Istanbul: A City of Many Colours
For travellers, Istanbul is so much more than a bargain hunter’s dream. Throughout history, Turkey’s former capital city possessed all the power and status of a cultural and political superpower at the heart of both the extensive Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. These days, Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage is combined with the frenetic activity of a modern, cosmopolitan city. Tourists can explore ancient city walls and traditional mosques and churches by day, and enjoy an exhilarating social scene by night.
History buffs will tell you that the city of Istanbul was originally known as Byzantium. Colonised by Greek settlers in approximately 680 BC, the city had a seaside location that soon meant that it became an important centre for trade. This was especially the case for luxury goods such as silks and exotic spices that passed through the city on their route from East to West. Captured by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in 196, Byzantium was integrated into the Roman Empire. The city flourished as a centre for arts and culture and quickly became the political capital for the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It was renamed Constantinople (Constantine’s city) under the rule of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, and became an important centre for Christianity; the world’s largest cathedral, the Hagia Sophia – transformed into a mosque, and now into a museum – is still open for tourists to visit in the present day. Economically weakened by the crusades, Constantinople was inevitably conquered by the Turkish nobleman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. The Sultan founded an Islamic dynasty – the Ottoman Empire – lasting over 600 years.
Modern Istanbul is a cultural melting pot of both Christian and Muslim heritage and architecture. Though Ankara is now the capital of Turkey, Istanbul continues to be an important city for trade and tourism. Sitting at the crossroads of two continents (Europe and Asia), the city is divided by the Bosphorus, a strait of water frequently navigated by ships on a European cruise as well as by trade ships on their way to Asia and the Black Sea.
Now you’ve swatted up on the history, time to get yourself out and about for that authentic Istanbul cultural experience. If you’ve already checked out the Galata Tower, Rumeli Hisari, Topkapi Palace (where you can also grab a bite to eat and have some Cherry juice… yum!) and the Blue Mosque and still don’t have flagging feet, what better way to get to know the city than by shopping? The Grand Bazaar is just the place to do just this – everything from traditional spices and silks to handbags, shoes, and jewellery, to lamps, shishas, vegetables and sweets are on display and ready for you to buy. Haggle to your heart’s content as there are no fixed prices – those prepared to pay the price tags’ face value are missing out a valuable lesson about Turkish culture, as well a great deal!
Now take a break at one of the street cafes or shisha bars offering refreshing mint teas, baked goods just dripping with honey, and real Turkish Delight. Café Meşale just behind the Blue Mosque has live Turkish music and dance performances to accompany your meal.
Nightlife options in Istanbul are just as varied as everything else in the city; from traditional wine bars to Turkish taverns, roof bars to nightclubs, there is a wealth of experiences to be had. The bars, basement jazz cafes, and traditional Turkish venues of the Beyoğlu district provide an easy-going indie atmosphere; everyone is welcome, and will undoubtedly be quizzed as to his or her origin! Rooftop venue Kumbaracı Yokuşu has a mellow atmosphere with music and cocktails that make it the perfect place to start out the night. Follow up this up, perhaps by dropping into Arpa Bar, just a short walk away. If you’re feeling like a touch of glamour, head over to Ortaköy and attempt to get in to The Reina. An upmarket club, it hosts several different restaurants and bars. It’s exclusive, expensive, and there’s a dress-code, but it’s great for celebrity spotting.