Within half an hour of arriving in Istanbul Wandering Kiwi Jr was being called princess and offered the hand of the waiter’s brother’s son in marriage. Indeed she was the key to getting to the heart of this ancient city, one of the many benefits of travel with children.
She loved the thick carpet in the Blue Mosque, lying on her back and gazing up at the lights and beautiful tiles. A few hundred metres away in the ancient Aya Sofya she scuttled around on the smooth stone floors and climbed up and down a hundreds-of-years-old wooden platform while we admired the awe-inspiring frescoes under the mighty dome.
Istanbullus are justly proud of their city. The Byzantines called it “the city of the world’s desire” and it is certainly true that almost everyone over the centuries has wanted to conquer it. You can hardly walk down a street in Sultanhamet without falling over some Byzantine or Ottoman relic but there is more to Istanbul than antiquity. It is a mighty metropolis with a youthful population that still straddles the meeting point of Europe and Asia.
Things to do in Istanbul
Near the Grand Bazaar a man sits in the window of his rug shop, completely surrounded by great piles of kilims like an Arabian night. Inside the largest enclosed bazaar in the world it is all glitz and gold and souvenir trinkets but still men sit passing the time of day on low stools; prayer beads dripping from their fingertips and tea delivered in little glasses on a silver tray.
Through the haberdashery quarter porters carry huge loads, bent double with their leather backpacks on the streets leading upward to the mighty Suleymaniye mosque.
Or head down through the street of Christmas decoration shops to the fragrant delights of the Spice Bazaar. Here you will find scoops of apple tea, towers of nougat, dishes of chestnuts, tubs of Turkish delight, pyramids of spices and baskets of dried flowers.
There is a lot to see at the Topkapi Palace and you should allow a whole afternoon. Beyond the spooky harem, the sumptuous apartments, and the eye-popping jewels, the most beautiful structure is the very last you reach after the many courts and gardens. The delicate decoration of the pavilion and romantic views across the Bosphorus to the Galata Tower on the Golden Horn under a dusty apricot sky is matchless.
Gulhane Park is a beautiful sight in autumn; kick your feet through the leaves and enjoy a pot of tea and a dish of pistachio ice cream overlooking the Bosphorus in the tea garden below the walls of the Topkapi Palace.
By contrast in the Beyoglu district – across the Golden Horn – you can be forgiven for thinking you might be wandering the streets of some western European capital. Istikal Caddesi is lined with gems of art nouveau architecture, as well as having the most glamorous kebab shops you’ll ever see.
The antique tram ding dings its way down from Taksim square and the youthful Istanbullus surge through pretty arcades with antiques, jewellery and bric a brac, enjoying the shops, eateries and entertainment.
Make sure to touch down on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. The ferry ride from Eminonu is a pleasure in itself and once you get past the noisy traffic of the waterfront you will find streets festooned with russet-coloured grapevines in autumn and there’s nothing touristy about a wander through the street markets and funky cafes with the locals.
Turkish shopkeepers take great pride in their displays and in the Kadikoy district you will not fail to be impressed by the carefully-arranged stacks of giant broccoli, shiny shoals of fish and piles of grapevine leaves.
Where to eat in Istanbul
On Divan Yolu, the main thoroughfare of Sultanhamet, we all enjoyed delicious stuffed aubergine and the ubiquitous bulgher wheat rice salad at Bayan 2 restaurant, before raiding one of the many neighbouring patisseries for a sweet bite.
Over on the Asian side we had a fabulous meal at the fashionable Ciya Sofrasi, which specialises in delicious mounds of baked pilaf fragrant with almonds and raisins; the delicately spiced house kebab; and black mulberry sherbet beverages. For dessert you can’t go past the baked pistachio cream of the Dough Plies or the melt-in-the-mouth Teleme cream figs.
Getting to the heart Istanbul
Deep in the back streets of Sultanhamet is a small mosque that is inexplicably missed off many Istanbul itineraries. We had the Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Camii to ourselves, apart from the elderly retainer, and a peaceful sense of spirituality pervades that is missing from the great domes of the city.
The high quality Iznik tiles and original painted wooden ceiling panels complement the graceful dome by Istanbul’s premier historic architect, Mimar Sinan.
After enjoying this exquisite mosque we sat for awhile in the park that separates Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, where long shadows are cast by cypresses across lawns strewn with yellow plane leaves. Rusty chestnuts line the avenue and the cacophony of competing muezzin cries fades.
Passersby stopped to chuck the cheeks of my little daughter, smiling as they imitated her babble. In the restaurants, fellow diners turned to make friends; an old man trying to make her laugh by showing her the sugar cube held between his teeth as he sips his tea.
She danced to traditional Turkish music on a bandstand off Divan Yolu and grinned at the shoe-shine man. And everywhere she was welcome; the centre of attention with both men and women. It was an experience of the warmth of Istanbul’s people that went far beyond mere fascination with its history and culture.
By Natasha von Geldern
Practicalities of travel in Istanbul
While in Istanbul I was a guest of the Midtown Hotel, which is centrally located in a pleasant street just off Taksim Square, at the top of the district of Beyoglu. Midtown Hotel is a member of Special Hotels of the World. For more information or to book please visit the website or call 020 7380 3658.
Pegasus Airlines flies daily from London Stansted to Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen airport. A shuttle bus runs hourly from the airport to Taksim Square.
For more information on travel in Istanbul see here.