Soaring minarets of mosques tower from the hills of the city pointing straight to the sky, prayer echoing from one peak to another as the sound reverberates through the alleyways. The streets are crowded with an overwhelming coming and going of cars and people, while the smell of spices fills the still-warm air of a late October afternoon in Istanbul.
The small hotel we have chosen is located in the heart of the old city, Sultanahmet. It’s nice and comfortable, a few steps from the square that houses the Blue Mosque and the former church of Hagia Sophia. Only the morning after our arrival we discover that from the small terrace on the roof, we can observe the waters of the Bosphorus and the Blue Mosque in all its splendour.
These two places of worship, divided by palm trees and well-kept gardens, represent the ancient and contemporary history of Istanbul, where the faithful gather to pray and tourists capture at least a little of this atmosphere which has changed over the centuries, still magical.
Behind Hagia Sophia stands the very elegant Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman sultans and a marvellous legendary place where the splendour of the past is still preserved among Chinese porcelain, hammam, gardens, majolica tiles and a view of the Marmara Sea. From the internal courtyards of the building, it is possible to observe the sea and the Asian part of the city, where skyscrapers and minarets challenge each other to touch the sky.
Walking along the main artery of old Constantinople, Divan Yolu – a street crossed by a tramway that connects the two European sides of the city – we leave behind restaurants, shops and some dilapidated buildings to reach the Grand Bazaar. Among artisan shops and countless stalls selling counterfeit luxury designs, we get lost, charmed and surprised. The sellers try to convince passers-by between a chat, some flattery and a battle of prices. The buzz spreads from corridor to corridor.
At dinner, we choose to eat Turkish and we stop at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi which has been serving Turkish-style meat, rice, salad, peppers and soup since 1920. Exquisite!
On the rails of the tramway, we move to the Galata Tower district, not far from here there is a long fast-fashion shopping street. The old train travels back and forth night and day, while preparations are underway to celebrate the 99th anniversary of the Turkish Republic and the locals enjoy the dynamic hustle and bustle.
For days, banners and red balloons have revived the festive atmosphere that reigns in the city. Moving away from the Galata district there is another one in evolution, not far from the Istanbul Modern Art Museum stands Galataport – a succession of playful options that line the port together with large tourist ships. Here are located restaurants, shops and boutiques and it is in this area of the city that we will often find refuge for banquets with an international flavour.
What strikes us more than the Grand Bazar is certainly the Spice Bazaar in the Fatih district. Surrounded by mosques and city chaos, the ancient emporium of spices and aromatic herbs is perfect for perceiving the heady smell of local flavours. We walk through the high-frescoed vaults of the market among the mountains of spices and colourful delicacies. Meanwhile, outside the smell of Samit – a typical ring of freshly baked bread with sesame seeds – inebriates the fresh air.
There is not only the ground metro to reach the other side of the city, the Galata bridge is, in fact, crowded with passers-by and fishermen who observe the Bosphorus and the wonderful minarets that change colour as the hours go by.
We take the ferry to reach the Asian shore and visit the new city full of shops and restaurants which, however, does not enchant us too much. We find modern and constantly evolving neighbourhoods waiting for us. We spot the Maiden’s Tower and stroll along the sea, crossing the Kadikoy district and its shops, before returning back to the old city. Seagulls fly across the sky as it turns to evening and moonlight illuminates the mosques.
On the penultimate day, before setting off to discover a new neighbourhood, we stop at the Sultan Ahmet Tombs located next to the Blue Mosque. The sumptuous tombs are organized in an elegant and meticulous scheme.
Then we go towards the Ortakoy neighbourhood we stop at the huge Yildiz park where the locals spend their sunny Sundays like this one. Having reached the church of Büyük Mecidiye Cami – an elegant mosque that combines the Ottoman Baroque architectural style with the European neoclassical one – we take some photos to remember it in all its beauty as it placidly looks at the sea. We get lost in the streets still a little sly to find other counterfeit products. What news?!
In the multitude of mosques glimpsed or visited, it is now difficult for us to differentiate them. The certainty is that they are all splendid and inside there is a true air of profound sacredness.
In the chaotic and crowded streets of the centre, the atmosphere is tinged with the warm and lively colours of a Middle Eastern metropolis. The old port at sunset is enchanted and preserves history, folklore and customs that are also a bit similar to ours. We take photos to capture the beauty of the city with the warm colours of the late afternoon.
In the evening we visit the old Train Station of Sirkeci, from which the Orient Express departed. Everything appears calm and has an air of yesteryear.
On the last morning, we visit the Cisterna Basilica, the ancient aqueduct of the city with its illuminated galleries and take the last steps along the porcelain and carpet shops. With us, we will bring the view of the Bosphorus, the emotion of watching the minarets soar towards the sky and the spicy smells of this magical city.
The hour strikes and, aboard a taxi, we whiz through the clogged streets of Istanbul on our way to the airport to go home.