Named the No. 1 destination for 2014, Istanbul's complexities are hard to resist, writes Lee Tulloch.
In a passage that runs off Istanbul's main shopping promenade, Istiklal Avenue, there's a fashionable little store that sells T-shirts emblazoned with the message, "Istanbul. They call it chaos. We call it home."
You don't have to walk the densely crowded streets or get stuck on one of the abysmally clogged motor routes to understand that chaos is in Istanbul's DNA.
The city's tumultuous history has left its disorderly stamp on every aspect of the metropolis, from the jumble of architectural styles that rise up along the banks of the Bosphorus and Marmara seas, on which it is situated, to the layers of different cultures and religious practices that have taken root over time and grown side by side. Driving from the airport, the commotion of modern and ancient strikes you immediately.
The highway is flanked by the graceful minarets of mosques, earthquake-ruined fortress walls, abandoned Ottoman mansions and tumbling down shanties sprouting up amid ugly forests of high-rise apartment buildings.
"The remains of the glorious past are everywhere, no matter how neglected and hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities," writes one of Istanbul's most famous sons, the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. "The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives among the ruins."
It's a city of opposing images. Beautiful and often fragile remnants of the city's Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman pasts coexist with a contemporary Istanbul that's famous for its bars and nightclubs. In the Grand Bazaar, cheap Chinese imports are displayed alongside exquisite examples of hand-loomed silk carpets and ceramics.
Women covered head to toe in black burkas shop alongside girls in jeans and vertiginous high heels. Old wooden trawlers bob about in the Bosphorus in the wake of modern ferries and cruise liners.
Glamorous restaurants serve the extravagant food of sultans in skyscrapers, while old men sell cheap and delicious fish sandwiches under the Galata Bridge. Riot police with shields - a show of strength against potential social unrest - cluster on the same street where families take their Saturday strolls. One part of the city is in Asia and the other is in Europe. No wonder the word "Byzantine" has come to mean "excessively complicated" in modern use.
Istanbul's complications, especially the simmering unrest caused by the present government's alleged corruption and shift towards Islamism, have done little to quell interest in the city. TripAdvisor recently named Istanbul as the world's No. 1 destination for 2014 in its Travellers' Choice Awards.
The city is not only one of the world's most fascinating, it's easily accessible from Europe or Asia, sitting between both continents as it does - and it's surprisingly cheap for a country so close to Europe.
Travellers have obviously decided that Istanbul's charms outweigh the potential for being caught up in the kind of demonstrations that boiled over last year in Taksim Square.
Istanbul's position on the Bosphorus, which links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, meant it was directly on the Silk Route and a valuable port, conquered many times. The Greek city Byzantium was established there in 660BC.
It became Constantinople, after Emperor Constantine, in AD330, and for centuries was the stronghold of Christianity in the East, until Sultan Mehmet II conquered it in 1453 and turned it into an Islamic caliphate.
The Ottomans ruled until as recently as 1922, when the Empire, weakened by losses in WWI, was overthrown by Turkey's first president, Ataturk, who set about Western-style reforms, including a change from Arabic script to Latin script. The ancient, walled part of the city, which grew up on a peninsula along an inlet of the Bosphorus known as the Golden Horn, was called "Stamboul", meaning "the city", and that name was adopted. While the majority of the population remains Sunni Muslim, it is mostly secular.
Minority ethnic groups such as Kurds and Jews blend in, although like everything else, it's layered with nuances.
The smuggled black tea that is superior to the local tea is proudly called "Kurdish" tea if you're a Kurd, but that word is never mentioned in non-Kurdish circles.
The geography of a city of 14 million people that is spread up and down steep hills and across continents can seem intimidating.
Tales of thieving taxi drivers, unsafe districts for women and the political situation make it seem even more daunting.
Most of the secular Turks I met expressed great anger towards Prime Minister Erdogan and his party. Now, there's a strong police presence wherever you go, but locals assure me the demonstrations have been localised around Taksim.
As for the taxi drivers, I thought they were rather dramatic, but all were courteous and we didn't get ripped off. I felt safer in Istanbul than I have done in many other big urban centres.
Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul as "an archipelago of neighbourhoods", and that's probably the best way to approach the city, by exploring the neighbourhood you find yourself in, then venturing to another, one at a time. In the course of a week we stayed in three quite different parts of town in terms of character - on the Bosphorus in the expensive Besiktas neighbourhood; in the bohemian quarter of Cihangir, which is similar to Paris's Left Bank; and in the bourgeois district of Nisantasi, with its European air and streets lined with boutiques of luxury brands. From these districts it was easy to visit the historical quarter and monuments such as the glorious Hagia Sophia, using the excellent public transport system of trams, trains and ferries. (Buses are slow.)
In October, the city opened a new rail service in a tunnel under the Bosphorus linking Asia and Europe. Taxis are extremely cheap if you prefer them.
From Cihangir, a neighbourhood favoured by movie stars and artists, full of second-hand shops and arty cafes, we found we could walk many places, and it's simple to hop on a ferry to the Asian side from a number of public terminals dotted along the sea. After a few days the city felt much smaller.
You need strong legs to walk those hills but every few steps bring some new delight, whether it's a street corner in trendy, waterfront Karakoy completely overhung with grape vines, a ruined mansion, a steamy Hamman (do try one) or a Muslim graveyard tucked between old buildings. In turning its back on the Ottomans the city has let many of its mansions fall into disrepair.
They are now inhabited by many of the thousands, perhaps millions, of well-fed feral cats that have a special place in Istanbul hearts. (A good few of the fishermen that line the Galata Bridge that crosses the Bosphorus are fishing for food for the cats, I am told.)
Walking the city also opens up another of Istanbul's great pleasures, its food.
Street carts offer fresh pomegranate juice, roasting chestnuts, sticky pastries, rice pilaff, and fresh rounds of simit, the sesame-crusted rolls that the locals devour for breakfast. Drop into any hole-in-the-wall cafe and you'll find delicious lentil soup and crisp salads sprinkled with tart pomegranate syrup. Kebabs and borek (savoury pastries) are ubiquitous.
The fish sandwiches cooked and served on the banks of the Golden Horn are unmissable - grab a stool by the water and wash them down with a few glasses of the wonderful, strong tea brewing on samovars everywhere. (The coffee is pretty awful. Most locals drink Nescafe.)
With the help of a local guide from Culinary Backstreets, we discovered a sublime buffalo clotted cream in a drab cafe near the Karikoy tram stop that we had walked past many times.
Modern Istanbul has experienced massive urban growth and its economy has been one of the world's fastest-growing. It just missed out on the 2020 Olympics, but the bid was not popular among those who saw it as the government's excuse to kick-start large-scale building projects at the cost of the environment.
The 2013 Istanbul Biennale of art was open during our stay and the theme, the power of public space in terms of social struggle, art and politics, reflected the city's present obsession.
One of the faces of modern Istanbul is Canan Ozdemir, who joined with two friends to debut Istanbul's contemporary House Cafe in 2002. It now has 12 branches. Since then, the group has opened three beautiful hotels under the House Hotels brand. Canan's sister, Seyhan, is partner in the firm Autoban, which is responsible for the interiors of Canan's hotels and many other public spaces. You're likely to find yourself in one of Autoban's cool interiors at some point during your stay: in true Istanbul style, the minimalist designs coexist with the ornate architecture of the city's past.
Perhaps the best example of Istanbul's complexities happened when we were staying in the Autoban-designed Witt Suites.
One afternoon, we set out from our hip hotel room in cosmopolitan Cihangir for a walking tour of Byzantine churches in a conservative Muslim neighbourhood of Vefa. We had unintentionally arrived in Istanbul during the Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Adha, or Festival of the Sacrifice, when much of the city closes down for four days.
The festival celebrates Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son, Ishmael, at God's command. The tradition is that each family slaughter a sheep or bull and distribute one third of the animal to the needy. Our walking tour took us right into the centre of this traditional neighbourhood on the very day that sheep and cattle, herded into the city for slaughter in makeshift butcheries, were being sacrificed.
An estimated one hundred million animals are sacrificed throughout the Arab world during the festival and it felt as if all of them were being killed that afternoon in that one neighbourhood. We passed dozens of slaughterhouses, butcher boys covered head to toe in blood, frightened rams being dragged along by the horns or transported in wheelbarrows. The streets literally ran with blood.
Secular Turkish friends were appalled that we had been shown this side of the city, unhappy that what they think of as its mediaeval side - of which they disapproved - was being displayed. But we're glad we saw it. We had experienced the city's hip modernity and its most traditional religious celebration in one afternoon.
Istanbul - it's complicated.
The writer was a guest of Etihad, Witt Suites, Shangri-La Istanbul, House Hotel Nisantasi and Ciragan Palace.
Etihad has a fare to Istanbul for about $1960 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. You fly to Abu Dhabi (about 14hr) and then to Istanbul Rome (6hr 45min); see etihad.com; phone 1300 532 215. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 90 days and it must be obtained electronically before arrival. See evisa.gov.tr.
Witt Suites is a 17-suite boutique hotel. Rooms from $266, including breakfast. See mrandmrssmith.com/au/luxury-hotels/witt-istanbul-suites.
House Hotel Nisantasi has rooms from $252, including breakfast. See mrandmrssmith.com/au/luxury-hotels/the-house-hotel-nisantasi.
Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul has rooms from €400 ($590), including breakfast. See shangri-la.com/istanbul/shangrila.
Mama Shelter Istanbul has double rooms from €89. See mamashelter.com/en/istanbul.
Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul has one of the most extravagant breakfasts. Rooms from €570, including breakfast. See lhw.com.
FIVE MUST-DO'S IN ISTANBUL
BOSPHORUS FERRY TOUR
It's touristy but this two-hour ferry ride along the Bosphorus coast is the best way to orientate yourself, see the layers of history from the shoreline and appreciate how important the sea is to the city. Ferries leave frequently from Eminonu Pier. A bargain at 10 Turkish lira ($5) a person.
FOOD WALK WITH CULINARY BACKSTREETS
Culinary Backstreets is a brilliant tour operator taking small groups on walks through different Istanbul neighbourhoods, revealing the best local cuisine on offer, in places you would never find yourself. $US125 ($130) a person. See culinarybackstreets.com.
Context Travel specialises in small group, three-hour walking tours by a network of local scholars, passionate about the city's history. Art, orientation and family excursions are also offered. From 150 TRY a person, plus entry tickets. See contexttravel.com.
MUSEUM OF INNOCENCE
There are so many famous museums in Istanbul, it's hard to know where to start. But make sure you put this charming little house on your schedule. Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk built this museum to illustrate his novel by the same name. You don't need to have read the book, although it's a good idea. 25 lira admission. See masumiyetmuzesi.org/Eng.
SHOP IN THE GRAND BAZAAR
We found the world's largest covered bazaar much less intimidating than we had thought. Go with a sense of humour and you'll have a great time. Open Monday to Saturday 9am-5pm.