The streets of Istanbul are dirty and the traffic is impossible, and Turkish is as baffling as Hungarian, to which it is related-- you'll have more luck with German, however rusty, than English. If you get lost, you're in trouble. I'd go back in a minute. In the course of a ten-day visit I recently made, Istanbul lodged in my soul.
Before I went, I had heard Istanbul described as being like Rome in the late fifties, and when I got there, I saw why. In the chaos of people rushing to the office or the street market or the mosque there is an overarching sense that a city with a glorious past half-buried by grime and neglect is about to emerge as a world capital. The city's population has nearly septupled since the fifties, and now many of the new arrivals are hopeful emigrants from Eastern Europe. Scene-conscious Parisians and, yes, Romans are buying second (or third or fourth) houses in deliciously seedy Edwardian and Art Nouveau neighborhoods. Life is still cheap, the excellent traditional food is mostly untouched by foreign influence, and bars and cafes (although not restaurants) stay open late.
The tension between proud anachronism and make-it-up-as-you-go style hits you as soon as you step out on the street. Everyone seems alive to possibility. In the course of one evening's stroll I saw both traditionally and daringly dressed young people, European tourists in various worldly guises, rough-hewn young men in boisterous conversation at a street market, and a big group of transvestites with strong New York accents raucously piling into a dolmus--one of the fleet of meticulously maintained fat fifties American cars that serve as group taxis--and dishing each other as they predicted who would win the competition they were headed for.
The ideal way to arrive in Istanbul would be to sail in at dusk, when the distractions of the day are blunted and the city wears its storybook face. First you cruise along the Bosporous, the strait that divides Europe and Asia--the city sits on both continents; tourist sights and shops are on the European side, and quieter residential districts are on the Asian, or Anatolian, side. Then you round the Golden Horn and enter the harbor that made the site a natural center of commerce and a natural choice for the eastern capital when the Roman Empire was divided, at the end of the fourth century.
The two buildings most tourists first visit dominate the view of the old city: the Haghia Sophia, the sixth-century basilica whose great dome and vast covered space remained unequaled the world over for a thousand years, and beside it the Blue Mosque, or Sultan Ahmet, the Ottoman response to the architectural challenge that the church--by then converted to a mosque--presented. Up and down the hill are more floodlit gray-white marble mosques, their cascading domes and half domes and sharp minarets so much the stuff of Arabian-nights fantasies that it is startling to realize their form derived from a church and was refined only in the 1500s, just when Renaissance architects, too, were surpassing the feats of the ancients.
I decided during my explorations that a first-time visitor should postpone the greatest-hits lists found in guidebooks and organize his or her discovery of the city by following the work of the architect who defined Istanbul. Mimar Sinan (1489- 1588) was fixated on the Haghia Sophia, and in his lifelong efforts to exceed its achievements he created some of the world's most beautiful buildings. Dwelling for a time in their serene, perfect spaces is the best route to understanding the city. Too, visitors can enter mosques during services--something forbidden in most nonsecular Islamic states (Turkey is secular).
Sinan's masterpiece is Suleymaniye, the mosque named for his chief patron, Suleyman the Magnificent. So mesmerized was I by the interior--there's a kind of secret garden behind, with lovely tomb buildings--that I stayed far longer than I had intended. Across the street from Suleymaniye, half hidden by a stone screen and trees, is the movingly restrained tomb of Sinan himself. In the unrenovated neighborhood down the hill behind the Blue Mosque--one of the few areas of central Istanbul in which wooden houses from the turn of the century remain--is the tiny Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Camii (camii means "mosque"), designed by Sinan and as perfect as Suleymaniye.
Also first-rate but usually given secondary importance in guidebooks is Kariye, built as the Church of St. Saviour in Chora ("the country"), fifteen minutes by taxi from the old city. From 1315 to 1321 Kariye was rebuilt, and mosaics and frescoes of the lives of Christ and the Virgin were installed--among the most spectacular works of Byzantine art extant, recalling Giotto in their depth and expressiveness (they are contemporaneous, if half a continent away). Seen at close range on the walls and fluted domes of the small church, the mosaics and frescoes overpower you.
The sprawling Topkapi Palace deserves its must-see status, but it is best visited in carefully planned forays. The most logical first move after entering is to traverse two of the four sequential courtyards and find the line to pay the separate admission to the harem. The secret, teeming life within the harem (the word means "forbidden" in Arabic) inspired Western artists and writers for hundreds of years, especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the Ottoman Empire was on the wane and palace intrigue grew ever more lurid. The former kitchens, with enchanting rows of onion-dome ceramic chimneys designed by Sinan, house one of the world's great collections of Chinese porcelain, and I returned several times to see it. I quickly walked out of the treasury, however. This is where you find the famous thrones and scimitars and headdresses encrusted with softball-sized gems, all of which look fake, and the emerald dagger from the film Topkapi, which gyrates like a mechanical fortune-teller's head.
The rich beauty produced under the auspices of the sultans is better seen at the Cinili Kosk, a pavilion now devoted to ceramic art which is part of the archaeological museum complex a five- minute walk from Topkapi or at the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art, across from the Blue Mosque. Also superb are the floral Iznik tiles in the Rustem Pasa mosque, a late work by Sinan right in the center of the old city. These, too, are unjustly accorded secondary status.
Everyone will tell you to visit the Grand, or Covered, Bazaar (Kapali Carsi, the heart of the old city, itself a city: there are said to be more than 4,000 shops in its fifty acres. But few will warn you flat out against buying a rug, for which you'll likely pay more than you would at home. You simply won't win the game of bargaining. The best values are silver and gold, which are sold by weight no matter the age or the amount of ornamentation. If you're serious about antiques or miniatures and willing to pay for good ones, bypass the many shops in the bazaar and go to Sofa, on the elegant nearby shopping street Nuruosmaniye.
The bazaar's maze of streets, interrupted by tea stands and old coffee houses, seems thrillingly confusing, but in fact you're never more than a five-minute walk from a way out. The adjoining Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi) drew me not only for its dozens of kinds of olives and other foodstuffs but for the wonderful Kurukahveci coffee shop, with its original 1930s decorations and odors of roasting coffee that reach far beyond the shop's central corner location. My take-home purchases in the bazaar were superior pistachios, dried figs, saffron fanned like a peacock's tail inside round plastic containers like petri dishes, and Iranian caviar sold in tins and vacuum-sealed in plastic for extra-safe storage. I found excellent quality and very good prices at Acar, a shop that takes up two large spaces in the bazaar.
The best place to stay is in the modern part of the city, across the harbor from the Golden Horn, near Taksim Square. Even if this isn't where the sights are, it's where the better restaurants and most of the contemporary city's life are. The Ataturk Cultural Center, where you can find ballets, concerts, and operas, runs along one side of the square. Here the hotels are modern, with the exception of the Pera Palas Hotel, whose Art Nouveau train-station grandeur is probably better viewed at tea in the marvelously restored cafe, or at dinner, than from one of the rooms, which are said to be noisy and unreliably renovated.
I stayed at the Hilton, a handsome 1950s International Style building in its own large private park a five-minute walk from Taksim Square, and I would stay there again for its luxurious calm and central location, even if the service did need sharpening and the big rooms refurbishment (some recently got it). Business travelers not on budgets prefer the modern Swissotel, on the water in a less central part of Taksim; those who really want to splurge stay at the Ciragin Palace Hotel Kempinski, a showily restored Ottoman palace from the past century, which is too opulent for my taste.
Istanbul's food, much of it blessedly based on long-cooked vegetables, is often wonderful and, except at a few pretentious restaurants, is served in simple surroundings that provide few clues to its quality. (Don't drink the water or eat unpeeled fruit: take it from someone who did.) Every restaurant serves a plentiful selection of meze, or antipasti, from which I made up most of my meals. The many cooked salads contain an abundance of vegetables we associate with Italy, along with components more familiar farther east, such as red-pepper paste, walnut sauces, grape leaves, cracked wheat, yogurt and feta cheese, and sweet spices in savory dishes; these refined cuisines, of which Turkish is likely the greatest, are beautifully traced in Paula Wolfert's new The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. The waterfront restaurants of Karakoy specialize in fresh grilled fish--the dinner most visitors, and residents, prefer. I liked the soups and stews at Haci Abdullah, near Taksim Square, a simple cafeteria-style restaurant where I bought many homemade jams from the shelves that line the entranceway.
My survival food was simit, big dark rings of sesame-covered bread stacked on pushcarts all over the city; vendors carrying wooden trays laden with them, often still warm, are a frequent and welcome sight. A simit is more than a sesame bagel ever dreamed it could be.
The Berlitz guide is concise and helpful, the Rough Guide far more thorough and very well written; unusually, the Cadogan Guide is slapdash. The new Knopf guide, characteristic of the snappily designed French series, has exciting color pictures on every page but is confusingly organized. Istanbul hands swear by Strolling Through Istanbul--a dauntingly complete guide, like Giulio Lorenzetti's to Venice, that is not for the traveler who has very limited time or who expects up-to-date information. But it is invaluable for learning about the small and seemingly undiscovered mosque before you.
When you need a break from walking, spend a day on the ferry that zigzags along the Bosporous (there are two departures a day from a pier in the old city). Even if this is how many Istanbullus get to and from work, everyone seems to be on holiday, gossiping, eating fresh yogurt in glasses and drinking the hot tea that vendors sell, pointing out to each other the palaces and fortresses and mosques and gingerbread houses and estates. The fare is about a dollar. I don't believe I've ever taken a pleasanter cruise.