"If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul."
-- Alphonse de Lamartine
A shopkeeper's offer of apple tea served in tulip-shaped glasses provides a simple grace note to the grandeur that is Istanbul. Friendly people, delicious food and dazzling sites and scenery await the visitor to this exciting city, which straddles Europe and Asia.
The sight of the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, made me feel I was standing at the world's crossroads. Previously known as Byzantium and later Constantinople, Istanbul has been inhabited for more than 5,000 years. Today it is a dynamic city, blending East and West, ancient and modern, with layers of history and culture awaiting discovery.
The day begins with the Muslim call to prayer at dawn, before the sun appears. The "ezan" is chanted six times daily, summoning the faithful to prayer. I welcomed the chant each morning, because from my window I could watch the sun rise over the Asian shore, a misty pink and orange glow spreading across the skyline.
Political unrest in Taksim Square preceded our 2013 visit by a few months, but we felt entirely safe during our time there. Though it is a metropolis of almost 14 million people, Istanbul is a manageable city to visit and is ideal for the independent traveler. Major tourist attractions are centrally located, while other fascinating sites and unique neighborhoods are easily accessed by tram, subway, bus and ferry.
Beyoglu, the hilly district north of the Golden Horn, was our home base for a one-week stay. Our fifth-floor apartment, near Galata Tower, afforded views of the Bosphorous and the Asian side of the city. Even more spectacular was the view from the large rooftop terrace, which our apartment shared with other residents. From the terrace, the panoramic view included the Blue Mosque, the Haghia Sofia and Topkapi Palace, all located in Sultanahmet, the Old City. Beyoglu is a vibrant area of shops, restaurants, museums, churches and consulates.
We spent our first evening there, enjoying a delicious dinner of mezes at Asmali Cavit. Mezes are small plates of appetizers, often served in such profusion that they comprise a complete meal. Smoky eggplant dip, calamari, delectable bits of sausage, composed salads, grains, roasted peppers, grilled artichokes and olives: They are the perfect accompaniment to wine or raki, the anise-flavored liquor, which is the signature drink of Turkey.
The next day we received an orientation tour from the apartment manager, Davide. He helped us purchase subway cards and familiarized us with the routes we'd be using.
From Beyoglu it is easy to reach the Old City, on foot or via tram, by crossing the Galata Bridge. I recommend walking, to enjoy the marvelous views of the city and the Golden Horn inlet. The bridge is lined with fishermen, and the waterway is crowded with colorful ferries and fishing boats. The bridge leads to the Eminonu waterfront, from which one can wander and explore the mosques and markets of this quarter.
The Spice Bazaar, also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, is a swirl of smells and color, with countless stalls offering beautiful displays of herbs and spices. We discovered Sen Baharat, one of the covered stalls just outside the entrance and returned several times over the course of a week to purchase fragrant saffron, special spice blends for seafood and meats, lemon saffron salt, tamarind root and dried pomegranate seeds. The shopkeeper, like many we met in Istanbul, concluded each transaction with the offer of tea.
The world's oldest covered market, The Grand Bazaar, is also one of the world's largest buildings. It comprises 61 covered streets and more than 4,000 shops. Carpets, jewelry, textiles, copper, ceramics, antiques, musical instruments, leather slippers and every good imaginable can be found under the magnificent colorful domed ceilings. Mosaic glass lamps sparkle at every turn and the raucous sounds of commerce create a pulsing energy. It is an overwhelming sensory experience, not to be missed.
Afterward, it might be a good idea to visit the nearby Cemberlitas Hamam for a traditional Turkish bath. The hamam was designed by Sinan, the greatest architect of the Ottoman Empire. The steaming, soaping, scrubbing and vigorous massaging takes place in separate "hot rooms" for men and women. Both rooms have beautiful domed ceilings supported by graceful arches and marble columns.
The glories of the Blue Mosque, the Haghia Sophia and Topkapi Palace are detailed in every guidebook to Istanbul and will be highlights of any trip there. A visit to Sultanahmet to tour these sites will take the better part of a day to enjoy. The Hippodrome and the Basilica Cistern are among other fascinating sites in this quarter. On our day there, we also stepped in to the Kybele Hotel, to view its dazzling collection of unique lamps, which sparkled like jewels.
On another day, a ferry ride across the Bosphorous took us to Kadikoy, on the Asian shore. It was bracing to be on the water, viewing sights on the Asian side, such as Leander's Tower and Hayderpasa Station. A short walk from the ferry terminal is the Kadikoy Market, a delightful and relaxed street market featuring wonderful food stalls, shops and restaurants.
A Bosphorous cruise is another highlight of a visit to Istanbul. The view of the skyline from the water is one of the greatest city views in the world. Options abound, from luxury dinner cruises and yacht charters to the local ferry. We chose the Nostalgic Bosphorous Tour on the ferry departing from Eminonu Pier, for the modest cost of 25 Turkish lira ($12) per person. For about four hours on a beautiful day, we floated north towards the Black Sea, past the ornate Dolmabahce Palace; waterfront Ottoman era villas, called "yalis"; fishing villages; and Rumeli Hisari, the imposing "Fortress of Europe" built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452. The cruise included a stop in Anadolu Kavagi, on the Asian shore, where we debarked and had the choice of several waterfront cafes for a lunch of freshly caught fish.
That evening we strolled along Istiklal Caddesi, a bustling pedestrian thoroughfare, for our first visit to Kenan Usta Ocakbasi, a noted grill restaurant. We were lucky enough to secure seats at the counter beside the grill and soon were enjoying the most delicious lamb we've ever tasted. The thinly sliced and smokily seasoned lamb skewers were a revelation, unlike any kebab I've ever tasted. The friendly cook kept our plates filled as we soaked up every bit of flavor with the fresh, warm flat bread that accompanied our meal.
The Suleymaniye Mosque, considered the masterwork of the great Ottoman architect, Sinan, is located on the Third Hill of Istanbul, above the Golden Horn, and is surrounded by a quiet, devout neighborhood. The Mosque, with its imposing dome and slender minarets, is the center of a vast complex that includes schools, a hospital and a bathhouse. Views from the terraced gardens are stunning. Visitors remove their shoes before entering, and women are expected to cover their heads. The interior is light-filled and serene, exquisitely adorned with white marble, ivory and mother of pearl.
Toward the end of our week, we decided we needed to soak up more of the Bosphorous experience, so we took a walk along the edge of the European shore through several former fishing villages. The coastal walkway affords lovely views of the Asian shore and close-up views of the yalis, summer villas of Ottoman rulers and wealthy merchants. We took a bus to Rumeli Hisari and walked from there through the villages of Bebek, Arnavutkoy and Kurucesme, finishing with lunch at the beautiful Assk Cafe on the waterfront.
How does one spend the last day in Istanbul? We crossed the Galata Bridge and returned to "our" stall in the spice market where our friend offered us farewell glasses of apple tea. We shopped for gold earrings and table linens and then taxied to the hilltop Pierre Loti Cafe, where we sat at a table in the shade with fabulous views of the Golden Horn, enjoying pistachio ice cream and more tea. We wandered through the hilly Eyup Cemetery and took the cable car downhill to visit Eyup Mosque, filled with quiet worshippers and decorated with gorgeous Iznik tiles. We passed the Theodosian Walls, built in the fifth century, on our way back to the bridge.
That evening we went to the top of Galata Tower, for more views to remember, and then returned to Kenan Usta, our favorite restaurant. We were enthusiastically greeted by the cook and manager who remembered us from a few days earlier. Even better, we were joined by Ceren, a friend and an aspiring chef, who worked with our son in Berkeley before returning to her home in Istanbul. Mezes, raki, wine, skewers of lamb and sweetbreads followed, warmed by the Turkish hospitality which had embraced us all week. I hope to return some day, but memories of our glance at Istanbul will last a lifetime.