Istanbul, not Constantinople
So, after 6 years we just made it back (this time with 4 of us rather than 2) to Istanbul. And confirmed that it is still our joint favourite location on Earth along with Rome. It is somewhat hard to beat. And so for those of you who’ve not considered visiting or who are wavering as to whether to go, here’s my top tips…
- Most important of all: do not be put off. Do not allow rumour or uncertainty to put you off. When we went this time, we happened to time it (yes more than a year after the park riots) but only a week after the hospital riot following the poor young lad’s death. A number of people expressed concerns, and we could understand them and expected to have to be wary. The simple fact is that we felt safe everywhere and more than that: welcome and encouraged. Even with some political problems, the Turks are a friendly people and Istanbul is a relaxed, pleasant place.
- Go off the beaten track. Istanbul has maybe a dozen major historical sites that are thrown at you constantly (eg Aya Sofya, Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Chora Church, Topkapi palace.) There are lesser sights. And then there are the unusual ones. And then there are the astounding ones. Istanbul is packed with sights like a pomegranate with seeds. Some of them require a bit of walking or extensive tram use. Go for it. It’s cheap, you’ll see things you’d regret missing, and exploration is half the fun of the city.
- Do not book a short trip. The girls behind us returning to the plane said that next time they were only booking a one-way ticket so that they can choose when to come back. They were right. Istanbul sucks you in and tries to keep you. If you want to immerse yourself in it stay for a week minimum. If you’re wanting to see whether it’s for you, do 4/5 nights, but take it from me: it is. Book longer.
- Get yourself in the mindset. Istanbul is a meeting of worlds but also a meeting of ages. It is the ancient, the medieval, the renaissance, the new and the modern as well as just east and west. Read C C Humphreys’ A place called Armageddon, or Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic, or Christian Cameron’s Tom Swan series (or might I suggest my own Ottoman Cycle!) Having a good historical context for the place will give you something you might not see otherwise. Oh, and if not a reader (why are you here again) you could watch Topkapi or From Russia With Love, or play that Assassin’s Creed game.
- Keep your eyes open. Istanbul is absolutely chock full of odd fragments. There is every chance that when you walk down a side street you will see a wall with layers of bonding tiles. It’s Roman/Byzantine. Or early Ottoman stolen style. It might be the back wall of a garage which was a monastery 1200yrs ago, or a couple of 3rd century columns supporting a doorway, or a 17th century watchtower. Nothing in that city is what it seems.
- Plan in advance. Search out everything you can find and make sure you don’t miss something just because you don’t know about it. If necessary, mail me and I will send you a fairly comprehensive list. Rank things. And go. Do it. But take maps. Be prepared. PPPPPP as they say. :-)
- Try the foods and drinks. It’s not Turkey without Koftas, good Kebabs, coffee like sweet silt, and of course yogurt and sherbert. Do not buy a fez. Only a feckin’ idiot buys a fez… like the muppet we watched wearing one while sucking face outside a mosque at a cafe table.
Given that, here are things (not necessarily the top ones you get pointed at) not to miss:
- Spend a day walking the walls. Start at the Yedikule fortress, walk the land walls, and then the sea walls via Golden Horn and then Marmara. It is a stunning journey full of wonders. It’s long, but it is more than worthwhile and you will see Istanbul from every angle.
- Go and visit the monastery of the Pammakaristos (Fethiye Camii) and explore Fener and the area around it. It is the most truly local and real area you will find and that church/museum is one of the most amazing places in the city.
- You will visit the Basilica cistern. You might visit the 1001 column cistern. There are a hundred of these water tanks in the city, but do not miss dinner at the Sarnic restaurant. Dinner in a Roman cistern among the myriad of columns is a special thing.
- Walk the Blachernae area. Some of it has been horribly reconstructed and some is under current work, but everywhere from the Chora to the Golden Horn… walk it just inside the walls. You will see a side of the city you would otherwise miss!
- The Hippodrome is hard to miss. You will find a thousand tourists being herded round it every hour. Go past the end of it and trace the Sphendone – the curved end – down and back up. If gives an idea of scale you would fail to see any other way.
- When you visit the Aya Sofya, realise that this was attempt #2 of Justinian’s church. The first version on a small scale was the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, now known as Küçük Ayasofya Camii. Try to get there. It’s beautiful.
- Istanbul is full of Roman honorific columns. Track them down and visit for a fun quest: Hippodrome columns x3. Goth’s Column, Cemberlitas, Column of Marcian and Column of Arcadius. And then look for the REALLY obscure ones.
- Take the boat trip up the Bosphorus. It’s cheap. It’s relaxing. It’s fun and it’s educational. Take the short trip for a 2hr rest. Take the long one if you want to get as far north as Anadolu Kavagi, but be prepared to eat seafood for a while then.
- Go for dinner at Palatium restaurant on Cankurtaran. It was a stunning atmosphere, an amazing meal and an all round great evening. But even more, in their courtyard you can descend into the rooms of the Byzantine Imperial palace.
- Simply: stroll. Enjoy the city. The more you wander and meet the people and find the unusual unexpected sites, the more you will fall in love with the place and the people.
And with that now in the bag, here are another 10 reasons to visit:
Fragments of the Arch of Theodosius
The Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya) of Justinian
Basilica Cistern (Birbindirek Sarnic)
Palace of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Tekfur Saray)
Rumeli Hisar, the fortress of Europe
Church of Saint Saviour in Chora (Cariye Camii)
Triumphal column of the emperor Marcian
Reconstructed section of the Land Walls of Theodosius
The Hippodrome of Constantinople as it is today.
The Bukoleon palace. Probably my favourite single place in Istanbul…