Turkey is going through increasingly turbulent times and tourist numbers have been declining sharply this year, even before the major airport attacks and attempted army-led coup over this summer.
While Turkey has always been a secular society, there has been a rise in conservative Islam in recent years and many people are divided on the role of the religion in society. I visited Istanbul in 2013 for a long weekend in mid-May and saw this first hand. Despite wearing a loose knee-length dress and a long sleeved cardigan, I drew looks in the traditional historic areas of the city – around the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet. On the public transport and on the streets in these areas I saw many women fully covered with coats and gloves over their burqas, despite the heat. Moving into other such as Besiktas or Bebek, it felt very modern, tourists in denim shorts seemed accepted – there are super yachts which Turkey’s wealthy elite use to cruise up and down the Bosphorus, stopping at the clubs, for drinking and a late night party.
Aside from the pull between traditional and modern, conservative and liberal – Istanbul for me means three things: markets, mosques and food. I’m not sure you can come to the city without fully experiencing all three, or you would ever want to!
Nothing tops the Grand Bazaar – a noisy rabbit warren of covered stalls and markets. There is also the Spice Market and the Fish Market and all of them provide sensory overloads in the best possible way, so take your time, wander and always remember to haggle!
There are tens of mosques in Istanbul but the best ones to visit, in my opinion, are Sultanahmet, Yeni Cami, and Haggie Sophia.
Sultanahmet is a 17th-century mosque known as the Blue Mosque for the colour of the tiles on its interior walls. With its classic Islamic architecture, it is considered the last great mosque from the Ottoman period, so is a popular tourist destination, as well as a fully working mosque today.
Yeni Cami (New Mosque) also has beautiful blue tiles, known as known as İznik tiles. The construction of the mosque started in 1597 and was completed in 1663.
Finally the Haggie Sophia, probably the best know mosque in Istanbul due to its large dome, is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. It is also the site of religious buildings dating back to 335 when it was the Greek cathedral of Constantinople, before being converted into a mosque in 1453. In 1931, it was secularised and turned into a museum and is a must see for anyone visiting this historic city.
Turkish food can be spicy, sweet or sour, it really just depends where in Turkey you are, as to the balance. Wanting to see a regional cuisine, we did a food tour centred around ‘Little Urfa’ area of the city, in Aksaray. Urfa is a town close to the border with Syria and since the escalating violence over the last decade, it’s residents have set up in Istanbul to create a home from home – much like a ‘little Italy’. The tour company was Istanbul Eats and it was a truly delicious way of tasting the history of the region. Think restaurant hopping to find the best flatbreads, kebab, spicy soup, grilled vegetables and eggplant, washed down with Ayran (a yoghurt drink) and some sweet pastry puddings. A great afternoon!
A Turkish Delight
With suicide bombing attacks on tourists at the beginning of this year in Sultanahmet Square, the terror threat remains high, but Turkey is generally considered a safe country to travel to.
I had a wonderful time exploring the different areas of the city over my four-day trip – from Topkapi palace to Rumelihisarı Fortress, Taksim square and Little Urfa, there is so much to see and do and people are generally very warm and friendly. I can only hope it stays this way, in these uncertain times.