A Weekend At The Crossroads

11th May 2012

I had always been intrigued by the very word ‘Istanbul’, says Rowena Carr-Allinson. This legendary place straddling two continents conjured up a mythical city stuck in time. It evoked Agatha Christie mysteries, sinister strangers trawling the souks and over-friendly carpet sellers. A little cynical perhaps… but no one had told me Istanbul had morphed into a capital of cool, so I was surprised to find an innovative international hub where cutting edge design sits side by side with ancient traditions.

I was disappointed, I admit, to be greeted by the 21st century, but my image of Istanbul wasn’t totally off: the place is chaos. The traffic is insane (best piece of advice we received: don’t rent a car) and the city is abuzz with energy, from tiny cobbled streets where the well-fed errant cats roam, to the chic designer boutiques. Istanbul oozes life. Hardly surprising, with a population reaching 17 million (it has tripled in 20 years), and 1.5 million cars…

It’s bewitching; exotic and intriguing, yet ‘western’: a true melting pot. The city that was Byzantium and Constantinople has evolved, but it’s clearly inherited multiple personalities from its complicated history. The diversity is obvious on all levels: architecturally, culturally and religiously…

Can you get the measure of the place in a weekend? Luckily, you can pack a lot into a couple of days. The historical sights are helpfully all grouped together on the ‘European side’ that’s divided in two by the Golden Horn (Haliç), an inlet of the Bosphorus. To the south is ‘Old İstanbul’ or Eminönü, home to the impressive Topkapı Palace built by Sultan Mehmet II in 1459 on the edge of the water. It boasts an amazing collection of fine jewellery, including one of the world’s largest diamonds: the Spoonmaker.

Just around the corner there’s the Haghia Sophia, the former Eastern Orthodox church turned mosque, often dubbed the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Across the road is the much celebrated Blue Mosque. Time your visit for the end of the day, as we did, to avoid the intense heat, the crowds and the dreaded queues.
For a spot of shopping in Sultanahmet, the Grand Bazaar (the Kapalı Çarşi) – the world’s largest indoor market – is a must. Silver, antiques, porcelain, carpets and clothes are displayed over every square inch and over-enthusiastic salesmen (evidently some of my preconceptions were correct…) will try to lure you in with cups of tea. Before buying, bargain. These guys are experts and it’s expected. The most impressive thing about the Bazaar? The array of languages that each stall holder speaks with admirable fluency, and everyone’s powers of persusaion. Even if you don’t like it, you’re pretty much guaranteed to walk out of there with a charm to ward off the evil eye.

Crossing over the Galata Bridge to Pera and Beyoğlu on the Northern side of the Golden Horn, we reach the heart of the city. Beyoğlu is the equivalent of Soho; the pavements are lined with shops, restaurants and cafés where the sweet, sultry aroma of the smoke from the hookah pipe hangs thick.

Eating out is extremely good value and the choice is extraordinary, from traditional street cafés where you can pick up a kebab for about £1 to cutting edge gastronomic establishments. Far from just koftas and kebabs, we found food in Istanbul to be an incredible treat, and what’s more it usually comes with a view.
On İstiklal Caddesi, we try the trendy ‘360’, named after its fantastic cityscape. Going in is like being privy to a secret, as you slip through a discreet entrance flanked by a couple of sturdy men in black. We follow the tea lights to the lift where an elderly chap in a tired shirt and vest awaits to open the door. Up to the top floor, and we’re in the vast industrial chic style restaurant. ‘360’ is an edgy brasserie, with a sleek bar, pristine tables and outdoor pods on the terrace where the city buzzes below. Well-to-do families, couples on a romantic date, girlfriends gossiping… all nibble on goodies from the ‘east meets west’ menu that isn’t cheap by Istanbul standards, but good value all the same. I recommend the lamb filets with smoked aubergine caviar. Delicious.

For the perfect dusk drink, we head to Mikla on the top floors of the Marmara Pera hotel. Run by Mehmet Gurs (Istanbul’s answer to Jamie Oliver), it’s all about local seafood with a Scandinavian twist. Even if you can’t stretch to the quite pricy menu, the rooftop bar, where a female DJ spins mellow tunes, is worth a stop for the fantastic city views and chilled out ambiance.

At night, the party takes place on the banks of the Bosporus (Boğaz). Hopping in a cab to Ortaköy, an area packed with stylish bars and eateries all piled on top of each other overlooking the water, we amble through the back streets and randomly pick a staircase that transports us to one of many super-swanky bars that would put Manhattan’s finest to shame. Sleek terraces are brimming with beautiful people, out enjoying the warm nights with cocktails, dinner and dancing against a fairytale backdrop of twinkling lights. It’s just the place for a drink before heading to Reina, a compulsory stop on the nightlife circuit. The mega club houses seven restaurants and, at midnight, the music is cranked up, the dinner tables are whisked away with frightening efficiency and a ‘lounge’ appears as if by magic, with plenty of vodka, Red Bull, fresh almonds and grapes…

On Sunday morning we head to Bebek, to see the charming wooden Ottoman mansions, the Yali, that now sit incongruously alongside Starbucks. We stop at the Café Kahvesi where we sample a delicious local breakfast of milky coffee, bread, honey, cheese and scrambled eggs.

As for where to stay, there’s plenty of choice from ultra luxurious to cosy budget. To really push the boat out, opt for the Ciragan Palace, the former residence of the last Ottoman Sultans, now enjoying a revitalised existence as a lavish five-star Kempinski hotel, with a gorgeous pool, the requisite view of the Bosporus and the most amazing breakfast buffet I’ve ever seen. There are plenty of hip boutique hotels too, including Sofa, a sleek, contemporary establishment ideally located in the shopping district of Nişantaşı. If you’re on a tight budget there are low key hotels and hostels in and around Sultanahmet.

The Empress Zoe would have been my first choice (had it not been fully booked) with its Turkish style rooms and rooftop terrace overlooking the Haghia Sophia.
I loved the heady, hectic cosmopolitan atmosphere of Istanbul, and can’t remember the last time I came home so enthused by a city. With open invitations from several new friends there is no doubt that I’ll go back. One, Sima, likens Istanbul to New York – ‘a 24 hours vibrant city which never sleeps!’ – adding, ‘You’ll discover something new everyday… Like a cabbage, it has many, many layers shaped differently’.

Quite right.

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