A conservatively-dressed couple sit quietly in a park, kissing. A valet pilots Range Rovers outside a posh business restaurant. A transvestite burlesque dancer belts out a song to a packed house of, mostly, women. A pale new moon rises over a mosque between two skyscrapers. A band of pigeon-fanciers clusters round a wooden cage of prize birds.
The thrilling, turbulent mega-city of Istanbul houses many of the world’s most ancient and iconic sites. With an official population of 14.3 million and possibly many more, it also hosts intriguing human interest stories and countless lifestyle choices every day. From whirling dervishes to jazz cafes. From world-class modern art to jaw-dropping historic heritage.
Where to start?
I’ve been living in Istanbul for two-and-a-half years. I don’t consider myself any kind of Turkey or Istanbul expert. But I feel privileged to live in such an extraordinary city and in such a wonderful country. So when Marc Guillet asked me to write a blog about Istanbul, illustrated with a few of the 300+ tweets from my series #reasonstolikeistanbul, I was delighted to do my best. If you would like to follow me on Twitter, I am @leighturnerFCO
So what are my top five tips for enjoying the fabulous city of Istanbul?
(i) Think “lifestyle” as well as “sights”. Istanbul is home to thousands of wonderful places for breakfast, lunch, supper and night-time; and plenty of other spots to stop and watch the world go by. Make sure you wander around less touristy neighbourhoods like Balat, Kartal, Cihangir or Zeytinburnu. Stopping in a random cafe for a snack and to stroke a cat, or sitting on a bench to watch fishermen or passers-by, will enhance any day;
(ii) Don’t be snobbish about the famous sites. Places like the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Blue Mosque or a Bosphorous boat tour are among the most spectacular experiences the world has to offer. Enjoy them. Go back and see them again. Spend time soaking up the atmosphere. To linger over a cup of tea in the underground cafe in the Basilica Cistern on a baking summer afternoon is sublime;
(iii) Experience it with a Turk. Guide books are brilliant and imagination is wonderful; but having a Turkish person (or two) by your side will literally open doors and deepen your understanding. They may learn something too: not all Istanbullus have been on a metro, visited a football match, or walked around Beyoglu at 2 a.m.
(iv) Walk and use public transport. Istanbul public transport is cheap and comprehensive. It may take a while to get where you are going but you will have a fascinating time and you don’t need to worry about taxi-drivers or parking. Try taking a ferry to Kadikoy, walking up for an ice-cream at Ali Usta in Moda and then down to the waterfront on the Sea of Marmara – you can stroll as far as your legs will carry you and stop anywhere for a refreshment or to gaze out at the waves. What could be better?
(v) Don’t spurn professional help. An organised city tour may be a brilliant way to see a lot of stuff quickly. Even better if you can join a Turkish tour and do something more specialised, like the recent “Gates and Walls” tour I did with @FestTravel that took me to e.g. St. Mary of the Spring, a mysterious and melancholy Greek Orthodox Church in Zeytinburnu.
I could go on. It wasn’t hard to find over 300 #reasonstolikeistanbul. More are certain to follow.
Leigh Turner is the British Consul-General in Istanbul. His twitter account, including the #reasonstolikeistanbul series, is @leighturnerFCO and includes a broad range of information about UK/Turkey relations, including official travel advice. He also blogs in English and Turkish at http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/leighturner/