Wed, Sep 07, 2005 - Page 13 News List

A fusion city ripe with treasures

Doing the sights of Istanbul can feel like a forced march, but it is an unforgettable experience

By Robert Elms  /  THE GUARDIAN , ISTANBUL

Top, the Sultan's boat sails along the Golden Horn at sunset in Istanbul. Above, Formula One driver Fernando Alonso of Spain poses in front of the Ottoman Era Blue Mosque.

PHOTOS: AGENCIES

You can hear Istanbul from a continent away. Cross the Bosphorus to the more serene Asian side and you sense a distant but distinct rumble, the mighty hum and roar of an ancient/modern urban machine.

This ex-Constantinople is one of the world's most powerful and charismatic cities, a massive, unknowable megalopolis of maybe 14 million souls, maybe more, all of them moving at all times, frenetic, chaotic. But it is also an intimate, intriguing collection of vignettes, of unique sensual experiences and historical glimpses, which will pull you back time and again.

Or at least it does me. I've now been to Istanbul on half a dozen occasions and it just gets better, gives more because I attempt less. Paying repeated visits to a city means that you can really enjoy the place without the pressure to cram it all in.

If you're visiting Istanbul for the first time, it is so ripe with treasures, proffering such a long and urgent checklist, that it can feel like a forced march. You see the coach parties and the tour groups scurrying, red faced, punch drunk from so many dates and details that they can't take in the big picture.

The big picture

And pictures don't get much larger or more impressive than the one Istanbul offers. This is a fantastic contemporary city as well as a historic one, but most visitors rarely see that, as they are focused solely on the guidebook and postcard stuff. But if you've already exhausted yourself in the harem and impoverished yourself in the grand bazaar on a previous trip, if you've already been there and bought the bloody carpet, then you can start to really see this city. Take it a bit more easily, take in the places you enjoyed last time round and discover some of the numerous lesser-known gems that you can only find by floating aimlessly through the endless back streets and neighborhoods.

Turkey travel fact box:

Istanbul, the cradle of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires is steeped in history and straddles European and Asian cultures.

A tourist visa is required for non-US visitors. A single entry visa costs NT$1,800 and a dual entry visa costs NT$3,200.

GETTING THERE: Malaysian Airlines offers a round trip ticket to Istanbul via Kuala Lumpur, valid for one month, for NT$29,700 including airport tax and insurance. Contact Super Star Travel on (02) 2721 6018

Turkish Airlines offers a return ticket to Istanbul via Bangkok for NT$35,000 including tax. Contact Lahoo on

(02) 2531 2578.


There's a certain guilty pleasure about staying a few yards from the wondrous Topkapi palace and not even bothering to go inside, or use the courtyard of the blue mosque as a short cut, but not feel any desire to take off your shoes and gawp alongside all the ill-dressed infidels. This time we didn't even enter the grand bazaar as I know the tumult and trials that await. It's great, but the spice bazaar is even better, so we just went there. And I've learnt that if you really want classy souvenirs, you're wiser to point your money toward the proper shops around the fringes of the souk, or over in the new town.

The money I would probably have been talked into spending on a rug in the bazaar got me an entire room and all its furnishings in the Four Seasons hotel for a couple of nights. This is a city in which you need an oasis of calm and comfort, and hotels don't get cooler or more elegantly tranquil than this former prison house in Sultanahmet. And because you don't have to fill every waking hour at the monuments, you can revel in its luxuries. A languorous breakfast of local fruits and strong coffee in the shadow of the Aghia Sophia, while the muezzin ululates through the air, is even more sump-tuous when you know you don't have to rush to anybody's call.

Still I have to go through the soft pink portals of that holy old barn. No matter how many times I visit this city, I always have to slip inside the Aghia Sophia. For me, this 6th-century many-domed masterpiece may well be the most redolent building in the world.

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