More than Ottoman minarets and beguiling bazaars, Turkey’s cultural capital is also fashionable and progressive. Spanning both Asia and Europe and divided by the Bosphorus, Istanbul is a beguiling mix of ancient and modern, of conservative and secular. The hulking Byzantine Hagia Sophia and opulent Topkapi Palace dominate the old city Sultanahmet, but over in Karaköy, in a converted warehouse, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art embraces the future. Along Galata Bridge, fishermen looking for dinner dip their rods into the waters of the Golden Horn. Walk past them to buzzing, bazaar-filled Eminönü where locals stock up on fresh pistachios and crumbly sheep’s cheese from the aromatic Spice Market. The sunset call to prayer from pencil-slim minarets brings welcome serenity, especially from mosques clustering the busy Old City, crammed with elegant Ottoman and Byzantine landmarks. Families crowd onto passenger boats at weekends to cruise the Bosphorus, Istanbul’s real gem, past pastel-colored wooden summer houses.
At 500 years old, the sprawling Grand Bazaar in Beyazit remains vibrant, carpet and gold dealers are as persuasive as in Mehmet the Conqueror’s day. It’s also the best place to haggle for an inlaid backgammon set. In Istanbul’s modern Beyoglu, it’s back to the 21st century along the packed, pedestrianized Istiklal Caddesi, lined with sleek bookshops and local fashion chains. Kitten-heeled shoppers find the latest designs in chic boutiques like Turkish designer Bahar Korcan in Nisantasi. In cultured Istanbul, you’re never far away from an arts, film or music festival. It may be opera in the cavernous Atatürk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square or summertime jazz in Cemil Topuzlu open-air theater in leafy Harbiye. Beyoglu is where Istanbul’s revelers head to sip cocktails at fashionable rooftop bars or join friends at outdoor cafés with a tulip-shaped glass of tea. At funky Babylon club, catch the latest Balkan fusion band, or join football-mad fans on the terraces to cheer on Besiktas.
Busy Beyoglu has the best choices of mayhanes (traditional eating houses) and contemporary cuisine. On packed Nevizade street, waiters allure you into bustling restaurants, where platters of meze (garlicky dips and tangy salads) start off a typical Turkish dinner of grilled fish or skewered lamb, as fasil (gypsy) musicians play at your table. Locals have a real taste for international dishes, from sushi at Vogue in Besiktas to a bohemian brunch of eggs benedict at the waterfront House Café in village-like Ortaköy.