You couldn’t make Istanbul up. Standing at the steps to Yeni Cami (literally the ‘New Mosque’, though it dates from the 1660s), I’m surrounded by what seems like every layer of life. There are throngs of tourists. Muslims pile out from prayer. An old man hawks Galatasaray football flags. A boy blows bubbles. Vendors sell simit (Turkish bread) and selfie sticks. Women breeze by in kaleidoscopic headscarves. Taxis and trams cram the Bosphorus quays. Death is here, too. As I stand, soaking up the comings and goings close to the jam-packed Spice Bazaar, a pigeon drops out of the sky. It hits the pavement with an unwholesome thump. Nobody notices.
In his melancholic memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City (2005), Orhan Pamuk wrote: ‘Caught as the city is between traditional and Western culture, inhabited as it is by an ultra-rich minority and an impoverished majority, overrun as it is by wave after wave of immigrants, divided as it has always been along the lines of its many ethnic groups, Istanbul is a place where, for the past 150 years, no one has been able to feel completely at home.’
It may always have been thus. Ruled at various stages by Greeks, Persians and Romans, this is a place where east meets west, where new meets old. One moment, I’m whizzing beneath the river on the gleaming new Marmaray metro line, the next, there’s an electricity blackout in the antiques district of Çukurcuma. I float from stylised decadence in the Wyndham Grand Istanbul Kalamis Marina to the chocabloc shops of Küçük Pazar. As evening falls, and tourists mill around Sultanahmet Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, Istanbulites head for rooftop bars, or the hip dens of Karaköy.
Istanbul doesn’t give itself easily. The idea of it is romantic; the reality of its sprawling layout and snarling traffic is harder work. It can be both vibrant and vulgar. Service can be gorgeous or gruff. But once you find your inner Zen, and do as the locals do, it blossoms like a tulip. If earth were a single state, Napoleon once said, this would be its capital. He was right.
What to see & do
The Hagia Sofia: “Solomon, I have surpassed thee!” boasted Justinian on the completion of his epic church in 537AD. Converted to a mosque in 1453, today it’s a splendid museum. Skip the queue and hire a guide.
The Museum of Innocence: Is it a museum? A novel? Or simply a spectacular case of OCD? Orhan Pamuk’s museum contains 83 cases of items relating to his book of the same name, including 4,213 cigarette butts.
Istanbul Food Walks: This epic, five-hour gastro tour of the city’s bustling back streets ranges from restaurants and tea shops to markets and mosques.
The Süleymaniye Mosque: If you only see one mosque in Istanbul, make it this one, with its impressive views down over the rooftops and bustling Sea of Marmara.
The Tünel and ‘Nostalgic Tram’: Istanbul is home to the world’s second-oldest subway — a short, underground funicular running uphill from Karaköy to Beyoglu. Its clanging bell, leather straps, brass handles and reversible seats are pure Old Istanbul.
The Pera Palace: Legend has it Agatha Christie wrote Murder on The Orient Express in room 411 of this Jumeirah hotel. Save on the five-star prices with a salubrious snack at the Patisserie de Pera or a cocktail at the Orient Bar.
The Princes’ Islands: Around 45 minutes by ferry from Istanbul, these nine islands (known as Adalar) are a traffic-free haven. Cycling, chic beach clubs, horse-drawn carriage rides and overnight stays are all possible here — but avoid busy Sundays.
Like a local
Visit a hamam: When in Istanbul… show up, strip down, steam yourself on heated marble and ‘enjoy’ a vigorous scrub down. The Kiliç Ali Pasa Hamam in Karaköy is a breathtaking space for this, but you’ll need to book ahead.
Drink tea: Turks will often drink several tulip-shaped glasses of tea in one go. For something stronger, try ouzo-like raki, though locals say you should never drink it on its — or your — own.
Turkish Delight: Unless you enjoy being overcharged for inferior produce, don’t buy souvenir goodies from the main drag in the Spice Bazaar. Instead, wander a little further to this old-school sweet shop in Küçük Pazar, where pyramids of secret-recipe sweets prove impossible to resist.
Grand Bazaar: Is this the original shopping mall? Or the world’s most elaborate tourist trap? Whatever you call it, this labyrinthine collection of 60 streets and 5,000 stores is one of a kind. Get in, get lost and go with it, while remaining ever vigilant of those over-friendly carpet shops.
Where to eat
Cuma: The shady terrace and cool interiors of this hip and easygoing cafe/restaurant are a pitch-perfect antidote to the city’s hectic side. Try the firik (roasted green wheat) salad or all-day Turkish breakfast.
Karaköy Lokantasi: One of the best restaurants in Karaköy, bedecked with beautiful blue tiles and changing artwork in the corner window (a bloom of painted teacups, on my visit). Great Turkish dishes — the menu changes daily — but book ahead, as it’s always crammed with locals.
Mikla: Occupying the top floors of the Marmara Pera hotel, Mikla combines indoor and outdoor, Anatolian and Scandinavian, elegance and ambition in a space that will make you feel part of the sunset. Dishes like dried beef tenderloin with Malkara lentil humous and green tomato appear on both tasting and à la carte menus. Book ahead.
Vault Karaköy: A genius re-purposing of a 19th-century bank (check out its safe behind the cocktail bar), the House Hotel group’s newest addition is one of the city’s coolest pads. The icing on the cake is its new rooftop bar, offering tasty mezze and terrific views over the Golden Horn.
Off Pera: Asmalimescit, part of Istanbul’s Beyoglu neighbourhood on the European side, is the city’s answer to London’s Soho. It’s good for a gander, and this tiny club is poppy, lively and local — be prepared to get up close and personal with your neighbours. Arrive early (before midnight) to beat the lines. Gönül Sokak, 14
Where to stay
Büyük Londra: If you’re not fussed about fustiness, try this fin-de-siècle time capsule, built in 1892. It once accommodated guests off the Orient Express, whose style it apparently mimicked with its dark woods, heavy drapes and decorative oddities. Its budget rooms are basic, but bang in the middle of Beyoglu.
The House Hotel Galatasaray: One of several hotels owned by this savvy group in Istanbul, the Galatasaray edition is housed in an 1890s mansion reimagined by avant-garde Turkish designers, Autobahn. The 20 double suites of various sizes all include separate living areas and rain showers in marble bathrooms. They’re surprisingly affordable in low season, too.
Wyndham Grand Istanbul Kalamis Marina Hotel: Killer views of the Marmara Sea, a rooftop infinity pool and the seafood at Ouzo restaurant make this a must-stay on the Asian side. The glitzy five-star isn’t subtle, but slick rooms, a huge gym and sparkling hamam all add to the attraction.
Turkish Airlines flies direct from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham to Istanbul. British Airways, AtlasGlobal, EasyJet and Jet2 also fly from UK airports.
Average flight time: 3h45m.
Taxis are plentiful, but people grow old in Istanbul’s traffic, especially crossing the Bosphorus Bridge. Buy an Istanbulkart from any major transport interchange (like London’s Oyster card), and use it on the metro, the city bus, tram and ferry services.
When to go
Spring and autumn see lovely weather with temperatures around 20C. July and August can be punishingly hot, though there are fewer crowds. March or November could be ideal, though April is when the city’s annual Tulip Festival — best seen in parks like Emirgan, on the Bosphorus — takes place.
Need to know
Visas: British nationals need a visa to enter Turkey. Purchase prior to travel to avoid airport queues. $20 (£13). Ensure your passport is valid for six months after departure date.
Currency: Turkish Lira (TL).
£1 = 4.2TL
International Dial Code: 00 90.
Time Difference: GMT +2.
The Museum of Innocence, by Orhan Pamuk. RRP: £8.99.
Published in the December 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)