You could of course simply play it safe and remain in your air-conditioned hotel room, all the more so as Istanbul has an impressive choice of four- and five-star establishments. Yet it would be a great pity not to get to know all that Istanbul and its warm, open and generous inhabitants have to offer the passing visitor.
Begin on the magical banks of the Bosphorus, where a welcoming breeze and shaded terraces will welcome you for a meal of fresh fish, an ice-cold Efes Pilsen beer, a Turkish coffee or a glass of çay, the local tea. Head for one of the countless open-air cafés that have set up shop right on Galata Bridge, which lies to the east of the Golden Horn and links the historic peninsula to modern Istanbul. Depending on the position of the sun and your desire for shade or light, you can choose to overlook either Europe or Asia, by taking a seat on the bridge facing west or east and watch the pageant of ferry boats and the ceaseless spectacle of Istanbul’s citizens of all ages from street vendors to anglers. Whatever your choice, you will be treated to an exceptional cityscape of the historic town and its myriad of minarets.
The city, water and passing centuries
Now, fleeing the hordes of tourists jostling in the alleyways of the Grand Bazaar, beneath the dome of the Blue Mosque or queuing to enter Aya Sofia Basilica, instead, head to 13 Yerebatan Caddesi. A long, stone staircase will take you down to an unexpected underground world of cool water and silence, a thousand miles from the turbulent city above. The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnıcı, also known as the “sunken palace”) is part of an ancient subterranean network of reservoirs fed by the forests to the north of the city. Its impressive dimensions (138 x 64 metres – 453 x 212 feet) and vaulted ceiling supported by 366 marble columns make it the largest construction of this type. Built during the reign of Emperor Justinian in 532 AD, the cistern was used during the Byzantine era, but then fell into disuse until 1545, when a Frenchman discovered that the locals were using water from wells dug directly into the ground beneath their houses, bringing up the occasional fish in their buckets. As you wander around the paths between the columns, occasionally catching sight of strange fish swimming in the dark waters of this subterranean lake, you may ponder on the miracle that this masterpiece has survived for 1500 years, withstanding the onslaught of time and man.
Another cistern of more modest proportions and located just behind Aya Sofia, but dating dating from the same era, is now home to a stunning restaurant. Sarniç Restoran (restaurant of the cistern) with its high domes supported by six columns that are embedded deep in the earth is a haven of refreshing peace and quiet – and of good food in the heart of Istanbul’s tourist quarter. It serves high quality traditional Turkish dishes in a magical setting, lit by hundreds of candles in the evenings.
A land of books and religion
In the afternoon, make your way back up the Golden Horn westwards to the Eyüp district, resting place of Eyüb al-Ansari, the standard bearer of the prophet Mohammed who was killed during the first Arab siege of Constantinople. Today the Eyüp Sultan Mosque (15th century) is a prominent place of pilgrimage for Muslims. The entrance to the prayer room is open to the public, so you can sit quietly here and allow yourself to be rocked by the chant of the muezzin and atmosphere of contemplation that reigns in the shadow of the great mosque. Then slowly make your way up the hill, through the alleyways of the old Ottoman cemetery, to the legendary Pierre Loti Coffee Shop. It was here beneath the shaded arbours that the famous French novelist and Turkophile came to meditate and perhaps even wrote Aziyadé. The coffee shop has several splendid rooms decorated with paintings and photos of the novelist, but also a huge terrace where you can sit and admire the panoramic view of the city, illuminated at nightfall.
However, one fine morning you may awake with an itch to go further afield and discover other treasures. If this is the case, catch the first boat to Heybeliada, one of the four Princes islands. Time seems to have stood still on this car-free island. Hail a horse and cart and tour the village streets, admire the wooden houses and climb to the top of Mount Umit. The former Monastery of Saint Trinity, home to a renowned Greek Orthodox seminary, is open to the public. Heybeliada can also be explored on foot and a tour of this wooded, fragrant island will take about three hours and reveal some splendid vistas.
As the day draws to a close, treat yourself to a refreshing dip in the island’s crystal clear waters. As you relax in the water, you may lose track of time and even miss the last boat back to Istanbul, but no matter… Halki Palace, a beautifully restored 19th century hotel, on the hill, will welcome you with open arms, true to Turkish traditions of hospitality. An overnight stay may even prompt you to change your plans and spend the rest of your holiday here, captivated by the view of the islands and the Marmara Se, with the vast capital of three empires on the horizon.
Soğukçeşme Sokaği 38,
Café Pierre Loti (Pierre Loti Kahvesi)
Gumussuyu Balmumcu Sik 1,
Halki Palace Hotel
Refah Şehitleri (Ismet Inönü),