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Visiting Turkey’s cultural capital can feel overwhelming, yet there are two must-see districts that capture the flavour of this metropolis
29.05.15 - 14:18 -
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Istanbul: the Old and the New
A typical street food vendor in the Sultanahmet district :: A.F.
The taxi driver turned around and passed me back a 100 lira note. ‘Problem here’ he said, pointing out the tear that run down to almost the centre of the note. ‘Another please.’ A few years ago I would have obediently taken back the note and swapped it for another, eager to get out of the taxi and into the hotel. Now, though, I’ve seen most of the tricks that drivers around the world want to play. So I firmly said, ‘That’s not the one I gave you!’
I felt confident. I had just come from Ataturk airport, Istanbul’s fast growing hub, and taken out crisp new bills from the cash machine. I wasn’t about to let a cab driver switch my note for a fake one, on the premise it was damaged and let him win an extra 100 lira. I was ready to sit this one out.
Maybe I’m unfair to mention this little anecdote, but really for me it just shows that Istanbul is a city that demands that you pay attention. From the moment you arrive, you realise you are in mega-city. From the seemingly organised chaos of its continual traffic, the noise of the ferry horns navigating the bubbling waters of the Bosphorus, to the striking architecture of gleaming office blocks and exotic minarets of the ancient mosques.
Uber-cool Karaköy
My taxi driver saw I wasn’t going to budge and he quickly gave me my change and I escaped into the tranquillity of my hotel, ‘10 Karaköy’. This 150 year old landmark neoclassical building has been transformed into the city’s latest on-trend, luxe hangout. The multi-level open atrium lobby wows with its immense architectural lighting installation, whilst a cosy, welcoming ambiance is created with flickering candles, richly upholstered sofas and dimly lit secluded alcoves.
The hotel’s Sky Terrace is a destination watering hole for the smart crowd, whilst the signature restaurant headed by Rudolf Van Nunen is gaining momentum as the place for creative, modern, ‘slow food’. A leisurely meal of fresh oysters and succulent prawns, whilst enjoying views of Karaköy and the Bosphorus, is to taste the wealthy, confident, contemporary Istanbul.
This upscale hotel is a very visible vote of confidence not only in this Eurasian metropolis, but also in the vibrant Karaköy district.
Once in the shadow of its trendy neighbour, the stylish, eclectic and creative Galata district, Karaköy has now arrived. For me it’s the essential flavour of modern Istanbul. Walk out from the hotel and the streets of this once run-down port-side neighbourhood are now full of creative businesses, cool galleries and trendy bars.
Ten years ago, Istanbul Modern opened here. It was the pioneering gallery, the first independent space dedicated to contemporary art that put the district back on the map. Now there are clusters of cool galleries including the not-to-be-missed ‘artSümer’ studio – typical of the spaces dedicated to all disciplines of art, from photography to sculpture, supporting and showcasing both Turkish and international artists.
Karaköy is also home to the one of the best Turkish delight stores, ‘Koskak’; the two best Baklava bakeries, ‘Güllüoglu’ and ‘Köskeroglu’ and some of the tastiest Turkish coffee at ‘Karabatak’. Understandably the district feels very Turkish. There are no tour groups or tacky gift shops. Here instead there are vintage style coffee shops and independent eateries where locals meet over a velvety Turkish coffee or a ruby coloured tea.
Historic Sultanahmet
Of course for first time visitors, the historic quarter of Sultanahmet district is also part of the essential Istanbul. Although often crowded, with hustlers selling everything from carpets to corn on the cob, it is still beautiful, especially early in the morning or towards the end of the day. During this ‘golden hour’ the light makes for unforgettable sights.
A place I can always return to, however busy it might be, is the Hagia Sophia. It is an extraordinary building, both architecturally and culturally. As a secular museum, it celebrates both Islam and Christianity, having been both a 6th Century Roman Christian Basilica, and a mosque in the 15th century.
The other side of the square is the Sultanahmet Mosque, or the ‘Blue Mosque’ as it is more commonly known. Its elegant minarets, and beautifully tiled interior are amongst the most recognised icons of the city.
So my advice is not be daunted by the size of this metropolis, or allow the pushy street vendors or cheeky taxi drivers change your mood. Istanbul is an extraordinary place that offers postcard perfect historical sights and cool city hotspots.