As one of the most popular destinations in the world, Istanbul might not require a formal introduction; but with Oman Air flying daily to Istanbul, from June 1st, the time is right to ‘talk turkey’, on the whys of visiting Istanbul.
With the imprint of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires stamped all over it, Istanbul is a veritable cauldron of historical artefacts and architectural edifices, adorned by invisible motes of old world charm that float freely around its impressive structures and busy alleyways. For, Istanbul is not just about tourist attractions that are oft-quoted as must-visits by frequent travellers; it is also about its obvious time-warped milieu, which is neatly juxtaposed with modernity.
If you are a first-timer to Istanbul and want to clearly soak in its history, culture, food, shopping and experience that lucid frozen-in-time mood, the following checklist of top 10 things to do in this wondrous capital of Turkey would be a good guide to start planning.
1. Cruise the Bosphorus
Whether you like cruise trips or not, visit Bosphorus to experience the place that has such a rounded sound to its name. It has a very onomatopoeic feel, making you want to connect it with all the rhyming words; but an interesting name is not all that makes this place so special. It is a natural strait that connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. It is a strategic waterway, with its shores presenting a kaleidoscope of the city’s charms. A ferry trip to Bosphorus will ensure that you savour the quietude that comes when nature makes a bid for it. You could opt for a full Bosphorus cruise that will take you up to the mouth of the Black Sea, or simply go on a scenic cruise to get a feel of the place. There are also sunset cruises, which could ensure a communion with nature itself.
2. Shop at the Grand Bazaar
It is called ‘Grand’ for a reason. More than 5,000 shops spread over 60 streets, plus an equal number of eateries and more than a dozen fountains. The sea of shoppers checking out the fare, the frenzy of bargaining and jostling for space, the celebration of everyday human activity – Grand Bazaar promises you (if you are an incurable shopper) an indulgence like no other. The Bazaar, which dates back to the 15th century, is an institution in itself. Even though old timers are wont to sound you off about the tourist traps that work in shopping zones, Grand Bazaar has its own distinct personality that will endear you to it and get you to explore its streets, shopping or not. But if you have shopping listed in your itinerary, check out the array of carpets, leather items, souvenirs and ceramic products that are retailed in shops here.
3. Marvel the Ayasofya
Ayasofya or Hagia Sophia is history itself. Its lineage, first as a church and then a mosque and now a museum, speaks for itself. Historians classify it as one of the world’s greatest architectural achievements. Also known as the ‘Sanctuary of Wisdom’, it has several astounding features that will make you wonder how such a structure was conceptualised and erected nearly 1,500 years ago. It contains two floors that are centred on a giant nave with a massive dome ceiling. After several years of restoration work, the Hagia Sophia was opened in 1935 as a museum for visitors to see exquisite calligraphy work, Byzantine mosaics, eye catching tiles and the sheer magnitude of the depth and space created by the domes.
4. Check out the Topkapi Palace
Some places grab your eyes, pin your senses to their façade and hold you by your hand to lead you into its sanctum. Topkapi Palace is one of them. It is a sight to behold with kiosks and pavilions erected on the lush green courtyards. This is the place where several generations of sultans are said to have resided. While here, don’t forget to check out the Harem, the Palace treasury and the weapons room. And, if you like a measure of nature with your history, walk all the way to the back to catch sight of the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.
5. Stopover at the Blue Mosque
It is blue and it is awesome. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Istanbul’s famous destination, is another must-visit place to feel the city’s richness in history and architecture. It is supported by elephant foot pillars and has a central dome balanced by four semi-domes. Called the Blue Mosque owing to the blue tiles (20,000 ceramic tiles) surrounding the walls of its interior, it is a historical mosque that does entertain visitors who follow the rules. Built in the 17th century, it was designed to complement the Hagia Sophia.
6. Walk along the Istiklal Avenue
Imagine walking on a road that has no sign of traffic – no horns blaring, no hurry to cross the road, bliss, would you say? It certainly is in Istanbul’s popular Istiklal Avenue. It is a 1.4km long pedestrian walkway that is said to be frequented by as many 3 million people every day! Just the sheer number of people walking along this avenue creates an imagery of a happening place. The walkway is popular for its myriad attractions: boutiques, cafes, bakeries, cinemas, night clubs… Take a walk on this avenue and feel the exuberance of the city – or simply take the tram to Taskim Square.
7. Go fishing at the Galata Bridge
The iconic Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn, is just what the travel doctor would have ordered if you have a strong fishing vein in you. Not only can you watch locals trying their luck fishing, you could also indulge in the activity. The bridge attracts several local men, creating a visually attractive scene. And, if you are keen, get your hand on a fishing rod and bait and join the enthusiasts in the early morning hours. But even if fishing is not on your agenda, you could walk along the bridge and feel the vibrancy of the place.
8. Drink a cuppa of Turkish coffee
Are you a coffee person? But even if coffee is not your morning booster, no visit to Istanbul can be complete without a cup or two of its famous coffee. While there are several coffee shops that can give you a perfect shot of Turkish coffee, one outlet that has endeared itself to visitors is the Mandabatmaz, which has earned distinction for its authentic Turkish coffee.
9. Tuck into traditional street food
Tucking into street food is a very touristy thing to do; one that cannot be dismissed on the grounds of health or nutrition. Even if you are sceptical and want to toe the caution line, visit one of the food zones in the capital to see the streets come alive with diners of every ilk. Check with any local around and you will get a list of must-eat foods – including a range of popular desserts – to experience Istanbul’s culinary expertise. Your Istanbul trip cannot be complete without tucking into the ever-popular Baklava (filo pastry stuffed with chopped nuts and coated with honey) or the traditional Lokma (sweet fried dough).
10. Indulge your body in a Turkish bath
The Turkish Hamam. You ought to experience a Turkish hamam before you bid adieu to Istanbul. For the uninitiated, a hamam is a traditional Turkish bath, with options for self service, traditional bath or other styles that suit your taste. The popularity of hamams can be gauged from the fact that there were close to 240 hamams in Istanbul in earlier days. 60 of these are still operating, which certainly is a must-try activity while in Istanbul.
A visit to the the historical Çemberlitaş Hamam located on Divanyolu Street is highly recommended.
Plan your trip to Istanbul this Eid holidays and experience its myriad wonders.
Starting 1st June, Oman Air flies daily to Istanbul; for more information visit www.omanair.com.