Istanbul - Turkey's Capital of Culture

Posted on: 09 December 2009 by Mark O'haire

Istanbul will be the European Capital of Culture in 2010 – and few cities offer a more fascinating culture to explore, according to Richard Dobbs.

This historic and intriguing metropolis lies half in Europe, half in Asia. It was once the capital of three huge historical empires: Roman (27 B.C.-A.D. 395), Byzantine (A.D. 395-1453), and Ottoman (A.D. 1453-1923).

“Turkey is a country of contrasts and contradictions,” Turkish tourist guide Orhan Ongu said.  “99% of its people are Muslim, but 75% of them drink alcohol. You will see mothers wearing head-scarves while their daughters are wearing miniskirts.”

In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city with a population of around 15 million, there are 55 Byzantine churches, 24 Byzantine water storage cisterns, 6,800 mosques and seven palaces dating from the Ottoman Empire.

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia is a historic site on any tourist’s list of must-sees. Built from A.D. 532-537, it was once one of the largest churches in the world and incorporates 15 tons of gold and exquisite Byzantine mosaics. In 1453, the ruling sultan converted it into a mosque, covering many of the Christian symbols. Ataturk turned it into a museum in 1934, so now symbols of both its Christian and Muslim periods are revealed.

Nearby is the famous Blue Mosque, built between 1616 and 1623. “It’s the most recycled building in the world,” said Orhan, who explained that marble stones from the ancient, collapsed Hippodrome next door — a stadium that once held 100,000 people — were used to build it. Its 253 windows of beautiful, decorative stained glass still inspire those who answer the Muslim call to prayer five times a day.

Moving into the 21st century, we visited Istanbul Modern, a contemporary art museum that features works by both Turkish and foreign artists and also features a fine restaurant.

The Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest covered bazaar in the world – with more than 4,000 shops inside and another 2,000 outside. One can easily get lost inside the labyrinthine lanes of shops, selling pashminas, rugs, Turkish water pipes, colorful tiles, beautiful ceramic bowls and plates, hanging glass lamps that evoke images of Aladdin, gold and silver jewelry and other glittery things that literally make for a visual feast. Shoppers are expected to bargain and there are deals to be had:  wool/silk blend pashminas for $15, ceramic dishes for $1, elfin shoes with pointed toes for $10, and on and on.

The Spice Market is another covered bazaar, with similar wares for sale – but here shoppers are lured by smells as much as sights. The real draws are the spices, herbs (saffron is most popular) and candy (Turkish Delight the obvious choice).

Upstairs, we enjoyed lunch at the Pandeli Restaurant, a local favorite since 1901, where “mezze” is a grand tradition.”Mezze” is a series of appetizers — small plates of creamy hummus, another dip made of fish eggs and mayonnaise, cold shrimp with red peppers, rice-stuffed grape leaves and warm pita breads. Mezze is typically accompanied by “raki,” the national alcoholic anise-flavored drink. At Pandeli, our mezze was followed by entrees of grilled meat or fish.

Topkapi Palace

Topkapi Palace is another must-see, the most fascinating monument of Turkish civil architecture. Built between 1465 and 1478, the palace was home to 24 of Turkey’s 36 sultans. We toured the private residence of the reigning sultan, which consists of 400 rooms including two mosques, two schools and two swimming pools. The gorgeous tiled walls, stained glass windows, marble floors and Orhan’s stories of eunuchs and concubines made for an outstanding tour.

In addition, the palace features displays of various sultans’ jewels, including the famed 86-carat Spoon Maker’s Diamond, emerald- and ruby-studded headdresses, and even the Topkapi Dagger, featured in the1964 film “Topkapi.”

Nightlife & Bathing Rituals

One night we hit Al Jamal, an eye-popping hotspot jam packed with well-to-do locals. We watched devils and angels dancing, and a fat man in drag doing a belly dance. A centre stage offered rotating floor shows while the “mezze” kept coming as did amazingly fine Turkish wines. The place was so packed, one woman caught her hair on fire while dancing near her candlelit table.

Istanbul Up Close

At the Park Hyatt Istanbul, which opened last year, I stayed in one of 25 rooms equipped with an authentic Turkish bath. My bathing area included a large freestanding tub, a rain shower, colored light therapy, a steam bath, and a heated marble stool with a marble sink that had no drain. I had no idea what the latter was for. I learned when my spa attendant came for my private “hammam.”

After 10 minutes in my steam bath, the attendant used a hammered copper bowl to rinse my body with hot water she stored in that marble sink with no drain. I sat on the heated marble stool while she scrubbed me hard from head to toe. After another rinse, she massaged my neck, back and head. After 45 minutes, I was smooth and serene.

That night, a friend joined me for dinner at Tugra, in the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, a grand hotel on the site of a former sultan’s palace. Overlooking the Bosphorus, we dined on incomparable mezze, accompanied by exceptional Turkish wines. We feasted on local fish prepared the way sultans preferred, in a silky cream sauce.

I felt somehow suspended in time, floating from ancient eras to present day, savoring Istanbul’s mesmerizing contrasts.

If You Go

Staying there: The Park Hyatt Istanbul-Macka Palas, is in the fashionable Nisantasi shopping district. Rooms for two start at $370 per night. Check for package deals at

Eating there: Try Pandeli at the Spice Market, telephone 90-212-527-39-09.  For kebabs overlooking the Bosphorus, check out Hamdi Restaurant ( For a splurge, Tugra at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski is superb ( Al Jamal is a hot night spot with decent food (

Guide service: Orhan Ongu works for an excellent company that offers guide services throughout Turkey. Meptur Tourism Inc., 90-212-275-0250;

By Richard Dobbs

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