City of secrets

Nowhere deserves the title of European capital of culture more than Istanbul, writes Jan Morris, while insiders reveal their favourite places.

'Culture" is a flexible conception but if you interpret it to mean the whole range of human experience and achievement, then nowhere is better qualified to be the cultural capital of Europe than Istanbul, nee Constantinople.

It even looks the part. In all European travel there is no spectacle more tremendous than the sight of Istanbul massed beside the sea - a solidification of history, jumbled houses and docks and palaces along the shore, mighty domes and soaring minarets, ships and ferries swarming everywhere, rumbling traffic over bridges - a timeless metropolis, familiar to travellers for a thousand years and of such consequence that for centuries it was known to half the world simply as "The City".

Technically it is, of course, only debatably European at all. It is the chief city of republican Turkey, which is not yet a member of the European Union, and it is as monumentally a western gateway of Asia as it is an eastern portal of Europe. The moment travellers step ashore in Istanbul they know they are in a city sui generis, partly familiar, partly marvellously exotic. It has been in its time pagan, Muslim, Christian and officially secular. The most celebrated of all its monuments, Hagia Sophia, began as a church, became a mosque and is now a museum and to my mind this overlapping of civilisations makes it all the more suitable as the cultural capital of a continent becoming inexorably more various as the generations pass.

But still the fascination of the magnificent old place is its Turkishness, the ultimate patina (so far) that covers its successive layers of historical memory. Nowhere in Europe is more suggestive than the rambling enclave that is the Topkapi Palace, where once the Ottoman sultans held court, where the harem gossiped and the executioners sharpened their blades and from whose gardens you can look out across the fateful waters of the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. No refreshment break is more satisfying than a cup of thick coffee and a sweetmeat taken at a table beside the Golden Horn, frequented by seafarers since the days of Homer. You can imagine in these streets the imperial legionaries of Constantine himself, the janissaries of Islam, looting Christians from Venice on their way to the Crusades, merchants from all the nations setting up their stalls in its famous markets.

But presiding over it all, stocky, tough, indomitable, is that easternmost sentinel of Europe, the modern Turk of Istanbul. It is his style, his history, his lively intellectual life, his own shifting circumstances, that qualify the city for its status, in 2010, as cultural capital of Europe. If he needs a text to celebrate its elevation he could do worse than quote an old popular song out of the US: "Why did Constantinople get the works? That's nobody's business but the Turks ..."

Sahaflar Carsisi (the book market)

In some ways the book market preserves the atmosphere of the bazaar as it might have been two centuries ago, when merchants gathered by their trades and the emphasis was not on tourists. It occupies a courtyard between the Bayezid Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, on the same site as the old Byzantine book and paper market. Overseen by a bust of Ibrahim Muteferrika, the first Ottoman printer, dozens of tiny bookstalls have shelves crammed with textbooks, novels and holy and foreign books. New and second-hand books in English jostle for space in the highly recommended Dilmen Kitabevi bookstore, where a strong-minded reader in search of humour might look out for the almost scholarly Sexual Life in Ottoman Society. Through the far gate you'll find a tiny market for old coins - a history lesson in itself at this crossroads of continents. - Jason Goodwin

Rustem Pasha Mosque

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It is hardly off the beaten track but getting here is half the fun. Rustem Pasha Mosque is a tiny gem squeezed into the bazaar, with its undercroft serving as shops and approached by a winding staircase. You come out on to a raised courtyard, quite unexpectedly - and no wonder, because this mosque was built with characteristic dexterity by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect, in 1563. It is one of the decorative wonders of Istanbul, sparkling with a magnificent array of true Iznik tiles from the greatest period of the tile maker's art: the rich red colours were perfected at this time and then the recipe was lost. - JG

Hasircilar Carsisi (Strawmat Weavers Market), Eminonu.

Crimea Memorial Church

A tiny fragment in the mosaic of Istanbul's history, the Crimea Memorial Church was designed by British architect G.E. Street and built in 1858-68 on land donated by the sultan. It is a remarkable survivor from a period of rapid change as the Ottoman Empire opened itself to Western influences. Moribund by the 1980s, the Anglican church was reopened with the enthusiastic help of Assyrian refugees who found shelter here in the 1990s. Look out for Mungo McCosh's splendidly painted chancel screen and the colourful Sunday congregation (Sunday Mass is at 10am). If you appear nice enough you might even be invited back to the vicarage by Father Ian Sherwood. - JG

Serdar Ekrem Sokak 52, Karakoy.

Jason Goodwin is the author of Lords of the Horizons: A History of the Ottoman Empire and of the Yashim series of novels.

Cinaralti tea house, Cengelkoy

To escape the crazy traffic and touristy areas of the old city, board one of the public ferries to Uskudar on the Asian side and wander north, perhaps visiting the Beylerbeyi Palace on the way, then continuing on to Cengelkoy. Cinaralti is a traditional tea house on the waterfront, where you can enjoy one of the most beautiful views of the old city under the shade of an 800-year-old plane tree. Here the call to prayer mingles with the bells ringing from the Greek Orthodox church across the road. This is a wonderful spot to contemplate history and if you are here at dinner time, go to Iskele Restaurant at the ferry station for some of the best fish in town. - Husam Suleymangil

Carsi Caddesi 90, +90 216 553 7385.

Asitane Restaurant

If you visit the Chora Church Museum, with its beautifully protected 12th-century mosaics, I strongly recommend lunch next door, where you can also explore the past - through your palate. The chef at Asitane scoured the archives for sultans' festival menus at the Topkapi Palace kitchen and re-created recipes from the 15th century to the 18th century. The stuffed melon, or stuffed quince in winter, is to die for. Jazz and classical concerts are held periodically in the garden. - HS

Kariye Camii Sokak 6, see asitanerestaurant.com/English.

Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus

Otherwise known as the Little Hagia Sophia, this 6th-century church is used these days as a mosque. It was built as an architectural draft for the main Hagia Sophia to test new ideas. In your imagination, if you bisect the building and put another dome on top of the two half domes, it would give you a small-scale replica of its big sister, hence the nickname. It is within an easy walk of the centre of the old town. Make sure you visit the calligraphers' market just before the entrance on the right. HS

See klasikkeyifler.org/English/toursa.html.

Husam Suleymangil is an independent tour guide.

Fazil Bey's Turkish coffee shop, Kadikoy Carsisi market

As you pass the shopfront of Fazil Bey'in Turk Kahvesi, founded in 1923, you are drawn in by the aroma of fresh coffee roasted in an antique machine. Over years we may have turned into a tea-drinking nation but a good fincan (small cup) of coffee is still dear to our hearts and "will be remembered for 40 years", as an old Turkish saying goes. Chocolate, vanilla, cardamom and mastic flavours are local favourites. Drink it with a few pieces of lokum (Turkish delight) and make sure you try the delicious home-made lemonade. - Ilgin Yorulmaz

Tarihi Kadikoy Carsisi Serasker Caddesi 1a, +90 216 450 2870, see fazilbey.com.

Uskudar Bit Pazari antique flea market

Uskudar is a historically important and relatively conservative suburb on the Asian side, home to mosques, hammams and monuments from Ottoman times, and this flea market shows it. Inside the covered bazaar are 40 shops selling everything from bric-a-brac to statement pieces such as the intricately carved marble basins. Asir Antik specialises in iron, wood and stonework. Another favourite is Ridvan TasCiogullari's tiny shop of antique locks and keys, right next to Asir. Ridvan has spent a lifetime amassing his collection, travelling the country in search of the most unusual pieces. - IY

Phone +90 216 334 3201, see asirantik.com. Open daily from 10am-6.30pm.

Laundromat Boutique

Back on the European side, Laundromat is a newly opened boutique in Galata-Beyoglu. Dubbed the Soho of Istanbul thanks to a gentrification of the area, Galata is now hot property. This concept store is a stone's throw from historic Galata Tower and co-owned by designers Oyku Thurston and Yasemin Ozeri. Thurston is a genius with felt, using this ancient fabric in amazingly modern ways to make shawls, mufflers and hats, and Ozeri's designs are timeless. The shop shows some other contemporary Turkish designers and changes stock every three months. Galatamoda, an event featuring young and talented Turkish fashion designers, takes place in the area four times a year. - IY

Galid Dede Caddesi 93b, +90 212 249 9892, see laundromat-ist.blogspot.com.

Ilgin Yorulmaz is the editor of pukkaliving.com, a local's guide to Istanbul.

Kanlica

I sometimes go to this village on the outskirts of Istanbul to savour the famous Kanlica yoghurt, made from a mix of cow's and sheep's milk and served with sugar sprinkled on top of the creamy skin. Sitting at one of the small cafes beside the seaside, I admire the view of the Bosphorus. - Oya Eczacibasi

Basilica Cistern

With its vast forest of columns that fades into the darkness and its enchanted atmosphere, Basilica Cistern is the only one of the city's ancient cisterns to continue serving its original function - as a reservoir of the Great Palace - until fairly recent times. Basilica Cistern testifies both to the richness of decoration before the 6th century and to the changes that transformed the city two centuries after its founding. Today, the space serves as an extraordinary setting for a variety of activities and has a cafe. - OE

Oya Eczacibasi is the chairwoman of the Istanbul Modern Museum.

Maybeshop

Part design shop, part art gallery, maybeshop features a collection of items created from recycled objects by Turkish designers. Found in Istanbul's home-furnishing shopping centre, Address istanbul, Maybeshop offers old Turkish ottomans reconstructed into modern chairs, a new take on the traditional Turkish tea glass, reimagined fez caps in bright colours, karma sutra rings designed by Sadi Tekin, old Turkish records shaped into bowls and even Turkish coffee glasses. -  Esen Boyacigiller

Akin Plaza Kat 3, Sisli, +90 212 320 9561, see maybedesign.at.

Beyaz Firin Erenkoy

Beyaz Firin is my absolute favourite place to have breakfast. On a side street close to Caddebostan shore on the Asian side, this bakery has endless delicious options: simit (Turkish bagel covered with sesame seeds), pogaca (pastry filled with cheese, dill, potatoes and olives), borek (Turkish filo-dough pastry filled with either cheese, spinach or meat), quiches, bread topped with eggs and sucuk (Turkish beef sausage), pastries, filled wheat lavash and more. - EB

Bagdat Caddesi, Yener Sokak 9, Kat 1/2, Kadikoy, see www.beyazfirin.com.

Esen Boyacigiller is the editor-in-chief of Time Out Istanbul.

Umut Ocakbasi restaurant

Food is a major part of our lives and we love an ocakbasi (grill house), which is an essential and traditional part of Turkish culture. This one is very close to Taksim, where we usually hang out. It has a proper indoor grill and serves great meat. The restaurant has four floors and a terrace. It's busy but the atmosphere is always friendly. It's also one of the best places to enjoy drinking raki. - MaNga

Hasnun Galip Sokak 4, Beyoglu, +90 212 245 5005.

Peyote bar

In a historic back street in Nevizade in Beyoglu, this is one of our favourite music venues. Its eclectic music policy, spread across three floors, pulls in an alternative, friendly and lively local crowd. Many well-known Turkish artists launched their music careers in this bar, including us, so it is our special place. We love the terrace on the roof, great for after-show drinks. MaNga

Kameriye Sokak 4 Balikpazari, Beyoglu, +90 212 251 4398, see peyote.com.tr.

Bosphorus boat tour, Ortakoy pier

If you want to see Istanbul in a short time, take a Bosphorus boat tour. The tours depart from all over but we recommend taking the boat from Ortakoy pier. It has boutique shops, arty stalls, tea houses and plenty of historical sights. From the boat you can see Istanbul, east and west, in its full glory: wooded hills, dilapidated waterside villas from another era, sleek modern homes, the occasional palace and castle and much more. This is not just a tourist activity; we locals do the tours, too, especially on Sundays. - MaNga

MaNga, a Turkish rock band, are set to represent the nation at this year's Eurovision Song Contest.

Caferaga Medresesi

Tucked down a narrow cobbled lane, a stone's throw from the Hagia Sophia, is this oasis of calm among the frenetic hum of old Istanbul. A small sign is the only clue to a rudimentary cafe housed in a medrese (religious school) built in 1560 by the great Ottoman architect, Sinan. The cells or classrooms surround a shady, cool little courtyard. Home also to a cultural foundation, it is where you can delve into workshops on traditional handicrafts and music while supping an ice-cold drink. - Peter Sommer

Next to Hagia Sophia. Caferiye Sokak, Sogukkuyu, Cikmazi, 1 Sultanahmet.

Mosaic Museum

It took me several attempts to find the Mosaic Museum. It's only a couple of hundred metres from the Blue Mosque but off the tourist radar. I've had the place entirely to myself each time I've visited. Almost hidden in a 17th-century bazaar full of carpet shops is a portal into the epicentre of Byzantine Constantinople. Metal stairs take you down to the remnants of a mosaic pavement from the imperial palace, built by the emperor Justinian nearly 1500 years ago. Stretching for a couple of hundred metres, it depicts a host of wildlife, fauna and figures in colourful, enchanting detail - the biggest, most splendid mosaic surviving from the period. - PS

Peter Sommer owns Peter Sommer Travels.

Malaysia Airlines flies to Istanbul for about $1810 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax, via Kuala Lumpur (8 hours and 11½ hours). Australians require a visa, which can be obtained upon arrival.

- Guardian News & Medi

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