Istanbul has been around a very long time – for longer than the Turks have been in Turkey. It swarms with people, having once been the largest city in the world, with as many as 17 million reputed to be there during its peak season.
In addition to being steeped in history and abounding with people, it is unique among all cities in being located in both Europe and Asia.
The architectural feature that predominates is the dome. In old buildings even quite small spaces that elsewhere would be spanned by a length of flat roof will have a dome or two instead. By the end of your stay you will be all domed-out, and with nearly 3000 active mosques in the city, you may feel within a day that you would have seen enough mosques.
If you wish to walk to most of the historical sites then you should stay in or near the Sirkeci area. From here it is a short walk to see the Hagia Sophia and Blue mosque that face each other over an ornamental garden with a pond, the Hippodrome, the cistern. There is the Topkapi Palace that dominates the skyline of the old city. A little further afield is the Grand Bazaar. A taxi ride away is the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar. And everywhere there are itinerant vendors plying their trade with varying degrees of honesty.
For this day we choose the touristy way: A Bosphorus cruise that includes a visit to a leatherwear fashion show, a tour of the elegant Dolmbahce Palace, a view of the city from Asia, and a tour of the Egyptian Market.
At the start of the tour you get collected from your hotel. In my case they decided that they could not get the bus through the street the hotel was in because the double-parked cars left too narrow a lane for it to pass. So I started off with a brisk walk of some blocks to where the bus was located. Onboard I was assigned a sticker number that corresponded to my pre-booked tour.
The bus then hurtled to a meeting point where it was met by other buses and after much standing around the passengers where eventually sorted by tour and language.
The Egyptian Market is still the chief spice market in Istanbul, and unlike the Grand Bazaar it is extensively used by the locals. There is a heady scent of spices, which used to come via Egypt in the 17th century when the bazaar was erected. It has ornamental entrances and is L-shaped. It is roofed over with a series of domes.
We encountered more delicious flavours of Turkish Delight than we ever imagined existed. There were also a surprising number of jewellery shops, which seemed to have a later start than the spice traders.
Outside, waiting for the bus the local vendors specialised in selling colognes and cheap watches.
Overshadowing the building is the Yeni Camii, a striking mosque. The bazaar rents were intended to subsidise the maintenance costs of the mosque and as such form part of the same precinct. The area used for ritual cleansing by congregants is between the mosque and the market.
From the Bazaar we were taken to the quay for the Bosphorus Cruise, from just north of the Golden Horn to just north of the Rumeli Fortress. One got to see how the other half lives in Istanbul, with many imposing and beautiful residences along the sea. The cruises are a major attraction and many cruise vessels jockey for prime position as one passes the sights, including a private island owned by the Galatasaray sports club. We also caught sight of the yacht once owned by the last Sultan that was later used by Kemal Ataturk, the founding president of modern Turkey.
After a diversion to a leather showroom where a brief fashion show of modest merit was presented in order to sell lovely but very pricey leather fashionwear, we had lunch of spicy boiled chicken (altogether more delightful to taste than the rather bland description suggests, thanks to the Turkish mastery of exotic spices) at a restaurant facing the sea.
This is an important part of the Turkish patrimony and is dedicated in part to the hagiography of the first Turkish president, who died there in 1938. All the clocks in the palace were stopped and set to 9:05, the time that he died.
The palace is under military guard, the guards being selected in part for being tall. No more than 6000 visitors are allowed on each day, who shuffle through wearing little plastic packets over their feet. Even the handrails on the staircases are out of bounds and there are attendants who remind you of that should you put a foot wrong.
The palace is sumptuous and the grand hall most extraordinarily luxurious, while the household section (the harem) had a slightly less formal aspect to it. One is not permitted to take photographs anywhere in the building, which is also strictly enforced. The grand hall was designed to impress visiting dignitaries. It doubtless succeeded. The already large space is further expanded by trompe l’oeil effects rising into the heavens, and the room is dominated by an immense crystal chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria. It was incongruously dangling above a vase, giving the impression that the vase is there to catch it if anything was to go wrong.
Being part of a tour group was a decided advantage at this palace as one was whisked through the waiting crowds and is guaranteed entrance.
We then passed over the Bosphorus bridge, that we earlier had sailed beneath, and had a good look at the European part of the city from Camlica hill, in Asia, before returning to our hotels.
So, if a day is all you have whilst stopping over in Istanbul or there on business, our suggestion would be the Bosphorus tour as it includes the cruise, Dolmabahce Palace, lunch and a ‘step over into Asia’. It costs around 60 Euro’s which is good value for money, being a whole day tour.
This is definitely a DIY travel destination, where unless you are doing an extended trip, you can do it with minimal agent assistance and mostly by yourself without too much hassle. For example, the Bosphorus cruise can be booked on line.