Two weeks before Covid began to hit Europe, I stood in the Basilica Cistern beneath Istanbul, steadily getting dripped on. Built during the reign of the Emperor Justinian I in 532, just before another deadly pandemic – the plague of Justinian – the cistern lies beneath Istanbul’s tourist hotspot, and despite it being damp, dark and having stands of 007 merchandise at its entrance and exit, it is one of the most enchanting places in a city that has captivated its visitors for over a thousand years.
'If the Earth were a single state,' Napoleon once pronounced, 'Istanbul would be its capital,’ and upon visiting you begin to understand why. Istanbul is one of the world’s great meeting places, not just between continents but between ideologies and cultures – a fact embodied until recently by one of its famed monuments, the Hagia Sophia. But, amid the Covid crisis, President Erdoğan converted the museum, for the second time in its almost 1500-year-old history, into a working mosque.
I often think back to the cistern and its 336 marble columns that were reclaimed from temples, two of which, if you walk to the far-left corner, have Medusa’s heads as their bases. One head lies on its side, one upside down – supposedly to eradicate Medusa’s power – and both predate Emperor Justinian himself. Both are a reminder of how many cultures have made their mark here, of how long this city has stood, and how long it will continue to do so. It has survived plagues, emperors and wars.
For a visitor short on time, Istanbul, once the power centre of two empires, can feel a little overwhelming. While I would never usually suggest heading straight to the tourist hotspot of a city, the first thing I did was hop on a tram by the water at Eminonu and travel up to the busy Sultanahmet district, to visit the Hagia Sophia. The crown of Istanbul, and now the very large elephant in the room.
It feels very strange to know I was one of the last to visit Hagia Sofia as a museum. On the day I was there, we were left to roam freely, shoes on, hats off, chins tilted up to take in the byzantine architecture, the golden mosaics and the warm, ethereal light. It is cavernous space but doesn’t feel empty, holy but not subject to one religion, ancient but still with a presence that feels living.
I felt the same wonder in the Hagia Sophia that I’ve only ever experienced in the Sagrada Família. Like Gaudi's cathedral, it feels otherworldly. And yet, here, a thousand years of history somehow makes the air feel thick, and the people walk slow.
You can still visit it. There have been rumours about the monument now it’s a mosque again, but the only thing that has changed for visitors it that you’ll need to be mindful of what you wear (ladies, this means headscarves) and the time you go. It will be closed during prayer time, so Friday afternoon in particular is a bad idea, and during prayer is the only time that the Christian mosaics will be covered by cloth. Otherwise, you will be able to see them, as well as the Viking graffiti etched into the balustrade of the south gallery (make sure to venture up the ramp to the galleries), which is a nice reminder that some things aren’t so easily changed.
The new clothing guidelines shouldn’t be an inconvenience, as the next stop on any traveller’s itinerary is a short hop across Sultanahmet square, to the Blue Mosque. It’s actual name, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, has been overshadowed by the tens of thousands of handmade Iznik tiles that adorn the interior, each with immaculate detailing and many in a vibrant array of blues that has given the beautiful Mosque its better known moniker. Originally when it began to be built in 1609, it was meant to rival the Hagia Sophia, which it doesn’t, but it’s worth a quick trip all the same.
Then, if you don’t mind going underground, venture across the road to the Basilica Cistern, one of several hundred cisterns that lie beneath the city, and aside from thoughts of plagues, and medusa, with its vaulted ceiling, low light, and schools of carp that flick through the water, it’s a wonderfully eerie relic of ancient life. Also known locally as the ‘sunken palace’, the subterranean space is the largest byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Forgotten for centuries, it was rediscovered in 1545 and became a dumping ground not just for rubbish, but also for bodies. It was officially cleaned in 1985 and has been open to the public since 1987, and although it is now free of the dead, it does feel like their ghosts are still present. It’s little wonder why they chose this space for Sean Connery’s Bond in ‘From Russia with love.’
Once you’ve done what can feel a little like ‘the obligatory triangle’, then you have an abundance of options.
If you’re a fan of bustling markets, you can head across to the famed Grand Bazaar which has been going since 1461 and is a colourful maze of around 4000 shops and sellers. Be warned. It is easy to get lost in here, so remember where you entered and have an exit in mind in order to get out. Daniel Craig avoided this in Skyfall by, naturally, riding his motorbike on top of the bazaar instead.
If you want more Ottoman history wander up to the Topkapi Palace which was the residence of Ottoman sultans between the 15th and 19th centuries, with the exquisite tilework, clothes and colourful stories to prove it. Or perhaps take to the waves on a boat tour down the Bosphorus, where you can catch glimpses of old waterside forts and the modern mansions of Istanbul’s wealthy – I did this accidentally having hopped on the wrong ferry.
To escape the crowds, explore the wonderful neighbourhoods of Kadiköy and Moda – where if you walk up the cobbled alleyways of the fish market, you’ll soon find yourself at one of Istanbul’s most unassuming and famous restaurants, Ciya Sofrasi. The chef, Musa Dağdeviren, features on season 5, episode 2 of Netflix’s ‘Chef’s Table’, and has created an array of traditional food, informed by the vibrancy and diversity of Turkey’s vast culinary history. Think spiced lamb wrapped in courgette, red lentil soup, stuffed aubergines, red pepper paste and lahmacun (a meaty Turkish pizza). It is the perfect stop for lunch, and for such delicious food, unbelievably good value. I still remember walking back down to the ferry port in shock at how cheap it was.
It is very difficult to have a bad meal in Istanbul, but a restaurant I would wish everyone to experience is the buzzing Karaköy Lokantasi, where people still queue up outside at quarter to ten to get in. Specialising in traditional Ottoman food, with blue tiles covering the walls and a wonderful meze, you can’t go far wrong. The fava bean puré was some of the best I’ve ever tried, red mullet with garlic and grilled calamari was delicious and when dessert came, the traditional candied pumpkin dessert of Kabak Tatlisi, despite my scepticism, I’d never liked pumpkin so much in my life.
Istanbul is a foodie’s paradise, and you don’t have to spend a lot to eat well here. But if you are feeling fancy – or romantic – head to modern Mikla, a sleek rooftop restaurant where you can sample food inspired by Swedish and Turkish cuisine, while taking in a glittering view of the city and the water below.
Once you’re warm with raki and well fed, it’s time to slowly meander back to the hotel. Istanbul is not short on interesting and luxurious places to stay but housed in an old tobacco warehouse with plush beds, views over the Bosphorus strait and a convenient position right next to two ferry ports, the Shangri-La Bosphorus is easily one of the best places to stay.
Due to its industrial history, the rooms are bigger than many other places in the city, and most overlook the water, where you can watch intrepid tiny fishing boats get dwarfed by international cargo ships, both, somehow, battling for space in the busy strait.
The spa in the hotel is luxurious, and if you fancy a hammam, which you should do wherever you stay, they offer them free for guests. Another tip is to pick up your Istanbul travel card from reception, it’s the easiest way to pay for the various transport around the city – the ferries, trams, buses etc, and will help keep you out of taxis and the Istanbul traffic.
You will however have to get a taxi to and from the airport. The new airport had just opened when I went through it on my way to Saudi Arabia – where I eventually got stuck during the pandemic – and still, like the old one, is about an hour away from most major hotels. The airport itself however is a big improvement and feels more like a shiny luxury mall than some kind of travel terminal. The only thing that breaks the sense of glamour are the abundance of bald men walking round with purple marker spots on their heads from new hair transplants.
To potentially avoid this sight, and if you’re trying to cut back on carbon, follow in the footsteps of Bond and Agatha Christie, and travel in style on the Orient Express instead.