Istanbul - where east meets west

Istanbul is one of the world's great cities with a population of more than 11 million. It also has an amazingly diverse society, thanks to its role as centre of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires and a city, quite literally like Turkey as a whole, straddling Europe and Asia. That makes it a fascinating destination for visitors.

For our visit we chose the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul. This is the historic district on the European side with famous sites like the Aya Sofya (or Hagghia Sophia), the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar and much more. There is a broad range of hotels to choose from – ranging from up-market hotels to hostels – in this area. We selected the Best Western Acropol hotel which is very well located for the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya, Topkapi Palace and within reasonable walking distance of the other attractions in the area.

The Blue Mosque at night

The Best Western Acropol staff could not have been more helpful (someone told us before we left in Istanbul the question was not so much 'How can I help you?' but 'How much can I help you?').

But, it is important to note that this hotel fronts onto a very popular street of outdoor bars and restaurants, so there will be sounds of merriment from outside into the small hours during the summer. Then, in the early morning, you may be woken by the morning call to prayer - but surely that is part of the experience.

We also found the air conditioning rather ineffective and – having noted the welcome bonus of wireless internet – the gremlins on our floor meant it did not work, meaning a walk to reception or the outdoor cafe area to connect.

We flew from KLM from Amsterdam to Istanbul, but there are direct flights from many UK airports. Remember to check the visa requirements. For most European visitors you need to go to the visa window to purchase your visitor visa, before joining the immigration queue.

Walking around the airport we were approached by a hotel transfer company who offered to take us to the hotel and back. Yes, we probably did pay a bit more than we might have (and subsequently we have heard that it is cheaper to book through the hotel), but the service was efficient and the driver did sterling battle with the traffic.

Put it this way, we thanked our lucky stars that we had not even contemplated hiring a car. Driving in Istanbul is a bit like a game of chicken, accompanied by incessant hooting of the horn. It's a skill we would rather leave to the locals. Even in the little street in front of the hotel, the traffic regularly came to a honking standstill as cars inched past each other.

After settling in, we set off walking up the hill to the park between the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. It was a magnificent introduction to Istanbul. We stood in awe as the sun went down, and the mosques around the city struck up their amplified call to prayer.

It was one of those travel experiences that will stick with you forever - standing between a 1,400-year-old place of worship and one of the world's greatest mosques dating from 1616. Which way to look? During the summer, starting in May there is a son-et-lumiere display.

The Aya Sofya was the first port of call the next day. It is a breathtaking place – all the more so when you consider the history. It was built between 532 and 537 AD as a Christian church, to replace the previous church which had been destroyed in a riot. For a thousand years it stood as the largest cathedral in the world.

Aya Sofya interior

The vast interior of the Aya Sofya

When Constantinople (Istanbul as it was then known) was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the church was converted into a mosque. The Christian mosaics were plastered over.

In 1935 It was secularised and turned into a museum. Some of the mosaics have now been uncovered. You look around and the vastness and history are almost overwhelming, then you notice details like the marble doorsteps worn down by 1,400 years of worshippers.

The Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmed Mosque) on the other side dates from the 17th century. It gets its name from the blue tiles which adorn the interior. Construction was ordered by the young Sultan Ahmed at the age of 19. It is said that he supervised the construction closely and even worked alongside the workmen on occasion. That would suggest there is no truth in the apocryphal story that he asked the architect for gold (altim) minarets, but actually got six (alti) minarets.

However it happened, the Blue Mosque is one of a quite limited number outside Mecca to be surrounded by six minarets.

Blue Mosque interior
The tiled interior of the Blue Mosque

The mosque is open to visitors outside prayer times. You will have to remove your shoes before entering and it is courtesy for women to wear a head scarf and both sexes to cover knees and shoulders. It is worth the effort. The interior is beautiful and quite bright and airy thanks to the magnificent tiled interior.

Topkapi Palace is a chance to see how the other half lived. Allow yourself at least a morning or afternoon and do purchase the additional ticket to visit the Harem.

One of the things you will find as you walk around Sultanahmet is that the inevitable encouragement to patronise the shops and restaurants. In our experience – although persistent – it is always done politely and with good humour. The best way to respond is with a similar banter in return, while politely refusing – unless of course you do want to enter the store or restaurant.

Grand Bazaar

Similarly, there are carpet sellers everywhere. They will come up to you near the tourist attractions and start the conversation by offering a bit of advice: "The Aya Sofya is closed, it will be open in the morning", or similar. They then ask where you come from and, mysteriously, they almost always have a connection with your home town! That gets you into a conversation, which usually leads to the punch line: "I have an uncle/cousin/brother who has a carpet shop".

Again polite refusal and giving as good as you get is the order of the day. Go along with the banter. If you do get inveigled into a shop, be quite clear whether or not you want to buy, because the sales operation will be quite sophisticated! We know. Having sworn we would not go into a carpet shop, the sales patter worked for one charming man who walked us to his nephew's shop!

Another place to watch you do not get carried away is the Grand Bazaar. This is a vast undercover market with almost 60 covered streets and 4,000 shops with jewellery, leather coats, T shirts and much more. Again the encouragement to buy will be considerable.

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, dating from the 6th Century, was only re-discovered in the 17th Century

Once in any of the shops the sales patter will be considerable and the demonstrations dramatic (how about stamping on a Turkish tea glass to prove it is strong?). You will be expected to haggle. Although alien to may Westerners, it is also carried out with politeness and humour and you should join in the game.

Another sight worth adding to your Istanbul itinerary is the Basilica Cistern. Dating from the 6th century it stored up to 18 million gallons of water from the Belgrade woods, brought to the cistern by aqueduct. It was only rediscovered in the 17th century when French archaeologists noted that locals were fishing through holes in the floor, using buckets!

The cistern has 336 marble columns and two carved heads of Medusa taken from previous buildings. It remains a mystery why one head is upside down and the other is on its side.

We reckoned four days gave enough time to visit most of the sites in the Sultanahmet and also to take in a sail on the Bosphorus. As far as eateries are concerned we ate in the hotel on two occasions at street restaurants twice, but the most outstanding dining experience was Konuk Evi, in a garden tucked round the back of the Aya Sofya. On a warm evening you sit in the garden, or if there is a chill in the air, you sit inside in a grand conservatory.

With ever more attractive prices on flights, Istanbul is becoming very accessible. I hope you find it as fascinating as we did!

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