For Cyndi's favourite sights, restaurants, hotels and experiences in Istanbul click here
My desire to visit Istanbul goes back 40 years, to a friendship with a Turkish student, Tolya, who studied with me at university. Upon returning home, Tolya would write me long, descriptive letters, detailing the sights, sounds and visual beauty of his native city which would fill me with wanderlust. When I was finally able to visit Istanbul this year, I turned to my old friend for up-to-the-minute instructions and insights. The result was that I had the privilege of an invisible guide leading me through the city every step of my holiday.
But first, a few practical things to note. Because Istanbul has a cold European winter (the average temperature is about 8°C to 10°C), my husband and I planned our visit for the first weeks of June when it is warm and not uncomfortably hot, and the region is typically blessed with clear skies and mild temperatures. And we plumped for accommodation in the Beyoğlu district, where you can experience a more contemporary Turkish lifestyle as well as the best restaurants and shopping.
Most tour guides will suggest a hotel in the Sultanahmet precinct, where you are close to many of the popular sites in the heart of Old Istanbul, such as Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Grand Bazaar, and this is an excellent choice too. We opted, however, for comfort and luxury because we were world-weary and in need of some TLC. At the five-star Hilton Istanbul, we were an easy ten-minute walk from Taksim Square, which is the hub of modern Istanbul and a boarding point for most transport to the city’s many landmarks.
For contrast, we also tried the boutique Witt Istanbul Hotel in Cihangir, which is a suburb in the heart of the city with an arty Bohemian flavour boasting many cafes, art galleries and intriguing staircases leading from one laneway to the next. In this complex labyrinth of narrow streets almost entirely surrounded by Art Deco buildings is the must-see Firuzaga Mosque, built in 1491 after Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmet II and the Ottoman Empire began its ascendancy. We then headed to Firuz, a meeting place just a stone’s throw from the mosque where everyone who’s anyone, it seems, meets for a bracing Turkish tea.
Cihangir offered an unexpected sense of peace and calm amid the hustle and bustle of a populous city, and provided an opportunity to meander through an arty neighbourhood teeming with creative folk. Here, you’ll find myriad antique and bric-a-brac shops, second-hand booksellers, art galleries and museums, restaurants and fresh food markets.
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