With a land mass half the size of the state of Connecticut and a population four times that of Los Angeles, it is almost easier to think of Istanbul as a state or small country rather than the welcoming, vibrant city that it is. Possessing one of the fastest growing economies in the world, this thriving metropolis formerly known as Constantinople is a blend of European and Asian influences, at once ancient and modern, with a storied past and — one can’t help but believe — a rousing future.
“A river runs through it.” (Pun intended)
Straddling the mighty Bosphorus Strait, connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Istanbul is both a commercial powerhouse and a small riverside community. Passenger ferries ply the waterways connecting east to west dodging sailboats, crude-laden Russian oil tankers and the occasional swimmer along the way. Did I just say swimmer?? Oh yeah… that guy was nuts!! Not that there is anything wrong with being nuts.
This proximity to the river (and the Sea of Marmara) gives Istanbul a relaxed vibe. People are out and about, waterside café’s abound… and really, who cares if the river is totally fogged in today? It’s here, we’re here, do we really need anything more than that? Uhh, yeah, we do — how about some of that (so strong it will grow hair on your chest) Turkish coffee that you can eat with a spoon? Now that will really perk up ‘yer day.
The peoples’ love of the water and the fresh sea air bring out the fisherman in all of us. Imagine hundreds of people lined up shoulder to shoulder, over bridges and along promenades fishing and socializing enjoying a relaxing carefree moment in time.
With a rich history going back more than 2,500 years Istanbul has an expansive collection of ancient monuments. With its churches and mosques, sultans’ palaces and Egyptian obelisk the Sultanahmet (Old Town), Istanbul has — in its entirety — been named a World Heritage Site.
There is the Hagia Sophia (meaning Holy Wisdom) built by the Christian Eastern Orthodox Church around 537 AD, well, that was before the Latin’s turned into a Roman Catholic Cathedral but of course that was before the Ottoman Turks turned it into an impressive mosque but then that was before it was secularized and turned into the museum that it is today. Whew… I told you there was a lot of history here. What makes the Hagia Sophia worth the visit? Well, besides the eye catching architecture and plethora of history, I do believe the Hagia Sophia is one of the only places in the world where you can see an exquisite century’s old mosaic depicting the face of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary ensconced alongside large round discs proclaiming the names of Allah and Mohammed set in gold Arabic calligraphy and that my friends is something to see. Plus if you are a Dan Brown fan, his newest book Inferno takes place right here in Istanbul’s Old Town so that’s a fun ride.
Directly across the street from the Hagia Sophia is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or as it is more commonly known, The Blue Mosque. Constructed more than 400 years ago and still a working mosque today the Blue Mosque received its name from the ethereal beauty found in its 20,000 hand painted and skillfully set blue tiles. With soaring domes and expansive columns, vaulted arcades and a finely carved marble mihrab (along with a strictly enforced dress code) make the Blue Mosque a work of art in its own right.
On the other side of the Hagia Sophia is the Topkopi Palace. Built in the mid-15th century and home to Ottoman Sultans (and 4,000 of their closest friends) for more than 400 years, Topkopi Palace is a sight to behold. With opulent buildings and peaceful courtyards the Topkopi Palace sits atop a low slung cliff softly kissing the Marmara Sea with visions of Istanbul and the Bosporus Straits beyond. The Imperial Treasury is one of the more popular sights on the palace tour. Housing everything from gilded armor to gem encrusted sheaths to decorative pendants and turban pins, some set with the most enormous diamonds, rubies and emeralds that I have ever imagined. The staggering wealth of the Ottoman Empire is beyond comprehension.
Now, a trip to Istanbul wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar or my favorite, the Spice Market (which just so happens to be right next store to the 400 year old “New” Mosque another of Istanbul’s great treasures). Why the Spice Market? Well, let’s just say that “spice” is really a misnomer here unless you are using it as in — spice up your life! The Spice Market and its surrounding neighborhood are where the locals shop and it offers everything from belly dancing costumes to parakeets plus jewelry, pots and pans, Turkish delights and so much more. Think of it as a Walmart to the hundredth power where bargaining isn’t only accepted it is expected. And don’t worry about aggressive sales people — they are a thing of the past. Today’s spice market has a relaxed and friendly vibe, a mirrored reflection of what it is to be… Istanbul.
Here’s a tidy tip for ya: When visiting Topkopi Palace, spend the couple of extra Turkish Lira to view the resplendent beauty of the Harem chambers. You’ll be glad you did.