The Timeless Haven of Istanbul
If was Istanbul, I’d lie crushed under the weight of my history. But Stamboul is made of stronger stuff. And, to the traveller, it’s a buoyant, contemporary city, light and airy as a choux pastry. The year 2016 was an unfortunate blip in the city’s fortunes, with bombings through the year, including one at the airport in June. Expectedly, the flow of tourists dried up. By 2018, the situation was in control though, and the tourists started returning.
I flew into Istanbul on Turkish Airlines’ excellent direct flight from Delhi, where, if you’re flying business class, on-board chefs whip up gourmet meals to be washed down with Turkish coffee. I was staying in Beyoglu, an expat neighbourhood lined with boutique heritage hotels, where the Pera Palace is second to none. If you want the full Istanbul experience, this is where you must stay. Once popular with passengers arriving on the Orient Express, the hotel has hosted numerous famous personalities over the years, including Agatha Christie. If you ask nicely, they will show you the Agatha Christie room, lined with her detective novels. The room which hosted Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, is now a museum, whose collection includes a resplendent carpet gifted by an Indian maharaja. You can take the stairs to your tastefully done up quarters or choose to be whisked up in Europe’s second-oldest elevator (the first was at the Eiffel Tower). But the highlight of the Pera Palace has to be the nonagenarian pianist Ilham Gencer, who plays here daily at tea time and remembers watching Raj Kapoor’s Awara as a child.
The hotel is a short walk from Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s liveliest street. The baklava and chocolate shops and the amazing buskers will entrance you, so be mindful of the heritage tram that clangs its way down the street. A short walk downhill and you’ll be at the Galata Bridge, popular for photo-ops against the setting sun.
Istanbul is as much for foodies, especially of the non vegetarian variety, as it is for lovers of heritage and culture. From legendary kofte shops to seafood restaurants lining the Bosporus, from traditional sweet shops like Saray Muhallebicisi, which has branches all over Istanbul, including Istiklal Caddesi (Hafiz Mustafa is an uber popular but touristy alternative) to the numerous chaikhanas, where you can nurse your apple tea and shisha for hours and chat up the locals, Istanbul has it all.
At the heart of the old city lies Istanbul’s most spectacular attraction: the Hagia Sophia. Meaning ‘holy wisdom’, this monument to learning is more than 1,500 years old. If you had to choose just one tourist sight to take in properly, it would have to be this (although the Blue Mosque next door can give it some serious competition). Formerly a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral and then Ottoman imperial mosque, the Republic of Turkey converted it into a museum in 1935. Built in 537 CE, it was the world’s largest building at the time, and is noted for its towering dome. Once you’ve had your fill, join the snaking queue across the street for Sultanahmet Koftecisi, which serves the most succulent kebabs in the world.