Ever since its days as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) has fascinated Westerners with its blending of Europe and Asia, east meets west. For generations, its name has conjured images of incense, magic and unbridled exoticism. Now, of course, Istanbul is a modern city just like any other: a sprawling tangle of highways, high-rises, shopping streets and high-end dining. But tucked away in the corners of the city, some fragments of that glittering past still remain for the intrepid explorer to unearth. Here we give you our guide to the very best of historic Istanbul.
In 532, the Emperor Justinian I set out to build the greatest church in the whole of Christendom. His miraculous feat of engineering and mathematical ingenuity still stands today, towering high above the old city within spitting distance of the beautifully supine Topkapi Palace.
But whereas the palace sprawls along at ground level, cutting a labyrinth figure among the trees, the Aya Sofia still dominates the skyline with its central dome – a feat of engineering so far ahead of its time it wouldn’t be equalled for centuries. Large, stark and still carrying traces of its pre-Islamic life (it was converted into a mosque when the Ottoman Empire seized the city), the Aya Sofia is like a distillation of 1,500 years of Turkish history contained within a single space. Tickets can be brought from the front gate every day.
The City Walls
Intrepid travellers who want to get off the beaten track could do worse than spending a day following the old city walls that snake along the Bosphorus and far away into the dim reaches of the suburbs. Cracked, faded and frequently missing massive chucks due to Istanbul’s lax conservation laws, they nonetheless still retain a quiet grandeur – perhaps in part attributable to that same advanced state of decay. Nothing quite stimulates melancholy thoughts about time and permanence like a meandering walk alongside these broken monoliths but be warned: you will spend at least sixty percent of your time dodging traffic and trying to navigate bewildering side streets. If you can stomach that, however, a walk along the walls may well turn out to be the most rewarding experience of your trip.
The Blue Mosque
While the Sofia has been preserved as a museum, its nearby cousin the Blue Mosque is still very much in working order. Constructed during the reign of Sultan Ahmed I, it remains beyond a shadow of a doubt the most beautiful building in the whole of Istanbul. Approached from the front it resembles a rising moon perched majestically across the horizon – inside it displays a vast, candlelit cacophony of perfectly executed Islamic frescos.
Visit during a time of worship, cover your head and be sure to keep quiet – the profound atmosphere that accompanies religious business in this most sacred of buildings is almost, wonderfully, palpable. Be sure to arrive ‘modestly’ dressed if you want to get inside.
Matbah Ottoman Palace Cuisine
It’s not just sightseers who can time travel into the heady days of old Istanbul, gourmets can also experience life as a sixteenth century Sultan – thanks to this unique dining experience. Situated some thirty minutes’ drive from the palace itself (don’t let the name fool you), Matbah’s menu is derived exclusively from ancient records of Topkapi Palace’s kitchen. In other words, you are eating exactly what a sultan would have eaten 400 years ago, reconstructed with blistering accuracy. Each dish comes complete with information on its date and the Sultans who ate it – though be warned the portions are frighteningly small given the cost. Nonetheless it remains a unique treat in this most unique of cities.
The ‘sunken palace’ is a grand, subterranean structure winding underneath the old town near the Aya Sofia. Constructed by Justinian I after Constantine’s original was destroyed during an ancient period of rioting, the Basilica took 700 slaves to build and resembles a giant, submerged courtyard – the sort of atmospheric place a character might fall into in one of the Arabian Nights. Lit by low, eerie lighting designed to simulate candlelight, the Basilica is by turns creepy, bewitching and entrancing. Perfect for visiting in winter, when few tourists venture down.
By Mike Jacobs