EXOTIC ISTANBUL, WHERE EAST MEETS WEST
Once known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine and then Ottoman Empires, Istanbul boasts a plethora of architectural marvels from mosques to harems to bazaars. Though the largest city in Turkiye (the country changed its name from Turkey in 2021) and once the capital, (Ankara is now the capital) Istanbul reigns as Turkiye’s main tourist attraction for myriad reasons.
No other city sprawls over the two continents. You have breakfast in Asia, lunch in Europe and dinner overlooking the Bosphorus Strait that joins them.
Istanbul offers diverse neighbourhoods and contrasts. Mini-skirted girls stroll the streets arm in arm with hijab-clad friends. Whirling dervishes spin and meditate in universal harmony while folks party ‘til dawn at the clubs on trendy Istiklal Street. Whether you want to splurge like a sultan or snack on street food with locals, in Istanbul your choices are vast and rarely boring.
(All prices approximated in Canadian dollars.)
THE “YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE” SPLURGE LIST
Fairmont Five-Star Luxury
Recognized as the “Best Luxury Contemporary Hotel” in the Globe by World Luxury Hotel Awards 2022, Fairmont Quasar Istanbul provides a sophisticated haven from Istanbul’s madding crowds. It’s Aila restaurant made the first edition of the Michelin Guide Istanbul 2023. Sip a raki after dinner. This national drink of Turkiye (formerly known as Turkey, the country changed its name in 2021) is a twice distilled grape brandy, similar in taste to ouzo. Enjoy a dip in the indoor or rooftop pool. Pamper yourself with a Turkish coffee exfoliation followed by a warm coconut oil massage at the Willow Stream Spa. The concierge has encyclopedic knowledge of his city. Allow plenty of time to graze at the bountiful breakfast buffet
Soak it up
After a busy day of shopping or sightseeing rejuvenate with a traditional Turkish bath (hammam). T. One of the best is Catma Mescit, designed in 1533 by one the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architects, Mimar Sinan. You put your clothes in a locker and wrap yourself in a thin Turkish towel called a pestemal. You enter the central area of the bath, the hot and humid caldarium. Marble basins are located in the corners where your attendant rinses you with warm water. Then you lie on the central heated marble slab where you will be exfoliated front and back, head to toe. This is no time more modesty. Next comes a bubble foam wash followed by a massage. Relax and cool off with some tea and sweets. I guarantee you will be squeaky clean. The VIP treatment at Catma Mescit costs about $200. The hammam offers complimentary transfers to and from most central hotels.
Culinary Backstreets Tour
We met our guide, Benoit, for the Two Markets: Two Continents tour at the Galata Bridge in the trendy Karakoy neighbourhood. We began with a traditional Turkish breakfast, a sumptuous spread of tomatoes, cucumber, cheeses, salted yogurt, jams, honey, simit (Turkiye’s answer to the bagel) and the ubiquitous little glass cup of hot black tea. (Turkiye may be famous for its strong coffee, but tea is probably even more popular with locals). The moveable feast covered both European and Asian sides of the city via a ferry ride across the Bosphorus. We had a smorgasbord of tastes at places I would never have found on my own. I learned about Turkish coffee (never stir it) Baklava (the real stuff isn’t made with honey) flatbreads, kebabs and much more. It was a rich stew of Turkish history and diversified dishes. We also learned about evil eyes and how to find a convenience store that sells alcohol. The tour ended with samples of Turkish Delight at the shop where it was invented by the confectioner at the Royal Palace during the Ottoman Empire. Come hungry. Cost is about $170 per adult for a full-day tour.
Turkish carpets and kilims can be found on almost every corner of Istanbul. I can’t recommend any specific dealers, but I can offer some bargaining advice. The vendors can be aggressive and quite clever about luring you into their shops with offers of tea and sweets. When I told a sales guy I had no room in my house for another carpet, he countered with: “If I offered you a Ferrari, couldn’t you find a garage to put in in?” If you like a rug, let the seller open with a price and if you are still interested start your haggling by offering half.
Spices of Life
Enter the vaulted 17th century Spice Market (also known as the Egyptian Bazaar) and your nose will be assaulted by the heady aromas of exotic spices, tea mixtures, nuts, perfumes and more. Where to start? I suggest the Hayfene stall where owner Ahmet will demonstrate how to identify top grade saffron and give you a sample of some of his spice mixtures. Martha Stewart is a fan of the place. At Kalmaz Baharat, located in the market’s side wing, you can buy an aphrodisiac dubbed Turkish Viagra. For lunch, climb the tiled stairs to Pandeli restaurant for fine Turkish-Ottoman dishes such as eggplant pie or chicken pudding.
THE “CHEAP THRILLS” SAVE LIST
Take a Pass
Istanbul is a huge city straddling two continents. Often public transportation is your fastest and cheapest bet. Buy an Istanbul Transportation Card from yellow machines in most stations. It is good for subways, buses, ferries and trams. My husband and I put about $20 on a card that we could both use. We took at least 20 rides and we never ran out of credit. Taxis are another story. In touristy areas, cab drivers can charge you outrageous rates. We were quoted 50 Euros for a ride that would cost about $7 CDN using the metre. Tip: if you need a taxi, get your hotel to book it. Drivers like to maintain positive relations with hotels.
Crossroads of the World
Immerse yourself in Istanbul’s fascinating architecture starting in Sultanahmet Park where vendors sell simits (similar to bagels) and chestnuts, kids play tag under the palm trees, women in veils mingle with men in suits and tourists snap selfies. You are at the crossroads of the world and just steps from a modern tram stop. At one end of the square is the peachy-coloured Hagia Sophia, once the greatest Christian churches in the world, now a mosque. Behind it sits the sprawling Topkapi Palace, fabled home to Ottoman sultans and their harems. The dagger set with three whopper emeralds and diamonds in the Treasury is but one example of the staggering wealth of the sultans. Nearby is the eerily beautiful Basilica Cistern, a vast underground reservoir lined with columns where coloured lights are projected. At the far end of the square stands the imposing Blue Mosque, famous for its six minaret and blue tiles and currently undergoing renovations. You are standing in the middle of the 2,000-year-old saga of Istanbul.(Note: for entry into all mosques knees and shoulders must be covered and women should wear a head-scarf. Shoes must be removed.
Shop ‘til you Drop
Sultan Mehmet II ordered the Grand Bazaar to be built in 1461. This labyrinth of shops and pushy vendors is the world’s oldest mall that bustled Byzantine times, Ottoman eras and still thrives today with more than 4,000 shops. The jewelry store windows are blinding, the carpets beguiling and the fake designer bags and scarves overwhelming. Take a deep breath and be prepared to get lost for a few hours.
If the Grand Bazaar is too intimidating, consider a shopping spree in the smaller, cleaner Arasta Bazaar, behind the Blue Mosque. If you’ve visited a hamman you will be familiar with the Turkish towel called pestemal. They are not terry cloth but instead made of thin absorbent cotton. They come in various colours and sizes and make excellent souvenirs. Jennifer’s Hammam sells good quality towels, bathrobes and other textiles woven on shuttle looms using organic fibres. Other shops sell carpets, jewelry, ceramics and more.
Blue Mosque and Cisturn Basilica
Spices and pomegranates
First published at Travel Industry Today