The weekend: A three-day break taking in lavish monuments, great shopping and real Turkish cuisine
Requirements: Families interested in design, food, architecture and fashion
Fits the bill: Istanbul’s Old Town, across the Golden Horn to Beyoglu and a ferry trip to the Asian side
Budget: £600 per person
THE dark and mysterious silhouettes of the mosques and their sharp minarets pierce the early morning gloom as our first views of Istanbul take shape. Sunrise is still just a weak glow on the horizon when the first call to prayer rings out, reminding us that despite Istanbul’s reputation as a high-voltage party town, religion is still at its heart.
My husband and I are hoping that the city’s breathtaking architecture, quirky fashion boutiques and ancient bazaars will make for an ideal family city break with our two teenage daughters. Granted, visiting churches isn’t likely to top their must-see list, but my husband and I are hedging our bets that the shopping opportunities — from trendy stores to the slightly mad experience of the Grand Bazaar — will win them over.
And in terms of providing inspiration, Istanbul is more than up to the task. Equally vast, chaotic, exciting and edgy, our only worry is that we’ve crammed too much into an increasingly packed itinerary.
Fortunately, many of the main historical sights are within easy walking distance of each other within the compact heart of Istanbul, the ‘Old Town’ of Sultanahmet, making this neighbourhood a great place to base yourself. And, there’s a wide choice of hotels here, too, from five-star luxury to budget accommodation.
Surrounded by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, Sultanahmet is where emperors and sultans erected lavish places of worship and grand civic buildings, where they plotted battles and celebrated victories. Today, tourists flock here, congregating in the Square, where carpet vendors vie to lure them into their shops and away from the twin attractions of Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) and The Blue Mosque.
Our strategy for exploring the city is simple: take in a few sites in the Old Town, have a look around Istiklal Caddesi — for a taste of the modern, ‘real’ Istanbul — and the shabby-but-chic Cukurcuma district, finishing with a boat trip to the less-visited Asian side.
Sultanahmet Square is dominated by the vast, domed Aya Sofya, one of the city’s most famous monuments. It’s best visited early to avoid the crowds and to fully appreciate why a 10th-century Russian emissary breathlessly hailed it ‘Heaven on Earth’. More than a thousand years later, its shimmering gold Byzantine mosaics and looming marble pillars inspire a similarly awe-inspired reaction from my family.
Once the largest cathedral in the world, Aya Sofya has had several incarnations during its long life: a Byzantine church when it first welcomed worshippers in AD537; a mosque in the 15th century; and, since 1935, a museum. Despite repeated eathquake damaged, most of the original structure remains: the marble cladding in varying shades of purple, green and grey, and the exquisite mosaics on the upper floors. A monument to both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, it’s a perfect synthesis of both civilisations, crowned by a magnificent 100ft-wide dome.
A short walk away is the equally intriguing Blue Mosque. Built in the 17th-century, it’s still a working mosque today and a visit outside of prayer hours affords glimpses of the vaulted ceilings and their hypnotically ornate blue mosaic designs. In the queue to get in, we remove our shoes and I cover my head with one of the headscarves offered to women visitors. Joining whispering groups of tourists and locals, we pad silently across the carpeted floor. At one point, looking up, we spot a reminder that this is male turf: a balcony for female worshippers during prayers .
We stop off for lunch at Balikci Sabahattin, a family-owned seafood restaurant that’s a favourite with locals and tourists. We feast on a meze starter followed by beautifully cooked fish before satisfying my teenage daughters’ appetite for shopping, along Istiklal Caddesi.
Istanbul’s answer to London’s Oxford Street, the late Ottoman-era buildings lining this elegant pedestrian avenue offer a seamless mix of big-brand western consumerism and Turkish stores. In need of a coffee halfway along its two-mile length, I insist we pop into a branch of Istanbul’s most fashionable cafe chain, the House Cafe — its interiors designed by the award-winning Autoban Studio.
Our demanding itinerary means we can’t linger too long in the main shopping area, so we continue walking to the Galata Tower for sprawling views across the city before descending through the winding cobbled streets of the charmingly shabby Cukurcuma district, known for its antique shops stuffed with vintage toys, Ottoman-style jewellery, copper plates and housewares.
Women offer us cups of fresh orange juice while the men sip tea outside boutique windows displaying one-off garments by young Turkish designers. The prices may be beyond my daughters’ meagre budgets, but their craving for fast food — another teenager obsession — is more easily satisfied. Following the aroma of grilled meat, we’re soon tucking into steaming-hot kebabs as we walk back to Sultanahmet to enjoy the homely comforts offered at our lodgings, the traditional, Ottoman-era Avicenna Hotel.
The following day, we enjoy a new type of shopping experience at the Grand Bazaar. The original model for the modern shopping mall, this warren of more than 4,000 shops attracts a half-a-million-strong scrum of visitors every day. The eclectic bric-a-brac on offer ranges from woven pashminas, dusty brass lamps and delicately to carved jewellery boxes and dainty beaded necklaces.
Driven on by the heady aroma of spices and incense, my family are soon haggling like old pros. We soon realise that by paying in euros, not Turkish lira, it’s possible to knock the price down by half, sometimes even more. My personal highlight: spending just €20 (£17) on a bathrobe in the softest cotton. My daughter, not to be outdone, snaps up a pair of traditional slippers for her friend for €5 (£4.35).
It’s easy to lose a whole afternoon here, swapping friendly banter with the vendors as you sift for that elusive bargain. But be prepared to be hassled. When my husband and I stop to examine a rug, for instance, the stall owner is quick to pounce, eagerly trying to keep our attention by endlessly reminding us of its quality and provenance. After a while, this becomes a little exhausting, so we make our excuses and blend into the sanctuary of the crowds.
For lunch, we head to Pandeli, a Turkish culinary institution in the nearby Spice Market. My eldest daughter is delighted to spot a signed, framed photo on the wall that tells her she is following in the footsteps of her style icon, Audrey Hepburn. The menu is as traditional and classic as the decor, with favourites such as lentil soup, doner kebab, juicy lamb shanks and grilled sea bass dished up with gusto. With white tablecloths and walls clad with original tiles in a deep turquoise colour, the restaurant is every bit as charming and authentic as the critics had testified.
Instead of a traditional boat tour along the Bosphorus — the strait connecting the Sea of Marmara with the Black Sea — we take a ferry from Eminonu to Uskudar on the Asian shore, costing just 2.5 Turkish lira (around £1) one-way. Many Istanbul residents commute over the strait every day and we like to mix with the locals rather than following the tourist trail.
After the bustle of the bazaars, we’re happy to relax on the ferry, admiring the city from a new perspective and landing with not a tourist in sight, before being whisked to Kadikoy by dolmus minibus. Well worth a visit, it’s an area packed with street markets and all sorts of bric-a-brac along the back streets, as well as plenty of bars and cafes.
We pass Ciya, one of the most popular restaurants, serving great meze, kebabs and grilled meals. On the streets, there are no end of food stalls, cooking up tantalising aromas and local specialities such as creamy Kanlica yoghurt, sold in little pots. We buy sandwiches filled with grilled fish before hopping aboard our ferry and returning to the European side of the city.
The next morning, we’re off to Topkapi Palace, a royal residence in the Ottoman era, for a glimpse inside the once-ostentatious home of many a sultan. It’s worth dedicating at least half a day to exploring this magnificent palace, on a beautiful site behind Aya Sofya, with views towards the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus.
The palace was the epicentre of Ottoman power for three centuries and its history is as striking and fascinating as its serenely beautiful interior and ancient artefacts.
The Harem, with its baroque-influenced interiors, is the main attraction, requiring a separate entrance ticket. It’s an intriguing complex of more than 300 wonderfully tilted chambers, connected by elaborate arches and fountain gardens. Legend has it that the Harem was where the sultan got up to all sorts of debauched mischief, but in reality it was merely the imperial family’s private quarters — after all, the word ‘harem’ translates as ‘private’.
Although the palace grounds are heaving with visitors, it’s the perfect place to come on a hot summer day. There’s a sense of tranquility here — no vendors or traffic, just beautiful vistas in all directions. We come across foreign and Turkish visitors, Muslim couples, women with headscarves and some fully veiled in the burqa. All marvel at the richness of the Ottoman cultural heritage displayed all around them.
We walk through the courtyards to The Baghdad Pavilion in the furthest corner of the grounds, admiring both its architecture and the incredible view of the city from this terrace high above the water.
Returning to our hotel that evening, we grab our last bag of simit — a seed-encrusted pretzel sold on every street corner — and sip strong black Turkish tea, while the magnificent minarets cast shadows over what will be our last day in this all-encompassing city.
Over the three days, we’ve been introduced to a new and different culture, in which the Turks take such great pride. Apart from one taxi driver, who offered to take us on a sightseeing tour for free before demanding at least triple the normal fare, we’ve found people very friendly and always eager to help.
Shopping with all the haggling has been so time-consuming that we’ve ended up buying very little. On another occasion, we’ll be wiser, allocating extra time for tea drinking and chit-chat while we shop. But in just three days, the trip has given us so much — a flavour of the city’s historical side, as well as a feel for how it’s transforming into sophisticated, modern metropolis. A relaxing holiday? No. But it’s definitely been inspiring.
Must try: There’s a wide choice of street food, from grilled kebabs and stews with lamb and aubergine, to grilled fish sold from boats in Eminonu. Passers-by can also enjoy delicious freshly squeezed pomegranate juice.
Turkish traditions: Hamam is a great way to unwind. Being scrubbed on a marble slab makes you feel clean and relaxed after a long day’s sightseeing. Cemberlitas bathhouse in Sultanahmet is one of the city’s oldest hamams.
Turkish Airlines flies four times a day and British Airways flies twice daily from Heathrow to Istanbul.
EasyJet operates a daily flight from Luton to Istanbul.
Average flight time: 4h.
The tram is an easy way to get around Sultanahmet. Yellow dolmus minibuses from Taksim and Uskudar will drop you off anywhere along the route.
Taxis are reasonably priced, but some drivers will try to overcharge tourists. It’s best to ask the hotel to book a taxi for you.
When to go
The early summer is an ideal time to visit Istanbul, before it gets too hot, as is the beginning of autumn. Winters can be decidedly chilly and it’s not unusual to experience some snow during the colder months.
Need to know
Currency: Turkish lira (TL).
£1 = TL2.54.
International dial code: 00 90 212.
Time difference: GMT +2.
Double room from £80 B&B.
Meal from TL90 (£34) per person.
Ciya Sofrasi, Kadikoy.
Meze from TL30 (£11.65) per person.
Gunehlibahce Sokak 43.
Pandeli Meal from TL40 (£15.53) per person. Misir Carsisi.
Spice Bazaar, by Galata Bridge entrance.
How to do it
Thomas Cook offers three nights at the Grand Savur Hotel Istanbul in the Grand Bazaar from £329 per person, including flights from Luton.