Looking for a weekend break with a difference? Try Istanbul, says Suzanne Harrington. It’s a treasure trove of palaces, mosques, museums and markets.
What a city. A population of over 15 million, yet still feels intimate. Geographically both European and Asian, linked by bridges across the wide blue Bosphorus, and edged by two seas–the Marmara and the Black Sea.
And everywhere you go, a feeling of people having been here forever. Bustling, bright and lively, the city now called Istanbul has been continuously inhabited for three thousand years, cosmopolitan and ancient.
Culturally, it feels both familiar and ‘other’, with its thousands of mosques, hundreds of churches and dozens of synagogues.
It is fascinating and friendly, the kind of city where you can explore on foot, absorbing its colour and intensity without feeling too overwhelmed–the pace is laid back, the people open; you can walk forever late at night, without fear of drunks.
The city’s famous street dogs and cats are looked after with affection, fed and watered by restaurants and individuals as a matter of course, yet free to roam. It is possible to see the best of Istanbul in a few days; the traffic is mental, but its public transport excellent and super cheap.
Taxis are also cheap, but it’s more fun to take the ferries which link the two sides of the city, and the trams which trundle everywhere. Immerse yourself.
First it was Lygos. Then it was Byzantium, Augusta Antonina, New Rome, Constantinople, Konstantiniyye, Stamboul, and Islambol - the ancient Greeks referred to it simply as The City - until it was formally renamed Istanbul after the establishment of modern Turkey in 1923.
Images of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the republic’s progressive founder, are everywhere, against a backdrop of the iconic red Turkish flag. It is liberal, relaxed, and people will go out of their way to help you; the city utterly lacks the snootiness of London or Paris, despite its greater size.
Istanbul is a treasure of palaces, mosques, museums and markets. The Sultanahmet area is where you’ll find the Blue Mosque, finished in 1617, with its six minarets – legend has it that the architect misheard the Sultan’s orders, confusing almost identical sounding words for ‘six’ and ‘gold’.
Before you enter, women can borrow along skirt and headscarf, and shoes are removed and carried – the interior is carpeted, and is vast, simple and peaceful. Nearby is the Hagia Sophia Museum, a church between AD360 and 1453, then a mosque until 1935.
Known as the 8th Wonder, it hosts around 8,000 visitors a day, and has queues to match. With its fusion of Islam and Christianity, thousand year old mosaics, its famous wishing column (where Byzantine emperor Justinian’s headache was allegedly cured) and its resident cat (a blue eyed tabby with its own Tumblr page), it’s a must-see. Book in advance.
Southwest is the Basilica Cistern, where you can step down into an ancient underworld complete with upside down stone Medusa heads. Nicknamed the Sunken Palace because of its endless marble columns, this vast underground water storage cavern was constructed by Emperor Justinian (AD527- 565); its waters irrigated the gardens of the nearby Topkapi Palace, built in 1459.
The cistern remained unused for centuries, before restoration; today, fish swim in it, amid its unearthly underground glow and echoic dankness. Gloriously creepy.
From the humblest pomegranate juice vendor, Istanbul is foodie heaven. Especially if you have a sweet tooth – forget those disgusting gelid bath cubes we think of as Turkish Delight, and try the real thing–sushi rolls of nougat, pistachio, honey, rose, pomegranate, sliced for you to taste.
Beautifully stacked heaps of honey-dripping baklava, in every shape. Try kunefe, a hot dessert made with filo pastry, syrup and unsalted cheese; weirdly delicious. Or trilece, a creamy spongey affair, perfect with tiny cups of killer Turkish coffee.
The street food, backstreet cafes, and little food stalls inside the Grand Bazaar mean you can eat like a local for half nothing. And the locals eat really, really well. It’s not all about giving yourself diabetes, though. Turkish food tends to be freshly made and unprocessed – juices, salads, all the flavours of mezze, and simit - Turkish fresh baked bread.
Try the sesame seeded bread rings that cost around 2 Turkish Lira (30 cent) each. Everywhere you sit down, you will offered cay – little glasses of black tea, pronounced chai. Turks love their tea–try hot apple cay, it’s delicious. Tea gardens abound.
Follow the Bosphorous for miles, meandering between palaces and piers. Or start in Taksim, the beating heart of the European side, a feast of light and colour at night – check out the Galata Tower amid the narrow side streets.
Take a ferry from Karikoy to Kadikoy on the Asian side, full of bars and cafes and liveliness, but not at all touristy. Or visit some of the four Princes Islands – a short ferry ride from Eminonu, Kadikoy and Bostanci piers, where the seagulls will swoop to take bread from your hands.
There are no cars on the islands, only horses and buggies, with Istanbul glittering across the water. Heaven.
Istanbul buzzes with merchants and vendors and funny sales pitches (“Genuine fakes! Cheaper than Primark!”). You can get luxe sunglasses for a tenner, perfect copies of trainers, sportswear, and handbags for a fraction of their non-fake prices; as fakes go, they are excellent.
If knock off luxury goods are not your thing, check out the glowing mosaic light stalls. Tea, spices, Turkish olive oil soaps and towels, silver and gold–it’s mesmerising.
As is the nearby Spice Market, built in 1664 – as well as fragrant piles of spices (all the favourites, plus Turkish ones – sumac, black cumin, dense pomegranate syrup, dried red pepper flakes), there are dried fruits, herbal remedies, dates and figs, and piles of colourful teas made from flowers like rose and jasmine. Everything costs pennies. It is a feast.
Hamam–the legendary Turkish bath – is a must. Marble walls, towering domes, pools, body scrubs, massage–the hamam predates the spa by millennia. The Mihrimah Sultan Hamami, built in 1565, is one of the most famous and beautiful, and yours to access for around 30TL, or less than €5.
Or visit the Cagaloglu Hamami, the last baths built during the Ottoman empire, in 1741, all cool marble and swooping curves, with a barber and restaurant on site.
You’ll pay around 80TL. After your hamam, you’ll want to relax. There are bars all over the city, with alcohol freely available, but it is not a drinking culture. For a truly Turkish experience, sit outside a busy night time café and have ago on the nargile, or hookah.
You will be attended to by a waiter, brining more clouds of scented smoke, glasses of tea, and all around people chatting, dating, playing cards, backgammon, chess. It’s a beehive. For football fans, Istanbul is home to super rivals Besiktas and Galatasary. Although good luck getting a ticket to that derby.
Turkish Airlines fly direct to Istanbul from Dublin. Accommodation varies from the usual 5 star behemoths to Airbnb – make sure you check your location, so that you are not miles from the buzzy areas.
Taksim and Sultan Ahmet are central.