The Turkish Airlines flight into Istanbul’s spanking new airport was pure pampering. We were plied with gourmet food prepared by an on-board chef, the crew made our beds, and there were cushioned slippers—of the kind guests are welcomed with in the homes of their hosts in Anatolia—to shuffle about in.
The new airport has only one terminal building currently. At 15 million square feet, it’s the largest such in the world. To be developed in four phases, when the airport is completed in 2027, it will have six runways, a capacity of 200 million passengers and as many as four terminal buildings. While the terminal building draws elements from the domes of mosques and baths typical of Ottoman architecture, the air traffic control tower has been inspired by the tulip, a flower that originated in Turkey.
A multi-lane expressway got us into the city swiftly. Our hotel was in Pera, an area once favoured by expats and embassies, across the Galata Bridge from the Old City. This was the legendary Pera Palace, which blossomed in the heydays of the Orient Express, routinely hosting its passengers, including a certain writer called Agatha Christie. If heritage is your thing, you’ll definitely want to stay here. It boasts the second oldest elevator in Europe (after the Eiffel Tower). If you ask nicely and it is not occupied, they’ll be happy to show you their Agatha Christie Room. The room in which Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, stayed, is now a museum devoted to him. The service is warm, the staff superlative. Do make time for the daily afternoon tea at the Kubbeli Saloon. Under the high ceiling with its distinctive domes, the tables are laden with tasty morsels, while Ilham Gencer, the hotel’s nonagenarian pianist plays with the nimbleness of a teenage virtuoso, offering to sing any song you care to request (including Raj Kapoor’s ‘Awara Hoon’, which, incidentally, was based on a Turkish song).
I can’t think of any city in the world with a history as rich and layered as this one which straddles two continents. First the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and then the seat of the Ottomans, it is the Byzantium and Constantinople of ancient history and has been a crossroads of civilisations for over 2,000 years. One of Istanbul’s top two attractions is the Topkapi Palace, the construction of which began in 1459. It was then the ‘New Palace’ and through the centuries remained the seat of the Ottoman sultans. After Turkey became a republic in 1923, it was converted into a museum. It was in the 19th century that it got its current appellation, meaning ‘cannon gate’ (we use the same word for cannon in Hindi). It’s a sprawling complex set over several courtyards and gardens, a trove of Ottoman treasures. The sacred relics of the Prophet Muhammad are undoubtedly the star attraction, and include the Prophet’s mantle and the bowl he drank from. These are the most precious relics of the Islamic world, and will give you goosebumps. The palace’s quarters are themselves worth a dekko, from the harem to the kitchens to the circumcision room to the spectacular Imperial Council building and much more.
The other top attraction is the Hagia Sophia, once a Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, then a mosque under the Ottomans, and now simply a museum and monument to knowledge and its dogged pursuit. Many consider it to be the high point of Byzantine architecture, and its soaring dome will take your breath away.
Istanbul isn’t just about silent stones though. Turkey’s cultural heritage is a living, breathing thing, best embodied in the figure of a sufi dervish, whirling in ecstasy. To truly appreciate the nuances of this tradition, you have to steer clear of the tourist traps and seek out the genuine article. One such venue is the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre, where proceedings are sombre and respectful. During the performance, you’re not allowed to take pictures, and certainly not a selfie. You’re not even supposed to clap. I’d like to think the ‘show’ stirred something in the audience. At the very least, they weren’t glued to their mobile phones for the space of an hour.
I don’t think there is any trip to Istanbul that doesn’t make a mandatory stop at the Grand Bazaar. It’s one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 covered streets and boasting over 4,000 establishments. Although construction started in the mid-15th century, it wasn’t until the beginning of the 17th century that the Bazaar achieved its final shape. Today, it sells mostly tourist tat but you can’t be a tit for atmosphere. Think Palika Bazaar in Delhi but only much, much nicer. I had been scarred at the Grand Bazaar before, but that’s a story for another day. Besides, there’s nothing like being cheated politely. This time I managed to focus, buying exactly what I needed right off, discovered the book bazaar for the first time and managed to take a nap under the ample shade of a handsome tree. Of course, I dreamt of baklava.
Turkish Airlines flies daily direct between Delhi and Istanbul. The flight from Delhi leaves at 6.25am and arrives at 10.30am local time in Istanbul. The flight from Istanbul has a convenient departure at 8.20pm, arriving in Delhi next morning at 4.45am.This way you can make the most of your stay in Istanbul. From its new hub at the new Istanbul Airport, Turkish Airlines offers connections to more countries than any other airline in the world. See Turkish Airlines.
Where To Stay
You can’t beat the Pera Palace (from approx. ₹12,500) for atmosphere and old-world charm. Established in 1892, it also oozes history.
What To See & Do
>Must-see monuments in Istanbul include the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque and the Topkapi Palace.
> Walk around the historic neighbourhoods of Istanbul. Each has its own unique charm. We suggest Beyoglu.
> Taksim Square is high on energy. The heritage tram that rattles off from here will take you close to the historic Galata Tower. A short walk down is the Galata Bridge, a popular fishing spot.
>Take a cruise on the Bosphorus. Everyone does. Among operators, Istanbul Yat comes highly recommended.
> Shop at the Grand Bazaar. There are temptations at every corner, but don’t get carried away. Don’t forget to bargain.
> Catch a dervish show. The one at the Hodjapasha Cultural Centre is said to be one of the best (from $22). Performances are daily at 7pm and last about an hour.