Discover Istanbul: Rich Mosaics of Culture, Art & Cuisine

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Discover Istanbul: Rich Mosaics of Culture, Art & Cuisine
A hip, sophisticated, up-and-coming city. Richly layered history, delicious cuisine, distinctive neighborhoods. Amazing architecture. Markets full of tempting artisanal goods. A gem-like epicenter of empires. Coveted, cosseted, romantic, perenially alive in literary and artistic imaginations around the world…. We are talking about Istanbul, not Paris! Where else can one explore an exquisite ancient building like the Hagia Sophia, built in the fifth century (and still an architectural marvel today) by day, then shop for utterly contemporary fashion in hip boutiques, bargain for artisanal treasures in a very grand bazaar reputed to be the world’s original “shopping mall” and finally wrap up your night in a hipper-than-thou dance club or in a rousing mehanye complete with raki, mezzes and Fasulye music? Where else might you shop alongside an uber-trendy woman in the shortest conceivable miniskirt and also a woman covered head to toe in conservative Islamic dress? And somehow, it all makes total sense. The Istanbul blend of forward-looking energy, combining the ancient and modern, European and Asian, funky and fabulous, is heady and ever so engaging. Istanbul is no romantic Ottoman set-piece frozen in another era, as fascinating as that might be. This magnificent urban nexus straddling Europe and Asia is as unique and endlessly intriguing as can be. This is a remarkable place to sojourn. The fabled Bosphorus is the heart and soul of the city in much the same way that the Seine is for Paris—defining quarters, providing a dreamy waterway to criss-cross on steaming ferries, to walk, run, relax, socialize and eat alongside. And while not frozen in time, Istanbul is a very romantic place indeed. Istanbul’s skyline, like Paris, is not dominated by modern office towers, at least in the Old City, in ‘European’ Beyoglu or the Asian quarters. The city is at human scale, its skyline punctuated by the domes and minarets of thousands of mosques, imperially magnificent to modest. There is as vibrant a café culture as in Paris, and a seemingly visceral need for Istanbul’lus to eat super-fresh fish, ideally grilled in full sight of the Bosphorus. And like Parisians, the sociable Turks have raised the art of nursing a glass of tea or a dense cup of Turkish coffee to admirable levels. And while potent raki or good beer is a common accompaniment for meals and conversation, contemporary Turkish wines are steadily improving in quality. The venerable wine-making heritage pre-dates Roman times by centuries. Istanbul is now home to increasing numbers of wine-bars highlighting Turkish wines, well worth a tipple or two. Westerners often find the putative Europe/Asia divergence of style and sensibilities to be fascinating, but most Turks will tell you that they are long beyond that old Orientalist versus Western chestnut. Noted writer Orhan Pamuk comments that this is simply part of what it means to be a contemporary Turkish citizen. He and other opinion leaders see this ease with cultural fusion as an important asset for Turkey. Indeed, Turkey is boldly positioning itself as a bridge to the west from the middle east, a bridge to the middle east for the west, while building its manufacturing and industrial base to expand a prosperous middle class along with its newly minted millionaires. An energized Istanbul is barreling into the 21st century. Yet, with all the temptations of the modern city, there are abundant opportunities to slip easily into ancient places and spaces evoking the Byzantine and Ottoman past… along with redolent traces of French, Austrian, Roman, Genoese and other civilizations that have laid claim to Istanbul over the centuries. The old city is packed with evocative places to visit. These include the massively stunning Topkapi Palace, the incomparable Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Arasta Bazaar and the Basilica Cistern. The densely mercantile Bazaar Quarter incorporates the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian (or Spice) market and is one throbbing mass of small stores and artisans ateliers in between the two. The great Suleymaniye Mosque watches over the Bazaar Quarter and also looks west to the Golden Horn and north up the Bosphorus. Recently reopened after a three-year closure for extensive restoration, this Imperial Mosque built for Suleyman the Magnificent offers a beguilingly tranquil inner-space under its splendid domes and Iznik tiled walls. Built by the renowned Imperial Architect Minar Sinan, Suleymaniye should rank high on any visitor’s list, as should the much more intimate Rustem Pasa mosque just down the hill towards the Golden Horn and near the Spice Market. Rustem Pasha, also built by Sinan, is particularly lovely for its tiled walls of Iznik floral arabesques and tiles from the sixteenth century—a golden era for iconic Turkish works from Iznik. Gorgeous. Shopping is an endless delight in Istanbul. The quality of artisanal production is very high and one can be tempted constantly by rugs, textiles for the home, jewelry, leather goods, copper, magnificent silks, tiles and so much more. Food-loving visitors will want to stock up on delicious things like smoky-chocolatey-spicy Urfa pepper or any of hundreds of spices and spice blends. Turkey makes fabulous honeys and pomegranate molasses, loads of herbal teas, sweet Turkish Delight candies, and amazingly good baklava. Gullogulu, the mother-ship of all things Baklava, has over thirty varieties of this delectable sweet at their shop/café in the Karakoy quarter. Turkish cuisine is varied and mostly irresistible (perhaps leaving out the sheep intestine soup reputed to be the best cure for a surfeit of partying).  There are more varieties of kebaps (grilled meats) than one can imagine and more than enough places to enjoy them, ranging from serious restaurants to intimate zubeyir grill restaurants to sidewalk vendors.  Vegetables are abundant and prepared lusciously. And, another shared Parisian passion: Turks are crazy about bread and the standard of breads from the thinnest grilled breads to hearty…
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