Turkey's finest: Istanbul is the most popular kid on the 21st-century global block

 

If you want a metaphor for modern Istanbul, look no further than the Marmaray tunnel. It's currently being dug under the Bosphorus to link Sirkeci Station, near the Grand Bazaar, with the ferry port of Uskudar on the Asian shore. The work will take three years to finish; maybe more because workmen keep discovering ancient objects that have to be removed and lovingly catalogued.

These objects aren't just shards of pottery: they include the world's oldest medieval galley, and the remains of a fourth-century port. How neat it is that the modern project linking east k and west Istanbul – but also linking Europe to Asia, and bringing the Western world closer to the Middle East – keeps tripping over its own awe-inspiring historical past.

Istanbul is undergoing an explosion that started in the 1980s, after years of anarchy and military rule in Turkey yielded to an economic boom followed by tidal waves of migration. In 2011, Turkey was named the fastest-growing economy in the world. Millions of peasants from Anatolia flooded into Istanbul, followed by Iraqis, Afghans, Russians, Moldovans, Armenians…

The city's population has risen from three million to 15 million in the past 40 years. Investment money has poured in from the West. The streets have been cleaned up, new pedestrian precincts and parks introduced, business visitors welcomed without visas. The Western goods in the shops along Istiklal Caddesi (the Regent Street of Istanbul) are available to Russia's well-heeled travellers who don't want to go all the way to London or Paris. Visitors from Kuwait and Dubai can buy designer clothes here, safe in the knowledge that they're in an Islamic country. No wonder Istanbul is the most popular kid on the 21st-century global block.

But of course, the city is also fantastically old. Its streets and buildings echo with 2,000 years of conflict, invasion, plunder and (nervous) peace. It's been the capital of not one but two world empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman. And much of the old Imperial swagger remains.

Look, for example, at the Pera Palace, one of the world's most gorgeous hotels, now part of the Jumeira Group. It was built in 1892 by the owners of the Orient Express, because they wanted an exceptionally grand hotel to house Western travellers at the end of their long, haute-luxe train ride. The Palace staff met the travellers at Sirkeci Station with sedan chairs to ferry them across the Galata Bridge to the hotel. The hotel stands all by itself like a beautiful, floodlit, gilded wedding cake. Its balconies overlook the Golden Horn sea and the mosques of Sultanahmet. Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express in room 411, now renamed the Agatha Christie Suite; other rooms and suites are named after honoured guests from the 1920s: Hemingway, Pierre Loti, Garbo.

It is, I'm afraid, mandatory to spend a day gazing at the mosques and palaces of Sultanahmet. The Blue Mosque is gigantic and attended by six minarets. You have to queue for ages and discard your shoes to be rewarded by the awesome dignity of the interior with its huge columns and blue, Iznik tiles; the effect is slightly marred by an array of lights that dangle down from the roof and make an ugly cat's cradle of wires.

Much more beautiful is the sixth-century Hagia Sophia, built by the emperor Justinian shortly after the fall of Rome. Originally Christian, it was nabbed by invading Ottoman Turk armies in 1453 and converted to a mosque. Today it is deconsecrated, but the past battles are reflected in the art – paintings of Christ and the Virgin Mary hang cheek-by-jowl with cartwheel-size wooden circles bearing angry scribbles of Islamic scripture. The dome is absolutely gorgeous, as are the mosaics.

Nearby, the Topkapi Palace offers up some relics of the old Sultanate (and of The Arabian Nights): rooms full of chalices, daggers, plates, jewellery, swords and rings, all crammed to bursting with rubies, emeralds and amethysts set in gold; and the warren of rooms in the Harem, where women were virtually imprisoned for life, where they plotted and schemed to become top concubine and tried not to fall foul of the chief black eunuch. There's a uniquely spiced and claustrophobic atmosphere here, a ghastly whiff of ancient power struggles and blank terror.

You must take the ferry on a round-trip up the Bosphorus to where it spills into the immensity of the Black Sea. You must spend an afternoon (and probably too much money) getting lost in the roar and dazzle of the Grand Bazaar, whose grid-system aisles contain 1,000 bargains in towels, rugs, lamps, soap and incense. You must hang around Galata Bridge, watching the fishermen cramming every inch of casting space, and the shoe-shine guys scamming the tourists by offering free shines, then demanding 20 Turkish lira.

Inside Sirkeci Station, you can find a restaurant that's a shrine to the Orient Express and to Ms Christie's book – and next door, you can marvel at a display of five whirling dervishes, in their Mevlevi costumes of flowerpot hat (representing a tombstone) and wide white skirt (representing a shroud), performing the Sema Ceremony, of losing the self in order to find God.

Mostly, though, you must spend your time across the bridge in Beyoglu, the posh shopping, drinking and dining area. It's the most Westernised district, where the groovy Istanbulites hang out. Fashionable bars and OK restaurants (the food in Istanbul isn't great; there's nowhere that deserves even one Michelin star) can be found around Galata Tower. An uphill walk brings you to streets of music shops and the super-cool Tunel, where everyone sits outside, drinks raki, chats and smokes half the night.

The Istiklal Caddesi begins here, a mile-long shopping mall. Ignore the dismayingly vulgar eateries and nip down the narrow alleyways to right and left. You'll find fabulously pretty, Montmartre-style bistros with globe lamps, and rooftop hookah cafés. And you can wander for hours among the art shacks and antique shops of the Cukurcuma neighbourhood, where Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's greatest writer, grew up.

It's here that you'll find the Museum of Innocence, an actual museum containing all the nostalgic details of a family's history – toys, teacups, lamps, photographs, film posters, ashtrays, shoes – so lovingly described in The Museum of Innocence, Pamuk's novel about an obsessive love affair. The museum is a unique and astonishing tribute by a writer to his hometown – a fitting compliment to the bustling, history-haunted mega-city of Istanbul.

More city escapes

1. The newest incarnation of Art Basel is in Hong Kong (23 to 26 May), showcasing works from 170 Asian galleries, including pieces by established and emerging artists (artbasel.com)

2. Get some spring sun in the southern Med’s most vibrant city: Beirut. Spend the morning skiing, the afternoon on the sand and still have time for Safi Village’s indie boutiques (coxandkings.co.uk)

3. Along with Marseille, Kosice is European Capital of Culture for 2013. Slovakia’s secondlargest city looks set to let its creative communities revitalise its landmarks with a year of celebrations coinciding with two decades of independence (kosice2013.sk)

4. Berlin is big thanks to Bowie’s surprise new single. Take a music-minded tour of the city that calls in at the Schöneberg flat he shared with Iggy Pop (musictours-berlin.com)

5. EasyJet makes inroads into Russia this March, with new flights between Manchester and Moscow. Return fares from £125 make this budget-busting city a more affordable prospect (easyjet.com)

6. Nantes, European Green Capital for 2013, is home to fantastical attractions dedicated to native Jules Verne, including a giant animatronic elephant (en.nantes-tourisme.com)

7. Washington’s Kennedy Center marks 50 years since the assassination of John F Kennedy with a three-week arts programme featuring the National Symphony Orchestra, and American Ballet Theatre (kennedy-center.org)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Business Development Manager / Sales Pro

    £30 - 35k + Uncapped Comission (£70k Y1 OTE): Guru Careers: A Business Develop...

    Day In a Page

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York