The mere mention of the Turkish metropolis conjures up visions of a skyline punctuated by countless minarets, bazaars redolent with the pungent aroma of spices, and a history gilded with stories of harem intrigue and despotic sultans. Yet for all the expected mysticism that typically greets Western visitors when the morning call to prayer is heard as the fog lifts from the magnificent Bosphorus River, the ancient aspects of Istanbul are balanced with the modern. Skyscrapers tower over the landscape and the streets bustle with young people in contemporary clothing.
Istanbul’s crown architectural jewel is the Topkapi Palace, which for centuries provided the primary residence for the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. And a colorful slice of history comes to life in a tour of the great halls of the harem, where sultry concubines were once guarded by eunuchs. Housed within the grounds of Topkapi is a vast museum filled with alleged biblical and historical relics, including David’s sword and Moses’ staff.
The 400-year-old Blue Mosque (above) takes its name from the indigo Iznik tiles covering the walls. The edifice is a triumph of harmony, proportion, and elegance. The mosque was part of a complex that included tombs, fountains, kitchens, and a bath. The sun streams in through the nearly 300 multicolored windows, creating a dazzling light effect.
In a land filled with above-ground structural marvels, one of the most fascinating and certainly the eeriest lies beneath the city. Thousands of slaves built the hundreds of columns that support Istanbul’s Basilica Cistern, the water source for Topkapi, but locals tell conflicting stories about the origin of the two colossal pillar bases carved with the head of the Medusa turned on its side so visitors can avert her deadly gaze.
A visit to the city’s world-famous hamams (Turkish baths) offers a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in history, architecture, warm water, and soap suds — all at once. However, forget any fantasy you’re harboring, as these baths are therapeutic, not erotic, unless you have a yen to be washed and aggressively massaged by oversize, hairy Turks intent on ridding your body of lingering toxins.
The world-famous Grand Bazaar is a mecca for shoppers, containing over 4,000 shops, which offer designer leather jackets, real Rolex watches, and expensive textiles whose prices can be negotiated down to a fraction of retail.
Though homosexuality hasn’t been illegal in Turkey since 1923, it won’t hurt to be cautious when asking directions to a gay bar in a predominantly Muslim country. Nevertheless, most cab drivers are familiar with the area where many of Istanbul’s gay bars are located, the Taksim/Beyoglu enclave. There are several dance clubs located on the central bustling, heavily trafficked street, filled with kabob shops and pedestrians. More difficult is discerning which of the swarthily handsome local bar patrons are being genuinely friendly and which are predatory rent boys.
The country’s national airline graciously represents Turkey in the sky. It now offers roomy comfort-class seats at reasonable rates for those who don’t enjoy coach and won’t spring for first. Sample the delectable local wines and traditional cuisine before setting a foot on foreign soil.
Çıragan Palace Kempinski
Sit on the balcony adjacent to each of the luxury hotel’s richly appointed rooms while watching and listening to the Bosphorus rushing by and you’ll be swept away to another era. Contained within the elegant Çıragan, the only Ottoman imperial palace and hotel on the riverbanks, are acclaimed classic Ottoman and Turkish fusion restaurants, an upscale hamam, and a world-class art gallery. An early-evening cocktail in the Gazebo lounge overlooking the water is a must. Kempinski.com/en/Istanbul
Reina rules as the city’s most dazzling supper club, offering fine dining and proof that the Turks are unabashed hedonists when it comes to glittering conspicuous consumption. Reina.com.tr