Serdar-i Ekrem 44A; aidapekin.com) sells abstract statement jewelry.
Admission to Galata Tower is TL13 ($6); open daily 9:00 AM – 7:00 PM. BT