Place to fall in love
For millennia, Istanbul represented the gateway to the East, a land coveted by would-be conquerors and kings. In the 21st century, the city’s charisma endures, sustained by the remnants of Greek and Roman palaces, opulent Byzantine cathedrals and undulating Ottoman domes, by the spectacularly scenic Bosphorus Straits and by world-class shopping and dining.
If there are two icons that symbolize the city, they are the Blue Mosque, named for its 20,000 richly hued Iznik tiles hand crafted by the empire’s best artisans, and the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s palatial ode to the Almighty. The juxtaposition of these two monuments at the epicenter of the Historic Peninsulais a living hallmark to the city’s collective inheritance, that introduces visitors to a city steeped in monumental Byzantine history and enduring Ottoman lore.
Vestiges of an empire lasting nearly 1,500 years form the foundations of the city. Grand churches like the Hagia Sophia and St. Savior in Chora safeguard remarkable gold-tiled mosaics depicting stories of saints and saviors and of Emperors and Empresses. Ancient ruins such as the Hippodrome, built by Septimus Severus and later enlarged by Constantine, stand proudly in public spaces around the city. Remnants can even be found beneath the city’s streets, with the Yerebatan Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns underground, built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Indeed, at nearly every stride, one can stumble upon ancient fortress walls, Byzantine basilicas, celebrated shrines, Christian relics and peristyle courtyards.
The unparalleled might of the Ottoman Sultans rises in silhouette along the Tarihi Yarimada (Historic Peninsula), revealing a legacy of masterpieces fit for the capital of their sultandom. The iconic Topkapi Palace offers a window into the mystique of the Sultans and their harems in a vast complex of pavilions, gardens, towers, monumental gates and spectacular vistas, harboring treasures of gold and silver, of precious porcelain and gems including the notorious 85-karat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. The lavish, European-inspired palaces built in the latter centuries of the empire along the shores of the Bosphorus include the opulent DolmabahçePalace.
The empire’s fidelity to faith was honored through the construction of dozens of charitable works, from monumental mosques to hospitals, schools and soup kitchens. The richly adorned hamams of Çemberlitas, Süleymaniye and Haseki Hürrem Sultan stand as marble temples to personal hygiene, surpassed today solely by their quintessentially modern approach to self-indulgent spa treatments.
Ottoman commerce focused around a warren of 80 streets and craftsmen’s hans in the sprawling and spectacular Kapali Çarsi (Grand Bazaar), which today houses 4,000 merchants selling silken carpets, dazzling gemstones, lush fabrics and glittering treasures and trinkets to appeal to every desire. This rich past is preserved not only in the city’s buildings and cultural traditions, but also in the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, The Museum of the Ancient Orient, and Museum of Islamic Art, which together house over one million pieces representing almost all the eras and civilizations in world history.
But while Istanbul’s heart lies in its past, the soul of Istanbul is aimed squarely in the future, propelling a renaissance that pervades nearly every corner of city life. Formerly derelict neighborhoods are now delightful and atmospheric places to visit. The cobbled Sogukçesme Street is lined with 19th century Ottoman row houses and sandwiched between the Hagia Sophia and the exterior courtyard walls of Topkapi Palace. Balat, formerly the home of Jewish, Greek and Armenian immigrants, is now a chic residential neighborhood with art galleries, churches and synagogues. And there’s Galata, a fashionably bohemian zone where the Medieval Galata Tower mingles with trendy boutiques. In preserved Roman cisterns, converted hamams and in renovated palaces, Istanbul has seized upon the trend of featuring its grand historic spaces as dramatic settings for performances of all kinds.
Istanbul is the only city in the world that spans two continents, and this meeting point between Asia and Europe is joined by the city’s iconic Bosphorus Bridge. While the physical bridge was completed in 1973, Istanbul itself has been bridging the cultures of East and West for centuries. On both sides of the Bosphorus Strait are a growing number of cutting edge art galleries and cultural centers that look to the future through Turkish artists’ unique lens on the past. View establish artists at the Istanbul Modern, absorb the artistry of 18th and 19th century Ottoman portraiture, screen an independent film at the Pera Museum or be inspired by Istanbul’s world-class exhibition spaces doubling as incubators of contemporary art.
Yet it’s not only the art scene that is undergoing a revival of sorts. The lilting sound of the Turkish heartland can be heard in the back streets of Taksim, while the spiritual dance of the Whirling Dervishes or the fearsome percussion of the Ottoman Mehter Band seduce the general public in venues all over town. Arched cells of cloistered medreses now echo with the sound of artisans reviving the Islamic arts of calligraphy, ebru and painting in miniature. And in the past few years, celebrity chefs have descended upon Istanbul to lead the way in establishing the city as a uniquely Turkish culinary capital featuring traditional and creative delicacies rivaling those found in other culinary capitals. With dining rooms fronting the twinkling lights of the Bosphorus, a holiday meal couldn’t get any more romantic.
If shopping is the main event, you need look no further than the posh thoroughfares of Nisantasi, and Bagdat Avenue, the exclusive boutiques of Kanyon, Istinye Park, and Trump Tower, the purveyors of Turkish delicacies at the Misir Çarsisi (Egyptian Spice Bazaar) and the trinkets, baubles and souvenirs found all over the city.
If you’re looking for something completely different yet utterly familiar, a placed that is exotic yet inviting, Istanbul both maintains a veil of mystery and projects a life force that together, comprises a unique, 21st century cornucopia of ancient, modern, vibrant, serene, intimate, cosmopolitan and delicious treasures.