The ancient city of Istanbul has overseen three ancient empires and distills spirits of two continents. In the third millennium of our times, it is also a shopper’s paradise and a seat of indulgence
Travelling is like a breath of fresh air from our usual mundane lives. Every country or city is unique and fascinating in its own way. My recent trip to Istanbul is a testimony to this truth. Istanbul, earlier known as Constantinople, was the capital of three major empires of civilization in the antiquity –the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires. This history should give you an inkling as to how rich this city’s cultural heritage is. What makes this city even more special is that it is spread over Asia and Europe, the only city in the world that is part of two different continents. And through my journey, I was able to soak it all in – its cosmopolitan present, and its regal past.
THE STAYS AND THE STREETS
Being a traveler and not a tourist I set out to explore the city by myself and not with paid tours – such an outlook helps to discover the true heart of the city. I decided to break down my stay in two different hotels so I wouldn’t miss out on the small revelations of the city. My first pick was the Grand Hyatt Istanbul in Taksim – it is highly popular with the locals and tourists. There is a certain kind of energizing vibe this area holds. It’s surrounded by properties from some of the best hotel brands in the world – the Intercontinental, the Ritz Carlton, Hilton and many more, which are just a stone’s throw away from the famous pedestrian street in Taksim, known as Istiklal Street.
This street has become a favored spot for retail therapy, whilst enjoying street artists perform. The stores vary from high-end brands to absolutely local boutiques, and also some street shopping as you deviate from the Main Street. As you burn your calories walking down this street, building up an appetite, you could pay heed to your grumbling hungry stomach and take a pick from the plethora of street-food options, ranging from local Turkish cuisine to the globally famous hamburgers. The Turkish delight and the mouth-watering baklava are a must try.
Nisantasi is a well-kept secret of the locals when it comes to shopping – not a surprise since it is a true shopper’s paradise. The sidewalks are filled with fashion boutiques while the backstreets comprise of achingly inviting local cafes and restaurants. While enjoying a meal in one such café a little birdie told me about how they have another undisclosed shopping market kept away from the tourists – Laleli, on the Asian side of the city. The stone embellished and hand embroidered gowns here would surely get you an envious look when donned. The famous Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is in accords with many people’s image of paradise when it comes to shopping for leather and jewelry. The Turkish rug buying experience at the Grand Bazaar is a grand spectacle, but beware – most of them are actually made in China. The salesmen at the Grand Bazaar are great conversationalists, so if you need to pour your heart out swing into one of the shops, and Turkish hospitality also gets you a free cup of tea, but maybe not the best carpet.
Those seeking to buy an authentic Turkish handmade carpet should go to the stores that are set up before you enter Grand Bazaar – not only are they stores but also workshops where you can experience the entire process from its inception to possession. The vibrant part of my personality completely felt at home at the spice market, which is a part of what the locals called the Old City. The stimulating, bright colors of the artifacts left me spellbound. I couldn’t hold myself back from picking up the local spices and their specialty – dried fruits and vegetables. After an exhausting day of shopping, the idea of a relaxing Bosporus cruise starting from the Spice Market was something I personally couldn’t resist. As I sat gazing at the setting sun, turning the water into liquid gold I wished that this moment last forever, while I was trying to take in all its beauty. At night the galaxies seem to descend like diamonds as I sat gorging on a sumptuous meal on the cruise.
When it comes to unraveling the soul of a city, it’s culture and heritage is the most integral aspect. The most celebrated spot in Istanbul is the Blue Mosque, or the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, as the locals call it. The mosque gets its name from the handmade Iznik style blue tiles, which decorate the insides of the mosque in different tulip styles. When you enter the interior you can’t help but let out a gasp marveling at the craftsmanship. Standing in the mosque I could sense the peace and stillness within; the aura of calm made me feel as if time had come to a standstill as I stood taking in all the serenity. Abreast the mosque lies the magnificent Hagia Sophia, initially constructed as a church, then converted into a mosque when it was captured by the Ottoman imperialists in 1453. What especially gained my admiration and respect was how Islam and Christianity were beautifully represented under one roof. The Hagia Sophia is the second most visited monument in Turkey, and after having been a mosque and a church in the past, it was finally secularised in 1935, when the Turkish government turned it into a museum. The Topkapi Palace lies in the same proximity as these two marvels, it served as the residence and administrative headquarters for the Ottoman Sultans in the 15th century.
It is spread out over a vast area and is divided into four courtyards each dedicated for a specific purpose. I truly enjoyed exploring the museums it held inside, and the religious room that held many scared objects – right from the footprint of Prophet Muhammad to the sword of King David – and to top it all off, the rod that let Moses part the Red Sea according to the Exodus in the Bible. The architectural grandeur is impressive and awe-inspiring, but its interiors seem humble when compared to the Dolmabahçe Palace the sultans later built. Contrary to the modest past residence of the Ottoman Empire, this palace has a contemporary style that oozes comfort, luxury, and splendor.
Overlooking the marvelous Bosporus Strait, I could imagine the sultans leisurely idling in their balconies in their spare time. One of the highlights of my trip was swinging by the Basilica Cistern, which was a shoot location in the infamous Bond movie – From Russia With Love – such a fangirl moment. The cistern was built in the 6th century and it took nearly 7000 slaves to complete its construction. It is the largest cistern beneath the city of Istanbul. You must catch the twin-block carved Medusa head pillars since it is still a mystery as to how they got there. As dusk approached, I hastily made my way to the Galata Tower – a medieval tower more than 200-feet tall, which was mostly used to spot fires during the Ottoman period. Now it stands tall amidst the city.
Subsequent to such feverishly busy days I was yearning for some downtime, I was highly pleased when it was time to shift to my second hotel, the Çiragan Palace Kempinski Hotel. Built in 1867, this property is a perfect balance of heritage and extravagance. There is a silent splendor to the palace hotel – grand but reassuringly soft. I felt like a Disney princess living in her happily ever after home; the spa and hammam wouldn’t have you feel any other way. Their heated outdoor infinity pool overlooking the luminous blueness of the Bosporus stole my heart. Even though the property is tremendously widespread, a member of the staff is just a glance away. Surrounded by premium restaurants and eateries I accidentally stumbled upon the Ortaköy vicinity – a ten-minute walk from the hotel.
The locals surely wouldn’t thank me for letting out this under-the-wraps spot of theirs. This whimsical area bordering the water has many cafes, tea-houses, and restaurants that seem to be born of love, warmth and a sense of abundance. It’s claimed that Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If the world were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Somewhat surprisingly, Istanbul seduced me in a way no other city has. This exotic city for me has become a place of love, indulgence, laughter, and opulence. I’ve only scratched the surface of this centuries-old cultural capital of Turkey, and have been hungry to explore even more ever since. Until we meet again, Istanbul.