Can you imagine living in a city that straddles both Europe and Asia? Picture commuting to work on a different continent by simply taking a ferry or driving across a bridge. Residents of Istanbul do it everyday, inhabiting a unique city that blends east and west, secular and Muslim, modern and ancient.
You might consider Istanbul a relatively new city. After all, it was called Constantinople until 1923 – just under a hundred years ago. Ankara is now Turkey’s official capital, but Istanbul is still the country’s center in many ways. Although I seem to constantly walk into someone’s cigarette exhalation here, I’m too preoccupied taking in the sights (the vibrant colors…oh, the colors!) and the sounds to be bothered. The city is rich with architectural gems: palaces and mosques, bridges and towers, monuments and squares, hilltop domes and waterfront spaces. Street carts with simit (a sort of Turkish bagel covered in sesame seeds), or rocking boats producing fish sandwiches have an artistic appeal that seems more old world than new. In a cosmopolitan city that doesn’t feel entirely European, you sip Turkish tea in quaint cafes on narrow cobbled streets, and also hear the unmistakable chants that call Muslims to prayer.
Whether you refer to it as Istanbul or Constantinople, this former capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires has much history to share with you. For instance, you might have heard of this beauty:
It’s the Hagia Sophia. Or maybe you’ve seen this one somewhere:
It’s the Blue Mosque. One more; what about this one?
The Basilica Cistern. This trio is found in Sultanahmet Square, Sultanahmet – the old city. You’ll find old and new coexisting in Istanbul…it’s filled with a glorious blend of many contradictions! There’s Topkapi Palace, the Spice Market, the Grand Bazaar, and so much more that I’m just beginning to skim the surface.
Then there’s Eminönü, where you can catch a cruise along the Bosphorus. Spot the bridges connecting east and west, the Maiden Tower on its own island, or prime waterfront real estate like the old Roman fortress and Dolmabahçe Palace in the new city.
Speaking of the new city, you’ve surely heard of Taksim Square, which is conveniently lined with eateries indoors and food carts outdoors.
Walking down Istiklal Cadessi (Istiklal Street), Taksim’s main strip, you find iconic, old-school trolleys. And hey, more food! This street is known for its shopping today, but this was a residential quarter for the elite during the 19th century. Did I mention there’s a lot of food here? Warning: there are a number of pastry, baklava, chocolate, and Turkish delight shops, so be prepared for a momentary lapse of diabetic shock.
Amidst the eateries and shops along Istiklal emerges a church that blends in and yet feels out-of-place. You’re likely to notice Sant’Antonio Kilisesi, which appears quite Italian in both design and inscription. The Italian influence is evident because the church was built by Venetians when they established this area of the new city in Istanbul. Looking inside and up, you might observe the arches and wonder for a second what country you’re in.
Continuing to stroll Istiklal, you may notice the photogenic Çiçek Pasaji. It’s not the only pasaji (passageway) you’ll find in Taksim, but it’s among the more popular ones. Something about the interiors reminds me of Galleria Umberto in Naples.
In case you think the surrounding residential neighborhoods are boring in comparison, don’t be too quick to judge, because then you find stairways like this. And at the top of the stairs, a peek at the waterfront.
Most anywhere around the city you go, you’re bound to stumble on a shop selling Turkish Delight or baklava, in countless flavors, colors, and shapes.