For 1,700 years Istanbul, Turkey, was the capital of an empire; Rome, Byzantium and, until 1923, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. It may not be an imperial capital anymore, but over the last three decades, it’s gone through an enormous, if incremental, evolution that has transformed it into an optimistic and dynamic metropolis. The cafes are full of educated, forward-looking young people; the Istanbul Modern, a wonderful modern art museum, has opened on the Karakoy waterfront; and the Taksim Square area is now a thriving beehive of culture and commerce. The historic center of the city, the home of all those empires, is Sultanahmet, where the majestic Hagia Sophia, or Church of Divine Wisdom, still reigns as Emperor Justinian’s crown jewel. From its inception in 537, Hagia Sophia was designed to supplant Solomon’s Temple as the locus of where man and the divine would participate in joint ritual.
Today Hagia Sophia faces the Blue Mosque, completed in 1616. Throughout Istanbul, the architects who built mosques (including Sinan who is the acknowledged master) took the idea of the dome from Hagia Sofia and evolved a signature style which gives the city its distinctive dome and spire sprouting skyline today. As the Byzantines were masters of the mosaic, the Ottomans mastered the ceramic tile. When Sultan Ahmed I built the Blue Mosque over the ruins of the Byzantine Palace, he covered the interior with glorious Iznik tiles. Nearby Topkapi Palace is a 183-acre compound that was home to 24 Ottoman sultans between 1453 and 1850. The kaftans, the jeweled thrones and the enthroned jewels of the sultans are all on display as well as several religious relics, including the sword of Mohammed, the staff of Moses, the arm bone of John the Baptist and the swords of the Caliphs.
The world’s largest covered bazaar, the Kapali Carsi, in business since 1461, is home to 3,600 shops, crowding around 36 streets, which if lined up end to end would stretch 40 miles. It has police stations, a hospital, a multitude of restaurants and 18 separate gated entrances. Entrance #1 is where you should begin your wandering. The Spice Bazaar sits next to the Yeni Cami, or New Mosque in Eminonu on the Bosphorus waterfront in a fascinating neighborhood of peddlers, shopkeepers and sailors. From there you can catch a ferry for a very relaxing ride on the Bosphorous.
At the heart of Turkish cuisine are the barbecued meats and kabobs that hail all the way back to the roots of a culture that emigrated out of Central Asia as nomads. As the imperial home of the Ottoman Empire many different influences have built on top of this cultural core, and today Turkey is bordered by six different countries and its delicious cuisine reflects an influence of all of them.
Istanbul’s latitude makes it a temperate city with four full seasons. Continental and Turkish Airlines both serve Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport.