Istanbul is a promise of paradoxes like no other and therein lies its eternally captivating appeal. Its spirit is epitomised in the Hagia Sophia, an incredible architectural treasure and a dazzling centerpiece on the city’s skyline for nearly fifteen centuries.
The glamour of a sparkling seafront drive along the Marmara and gracious hospitality of blooming tulips greets you in Turkey’s most famous city. Momentum builds at the crumbling Roman walls whispering the timeless legacy of a millennia-old metropolis with 7th-century Greek roots as ‘Byzantium’.
Deeper into the city built over seven hills, there are conspicuous reminders of an imperial capital that survived 16 centuries and three empires as Constantinople. First as the hub of the Eastern Roman Empire, then as seat of Ottoman Sultanate in the 15th-century, a reign that finally ended around World War I.
Istanbul still lounges languidly on its original strategic location beside the electric blue Bosporus Strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, where two continents collide. No virtual tour beats the multi-sensory thrill of actually being there. Pencil-thin minarets overshadow chrome-glass high-rises, Byzantine mosaic-laden churches vie with hip bars and maze-like bazaars give stiff competition to inventive art museums.
On the European side of this mystic-modern city, in a peninsula formed by the Golden Horn Harbour, stands the UNESCO World Heritage area of Sultanahmet, where a slice of remarkable history unfolds. Expect an ensemble of eye-popping landmarks.
But first, the inimitable Hagia Sophia.
Hagia Sophia: the keystone of destiny
Its familiar silhouette is visible for miles along the Marmara, but that does not take away from the first flush of sweet surrender the Hagia Sophia (‘Divine Wisdom’) evokes. Under the shadow of giant buttresses, pewter-hued domes, and soaring minarets of the massive edifice, even the most jaded of travellers reboot with anticipation.
Inside the cool sanctuary, echoing footsteps offer evidence of flawless acoustics until you are just one threshold away from the grand reveal. Struggle to recall an apt adjective to describe the colossal nave bathed in amber light that filters from the 40 arched windows. Vaulted arches, galleries and semi-domes melt together in a silent symphony to engineer an extraordinary space, which could inspire modern-day architects to push the boundaries of futuristic design thinking.
Stone and marble columns from Ephesus, Egypt, and Syria, speak of the might of the Byzantine empire. Flickering candles and low-hanging oil lamps enhance a glossy marble floor mimicking rippling water. Suspended Islamic calligraphic roundels contrast curiously with Byzantine Christian artworks. And the piece de resistance pulls the eye 180 feet overhead to a 105-foot dome embellished with exquisite calligraphy of the Verse of Light from the Quran. Deliriously deep into drama, prepare for its fascinating story.
After the Nika Riots of 532 AD ravaged Constantinople’s timber-roofed "Great Church”, 6th-century Emperor Justinian the Great envisioned a Basilica of epic proportions to eclipse the glory of the Biblical Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem.
Hagia Sophia went on to fulfil the Emperor’s ultimate fantasy by commanding over the Eastern Christian world as the mother church for nine centuries. Then, as now, the grandeur of the basilica lay in its enormous dome, which was ingenious in its pairing with the rectangular basilica format, a revolution made possible with pendentives, semi-domes and quarter domes. When the dome collapsed after the earthquake of 558 AD, a new, stronger, balanced dome was built, by increasing its height, using lighter bricks, and adding 40 windows around the new dome. As the magnum opus of Byzantine architecture, Hagia Sophia became a magnet for pilgrims on account of precious sacred relics, which are believed to have included Christ’s crown of thorns and even his blood. The irrevocable symbol of Ottoman imperial power held its own, even after Turkish regent Sultan Mehmet II stormed the bastion in the mid-15th-century, declared it a mosque and rechristened it as Ayasofya.
Famous Ottoman architect Sinan upgraded the monument by adding enormous flying buttresses and twin minarets on the west side. In 1935, the secular Turkish Republic converted the mosque into a museum. In July 2020, this conversion was reversed, and The Hagia Sophia Holy Grand Mosque was reborn. Hagia Sophia continues to aptly mirror the ever-bubbling culture cauldron of Istanbul.
Take time to walk through the shadowy passages on the upper floor, where brilliant Byzantine eulogies to Christ are being painstakingly restored. Fading, fragile frescoes hide in plain sight, fragmented mosaics glisten on patchy surfaces and elaborate carved reliefs peep through layers of grime. Finally, treat yourself to drone-like views of the nave from the rear galleries, saluting the Greek mathematicians and an army of 10,000 craftsmen, who brought an inconceivable concept to life. One that shaped not just the skyline, but even the destiny of an entire land and its soul, Sultanahmet.
Sultanahmet: giant heirloom of the past
Hypnotic hangover of Hagia Sophia to scintillating spectacles of Sultanahmet, there is never a dull moment in store. Start by unveiling the mysteries of a 600-year empire at the Topkapi Palace. The royal residence of 26 Ottoman Emperors is overloaded with lusciousness - prized jewels, rich tapestries, fine porcelain, rare paintings, and holy Islamic relics of Prophet Mohammed. Gloat-worthy excesses include the 86-carat (17.2 grams) Spoonmaker’s diamond and the jewel-encrusted Topkapi dagger.
Heady doses of enticement are promised in the rose-studded manicured gardens, shoreline pavilions with ivory-inlaid thrones and the intrigue-shrouded harem with Iznik-draped walls. Dig into a platter of Middle Eastern meze at the terrace of the Karakol Restaurant on the palace grounds, with drop-dead views of the Bosphorus, while you contemplate the life and times of sultans, wazirs and concubines.
Drift over to the nearby Basilica Cistern, an ancient water purification system, which stored 100,000 tons of water for the palace. The enormous underground vault sports 338 mismatched columns made from repurposed Roman relics. Now a subterranean venue for exhibitions and events, it oozes enigma with subdued pools of red lighting. Navigate the wooden walkways, spot fish in the shallow water underneath, squint at Byzantine architecture and seek the upside-down head of Medusa.
A short walk away, you can visualize the grandeur of the Hippodrome, built as a ‘social centre of the world’ by the Byzantines to accommodate an audience of up to 50,000 citizens. No artwork plundered from across the world stands except a granite obelisk from Egypt, dating from the time of the pharaohs. Sometimes, less is more.
Larger than life magnificence awaits at the Blue Mosque, built to complement the fame of Hagia Sophia in the early 17th-century. The harmonious blend of Byzantine and Islamic styles is unmistakable. Hunt out the 20,000 blue tiles that drape its interiors and give the mosque its name.
Tulip motifs to geometric patterns, each wall screams artistic finesse.
Slip away from the mega sights in the back streets, where backgammon-addicted patrons squat on low stools outside coffeehouses, puffing on shisha and sipping crimson-coloured Çay (aromatic tea) from clear tulip-shaped glasses or thick bitter Turkish coffee. Onto the Süleymaniye Mosque, Sinan's 16th-century masterpiece, built for Süleyman the Magnificent, mesmeric with its delicate woodwork, mother-of-pearl window shutters and painted corbels. Fans of the offbeat can hit up the modest Rüstem Pasha Mosque to get dazed by a blaze of vibrant Iznik-studded interiors. Think blues, greens, and purples in all possible hues.
Beguiling bazaars and beyond
When it was the last stop on the legendary Silk Road, Istanbul lured throngs of merchants from foreign lands searching for the rare and the enchanting. The Grand Bazaar, buzzing hub of Mediterranean trade, still retains its magical aura, despite the touristy kitsch factor. Flow with the unending human stream through one of the 22 gates and get happily lost in the labyrinth of 61 streets where 4,500 stores tempt with all that is - Turkish. The discerning eye can spot handcrafted artisanal wares like Iznik tiles, kilim, silk carpets, miniature portraits, vintage tea-sets, antique lamps, perfumed soaps, and delicate pashmina. Take it up several notches with a made-to-order belt buckle or a customized brooch. Even better, attend an Ottoman jewellery workshop taught by a master.
The big switch to the present
Classic yellow Taksis ply and fishermen cast lines for mackerel along the entire length of the two-tier Galata Bridge that leads to modish Istanbul. The neoclassical facades of the old Genoese quarter sprawling around the medieval Galata Tower are a great backdrop for people watching. For a touch of nostalgia, sip drinks at the Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie penned ‘Murder on the Orient Express’.
Then parade the pedestrian shopping mecca, Istiklal Avenue, where high street brands, glitzy nightclubs, historic cinemas, and ornate arcades occupy Art Nouveau buildings until you reach Taksim Square. Atmospheric bars in bohemian Cihangir are favourite hangouts to disappear in the din of rock, jazz, blues, gypsy ballads and Turkish pop.
Fifth Avenue-ish urges can be satiated at the upmarket Nisantasi, where international labels rub shoulders with fashion-forward Turkish designers. Close a hectic day with a two-hour wellness ritual in an opulent Turkish bathhouse (hammam). Stripped and sweaty on heated marble, then scrubbed, washed, and massaged before being wrapped in clay, zone-out in a cooling area with a platter of Turkish delights and fruits into a brand new you.
Cruise the blue Bosporus
The sliver of blue between Europe and Asia is perpetually speckled white with peakish currents and peckish seagulls. Indulge in a private yacht to experience the city differently. Keep the agenda simple - sun-soaking, champagne toasting and sumptuous lunching. Beside shameless ogling at waterfront yalis and Pasha villas, including the Ottoman rulers’ European-fantasy homes, Dolmabahçe Palace and the Beylerbeyi Palace. Notice Mehmet II's hilltop Rumeli Fortress as you glide towards Princes Islands. A pitstop plan to include is Buyukada, a residential oasis, where ornate houses and horse-drawn carriages still bask in the charm of an aristocratic age.
Miss out Istanbul’s Asian side at your loss
The Asian side is the surprise package of Istanbul. Its nerve centre, Kadıköy has an even more modern vibe than the Taksim area. From the cool bars and street art of Moda, to the style quotient of Bagdat Avenue, wander through the mosque-littered Üsküdar, and Jewish architecture-laden Kuzguncuk, Asian Istanbul is one of the best places to dive headlong into authentic Turkish food, a blend of Ottoman, Greek, Middle Eastern and Eastern European flavours. Browse the local food markets in Kadaköy learn to cook a Turkish meal at a local host’s mansion or go overboard in a food walking tour. From melt-in-the-mouth kofte and shish kebab to street foods like simit, lahmacun to dolmas and kuru fasülye, it is an endless gorge-fest of time-honoured delights. Pair your meals with sherbet, ayran or raki for the best effect.
An Arabian night’s dream
A Sufi evening with whirling dervishes in the terminal station of the Orient Express, an active morning of rowing in the calm waters of the Golden Horn, or a therapeutic session of paper marbling, Istanbul is an endless smorgasbord of delights. Lively and mystical, spicy, and sensuous, she is an ethereal dream and a decadent reality. Lyrical lure of the last azan or a thousand spires etched against a melting sunset…what will be your reason to return?
Where to eat and drink
Enjoy classic Turkish dishes or inventive gastronomy accompanied by a wide variety of fine wines in a contemporary styled restaurant boasting wide-open Bosporus views from the terraces of Ulus 29.
Mikla, located on the rooftop of chic Marmara Pera Hotel, promises impeccable service, great food and views of both Asian and European Istanbul. Expect a brilliant fusion of Scandinavian and Turkish cuisine like raw grouper with olives and lemon, and Turkish coffee vanilla slice with raspberry sorbet.
Fashioned out of an Ottoman imperial palace and hotel bang on the Bosphorus, Çırağan Palace Kempinski offers an extravagant Sultans’ Dinner. The waterfront Tuğra Restaurant serves authentic Ottoman cuisine with a modern twist.
Satiate your appetite for Ottoman palace cuisine at Asitane. Think purely age-old recipes like almond soup or vine leaves stuffed with sour cherries and kavun dolması (whole melon stuffed with seasoned lamb).
Drop into one of the four branches of Haci Bekir, the confectioner who created the Turkish delight of today. Recommended flavours besides the bestselling pistachio and rose are ginger, mint, cinnamon and pomegranate.
Pay mandatory homage at Sekerci Cafer Erol and Karaköy Güllüoğlu and be blessed with a perplexing array of Turkish desserts, from baklava to sticky lokum, fruity kaymakli kayisi and almond paste candies to every kind of sweet sensation. The highlight here - undoubtedly - is the original and delicious - Turkish Delight.
Staying within Istanbul
Choosing a neighbourhood to stay in such a huge city can be a daunting task. Stick to the European side, especially if you have a short itinerary. Pick modern Beyoğlu (Taksim, Şişli, Beşiktaş) for its cobbled roads, trendy cafes, and pedestrian shopping. For a more historic vibe, your best bets are Sultanahmet, Eminönü and Fatih across the Galata Bridge. From opulence to discreet luxury, there is a tempting range of high-end accommodations in Istanbul.
Navigating the city
An hour drive by private taxi will transport you from Istanbul Airport to downtown. The ubiquitous yellow Taksi is convenient. Hiring a car is not the best idea on Istanbul’s congested roads. Convenient ferries shuttle between the Asian and European sides. Explore the neighbourhoods and backstreets on foot.
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