Istanbul. Been there. Done that. Bought the rug. That’s what I thought after my first visit—a frenzied, two-day stopover several years ago.
Yet so many people rave about Istanbul, I wondered if they were simply smokin’ from a different hookah, or if perhaps I had missed something during my whirlwind tour of “must see” sites like the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and Dolmabahce Palace.
It was architectural overload, like staring at the sun. If I had been invited to gaze upon one more mosaic, however beautiful, I thought I might bleed from my eyes.
Don’t get me wrong. Istanbul’s wonders are worth visiting, particularly the Blue Mosque, as it’s not only stunning; it’s also an important religious centre where worshipers pray five times a day.
But for the most part, the de rigueur list barely scratches the surface of what I had come to suspect might be the true spirit of this city, where residents respect their history, but live, love, work, dance, play and party in the present.
So I went back. I slowed down. I walked. I wandered. I got lost…more than once, actually…and I let Istanbul weave its spell around me.
Whether you’re visiting this city on the Bosphorus for the first time or the fifth, here are some top tips for getting the most out of your holiday.
1. Get High. If you’ve ever seen “Midnight Express,” you’ll know I’m not suggesting a dalliance with drugs, unless you fancy an extended stay in a Turkish prison. But to appreciate the scope of this city—the spiny minarets that punctuate the treetops and the cascade of blocky mid-rises that tumble down the hillsides like Lego-built lava—you need to poke your head in the clouds. Top tip: Savour the view from the 16 Sky rooftop bar atop Swissotel The Bosphorus.
2. Take a Cruise. The Bosphorus runs through the heart of Istanbul, splitting it into two parts—two continents, in fact (Asia and Europe). The strait may physically divide the residents, but it also draws them together, fishing on its banks and traversing its waters. The Sehir Hatlari ferry operation offers a six-hour Full Bosphorus Tour, as well as a two-hour Short Bosphorus Tour.
3. Go Culture-Trippin’ on Istiklal Caddesi. From Burger King to Benneton, Starbucks to Topshop, Diesel to doner kabobs, you’ll find it all on the bustling boulevard known as Istiklal Caddesi.
But what impresses me most is the feeling that, just as Istanbul straddles the border of Europe and Asia, this endlessly unfurling avenue is a crossroads where East really does meet West. It’s a melting pot spiced with all walks of life, from backpack-toting tourists and girls in miniskirts to women modestly clad in burkhas and an old man selling watermelons from the back of a horse-drawn cart.
This is also the best street in Istanbul to stop for an ice cream. The vendors along Istiklal Caddesi don’t just dole out dairy dollops. They dress like turbaned sultans and wield a sword (albeit a sword that ends in a spoon) with a magician’s slight of hand, tossing the ice cream from cone to cone and keeping it tantalizingly out of reach until you’re salivating for the sweet stuff.
3. Visit a hammam. Want to experience the ultimate self-indulgence—something that extends well beyond a massage and totally blows a mundane mani-pedi out of the water? How about a personal bather? At a hammam, you’ll be scrubbed, rinsed, rubbed and steamed, emerging smoother than a newborn baby’s bottom.
One of the most atmospheric options for shedding those dead skin cells is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami, located between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. Built in 1556 by Suleiman the Magnificent, this hammam is a work of art, with tasseled curtains framing massage rooms and restful expanses of white marble.
5. Shop ‘til you drop. “Excuse me. May I sell you something you don’t need?” a cheeky young man at the Grand Bazaar enquires, offering up the best pitch I’ve heard all day.
Yes, it’s unabashedly touristy. But a visit to the bazaar, bustling with thousands of shops selling hookahs, jewelry, ceramics, pashminas and the ubiquitous Turkish rugs, is cheap entertainment and a great place to buy inexpensive souvenirs.
6. Meet the locals. I was utterly charmed by the warmth, hospitality, and joie de vivre of Istanbul’s people. No one embodied those qualities more than “my” shoe shine man.
When I saw him sitting in the shade of a busy street, I paused to ask why there were television cameras set up across from his stand. But here we reached an impasse, because I speak almost no Turkish, and he spoke almost no English.
“German?” he asked, struggling for some common language. I shook my head. “French?” I suggested. He shrugged helplessly.
In the end, though, we had the nicest of chats, because the words weren’t really relevant. It was that feeling of instant, inexplicable camaraderie that really counted.
He beckoned me to sit while he showed me photos of his family, smiling proudly beneath his mustache. I smiled back. He offered me water. I produced my own bottle but grinned again in thanks.
We sat side-by-side together for perhaps half an hour, until a distinguished looking grey-haired man emerged from the building over the road, and the television crews went wild. My new friend eagerly ushered me over to meet him, insisting I shake the bigwig’s hand before he did the same. He was obviously delighted to have offered me this introduction, although whoever that celebrity was remains a mystery to me to this day.
That famous man might have been a politician, or Turkey’s answer to George Clooney. But it was the connection I made with this kind, random stranger, the shoe shine man, that mattered most to me.