by Peter Clover
Istanbul — the honeyed sound rolls off the tongue like a mystical spell. Gilded domes, glittering minarets, aristocratic pavilions and sultans’ palaces rise amidst a vibrant, über-cool metropolis. An intoxicating fusion of warm spices and Middle Eastern flavors scent the air of an outstanding, contemporary culture, alive with all the bustling background notes of a 21st-century city.
Magnificently Turkish, it’s the only destination on the planet whose footprint spreads across two continents. One embellished slipper firmly planted in Asia, the other testing the cooler waters of Europe, separated by the majestic Bosphoros, seemingly a narrow strait yet a great slice of ocean flowing through the center of this throbbing, colorful city.
This impressive central waterway never fails to thrill with its ever-changing panorama of passing ships — from working oil tankers, grimy tramp steamers and fishing caïques to gleaming yachts, gin palaces, flashy motor launches and slick ocean liners. The mercurial mood of the Bosphorus remains a constant backdrop to the magic of Istanbul. When night falls and the crescent moon hangs with the stars over the water, the party begins.
What to See
The magical waters of the Bosphorus divide the city between the romantic ideals of Europe and the intoxicating hubbub of Asia. Along these shimmering shores mighty empires have risen and fallen, palaces have crumbled, myths born and voyages begun. With so much to see, where do you begin?
Topkapi Palace is a typical tourist stop, but also the cultural symbol of imperial Istanbul. Built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1459, Topkapi Palace showcases the heart and pride of the historic Turkish empires. The sultan’s harem, royal gardens, peeling frescoes, religious relics and tiled mosaics are all breathtaking in the context of their own historic beauty. The glittering jewel house isn’t bad either yet, sadly, nothing’s for sale at any price!
Istanbul Modern is the contemporary art museum, set in a stylishly restored warehouse in the old dock district of Tophane. Check out the permanent exhibitions, conceptual installations, cinema, art library and photographic exhibitions that chronicle the changing face of a diversely enchanting Istanbul. There’s also a splendid restaurant with a terrace on the Bosphorus offering an astounding view of the city.
Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly one of the most important and imposing religious buildings in the world; the gravity-defying domed basilica remains an architectural wonder, providing the blueprint for countless Ottoman-era mosques. Sparkling with gold mosaics, Hagia Sophia is surely the ultimate, must-see Byzantine building in Istanbul.
Built more than 1,000 years after Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is a divine statement of voluptuous domes and gorgeously spindly minarets. The interior space gleams with the dreamy hue of blue Iznik tiles from which its name derives. The trip by ferry to the fine arts Sakip Sabanci Museum is half the fun. Set in a sumptuous private villa, the often-overlooked museum is one of the best in the city. It has touring exhibitions (recently Picasso and Rembrandt) along with its own collections concentrated on exquisite Ottoman calligraphy. Plan your visit in time for lunch on a terrace overlooking the strait.
If you do one thing: The Basilica Cistern
Subterranean depths and a sunken palace known as the Basilica Cistern are not for everyone, yet this marvel of Byzantine engineering remains unmissable. Invisible beneath the streets of Istanbul, it’s an urban fascination in the bowels of a 1,500-year-old building supported by 336 ancient columns. Look for the twin blocks carved into snake-haired Medusas, and the lazy carp idling in the shallow waters.