It’s got to be Istanbul

April 18, 2011

A few days before I was due to go to Istanbul (mid-March), I didn’t get as annoyingly excited as usual. Normally, I bask in the wonderful build-up before a holiday, reminiscent of a hyper-active child on Christmas Eve. The reason for my lack of enthusiasm was all thanks to a quick Istanbul Google weather search. ‘Snow storm hits Istanbul’ read local headlines. Many people wouldn’t have minded such a forecast, but I was fed up with cold weather. I couldn’t wait for the British winter to be over.

Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about because – once I’d reached Istanbul, and throughout my entire trip – I was treated to cloudless skies and a constant appearance from the sun – a shine that seemed to strengthen every day. Spring had arrived in Istanbul. “You’re so lucky, all of this was snow yesterday,” the taxi driver exclaimed, as he drove me from the airport to my hotel, at speeds that my mother would have told him off for.

But enough about the weather and road safety. I chose to visit Istanbul because of its well-publicised status as the European Capital of Culture 2010. I’d been bombarded with too many breathtaking images of its magical minaret-filled skyline in the media, not to give in and visit. And the city certainly did those images justice.

On arrival at the hotel, my first poignant memory of Istanbul was formed. Standing on the hotel’s roof, surrounded by a pinky-blue sunset, the Sea of Marmara glittering in the distance and the famous Blue Mosque only a few yards away, the early evening’s call to prayer echoed across the city. It was the most surreal, slightly haunting sound, yet calming at the same time. And a wonderfully unique cultural experience if you have never before been to a city with a call to prayer. What’s more, it’s extraordinary that it takes merely three and half hours on a plane from London to transport you to such a different setting.

Over the next few days, I indulged in all that Istanbul had to offer. Highlights included the Sultanahmet region, the city’s tourism hotbed and once home to Byzantine emperors and Ottoman sultans. I particularly enjoyed the Aya Sofya, with its domed ceiling and huge chandeliers, as well as the sublimely atmospheric and romantically-lit Basilica Cistern, which once held 80,000 cubic metres of water, delivered via 20km of aqueducts from a reservoir near the Black Sea.

 

And Topkapi Palace more than deserves a mention, too, boasting a grand Imperial gated entrance and offering the best view over the turquoise Bosphorus, as well as an engaging insight into the lives of the filthy-rich sultans who once lived there.

 

It’s great to combine such history with a visit to Istanbul Modern, easily reached with a trip across the Galata Bridge to the Beyoğlu region and showcasing the city’s booming contemporary art scene. Housed in a converted shipping terminal, highlights at the moment include Richard Wentworth’s False Ceiling, an exhibition of Turkish and Western books floating overhead, sparking questions about cultural similarities and differences.

However, the most stand-out attraction for me was the Grand Bazaar – one of the world’s most famous souqs. With its 4000 shops and countless lanes, I was warned to prepare myself, and to make sure I was in the mood to take on the hundreds of shopkeepers who would try to lure me to their stalls. But as I lost myself amongst a wonderland of colours – candle-lit lanterns, gold, carpets and spices – I was overwhelmed with awe, and found the shopkeepers to be unexpectedly quiet, except one who got straight to the point by ordering: “Come here, I need your money”.

 

I soon realised that I had picked a good time to visit Istanbul. Yes, I had taken a risk with the weather, but going before the peak summer season kicks off meant all the sites were unusually quiet, with few queues or crowds. On my final evening, as I relaxed with a traditional Turkish tea – cay – on the rooftop of a café overlooking the Asian side of the Bosphorus, it was clear to me exactly why Istanbul was named a Capital of Culture. It’s a magnificent city and nothing would change my mind about that, not even a snow storm. Stephanie Reed.