11 The striking red and white flag of Turkey flies high over the old and new world which combines in its capital city, Istanbul. This is where East literally meets West, with the Bosporus Strait separating the continents of Asia and Europe which Istanbul straddles so comfortably. Once called Constantinople, with the Hagia Sophia previously being the seat of the Christian church in Istanbul, this city has a long and vibrant cultural past which contrasts the cosmopolitan nature of this world famous metropole. Ultra-modern shopping malls and high end hotels on the one hand, whilst on the other bazaars and family run bed and breakfasts line the streets of the old city centre.
Istanbul is Turkey’s economic and historical centre, with the Roman, Latin and Ottoman empires all constituting part of what the city is today. While it is now predominantly Islamic by religion, it maintains a strong Western identity in the more modern parts of the city and continues to attract thousands of visitors to its shores weekly. In 2014, almost 12 million tourists visited Istanbul, with it being ranked the ninth most visited city in the world. It was named a European Capital of Culture in 2010, where it organised a multitude of events that displayed a taste of its European origins. Significantly, its historic city centre has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site, which is contrasted with the newer Golden Horn in the Beyoglu District, the entertainment hub of the city.
Sailing on the Bosporus at dusk is one of the most magical times to be had in Istanbul, as the cityscape of mosques and skyscrapers turns shades of pink and purple under a night sky full of glistening stars. The weather is perfect to be outside as it is somewhere between a Mediterranean and subtropical climate, which never reaches above 30 or below zero degrees Celsius. Take an inexpensive public ferry to either of the two main points, or else one of the private ferries will take you to more but smaller points on the Bosporus.
Don’t miss the opportunity to relax on the wharf while Istanbul buzzes around you. Soon enough, a three person walking band playing traditional Turkish music will stroll past or a snake charmer will set up their act next to you. Take time out at a hookah bar and try the local cuisine of kebabs or an offering of seafood. Walk amongst the winding streets and pick out a locally made trinket to take back home.
Neighbouring the Hagia Sophia – now a museum known for its massive dome – is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque for its blue tiled interior. It was built over a seven year period in the early 17th century. It is today believed to be the last great mosque of the classical period of Ottoman architecture. This area of the old city is a well-trodden path for millions of tourists yearly so expect to wait in queues and remember to dress modestly when visiting any mosque in Istanbul.
On the European side of Istanbul, is Taksim Square where the hustle and bustle of local life in Istanbul mixes with the same fervour of tourists congregating at the central metro station. It is not only a major transportation spot, but also hosts the grand Monument of the Republic. It was inaugurated in 1928 to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the foundation of the Republic of Turkey after the war of independence. Next door to the square, is the beautiful ‘green lung’ of Gezi Park located in the midst of the concrete jungle.
Travel along the busy Bosporus, visit a colourful market or lap up the nightlife in Istanbul; whatever you do, don’t miss out on this gem of a city. It is, in a manner of speaking, the best of all worlds.