Dapper men in three-piece suits, dressed impeccably from head to toe; young hipsters in tank tops and ripped jeans; teenagers with dyed red hair in funky t-shirts, all alongside women of the veil: Spotting contrast and contradiction in Istanbul comes easily. This grand city, located on two continents, Europe and Asia, divided by the Bosporus Sea, is unbelievable and simply modern.
Ask a Turk to whom they owe this wonderful modernity and largely secular society and chances are they will reverently chant the name Atatürk. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, 1881-1938, was the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first President, one of the great leaders in history. Against all odds he became the force behind sweeping reforms that led Turkey to full independence and put an end to the antiquated Ottoman dynasty that had ruled for over six centuries.
While at the club Babylon, one of the Pera area’s hot spots for world music, a young woman told me a story that best describes the passion the Turks have for Atatürk. “As a young girl I was born to a Christian mother and Turkish father. One day I asked my father, “Why does Mommy worship Jesus and Daddy worships Atatürk?” The sentiment for Atatürk is so strong because it is he alone, through the principles of humanism and secularism, who changed the face and soul of Muslim Turkey.
Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, was the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Today Istanbul is divided into seven major districts (Sultanahmet, The Bosporus, Beyoglu and Taksim, Kilyos, Orkatoy, Uskudar, and Sariyer), and is home to 15 million people of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths.
One of the city’s most charming districts, the heart of “old” Istanbul, is Sultanahmet. This section is home to the Yerebatan Saray (Sunken Palace Cistern), Topkapi Palace, the Istanbul Archeological Museums, the Byzantine Hippodrome, Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), the Grand Bazaar and more. Although the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sofia are must-see points of interest, the Sunken Palace Cistern made number one on my list.
Built in the 4th Century this underground water reservoir is simply magical. Its long, dark, tunnel-like walkways with stone pillars, atmospheric lighting and water dripping from the ceiling make it one of the most mysteriously beautiful Byzantine attractions. Strange music is played over strategically placed speakers and the head of Medusa, masked with a beautiful green patina, appears at the end of one of the walkways.
Sultanahmet is an ideal base while in Istanbul. I recommend staying at Ayasofya Pansiyonlari, a lovely bed and breakfast located one block behind the Hagia Sofia. The four-story mansion boasts quasi-Victorian architecture and is furnished in the 19th Century Turkish style. It has a wonderful courtyard with flowers and a water fountain at which you can stop to bask in the sun.
At the Grand Bazaar you can find carpets, glazed tiles and pottery, copper and brassware, apparel made of leather, cotton and wool, meerschaum pipes, alabaster bookends and ashtrays, and all sorts of other things. The Rough Guide To Turkey includes good tips for bargaining and Time Out Istanbul offers a detailed map of the bazaar. For an authentic Turkish experience, check out the Egyptian Spice Market where spices, dried fruits, nuts and seeds, lokum (Turkish Delight) and other edibles fill most of the shops. Located at the southern end of the Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn in the Eminönüdistrict, it makes for a nice afternoon stroll.
After your visit to Sultanahmet, a move to the Pera Palace Hotel would be wise as it offers spectacular nightlife and dining opportunities. The Pera Palace was built in 18
| Travel notes|
Where to Eat
Lokal (Müeyyet Sokak, No. 9, Tünel:
Owned by hip Brit Sashah Khan, Pan-Asian fusion cuisine is served at this hot spot in the Beyoglu district . It features ’60s kitsch decor and candle-lit tables. The Samosa vegetable triangles are a big hit. (www.lokal-istanbul.com)
Rafik (Asmalimescit Caddesi, Sofyali Sokak 10): A veteran in the Beyoglu district, with classic mesas and great wine, it’s the quintessential place for traditional Turkish cuisine. Be prepared to share a table and the mesas with your neighbor.
Where to Stay
Ayasofya Pansiyonlari (Murat Ozturk, Sogukcesme Sokagi 34122 Sultanahmet; Phone: 90 212 513 36 60):
In the old town and near the Hagia Soyfia, this B&B offers great rates and views. (www.ayasofyapensions.com)
Pera Palas Hotel (Mesrutiyet Cad. 98/100 Tepebasi 80050; Phone: 90 212 251 45 60): The Pera Palace is decorated with antique Austrian furniture and has a mysterious charm. It is rumored that Agatha Christie wrote Murder On The Orient Express there and room number 411 is preserved in her honor. (www.perapalas.com)
Where to Party
Babylon World Music Club (Babylon Seyhbender Sokak No:3 Tünel-Asmalimescit-Beyoglu 80040):
Babylon is the trend-setting live music venue of Istanbul. Programming includes international jazz, Latin, Brazilian, reggae, world music and electronica. It has two levels and spectacular sound. (www.pozitif.info/tr/babylon/babylon.htm)
Where to Eat
Old Greek House (Fuat Ozturk, 50420 Mustafapasa, Urgup):
This is the place for homemade food and a Turkish bath. Built in 1887, this old mansion is the ultimate setting for a traditional meal. Guests are served family style on a round low copper table while sitting on antique rugs knitted by locals. (www.oldgreekhouse.com)