9 unmissable experiences near Istanbul's new mega-airport
- 13 November 2018
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Last month saw Istanbul open the first section of its new $11.7 billion airport. This means that millions more tourists will be roaming Turkey’s cultural and historical capital, but there is plenty for them to do, of course. Here are the top nine things that simply should not be missed.
1. WRANGLE A DEAL AT THE GRAND BAZAAR
Dating back to the middle of the 15th century, this is the grandest of bazaars. Even when the Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi popped through back in 1638, it was home to 3,000 shops!
Back then, it was an open-air market, but these days, painted arcades and smart, white pillars hold up solid brick domes over the world’s largest covered bazaar and one of Istanbul’s most-visited tourist sites.
Several gates with the royal emblems of various sultans lead into 61 streets, where everything from jewellery and leather goods to ceramics and antiques can be bought. This is the place to bag yourself a bargain.
2. TUCK INTO A DELICIOUS BALIK EKMEK
The waft of delicious, freshly fried fish will guide you to these mackerel-sandwich stalls on the banks of the Bosporus near Eminonu, where men cast their rods in the gaps between bobbing cruise ferries.
As the vendors skilfully flip mackerel on hot plates, you’ll hear gulls circling overhead, hoping someone accidentally drops one (they don’t). Once the fish is stuffed into a soft, white bap and garnished with a handful of lettuce and thinly sliced onion, they are transformed into one of Istanbul’s most popular and tastiest street foods. The audible crunch of the crispy salad perfectly complements the soft, fleshy fillet, salted just right by the waters of the Marmara.
3. BE BLOWN AWAY BY THE BLUE MOSQUE
Dome upon dome seem to descend from the heavens, flanked by six iconic spindly minarets, on this legendary Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Also known as the Blue Mosque because of the 20,000 dazzling handmade blue iznik tiles that decorate it, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque overlooks the Imperial Topkapi Palace and the Hagia Sophia. In a city littered with stunning Ottoman mosques, this is the one all the crowds will be headed to.
Inside, the immense central dome is 43 metres high, with a huge, circular wrought-iron chandelier dangling from the middle. High above, 200 colourful stained-glass windows flood the interior with a rainbow of light, creating the feel of a Byzantine cathedral. That is hardly surprising, as Sultan Ahmed I commissioned the mosque in 1609 to compete with the Hagia Sophia, Byzantine’s greatest cathedral, which sits directly opposite.
4. GRAB A PIECE OF CLASSICAL OTTOMAN ART AT THE OLD BOOK BAZAAR
Sahaflar Carsisi, or the Old Book Bazaar, is a bibliophile’s haven tucked away down an alley next to Gate 7 at the Grand Bazaar. On sale here are genuine ancient Quran pages, selling at $1,000 a leaf, as well as modern books.
But most tourists come here not for the books but the Turkish miniatures. These delicate, colourful scenes are hand-painted by skilled artisans, many of whom claim to trace their teaching lineage right back to the Ottoman era.
They are made by taking an old Persian or Arabic book that has no real value besides its age and painting the miniatures in the classical style on it, drawing on an ancient tradition that has been unchanged for centuries. Do yourself a favour and haggle for one before this skill disappears completely.
5. WATCH THE TURKISH EL CLASICO
If you can, time your trip to coincide with Turkey’s equivalent of football’s El Clasico, when Istanbul’s clubs Fenerbahce and Besiktas play against each other.
When these local rivals go head-to-head, the city is truly split. First played in 1924, the contest has a ridiculously fierce atmosphere, and the football is equally frenetic and thunderous. Think Manchester United vs Liverpool and Real Madrid vs Barcelona, but with fans twice as crazy.
In a city straddling two continents, with Besiktas hailing from the European side and Fenerbahce from the Asian, this is also a continental clash, and fans have actually rioted in the past.
As a tourist, you will be safe, so come along, soak in the crazy atmosphere, and enjoy the spectacle. Head to either ground; they’ve both been described as “cauldrons” by visiting supporters and players!
6. STARE IN AWE AT THE HAGIA SOPHIA
You’ve heard the legends about the city’s mythical cathedral built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, like the one about the church’s dome being so immense only angels could’ve placed it there.
Rising from the horizon like a celestial body long before you set your eyes on the city’s walls, the cupola of the pinkish-red megastructure comes into view and leaves you mesmerised. Nothing you have ever seen can compare.
The stupefying effect the Hagia Sophia has on visitors continues as they enter. The interior is a dazzling testimony to the Christo-Islamic life the building has sustained, but the highlight is the immense dome. At its base, a ring of windows floods the eyes with light, and when one stares up, it seems as if the dome is afloat!
7. VISIT THE “SINAN” MOSQUE
To visit Istanbul and not pay homage to the greatest Ottoman architect that ever lived is to visit London and not cast eyes on a Christopher Wren.
Mimar Sinan, the most famous of Muslim architects, was laid to rest in this city, and his masterpiece, the pinnacle of the “Age of Sinan”, is here too. The Sulimaniye Mosque, built by order of his great patron, Suleiman the Magnificent, is architecturally the finest mosque in the city.
Trust us on this one: go and have a look for yourself. This was when classic Ottoman mosque architecture reached its zenith.
8. SEE RELICS OF THE PROPHETS
Nothing moves people quite like a religious relic, and nothing moves Muslims quite like something connected to the Prophet Muhammad. On display inside the Sacred Relics Museum within the Topkapi Palace are relics believed to be his tooth, beard strands, sandals and drinking bowl.
Nor is he the only prophet represented here; you will also find Musa’s staff, Yahya’s gold hand armour and Yusuf’s turban. These were all brought here when the caliphs of the Muslim world were Ottoman. Doubts have been expressed about their authenticity … but how much does that matter? They are certainly meaningful enough that the visitors keep coming.
9. GRAB A COFFEE IN TRENDY CIHANGIR
“It was in Cihangir that I first learned Istanbul was not an anonymous multitude of walled-in lives,” says Orhan Pamuk in his book Istanbul: Memories and the City. This may also be why expats and trendy hipsters flock to the area these days.
They can be found hanging out in the uber-cool bars and boutique cafés that line the streets that wind their way upwards. As you make your way through them, you’ll pass little art galleries, modest fashion clothes stores and organic grocers.
Most of the residents here are fluent in English, so ordering your coffee won’t be an issue when you find that perfect spot with a breath-taking view of the Bosporus Straits. Sip your gourmet caffeine hit slowly and enjoy watching trendy Istanbul life go by.
Tharik Hussain is a freelance travel writer, journalist and award-winning broadcaster who specialises in Muslim heritage and Muslim travel.
(Writing by Tharik Hussain; Editing by Seban Scaria firstname.lastname@example.org)
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