Forget everything you’ve heard about Istanbul.
Istanbul is not wise, and don’t even think this city is going to offer you everything it has right away. You have to take the time to understand it to appreciate it.
Istanbul doesn’t fit any pattern. It is a solid, sensible, and colourful city, but in contrast bordered by the calm, grey, and powerful Bosphorus strait, which separates Asian Turkey from European Turkey.
Istanbul is a meeting point of two worlds: Asia and Europe. With political and commercial influence and thanks to its position on the map, this city used to separate the two continents and then bring them together according to its mood.
Nowadays, Istanbul is confronting its history and traditions as it transitions to modernity. The Istanbulites always bet they would succeed in combining the two, and they were right.
Speaking of Istanbulites, they never run; they are never late. They’re hard workers, but know there is a time for everything. This unhurried approach is a big part of the charm of the city.
Start at Taksim Square
A good place to begin your exploration of Istanbul is Taksim Square, in the European part of the city. Taksim is more than a meeting point—it is a symbol belonging to the people, and famous for its surrounding restaurants, shops, and hotels. A walk along İstiklal Avenue—where just the old red streetcars are allowed—will bring you to the top of the hill, going down to the Bosphorus.
On nearby Meşrutiyet Avenue is your first stop: the Pera Museum with its private collection of Orientalist art consisting of works by European and Ottoman/Turkish artists. Further on is the Galata Tower built by the Genoese in 1348. Dominating the skyline, this is one of the city’s most striking landmarks and offers a panoramic vista of the peninsula and its surroundings.
After crossing the Bosphorus to the historic neighbourhood of Sultanahmet in the heart of Old Istanbul, pay a visit to the magnificent Topkapi Palace and its gardens. The sprawling palace was one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years, and is home to large collections of everything from porcelain, robes, and armour to Ottoman miniatures, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and murals, and a display of Ottoman treasures and jewelry.
Other nearby must-sees are the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, as well as the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts and the Archeological Museum. The latter houses a collection of over a million artifacts representing almost all the eras and civilizations in world history.
There’s also the Basilica Cistern, built in the 6th century and the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar can be reached from Sultanahmet by tram. The bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, spanning 61 streets with over 3,000 shops.
Next, make your way to the Constantinople Walls—not just for the historic walls alone, but because a treasure awaits you there: the Pammakaristos Church and its splendid Byzantine mosaics dating back to the fourteenth century.
The Asian part of town across the Bosphorus can be reached by ferry from Kabataş (it costs the same as a subway ticket). On the way you will see the Maiden’s Tower (also called Leander’s Tower), protecting the city from its little islet in the strait.
On the other side, visit Fethi Pasha Grove, a large park that has a scenic view of the Bosphorus Bridge and the European side of Istanbul. Heading from there to the Kuzguncuk neighbourhood, I recommend making a stop at Dilim Bakery and sampling some of its large choice of pastries. A few good restaurants are also hidden off the main street—yours to discover.
To gain real insight into the local culture and its cosmopolitan atmosphere you have to lose yourself in the tiny streets of the Karaköy neighbourhood, such as south Beyoğlu and north Karaköy. Here, you’ll discover the modern-day Istanbulite lifestyle.
Take a seat at a good restaurant and order a bottle of wine originating from the Aegean coast or southeast Anatolia. After your meal take a long walk getting back to your hotel. Design shops and gastronomic restaurants are concentrated in this area; you will feel as if you are walking in Rome.
Istanbul is always full of surprises, and each is an invitation to come back. You might even feel irresistibly drawn into the Istanbulite lifestyle after three or four days. It’s easy to get used to, difficult to get rid of.
Ottawa-based Tristan Postal is the head of Maison France à Ottawa, which promotes the economic and cultural relationship between France and Canada. He is also completing a degree at the University of Ottawa.