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Intriguing, Enduring Istanbul

Whatever can be said about Istanbul, the word resilience may describe it best. Istanbul, if not Turkey, stands against the centuries of change and conflict – through Greek settlements and Roman conquests, through Muslim penetration and Ottoman domination, through Allied alignment and national independence, through its membership in NATO, to its place today at the forefront of an ever-emerging Middle East predicament.

The pillars of the Blue Mosque present a certain majesty as the sun sets behind the seven hills on which Istanbul was built. The sight stirs awe in the Strait of Bosporus, as passengers on cargo and cruise ships pass between Europe and Asia making their way from the mighty Mediterranean to the land-locked Black Sea.

In this history-laden metropolis the future is busy at work –  creating, building, inventing, responding to the demands of a city on the edge. Istanbul is a city that has gambled everything it has on keeping its place as one of the top destinations in the world for business, industry and tourism while aggressively preserving its legacy as guardian to the crossroads of civilization.

While recent months have brought some unfortunate events to Istanbul’s doorstep: a foiled government coup attempt in July, an attack at the international airport the month before, an attack at a tourism site in January, and a geopolitical situation that makes the country vulnerable to, if not right at the epicenter of, the ongoing migrations to Europe from Syria and other volatile territories, Turkey has stood up to these challenges and just kept on going.

In August it opened what is, in fact, the world’s broadest suspension bridge – nearly 200 feet wide, ten lanes across with towers rising more than a thousand feet (the tallest suspension bridge towers in the world) over the Strait of Bosporus. The $3 billion Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge is Istanbul’s third for the crossing of this strategic waterway.

Meanwhile, a third of the first phase of Istanbul’s new airport was recently completed – a project touted to be the largest project so far in Turkey’s modern history. The project began in May 2015 and is expected to be capable of handling some 200 million passengers annually as well as flights to some 350 destinations when finally completed. The first phase completion, with a goal for managing 90 million passengers, is targeted for winter 2018. By contrast, Los Angeles International Airport handles between 70 million and 75 million passengers annually.

In 2015, Turkey announced seven projects totaling a record $44.7 billion, according to World Bank figures. They include motorways and shipping canals as well as the new Istanbul Finance Center, with a front and center purpose of making Istanbul into one of the leading financial centers in the world.

A leading symbol of Turkey’s ambitions is Turkish Airlines. The Star Alliance member has been busy raising its profile over the past decade to become a key player in global transportation with a fleet of 86 wide-body aircraft and a route system that includes 290 destinations. While still reeling from the effects of the July coup attempt and recent drops in tourism arrivals, the company continues to push on with new routes and an aim to become a top hub for transfer traffic along global flight paths.  

Rolling Out the Welcome Mat

There is no doubt that tragic events of recent months have fallen hard on Turkey’s tourism industry, but the country is working on maintaining and strengthening its position as a safe place to conduct business and a place like no other to experience ancient and modern history all together.

“While no destination can ever claim to be ‘safe’ due to any number of unforeseen situations that may impact a traveler, Turkey’s position in the region in and of itself wouldn’t normally make it less safe for travelers to main tourist destinations like Istanbul than if they were visiting any other major western city that has suffered terrorism attacks in recent years, like Nice, Orlando, Brussels, Paris, and Sydney, or Madrid, London and New York,” says Mrs. Gorkem Kursunlu Karakus, counselor, Embassy of Turkey, culture and tourism counselor’s office.

In fact, a US State Department Travel notice issued in July warned Americans to avoid travel to southeastern Turkey, particularly to areas near the Syrian border some 500 miles away from Istanbul. There are no current travel warnings for Istanbul.

Visits to Istanbul by Americans had been growing at a steady clip through last year, according to ministry statistics. At 562,337, the number of US visitors to Istanbul was up 5 percent from 2014, ranking fourth among the total of 12.5 million visitors to the city last year.

For the country as a whole, some 40 million international visitors came last year, according to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization. David Scowsill, head of the World Travel & Tourism Council estimates Turkey’s recent problems may have contributed to a 20 to 25 percent drop in visitor numbers this year.

Still, Americans and tourism industry suppliers usually have short memories when it comes to troubled destinations and, at a time when trends and politics seem to be shifting all over the globe, unsettling events are becoming just another part of the landscape no matter where they occur.

To that end, for the dedicated leisure traveler or the get-‘er-done road warrior, Istanbul is a wonderland of sights, smells, tastes, intrigues and awe. Through this megalopolis of 14 million people, visitors find modern streets and throughways that wind around the ruins of Roman aqueducts, crumbling crusader fortresses and medieval mosques that still call the people to prayer.  

Where To Start Digging

On any first visit to Istanbul there are a few musts not to miss. These are the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Tokapi Palace, Basilica Cisterns, Dolmabahce Palace and the Grand Bazaar. Yes, they are tourist magnets with throngs and lines and groups huddling in a variety of languages but the upshot is the same. The spots are significantly historic, the beauty and preservation magnificent, and they undeniably contribute to the mosaic of what is Istanbul, no matter what the purpose for visiting.

For cost-efficiency, start with the Istanbul Museum Pass and simply follow the map. The pass costs TRY85 (around $30) and allows easy access to twelve of Istanbul’s most popular museums, without having to endure the long queues. Purchase the pass through the concierge desk at international hotels. It is valid for 120 hours starting with your first museum visit and offers ancillary discounts at smaller private museums as well as shops around the city. Visit

Tokapi is notable if only for the immensity of it. In its heyday (1465–1856) the castle residence held some 5000 inhabitants attended by 8000 staff, and contrary to the 1964 caper film starring Melina Mercouri and Peter Ustinov, the jewels are still there – in particular, the Spoonmaker’s Diamond that carries with it a legacy of history and intrigue.

Be prepared to spend time at the palace, a good half day to wander through courtyards, museums of all manner of sacred relics, elaborate digs where concubines spent their time or kitchens where cooks prepared meals for a city each day. Don’t miss the relic of Mohammed’s footprint, easily as big as an elephant’s; also, a walking staff believed to be Moses’.

The surroundings at Hagia Sophia are equally impressive given its survival through nearly 2,000 years of religious and political upheaval. The reconstruction and preservation is ongoing but does not take away from the dizzying vaults and domes and intricate artwork produced and protected against all odds.

The Blue Mosque is no less extravagant in tilework. Some 20,000 handmade ceramic Iznik tiles that date back to the 1600s complemented by sunlight filtering in through 200 stained glass windows produce a rather angelic setting for the orange prayer carpet used by worshipers throughout the day. Prepare to de-shoe and women need to scarf up upon entrance (one will be provided). Talk in whispers. Use the time to get quiet and feel the peace.

A visit to the Dolmabahce Palace, built in the mid-1800s and home to the last six Ottoman sultans, takes up where Topkapi leaves off. In fact, the palace was built as an answer to the older palace’s lack of modern amenities. The three-storied Dolmabahce palace has 285 rooms, 68 toilets, six Turkish Baths, 43 halls and approximately 2,700 windows. It has survived intact with its original decorations, furnishings and appointments and remains filled with paintings and ceiling illustrations by French, Russian and Italian artists.

Perhaps what is below the city is just as intriguing for its beauty, geometry and history. The Basilica Cistern, considered the Sunken Palace of Istanbul, is an enormous subterranean waterway and was originally a great basilica. Built beneath the site of Hagia Sophia during the Justianian era, supposedly by the blood and sweat of 7,000 slaves, the caverns provided filtered water to the palaces.

Cathedral-sized in dimensions and as ornate, with carved marble columns topped by the heads of angels and characters of myths, it’s a model of ancient engineering and has served as a backdrop for Bond films, novels and even video games.

Put it all together at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum – actually three museums – the Archaeological Museum, the Museum of the Ancient Orient and the Museum of Islamic Art, located in the Eminönü district near Gülhane Park and Topkapi Palace. It may have the world’s largest collection of artifacts from this cradle of civilization, totaling more than a million historic objects representing nearly all eras in world history from ancient to modern.  

The Art of Shopping

A stroll through the legendary Grand Bazaar and nearby Spice Market will satisfy any shopping list if it includes Turkish Delight candies or any variation of blue glass evil eye protection charms on it. The scenes here are as colorful and aromatic as they are magnetic.

While not the best place to purchase a kilim, the local food products, colorful garb, cheap jewelry, even shoes, are a good snag. Beware the more expensive items. Shopkeepers here have packed centuries of experience into helping consumers part with their money. And don’t expect great bargaining power. Rather, enjoy the vaulted architecture and the sense of history (the bazaar dates back to the mid-1400s, although the surroundings now are late Ottoman). Have a coffee in the buzzing book bazaar.

A more unusual place to wander artsy streets for fashion and local color is Galata. Located in Beyo?lu, between Karaköy and ?stiklal Avenue, Galata was once the neighborhood where minority populations lived, such as Jews, Greeks and Armenians as well as merchants of the Ottoman times. But today it is the epicenter of Istanbul’s own bohemian quarter teeming with artists, musicians and coffee houses. Wander alleys to discover art shops, bookstalls, unusual clothing collections and crafts as live jazz wafts from cafes and bars.

A Night in Istanbul

Istanbul offers some 99,000 beds and among that number are more than 191 four- and five-star hotels. Many hotels in Istanbul are located near the convention centers, airports and business areas both on the European and Asian side. Recent events have resulted in severe drops in occupancy in Istanbul but that may mean more favorable rates for those who have time to negotiate.

For example, consider the Ciragan Palace Kempinksi. There’s nothing like staying in a former sultan’s fortress to feel safe and wrapped in a fairytale akin to A Thousand and One Nights. Overlooking the Strait of Bosporus the hotel makes a grand presence and offers plenty of story to go with it. Find 315 rooms, 12 grand suites and one sultan’s suite, all comfortably equipped and worthy of five-star designation. There are ballrooms, intimate rooms and ambient outdoor spaces for meetings and events and several dining venues that make you feel like you are in the middle of an exciting spy thriller.

Another favorite: Pera Palace. Now owned by Jumeirah, the circa 1892 property is replete with history – starting with the brass elevator moving amid the property’s four floors and not excluding the Agatha Christie room or the Mustafa Kemal Atatürk room, the revolutionary who established the Republic of Turkey in 1923 and preserved exactly as they had lived in them. The 115 rooms are on the smallish side but keep the 19th century ambiance alive with vintage touches among modern conveniences. The Pera might also be preferred for its location in the hip and walkable Beyo?lu area of Istanbul.

North American chains to be found in Istanbul include the Four Seasons, W, St. Regis, Grand Hyatt, Hilton and others. House Hotels is a homegrown brand in Istanbul, with convenient locations catering mostly to European and Gulf travelers.  

By Lark Gould