It would be best to know Istanbul information if you are planning to visit here for your vacation. Knowing this place will surely make you more appreciative and ready for your trip here. Rarely will a visit to Turkey exclude the burgeoning, chaotic, confused, messy, muddled, and glorious wonder that is Istanbul. Istanbul is home to a layering of civilization on civilization, of empire built on empire. It’s as momentous as Rome, as captivating as Paris, and as exotic as Bangkok (this last is potentially a bad thing).
A city that straddles Europe and Asia, Istanbul is a symbol of greatness, coveted historically by everyone from Xerxes all the way down the historical dateline through World War I, when Russia was green with envy over the possibilities of what free passage through the Bosphorus Straits could do for its economy.
Even today, foreign commerce gets a free ride as hundreds of thousands of sometimes oversize and hazardous ships stream up and down this epic waterway.
The traditions inherited from 2,500 years of history are most evident in the Old City, known as Old Stamboul or Sultanahmet. A stroll through this historic peninsula will reveal ancient Roman hippodromes, peristyles, and aqueducts, the greatest excesses of the Byzantine Empire, the mystique and power of the Ottoman Empire, and the relentless hassling by the merchant class.As a religious center (heart of the Greek Orthodox Church as well as the Islamic faith for centuries), Istanbul is the custodian of one of the world’s most important cultural heritages and home to some of the world’s most opulent displays of art and wealth. Early Greek civilization left us the building blocks for Rome and Byzantium, which swathed these earlier foundations in rich mosaics and left its mark in monuments such as the Hippodrome and Ayasofya. Even Fatih Mehmet II was astounded at the beauty of the city he had finally conquered. The Ottoman dynasty redirected the city’s fortunes into the imperial majesty of undulating domes and commanding minarets, and the sumptuousness of Topkapi Palace.
Across the Golden Horn is the modern heart of the city, heir to the future of the country, pulsating with all the electricity of a cutting-edge international metropolis. Although the political capital sits safely in the heartland, this part of Istanbul projects itself into the world as Turkey’s ambassador of art, entertainment, music, and education.
Over brunch, the residents of the more prosperous neighborhoods along the Bosphorus revile the poor wedged into the squalid back streets of Galata, while the religious fundamentalists of the Fatih neighborhood stare out through their veils in disapproval.
All of the contradictions of a complex society in transition converge in Istanbul; the city is a microcosm of the tug-of-war between East and West and the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Many of these have-nots develop get-rich-quick schemes to capitalize on the traffic brought in by the city’s monumental past. It’s a cold, calculating, and cruel world out there, but with a little mental preparedness, one that can be easily overcome. In Rome, preadolescent gypsies prey on tourists; in New York, it’s the street dice men; and in Istanbul, it’s anybody multilingual in Sultanahmet.
Yet, however nonrepresentative Istanbul is of Turkey as a whole, however unscrupulous the merchants can be, and however disinterested much of the population may be over the city’s fantastic roots, Istanbul is so exotic, wonderful, complex, and utterly monumental, that once seen, it’s impossible to break free from its spell.
AttractionsIstanbul is a city that has successfully incorporated a rich past into a promising future — no small feat considering the sheer magnitude of history buried under those cobblestone streets.
Three of the greatest empires in Western history each claimed Istanbul as their capital; as a result, the city overflows with extraordinary sites all vying for equal time. Conveniently, all of the top sights are located on or immediately around Sultanahmet Park, but that by no means is an indication that there’s nothing worth seeing outside of that neighborhood.
700 Years of Turkish Jews
Jews visiting Turkey inevitably ask for a tour of a local synagogue, and as the default working temple in the heart of Galata, Neve Shalom is usually the first and only stop. While interesting to see (particularly after sustaining recurring terrorist attacks), a visit to Neve Shalom is far from the Holy Grail of Jewish sites in Istanbul. It’s also not necessarily guaranteed, since a pre-visit request accompanied by a faxed copy of your passport is the minimum requirement for entry. I’d recommend instead the Jewish Museum of Turkey, located in the restored 19th-century Zulfaris Synagogue.
The museum represents the vision of the Quincentennial Foundation (named for the 500-year anniversary of the Jewish expulsion from Spain) and showcases the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Turks in Turkey. The foundation’s vision came to fruition in 2001 with this anthology of Jewish presence in Turkey beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Bursa, through Sultan Beyazit’s invitation to those expelled from Spain, to the present day.
The museum/synagogue is located at Karak√∂y Meydani, Per√ßemli Sok. (tel. 0212/292-6333; facing the lower entrance to the T√ºnel funicular, Per√ßemli Sokak is the first alley to your right; the museum is at the end of the street on your right). The museum is open Monday through Thursday 10am to 4pm, and Friday and Sunday from 10am to 2pm. Admission is 5YTL ($3.70).
Catch the Ottoman Mehter Band Outdoors
That must-see Ottoman Mehter Band that I tout so much no longer requires that you head over to the Military Museum in the middle of your day. There’s now a performance every Friday, an hour and a half prior to noon prayers, right in front of the Ey√ºp Sultan Mosque. After the music and a visit to the mosque complex, hop onto the brand new cable car for the 2-minute ride up to the top of Pierre Loti Hill.
A Sweet Shop Near the Spice Bazaar
Wandering around the spice bazaar, you can really work up an appetite. Across the Galata Bridge at the Karak√∂y seaport is the humble (and famous) G√ºll√ºoglu (tel. 0212/244-4567) sweet shop, where you’ll find the best b√∂rek — a cheese- or meat-filled pastry that’s feathery and delicious. They also keep their glass cases full of baklava.
See the Whirling Dervishes
The Sufi Music Concert & Sema Ceremony (ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes) is held on the first and last Saturday of the month at the historic GalataMevlevihanesi, DivanEdebiyatiM√ºzesi, GalipDedeCaddesi, at the end of Istiklal Caddesi in T√ºnel (tel. 0535/210-4565).
From October to April the ceremony is at 3pm; from May to September it’s at 5pm. Go 15 minutes early for a front-row seat in this finely decorated octagonal hall. If you miss this one, there’s an alternative concert of Sufi Music and a Sema Ceremony every Tuesday and Saturday at 7:30pm in the open hall off platform no. 1 in the train station at Sirkeci(tel. 0216/449-9081; www.emav.org).
Tickets are 25YTL ($19); the ceremony lasts about an hour. (Note: please call ahead to confirm showings, as schedules do change.)