Istanbul: Ancient, Seductive & Now
By Nina Africano
For centuries, Istanbul has lured intrepid travelers in search of the exotic: fairytale visions of the stunning jewels of Topkapi Palace (above) with its treasure chests overflowing with jewels; the intoxicating fragrances of a thousand potent spices mingling in the air at the Spice Market; carpet sellers carry on their ritual seductions at the mind-boggling Grand Bazaar; mystical Whirling Dervishes continue on a tradition seven centuries old; the call to prayer echoes from minaret to minaret as the sun goes down on stone streets trod by the soldiers of a dozen ancient empires.
Istanbul, a city with one foot in Europe and one in Asia, the ancient capital of Byzantium, is also a bustling modern hub with a happening nightlife, described by Newsweek as “One of the coolest cities in the world.” In this city of incredible contrasts, the cultural center of a country with the youngest population in Europe, one which is still striving for acceptance in the European Union, the Golden Horn separates the Old City in the south from the new city to the north.
City Sightseeing by District
The heart of the modern city is the Beyo lu district, where office buildings and luxury apartments tower over ancient landmarks; street art galleries, chic boutiques, trendy restaurants and nightclubs line cobbled streets. In the traditional Turkish cafés, men sport full-bodied mustaches and their free-roaming dogs lounge in the shade; across the street may be a Starbucks.
The central artery of Beyo lu is Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), a pedestrian walkway with an old-fashioned tram dating back to the days of the sultanate running from Taksim Square to Tünel Square. From the Square it’s an easy walk to the Galata Tower, a stone lookout that has withstood fire and earthquake for over 650 years. Take in the sweeping views from its balcony, or from the touristy restaurant/nightclub at the top.
First-time visitors must see the Sultanahmet district, the old city. Built in 360 A.D. by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the Aya Sofia (Hagia Sofia) was the most magnificent church in all of Christendom for centuries. Once decorated with gold and marble, its greatness lies in its architecture: the massive middle dome is 100 feet in diameter and is flanked by two half domes supported by four giant pillars. Under the Sultantate, the Hagia Sofia became a mosque—and the architectural inspiration for the nearby Blue Mosque and for mosques everywhere. When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded today’s secular Turkish Republic in 1923, he resolved the religious issue by making this great monument a state-run museum.
Steps away, the Blue Mosque takes its name from the blue-glazed tiles that cover its interior walls, glowing as the sunlight streams through stained glass windows. Renowned for its six minarets and perfect proportions, the mosque was built by Sultan Ahmet in 1609. At 109 feet wide, the center dome, which rests on four mammoth pillars, is larger than that of the Hagia Sofia.
Familiar Film Locations
A short walk away the ruins of the Roman Hippodrome lay with the Ottoman-era Sunken Palace Cistern at its northern end. The cistern was the setting for a scene in the James Bond thriller From Russia with Love that saw Sean Connery rowing through the water surrounded by marble columns.
Also nearby is another movie setting, the Topkapi Palace (above), a rambling complex of buildings and gardens commanding a splendid view over the Golden Horn. Topkapi was built in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, whose empire once spanned Greece and Hungary, Syria and Lebanon, the coast of North Africa, the Crimea, and even parts of Italy, Poland, and the Ukraine.
Of the different tours offered at Topkapi, the harem or women’s quarters is among the most popular; but the showstopper of every visit is the Treasury, a veritable Ali Baba’s cave overflowing with gold and precious gems. You can’t help but gawk open-mouthed at the treasures here: the jewel-encrusted sword of Süleyman the Magnificient, the inlaid mother-of-pearl Throne of Ahmet I, and the arm and skull of St. John the Baptist, also jewel-encrusted. Stagger on to see the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond, a treasure chest literally brimming with cut and polished emeralds of varying sizes, and finally, the famous Topkapi Dagger, with three huge emeralds in its hilt.
In 1854, the Sultan moved his court and his harem to the Dolmabahçe Palace, a white marble confection with 365 rooms, French-style gardens, and glorious Bosphorus views. The Sultan furnished his Baroque palace with the finest carpets, ornate clocks, gold dinner plates, and gem-encrusted tableware. Queen Victoria presented the Sultan with what may be the finest crystal chandelier in the world, a 4.5-ton bagatelle that hangs in the Holiday Reception Room.
If time permits, there is much more to see in Istanbul: the Istanbul Archeological Museums; the Pera Museum, designed by Frank Gehry on the site of a 19th century building; the Mosaics Museum; the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art; and the Istanbul Modern, the country’s first modern art gallery.
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a foray into the fabled Grand Bazaar (right). First constructed in 1464, it is one of the largest covered markets in the world, with over 4,000 shops spread over 64 streets. Your eyes will spin from the displays of gold and silver, brass and copper, leather goods, crafts, spices, souvenirs from pashminas to T-shirts, and of course, carpets. To enter a carpet shop sets in motion an age-old sales dance—the unfurling of dozens of carpets in every price range accompanied by a tutorial on carpet-weaving, and washed down by cups of tea. Bargaining is of course part of the dance; be firm, but polite.
Where to Stay
If touring palaces makes you yearn to live like a sultan, you’re in luck—Istanbul offers travelers an array of splendid digs, both old and new. The five-star Çiragan Palace Kempinki, on the shores of the Bosphorus, was once the residence of Sultan Abdülaziz. In the restored palace, 11 sumptuous suites start at 2,000 lira or $1,264 per night, and include butler service.
In the new building, the Çiragan Palace Kempinski counts 313 rooms and 20 deluxe suites; several dining rooms, and 14 boutiques. Outside is an infinity pool where swimmers can gaze at the Bosphorus while inside is a full-service spa with a traditional Turkish hammam. Visit www.kempinski-istanbul.com
Set on a hilltop with a panoramic view of the Bosphorus and the Old City, Swissôtel The Bosphorus is surrounded by 65 acres of historic gardens that once belonged to the Dolmabahçe Palace. Close to historical attractions, such as Grand Bazaar and the Blue Mosque, Swissôtel is a 15-minute walk from Istanbul’s main shopping district. Visit www.swissotel.com
The Hyatt Regency is a sleek, modern hotel with a five-star location high above the Bosphorus in the bustling Taksim district. Guests on the Regency floor have at their disposal a spacious lounge with scenic views where they can enjoy complimentary breakfast and a bountiful cocktail interlude. The hotel’s Gaia Fitness Centre & Spa has a full menu and features a splendid hammam and a warm marble block to lie on and soak up the steam. Visit www.istanbul.regency.hyatt.com
Since it first opened in 1892, European royalty favored the Art Nouveau Pera Palace at the heart of the cosmopolitan Pera district. Dame Agatha Christie wrote her most famous mystery, Murder on the Orient Express here. The Pera Palace is scheduled to re-open in late 2009 after an extensive renovation. See www.perapalas.com for updates.
Getting There: Trains, Planes and Luxe Liners
Turkish Airlines (www.thy.com) offers direct flights to Istanbul from New York (JFK) and Chicago. Most major carriers offer connections via European cities; however, travelers can ease the impact of jet lag with a stop in another city.
One posh option is to fly to Paris and journey to Istanbul aboard the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, the last word in luxury train travel. The five-day trip overnights in Budapest and Bucharest at $9,190 per person. Visit www.orient-express.com
Equally romantic is to approach Istanbul from the sea; among the lines offering cruises in and out of Istanbul are: Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Crystal, Cunard, Hapag-Lloyd, Holland America, Louis Cruises, Norwegian, Oceania, Peter Deilmann, Princess, Regent, Royal Caribbean, Seaborn, Seadream, Silversea, Voyages of Discovery, and Windstar. Most Black Sea cruises originate from Istanbul, as do many itineraries that take in the Eastern Med and the Greek Islands, or longer routes that terminate in Civitavecchia (Rome).
Two other popular ports of call on the southern Aegean are Zmir (Smyrna), Turkey’s third largest city, and Kusadasi. Like Bodrum and Kalkan, Kusadasi is a seaside town busy with summer tourists, and is a short distance from Ephesus (above), one of the best-preserved Greco-Roman cities on the Mediterranean.
Turkey has an exciting roster of events for 2009: The 12th Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival (May 7–14 2009, Ankara); The 37th International Istanbul Music Festival (June 5–30, 2009, Istanbul); 16th Aspendos International Opera and Ballet Festival (June 10–July 3, 2009, Antalya); The 648th Kirkpinar Festival and Grease Wrestling Championship (June 29–July 5, 2009, Edirne). This annual festival showcases Turkey’s traditional national sport in which olive oil-covered wrestlers compete. The International Izmir Festival (June 1–July 31, 2009, Izmir) is another opportunity to enjoy world-class music, ballet and theatre, with some performances at Cesme and antique city of Ephesus.
ASTA’s IDE in 2010
Istanbul will host ASTA’s International Destination Expo April 19-22, 2010. Discounted airfare will be available on Turkish Airlines while participating hotels are: the Hyatt Regency Istanbul, Swissôtel The Bosphorus, the Ritz-Carlton Istanbul, Ceylan Intercontinental, the Conrand Istanbul, and the Hilton Istanbul. Visit www.asta.org/expo
For more information, call the Turkish Tourist Office, 877-367-8875; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; www.tourismturkey.org
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH: Hasan Zongur, Director of the Turkish Culture & Tourist Office
Turkey’s Golden Egg: Affordable Luxury
By Maria Lisella
Hasan Zongur, Director of the Turkish Culture & Tourist Office in New York explains why this is the year to visit Turkey: “Quite simply, the dollar goes further in Turkey for travelers looking to immerse themselves in a foreign culture while still enjoying a high level of luxury.”
JF: How many Americans visited in 2008? How does this compare to 2007 and what are your goals for the future?
TCTO: In 2008 Turkey welcomed 26.3 million international visitors, up from 23.3 million in 2007. This represents a 12.8 percent year-over-year increase.
The U.S. was among the top 10 tourist markets for Turkey: In 2008, U.S. visitors totaled 679,472 up from 646,000 in 2007, representing an increase of 5 per cent year over year.
According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization statistics, Turkey is among the top 10 tourism destinations in the world by foreign visitors, a distinction we’ve held since 2005.
JF: How will you keep the momentum?
TCTO: On April 1 we launched a new advertising and marketing campaign called “Unlimited Turkey” that really conveys the diversity of experiences available to those traveling to Turkey. The campaign includes enticing images of hot air ballooning over historical ruins in Cappadocia, dining in Istanbul, elegant spas or shopping and exciting nightlife, focusing on aspects of Turkey with which many Americans may not be familiar.
The integrated marketing campaign includes billboards in prominent outdoor locations as well as advertisements on television, in print (nationwide glossies, the travel sections of leading dailies, travel trade media) and on Double Decker Buses throughout key U.S. markets.
JF: Why should travel agents send their clients to Turkey?
TCTO: Turkey is in a very distinct position right now to not only offer travelers truly special experiences, but also to offer them affordable luxury, which we know is so very important right now. Visitors to Turkey this year will find four- and five-star hotels at three-star prices and moderately priced restaurants offering fine dining experiences. Savvy travelers will uncover hidden gems at our world famous bazaars, and our spas range from the traditional to the indigenous at reasonable prices.
JF: Any trends to be on the look out for?
TCTO: Turkey is currently offering excellent value: 1 USD currently equals 1.63 Turkish Lira – and most likely will continue to do so. That said, Turkey will be near the top of any savvy foreign traveler’s list of “luxury for less” destinations. Two other emerging trends: Turkey is becoming a meetings and conventions center in Europe and – possibly a “related” trend since golfing is always popular among business travelers – Turkey is becoming a top golf destination in the region with the number of golfers to Turkey increasing significantly.
JF: What is Turkey’s best selling point?
TCTO: We see Turkey’s diversity of experiences and overall exoticism as its most attractive qualities. Istanbul offers 7,000 years of history at the very crossroads of civilization, combined with all the culture and style one would expect from a city whose population is even greater than New York City’s. Istanbul has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2010.
Elsewhere, Turkey offers far more than the exploration of ancient civilizations: Golfing, skiing, intra-country cruises, adventure travel, yachting, natural wonders and distinct regional cuisines are a few reasons to visit Turkey.
JF: Any new accommodations?
TCTO: Three new hotels opened: The Park Hyatt Istanbul-Tesvikiye, the 285-room Sheraton Istanbul Atakoy, and the The W Hotel Istanbul.
Additionally, the Courtyard by Marriott, Istanbul International Airport is scheduled to open in May, and the historic Pera Palas Hotel in Istanbul, which dates back to 1892 and where Agatha Christie stayed, will re-open in late 2009.
JF: Any new air service to report on?
TCTO: Turkish Airlines is scheduled to begin first class service from New York to Istanbul in late 2009; Turkey’s national carrier, became a Star Alliance member last year.
JF: Upcoming Turkish destinations?
TCTO: Since it is very difficult to stick to just one, a few more examples: Cappadocia is on the rise as a destination with its boutique luxury cave hotels, hot-air ballooning, historical treasures like cave churches and underground cities. Bodrum has been called the New Riviera of the Eastern Mediterranean by several media outlets.
JF: Can you give us a client profile?
TCTO: The diversity of experiences available to visitors to Turkey makes it very difficult to give a picture of the “typical” traveler to Turkey and it offers something for all price points – an important asset to us given the current recession.
JF: What is the impression you would like visitors to take home?
TCTO: We want travelers to feel like the experiences they enjoyed in Turkey were both amazing and surprising.
For example, Istanbul has flown under the radar until recently – yet has been consistently ranked among the top five cities in Europe to visit. We also want them to leave feeling that there is so much more to explore in Turkey – enough for many more visits to come.
For more information, call the Turkish Tourist Office, 877-367-8875; E-mail: email@example.com; www.tourismturkey.org