Turkey has always been on my bucket list. And when I found an amazing Premium Economy airfare deal with Turkish Airlines, I bit the bullet and booked my flight.
What with all the political demonstrations in Turkey and conflict in neighbouring countries, I decided to join a tour instead of travelling solo to Istanbul. And I'm very glad I did. Not because I felt in danger at any time during my recent trip but because this way, I was able to check out the major sights in just a few hours.
This is what I knew on arrival. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, Istanbul is the only city in the world which is situated on two continents; it bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally. The city was the Byzantine capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, (blessed by Constantine the Great, hence its former name: Constantinople), until the Ottomans captured it in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul.
Arriving in Istanbul with a whole day to myself, I discussed my sightseeing options with the hotel staff. On their say so, I hopped on a Bosphorus boat cruise. Here I got my first glimpse of Sultanahmet (the old city) and its awesome Byzantium and Ottoman landmarks, and also a big surprise. I'd thought of Istanbul as an ancient city, but seeing it from the water I was blown away by its contemporary glamour.
Istanbul's population is estimated at 14 million, making it one of the largest cities in the world. And time has not stood still here. Cruising down the Bosphorus, we passed under the magnificent 1973-built suspension bridge, and I spied several impressive modern buildings, and a lot of ongoing construction. I was told that Beyoglu (the new city) overflows with hip art galleries, boutiques, restaurants and even pubs.
Cosmopolitan is the best word to describe Istanbul. East meets west, new meets old, and I was determined to experience it all.
A morning in Sultanahmet Square
Istanbul offers a wealth of sights to take in. The bulk of these ancient monuments are located around Sultanahmet Square on the city's European side.
We entered the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) complex. The courtyard is the biggest of all of the Ottoman mosques and there are six minarets. The interior has a similarly grand scale: the blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name number in the tens of thousands, there are 260 windows and the central prayer space is huge.
Topkapi Palace, a short walk from the Blue Mosque, was the highlight of my morning. It showcases the untold wealth of the Ottoman rulers who lived here between 1453 and 1839. Pushed for time, we stopped by the six-level Harem and the Treasury (home to the 86-carat Spoonmaker's Diamond). The palace's interiors dazzle with their hand-painted Iznik tiles, mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell inlays and stained-glass windows; the terraces, gardens and pools are a delight.
Afternoon (Turkish) delights
After lunch, we took in one of Istanbul's best-known Byzantine landmarks, Hagia Sophia. Built in A.D. 537 by Emperor Justinian to showcase the might of the Roman Empire, it reigned supreme as the greatest church in Christendom until 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II converted it into a mosque. It has been a museum since 1935.
Next up, Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city, proved a great (and deliciously cool) place to while away half an hour. Built by Emperor Justinian in A.D. 532, it once held 80,000 cubic metres of water, pumped and delivered through a 20-kilometre web of aqueducts.
A night on the tiles
While exploring all these ancient sites, I bonded with three other female travellers and before nightfall, we decided to explore the bazaars.
Constructed in 1461, the Grand Bazaar in Sultanahmet boasts 5,000 shops, and is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Beckoning sellers peddle exquisite textiles, pottery, rugs, jewellery, lanterns and other souvenirs.
A short walk from the Grand Bazaar, the 1664-built Spice Bazaar is a bustling gastronomic paradise. This is the place to pick up dried fruits and nuts, olives, oils and essences. I was amazed by all the different types of spice, and Turkish delight.
After a quick shisha at a local tea shop (we were the only foreigners in the café), we followed our guide's advice and headed to a charming Greek rooftop restaurant, with a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus. We went on to Reina in Beyoglu, probably the city's glitziest nightclub. Not to be outdone by the well-heeled locals (and to avoid the traffic jams), we arrived by boat.