Istanbul GP 2012
There are any number of clichés about Istanbul – and nearly all of them are true. For the Orient of the Turkish Delight ads, see a belly dancing show; for a bridge between the East and West, take the Bosphorus bridge to Asia; for sheesha smoking, coffee drinking, kebabs, Turkish baths, you name it… it's all here. But the last two decades have added great complexity to the city's character, creating schisms between the traditional and modern, the secular and Islamic, the urban and the rural. Though, we hasten to add, it's all bound together in a peculiarly magical and harmonious whole.
Apart from high society celebrities dropping in for some exotic colour, Istanbul's first real taste of tourism was the arrival of the hippies in the 1960s who came to retrace the silk road. These first impressions have coloured much of the subsequent tourist trappings, and the oldest and most beautiful part of the city has largely been abandoned to tourists, with hotels, hostels and carpet shops overrunning the former seat of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. As the city continues to change and develop to reach European Union standards, the infrastructure is improving but, thankfully, its character is still intact and there's increasing scope for exploring away from the busiest tourist areas.
Sultanahmet is the Istanbul of postcards and history. This small peninsula was the seat of power for two of the world's most important empires and has witnessed more history than most continents. Sultanahmet Square (Ayasofya Meydani) is the obvious place to begin exploring, as most of the city's major monuments are just a few minutes' walk from here. The square acts as a forecourt for what was, for close to 1,000 years, the greatest church in Eastern Christendom, the Haghia Sophia. The existing structure was first dedicated on 26 December 537 by Emperor Justinian. Years later, after the Turkish conquest, it was to serve for five centuries as the chief mosque of the Ottoman Empire; it is now open to all as a museum.
Directly north of Haghia Sophia are the walls shielding the imperial enclave of the Topkapi Palace. Part command centre for a massive military empire, part archetypal pleasure dome, the palace was the hub of Ottoman power for more than three centuries. In terms of lavish decor and exquisite setting, it beats most buildings in Europe hands down. Essential must-see elements include the Harem, the Imperial Treasury and the views from the innermost courtyard.
To the south-west of the palace is the Yerebatan Sarnici, the grandest of several underground reservoirs that riddle the foundations of this part of the city, forming a calm and magical respite from the bustle above ground.
The Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, with its six minarets and curvaceous architecture, is the obvious mosque to visit, but if you only visit one, make sure it was designed by Mimar Sinan. Find your way to Suleymaniye, behind the Grand Bazaar, for architecture, or to Rustem Pasa, a mosque located near the Galata Bridge – both among the best.
For a shopping experience that's truly a world apart, head to the Grand Bazaar. Made up of a vast maze of interconnecting passages, the bazaar has its own banks, baths, mosques, cafés and restaurants, a police station, a post office, not to mention the thousands of shops, all glittery and fairy-lit in the absence of natural light. It's no longer the biggest shopping centre in the world, but it can still claim to be the oldest.
Buying and selling aside, the area around the bazaar is packed with historical monuments and other diversions, not least of which is the Çemberlitas Hamam. This bathhouse has been in business since 1482, offering picturesque history along with soap suds and steam cleaning, and is one of the city's best maintained and cleanest. If you've never been to a hammam before, this is a fine place to start. In addition to a straight scrub, services also include pedicures, depilation treatments and the famous limb-numbing massage. Men and women bathe separately. A tip for the uninitiated: women keep their underpants on while men remove their underwear (and retain dignity with a towel).
Downhill from the bazaar quarter is the Golden Horn. The water is spanned by the modern Galata Bridge (complete with under-slung bars and cafés), which links the old city with the new to the north. Beyoglu is the commercial and cultural centre of town and a hive of activity and development. The real backbone of the area is the pedestrianised Istiklal Caddesi, though as it gets increasingly busier, its radius of shops, cafés and restaurants is expanding. The best and most recent developments are the cosmopolitan hangouts of Cihangir's Akarsu Yokusu, down Siraselviler Caddesi, the ‘French Street' behind the Galatasaray Lycée (the birthplace of the famous football club); the alfresco restaurants and bars of Tunel at the southern end of Istiklal Caddesi; and the terrace bars starting to appear on the tops of buildings. The huge numbers of police patrolling the main street at night suggest it is more dangerous than it really is.
(Half day morning tour)
Tour of "Sultan Ahmet Center", the heart of the "Old City" from where the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires were ruled.
(Half Day Tour)
Bosphorus Cruise, through the waterway separating the two continents, Europe and Asia.
(Half day afternoon tour)
Half day visit to Topkapi Palace, Imperial residence of Ottoman Sultans and Suleymaniye Mosque
(Night Tour with dinner)
A 1001 nights experience with a fine dinner watching spectacular orient entertainment shows
Byzantine & Ottoman Relics (Daily)
A combination of Istanbul Classics and Ottoman relics tours
Contact the Grand Prix Events Travel Team for further information.
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