By Dennis Bunnik
It doesn’t take long to realise that Istanbul is one of the world’s great cities. You start to see it on the way in from the airport as you pass the ancient city walls and skirt along the water’s edge and glance across the busy shipping lanes of the Bosporus Straight.
Istanbul is a grand old imperial city – home of the Ottoman Empire and host of several others over the millenniums. However Istanbul is not a museum that exists only to celebrate its past glories. Rather it continues to thrive, taking advantage of its strategic location between East and West and its inhabitants’ strong trading heritage. Istanbul doesn’t sit still!
As a result the traffic is chaos, but they are working on that. The shopping is great with the latest European fashions contrasting nicely with traditional Turkish lamps and treats. But best of all there is a real buzz or energy about the city that can be found all over Istanbul.
Like all visitors we headed to the centre of old Istanbul to start our exploration. Here you have what is arguably the highest concentration of historic sites within one small area. Within 7 minutes’ walk of the Egyptian Obelisk in the centre of the ancient Hippodrome you’ll find the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar and the Basilica Cistern.
Over the course of the next few days we explored them all plus more. We shopped for spices at the Spice Bazaar, drank Turkish coffee at the Grand Bazaar and cruised along the mighty Bosporus.
For me the pick of the ancient sights had to be the magnificent Hagia Sophia. It was built over 1,500 years ago as a cathedral, making it 1,000 years older than St Peters in the Vatican. At the time it was the largest building in the world. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire it was converted into a mosque and remained as such for over 400 years before finally being turned into a museum. For the last 10 years it has been undergoing constant restorations. These are now complete and the scaffolding is gone which means we can enjoy it in all its glory. You won’t be disappointed.
As a close second was the nearby Basilica Cistern – a relatively recently discovered Roman underground water storage and filtration system. You enter through a narrow staircase leading down from a small building near the Hagia Sophia. Inside it is massive. With 336 marble columns supporting the ceiling it could hold 80,000 cubic metres of water. It’s an amazing place.
Beyond this my favourite spots in Istanbul, apart from the beautiful Blue Mosque, are the Bazaars. Whilst the Spice Bazaar wins in terms of exotic aromas I do prefer the much larger and more chaotic Grand Bazaar. It features over 6,000 shops under the one roof and is made up of a maze of corridors and laneways lined with traders and small coffee houses.
This is the place to grab yourself a coffee and some baklava and watch the world go by. The shopping’s okay too with lots of Turkey lamps, ceramics and other bits & pieces on offer.