Has Istanbul Lost its Charm?

Istanbul  RudyBalasko/iStock / Getty Images Plus/ Getty Images
Photo by RudyBalasko/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

by Anthony Horowitz, The Telegraph, February 7, 2018

It has been 30 years since I was last in Istanbul and I found it hard to get my head around a city that I’m sure I remember as being more ancient and mysterious, more a bridge between East and West. It’s now modern, a lot of it still under construction.

Walking down the jam-packed shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, late at night, I could have been in Berlin, Paris… almost anywhere. H&M and Skechers are the same the world over. But the lavish sweet shops and authentic cafés are one giveaway. It’s good to see Starbucks hardly get a look in. And Charlie found us a terrific, authentic restaurant – Zubeyir – where we ate tarak and kuzu sis (both lamb) cooked over charcoal flames uncomfortably close to our table.

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As keen James Bond fans, we headed straight to the Basilica Cistern, the underground water complex built by the emperor Justinian in 532AD. It features, famously, in From Russia With Love. We shared it with about 1,000 extremely noisy children – all in all, more annoying than SMERSH – and sadly, unlike Bond, tourists can’t take to the water.

Most of the must-see sights are in the same area – the Historical Peninsula – so over the next few days we returned for the Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.

This was a bright, sunny winter weekend. There are pros and cons to Istanbul off-season. You miss the intense heat, but that’s a large part of the city’s character. There are fewer queues, but some parts of the monuments are closed. At Topkapi, for example, we missed the famous treasure room. On the other hand, we had the spectacular harem and gardens almost entirely to ourselves. The pools were empty and the fountains not playing but once again we were alone in the opulent Circumcision Room with its gorgeous Ottoman tiles – worth the visit alone.

Hagia Sophia was looking a little sad, with a huge tower of scaffolding and plastic sheeting everywhere. Great swathes of the city are being renovated; when I walked along the Bosporus, the first mile was little more than a gigantic building site.

The Blue Mosque is as entrancing as I remember, a place of perfect peace and serenity amid frenetic tourism. But the Grand Bazaar was frankly a touch disappointing. Maybe it needed the heat but it seemed too neat and modern and I’m not convinced by the post-modernist hassling: “You’re from London? Welcome! How can I take your money?”

Paris of the East?

If you’re visiting Topkapi, I’d recommend the Palatium Restaurant for lunch nearby. It’s a quiet, friendly place. We ate good pide (Turkish pizza). And, bizarrely, the ruins of a major Byzantine palace are tucked away under the garden, accessible by a winding stairway. It’s quite unusual to wander into a site like this – almost like discovering it for yourself.

The four-hour walk to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet suspension bridge was my favourite part of the trip. My wife and I started at the famous Galata Tower, which stands in an attractive square and provides terrific views of the city... if the queues aren’t too long. The surrounding area has been home to Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities and the cobbled streets still have a curious, bohemian atmosphere.

We followed the left bank of the Bosporus, and if the rebuilding had been finished and we could have seen the water, our walk would have been lovelier. Even so, the peaceful village of Ortakoy was worth reaching; its 19th-century mosque is more beautiful than any I’ve ever seen.

Just as the sun was setting, we caught one of the hop-on, hop-off ferries and floated gently back to the city. At a very low cost, the ferries provide great views of the palaces and villas that line the water’s edge.

Our hosts had put us up in the Pera Palace, a splendid hotel built at the end of the 19th century for Orient Express passengers. Agatha Christie wrote parts of her famous novel at the hotel. Alfred Hitchcock and Mata Hari were guests and we were shown round the suite used by Kemal Ataturk – now an intimate museum. The creaky lift is a delight and you can have tea in the exotic Kubbeli Saloon.

Pera Palace Hotel | Where Agatha Christie wrote the novel

I felt safe in Istanbul and the atmosphere is generally relaxed, despite the armed guards and armoured vehicles in the streets. Every major attraction has a metal detector and I set off every one. Nobody seemed to care.

 

This article was written by Anthony Horowitz from The Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to [email protected].

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