A city as stimulating as Istanbul forces you to use all of your available senses. It is a city of constant invigoration and uses sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste to draw out your emotions, tease them, and then leave you with an experience you won’t soon forget.
Sight: Your First Awakening
By night, the city skyline is simply stunning. Lights sparkle for as far as your eyes can see and let you know that even though the sun has gone down, Istanbul is alive. This vibrancy, this raw energy is something that you will no doubt feel in the air, but the best way to realise its potential is to open up your senses and explore.
One way to appreciate Istanbul by night is from the Galata Bridge, a historically symbolic link which, in the past, bonded the two distinctive cultures inhabiting the districts to the north and to the south of the Golden Horn waterway. From this night-time vantage point your eyes can drink in the beauty of the glowing minarets rising above the Ottoman imperial Süleymaniye Mosque. This mosque, built in 1558 with blended Islamic and Byzantine architectural elements, dominates the hillside view of the historical district of the city.
Commanding attention as it towers above a sea of lights on the opposite bank of the Golden Horn is the medieval stone Galata Tower. Constructed from wood in 507, it functioned as a lighthouse tower, but was rebuilt by the Genoese in 1348 using stone and was called the Tower Of Christ. In the centuries that followed it was used as a dungeon, a fire tower, and a sign tower. It is topped with a distinctive conical dome, and day or night, the observation deck on the Galata Tower offers unparalleled panoramic views of Istanbul.
While Istanbul is certainly breath-taking by night, your sense of sight will not be disappointed by day. The Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque is beautiful when bathed in morning sunlight, and the thousands of intricate İznik tiles which adorn the inside walls give the Blue Mosque its name.
A return to the Galata Bridge during the day will allow you the opportunity to observe all ages of amateur fisherman casting their lines off the bridge and into the blue waters below. Hundreds of fishing rods are propped against the railing and these men are an oasis of calm in the middle of a bustling city; relaxing on low-slung chairs, napping, smoking, and all the while waiting for a nibble at the end of their line.
Sound: The Auditory Delights of Istanbul
The call to prayer, adhen, is recited in Arabic and resonates through the air five times per day. The timing of the prayers is calculated according to the movement of the sun and changes with the seasons depending where one is in the world. In Istanbul, the clarity, tone, and religious significance of the adhen envelops you as it echoes through the streets of the historical district, calling the faithful to worship.
The ritual of drinking tea, çay as it’s called in Turkish, is also music to one’s ears. The sugar cube offers a muted plop as it’s dropped into the tulip-shaped glass, the spoon clinks as you swirl the piping hot liquid to dissolve the sugar, and you sip gently, yet audibly, as the çay passes from the glass through your lips.
Smell: From Roasted Chestnuts to Freshly Ground Coffee
Carts selling roasted chestnuts are dotted throughout the city. They are located on almost every corner and give off a smoky, pungent aroma. Smiling street vendors use tongs to turns the chestnuts over the hot coals and old-fashioned balance scales to weigh paper bags full of their wares. Slightly burned fingertips are a small price to pay for peeling off the shells and enjoying this delicious street food while it’s still piping hot.
Your sense of smell will surely lead you through the delicately perfumed Spice Bazaar and its array of dried spices, teas, and Turkish confectionaries, but if you follow your nose outside of the bazaar and around the corner, you will find Mehmet Efendi (Tahmis Sokak 66). It is the oldest coffee roasting company in Istanbul, in operation at the same location since 1871, and fills the entire street with the rich aroma of freshly roasted beans. The line to purchase Mehmet Efendi coffee is often long, but it moves briskly, and the prize for your patience is a package of freshly roasted, ground, and still warm coffee. All you need is a cezve and you can make your own Turkish coffee at home.
Touch: Let Your Fingers Tell the Story
Textiles spill from the stalls which line the labyrinthine streets of the Grand Bazaar, colourful and inviting to the touch. In the Spice Bazaar your fingers will soon become sticky from sampling the many sweets available. Burma kadayif, a confectionary made from golden strands of shredded wheat wrapped around chopped pistachios will leave thin threads of syrup stretching from your lips to your fingertips.
The best times can often be had doing nothing but relaxing and enjoying the warm afternoon sun as it caresses your face. In Üsküdar, on the Asian side of Istanbul, there is a café along the Bosphorus that was made for just that. Located somewhere between the Şemsi Paşa Mosque and where the Maiden’s Tower stands in the Bosphorus, it may not even have a name, but there is no better place in the city to pass a sunny afternoon. Low benches are built into the banks of the river, strewn with rough cushions, and covered with the tangled limbs of the city’s sun seekers, sipping çay and Turkish coffee.
Taste: The Cherry on Top of Istanbul
And what would Istanbul be without taste? Start your day with bal-kaymak for breakfast and savour the fragrant, flavourful honey soaked up with soft Turkish bread. Refresh yourself with freshly pressed pomegranate juice as you wander the small, twisting streets, and when that is finished, try an orange juice too.
Lahmacun make a perfect lunch; an oven-fired crust topped with a delicately spiced meat spread and a handful of crisp, fresh lettuce will fortify you for an afternoon of sightseeing. For dinner, your choices are endless. Kebab is not just one dish, but an array of meat-based dishes in Turkish cuisine, and includes not only grilled and skewered meats, but also stews and casseroles. Vegetarians are also well-cared for with a wide selection of meze, salads, and main-course vegetable dishes.
Everyone uses their senses in a different way which ensures that each experience in Istanbul will be wonderfully unique.
The Turkish lira (currency sign TL) is the currency of Turkey and TL1 is made up of 100 kuruş. Bills are available in denominations of TL5, TL10, TL20, TL50, TL100 and the rarely-used TL200, and coins are available in 5kr, 10kr, 25kr, 50kr and TL1. ATMs are found all over Istanbul so you needn’t worry about finding yourself without cash.
Even though Turkey, and Istanbul, spans two continents, there is only one time zone: Eastern European Time. In standard time this is GMT+2 hours but during daylight saving time it is GMT+3 hours.
The weather in spring and autumn is mild and can be unpredictable, but this is probably the best time of year to visit Istanbul. The heavy humidity of the summer months can exacerbate the moderately high temperatures and the winter months in Istanbul can be cold, with dustings of snow.
Istanbul is serviced by two airports: Istanbul Atatürk Airport, located 24 kilometres west of the city centre, and Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, located 45 kilometres south of the city centre. Both airports offer public transport options to the city centre and there is, of course, the option to take a taxi.
Some travellers require a visa to enter Turkey so be sure to check this before you arrive. A 90 day, multiple-entry visa costs €10 and you can purchase this on arrival at the airport.
Once in Istanbul, it is well worth it to purchase an Istanbul Kart. One card can be shared between friends or a family and it is used to travel on the tram, metro, and ferry. You can purchase it at major transit points and commercial kiosks, and there are various points where you can charge it when the balance on the card dips too low.
Bal-kaymak – A breakfast dish of heavy, thick cream and fragrant, flavourful Turkish honey. Fresh bread is used to mop up the cream and honey from the plate.
Döner kebab – Thinly sliced beef, chicken, or lamb which is slowly roasted on a vertical spit. It is usually served in a pita with salad and makes a great meal at almost any time of day.
Hamsi – Black Sea anchovies which are delicious when served fresh off the grill. Istanbulites are crazy about these little fish and the best season for tasting them is autumn.
Baklava – A delicious sweet made with layered phyllo pastry and filled with chopped walnuts or pistachios. Syrup or honey is poured over cooked baklava and left to soak in before serving at room temperature.
Ayran – A cold and sometimes frothy yogurt drink which is mixed with water and salt. Turkey is the biggest producer of ayran in the world and it matches well with spicy meals.
For more information about Istanbul, please visit Istanbul.com