A metropolis of more than 15 million people, and historically one of the world's most vibrant cities, Istanbul has always been a mix of Western culture and Eastern exoticism.
Straddling the continents of Asia and Europe, Istanbul is the only city in the world with this distinction. But this is not news, as Turkey's largest city is known for its rich past. First settled by the Greeks, the city was originally called Byzantium. Later, the Romans took over and changed the name to Constantinople, after the emperor Constantine the Great. It officially took the name Istanbul in 1930.
The Bosphorus, a narrow strait connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, separates Europe from Asia, allowing Istanbul the best of both heritages. Extraordinary palaces, markets, mosques, churches and monuments, all a stunning reflection of its glorious history, can be seen throughout the modern city.
Istanbul's two sides are linked by two bright red bridges, which oddly resemble the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco. The city's most luxurious hotels are along the Bosphorus, with stunning views across the straits.
I recently spent a long weekend in Istanbul, and much like the late Anthony Bourdain in his popular TV show The Layover, explored the best the city had to offer in a little over 72 hours. Let's begin at Taksim Square, the heart of modern Turkey, where the Turkish flag flies high at the Republican Monument, erected in 1928. Taksim is surrounded by shops, cafés and restaurants. It's a downhill walk along Istiklal Street towards Galata Tower. Along the way, look out for cinemas of yesteryear, historical passages and St Antoine's church with its striking neoclassical architecture.
Built in the 14th century, Galata Tower is a medieval stone tower that offers a panoramic view of Istanbul. It was opened to the public in 1967. If you're not a stairs person like me, fear not. There is an elevator to the top, though you still have to climb a couple of floors to enjoy the view. Although the tower isn't very tall by modern standards, a mere 63m, it was the city's tallest structure when built. Should you require a rest, there is a restaurant and a café upstairs though the views can be blocked by the constant stream of visitors on its balcony. (Entry to the tower is 25 Turkish lira or 155 baht.)
Having worked up an appetite, I knew just what to get. At the bottom of the tower, outside the Lavazza coffee shop, was an elderly man with kokoreç ("peasant fare"). If you are as into offal as I am, this is a treat. Kokoreç is lamb's intestines wrapped around sweetbreads and grilled horizontally over charcoal. It is then chopped fine and served in crusty bread with sautéed onions sprinkled with cumin, oregano and salt. Trust me, it's offally good!
My stomach happy, it was time to take on the world's oldest shopping mall. With more than 4,000 shops selling virtually everything under the sun, the Grand Bazaar started off as a small warehouse built on order of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461. Before long, it was the bustling commercial centre of the Ottoman Empire. Over time, the market gained a roof and became the sprawling labyrinth it is today.
Beautiful lamps and ceramics at the Grand Bazaar.
Expect to forget all sense of time and direction as you navigate your way from one shop to another, down various alleys, bargaining game in full force. Turkey's vibrant coloured tiles, bowls, lamps and lights are all there in abundance, as are shawls, spices, fezzes (Moroccan hats) and swords. The vendors are extremely friendly and eager to chat. One may even get a proposal and be invited, like yours truly, to a night out with a spice vendor, after being given a sampling of "Love Tea", a delicious mixture of rose, ginseng and black tea.
I exited the Grand Bazaar with my contact details still a secret, wallet lighter, but bag heavier, with a few bars of olive soap, bowls, tiles and bags of spices for my kitchen.
It would be a shame to be in Turkey and not get my paws on its famous dessert. So I headed off to the famous Karaköy Güllüoğlu, which started as a small sweets shop in 1820. The first baklava factory in the world, Karaköy produces more than 2.5 tonnes of the sweet treat every day. It's quite hard to find a seat here and sharing a table with strangers is the only way to go. It's self- service, so order your baklava at the counter and then carry your plate and a glass of Turkish tea, plain black tea with sugar, and head to a table to feast. Needless to say, I also ordered a huge box to go.
The European side is divided into two by the Golden Horn, which further divides the old city from the new. Crossed by a number of bridges, Istanbul's most famous sites are here: the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Sarayı (Palace) and the Grand Bazaar -- all within walking distance of each other.
I began at the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet Mosque, the first in Turkey to have six minarets. This stunning piece of architecture was built between 1609-1616, during the rule of Ahmed I. Still an active mosque, Sultan Ahmet is a popular attraction, with long queues to enter. However, once you're inside it will take your breath away. The interiors are lined with more than 20,000 handmade blue ceramic tiles, in more than 50 different tulip designs. The tiles at lower levels are traditional in design, while at the upper levels they include flowers, fruit and cypresses. The floors are carpeted and the mosque requires you to remove footwear and put them in plastic bags before entering. The highest floors have more than 200 stained glass windows. Other decorations include verses from the Koran, many of them by calligrapher Seyyid Kasim Gubari.
The Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul's most impressive sights.
Across a courtyard of sorts is the largest cathedral built by the East Roman Empire, the spectacular Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya, dating from 537 AD. When Constantinople was conquered by Fatih Sultan Mehmed in 1453, the Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque. It was converted into a museum on the orders of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and has functioned as one since 1935.
Inside the Hagia Sophia are six winged angels, Islamic calligraphy, mosaics, stained glass and a dome measuring 55m high covered with gold mosaics. The sheer size of this space makes you feel like a Lilliputian gazing up in sheer awe. For centuries, this was the centre of spiritual life in the city and it's not hard to see why. The walls were originally lined with Byzantine mosaics from the gospels. As part of the conversion to a mosque, the Ottomans covered many of the original mosaics with Islamic calligraphy designed by Kazasker Mustafa İzzet.
Note that the lines are extremely long to get into the Hagia Sophia, so it is advisable to find a professional guide with priority access, so as to not waste precious time.
A kokoreç vendor outside Galata Tower.
Around the corner and a little way up the hill is Topkapi Palace, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1460. The palace and its spacious grounds were the sultan's residence and the centre of rule for the Ottoman Empire until the 19th century. Following the abolition of the Ottoman monarchy in 1922, Topkapi Palace was converted into a museum in 1924, again on the orders of Ataturk. The palace is built on a Byzantine acropolis at the tip of the Istanbul peninsula, with a spectacular view of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. The palace covers around 700,000m² and houses the Hagia Irene, royal gardens, an outer palace and an inner palace, a harem, extensive kitchens and three main gates. Take time to smell the Turkish roses in the royal gardens, also known as the Rose Garden.
The Hagia Irene in the courtyard is flanked by Janissari trees. This was the first church of Constantinople, commissioned by Constantine in the 4th century. It is one of the few ancient churches of Constantinople that was not converted into a mosque.
"To travel along the Bosphorus, be it in a ferry, a motor launch or a rowboat, is to see the city house by house, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, and also from afar as a silhouette, an ever-mutating mirage" -- Orhan Pamuk, Istanbul: Memories And The City
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a sunset cruise on the Bosphorus, offering some of the best views of the city and its magical skyline of turreted roofs and minarets. And if that's not magical enough, you may be joined by playful Black Sea dolphins, leaping into the air, their golden silhouettes set against the backdrop of wooden Ottoman mansions that dot the coastline.
Since eating fresh grilled fish by the Bosphorus is an Istanbul tradition, stop by one of the many seafood restaurants to pick up dinner as the city lights up. A perfect ending to any trip.
The Blue Mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I in the 17th century.
- Turkish Airlines offers direct flights from Bangkok to Istanbul. For travel to other parts of Europe, the Middle East or Africa, the airline has introduced a special "Stopover" campaign under which passengers spending more than 20 hours in transit are provided with complimentary accommodation.
- Economy class passengers receive one night free in a 4-star hotel while business class travellers get two nights in a 5-star hotel.
- Visit turkishairlines.com/en-int/flights/stopover or call 02-231-0300.