The beautiful, bustling city of Istanbul is unique in so many ways – as well as being the only city in the world that’s located on two continents, it is both deeply Muslim and fiercely secular, rich in tradition yet steeped in modernity. Seated at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, this vibrant metropolis boasts a wealth of cultural history and a blend of Eastern and Western influences, all of which make it a truly unforgettable city to visit.
Getting around Istanbul is a doddle – the tram comes every few minutes, is only two Turkish lira (about NZ$1.20) a ride. If it’s not rush hour, it has more than enough space for intrepid travellers (and a suitcase or two!). Skip the overpriced airport shuttle and take the tram to your hotel – it’ll give you a chance to suss out the lie of the land and get a feel for the locals right off the bat! All of the major attractions around the city can also be reached via tram. If you’re feeling lazy, cabs are also ridiculously cheap, but proceed with caution – traffic rules seem to be flexible!
One of your first ports of call should undoubtedly be the Sultanahmet district, at the heart of old Istanbul. Most of the major tourist attractions are clustered here, within easy walking distance of each other: The majestic Blue Mosque (pictured), with its thousands of intricate tiles; the never-ending Istanbul Archeological Museum, which houses an impressive array of artefacts up to 60,000 years old; sprawling Topkapi Palace, a monument to luxury and opulence; the Byzantine Hippodrome, across which chariots used to race, and which is now dotted with friendly stray cats and sellers of hot chestnuts and salep (a traditional drink made from dried orchid roots). The historic Hagia Sophia, one of the brightest jewels in Istanbul’s crown, is also situated here. Quick history lesson time: This breathtaking structure was originally built as an Orthodox cathedral in 532 AD and was the focal point of the Orthodox church, as well as the largest cathedral in the world, for nearly a thousand years. Following the Ottoman Turks’ capture of Constantinople in the 15th century, the building was converted into a mosque and served as the seat of Islam in the city for the next 500 years before its secularisation and conversion into a museum in the 1930s. Today it stands as a fascinating mix of Christian and Muslim architecture and iconography, and to gaze upon its marble columns and gold mosaics is truly awe-inspiring. For anyone with a passing interest in history or art, this is an experience not to be missed!
But a visit to Istanbul doesn’t have to be 100 per cent serious – for those in search of good old-fashioned retail therapy, Taksim Square awaits! This modern district is well known for its shops and restaurants and is also an important site for political gatherings and rallies (including the annual Istanbul Pride Parade, which last year boasted more than 10,000 participants). From chain stores to designer fashion, the shopping in this area is to die for – and as Turkey produces the garments for many European labels, the prices are to die for, too! High-quality leather boots and fur-lined coats can be picked up for around NZ$70, so make sure to leave plenty of room in your suitcase for the trip home – after a visit to Taksim Square, you’re going to need it!
When the sun goes down, there are many gay-friendly nightclubs and saunas in the Taksim area. Check out Chiante for early evening partying, then head off to X-Large for drag shows and oily male dancers. If you’re a bit light on cash, Tekyon club has no cover charge, meaning you can spend more on buying sexy locals drinks! But be careful, many of the bars in the Taksim area have gay and straight customers, as well as many rent boys, so don’t be led down the garden path! While Turkey is fast becoming more and more modern, the country is still socially conservative when it comes to GLBT rights. While homosexuality is legal (and has been since 1858), same-sex couples are not legally recognised and no laws exist that protect GLBT people from discrimination. Hate crimes against members of the GLBT community are justified using the defence of “heavy provocation” and receive minimal sentences. Gay guides recommend that travellers not engage in any same-sex PDA and, if taking an encounter further, to stick to your hotel or to public venues such as saunas and hamams (traditional bath houses, of which there are plenty), rather than accompanying a stranger to their home. As with many cities with a wide gap between the rich and the poor, the biggest danger for tourists in Istanbul is robbery, so keep your purse or man-bag close!
No article about Istanbul would be complete without a mention of the food – a definite highlight! Salty beyaz peynir (white cheese), crunchy simit bread, tangy yoghurt, dolma with olive oil and buttery Iskender kebaps are just some of the many delicacies on offer at the city’s thousands of restaurants and cafes. As for the perfect end to a day in Istanbul? Relax with a plate of syrupy baklava, a steaming apple tea, or maybe a tooth-rattlingly strong Turkish coffee… if you dare!