As we land over the Sea of Marmara, a gray drizzle bathes the view of huddled ships waiting their turn to cross the Bosphorus Strait, the turquoise waterway that runs through the city, separating its European and Asian sides.
The misty sea views continue along the coastal route to the historic Sultanahmet district and the restored Ottoman mansion-turned-hotel where I stay my first three nights, steps from the world-famous Blue Mosque and its six minarets — an impressive sight day and night.
Every day, I wake up to fishermen taking out small boats under uncertain skies, freighters blowing their horns in competition with squawking seagulls — and the piercing, soulful Muslim call to prayer heard four more times throughout the day until dusk.
This is the mystical Istanbul I had imagined as, in anticipation of a two-week trip to Turkey, I devoured the coming-of-age memoir of the country’s best-known writer, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, who has lived all of his life in Istanbul.
The city’s blue palette and the mellow weather instantly evoke the “huzun,” the melancholy that Istanbuli are said to carry with them from cradle to resting place, and that Pamuk depicts in his book with disarming intimacy. It’s a feeling of “deep spiritual loss” made up of layers of tradition, a history of faded imperial Ottoman glory and Sufi mysticism.
To understand that emotional backdrop to this architecturally striking city, built like Rome on seven hills, makes the visit all the more special. I feel an instant connection to the writer, his people and his city.
Not that Istanbul is all internal drama.
There’s tremendous stamina, vivid nooks of color and unscripted fun to be found in the streets of this sprawling metropolis of 14.2 million. Name a district and there’s a party area, a shopper’s paradise, a dining revelation to be discovered.
“Mezes” (small dishes similar to the Spanish “tapas”), kebabs and fresh fish are only a small part of the multiethnic national cuisine of a city that served as the capital of the extensive Eurasian empire of the Ottomans for almost 500 years.
On my first night, the front desk clerk at Azade Hotel recommends that I dine nearby at a place called Shadow. The English name turns me off, as I came for authentic Turkish fare, but when I survey the menu at the cozy abode on a quaint cobblestone street packed with diners, tables covered in red tapestry and hookah pipes at the ready, the charming host assures me that his Anatolian cuisine is so good that if I don’t like it, I won’t have to pay.
When he confirms that I’m alone, he demonstrates the famous Turkish hospitality I’ll experience here again and again.
“Madam,” he says with a regal, commanding accent and loud enough for others to hear, “you cannot dine alone when there is a fine gentleman over there desirous of your company.”
As he says this, he’s already walking me to the man’s table and diners are cheerfully nodding, demonstrating their approval. What can I do but smile and agree?
After quizzing me about my drink preference, he brings me a generous glass of the local red wine. Who started the rumor that Turkish wines are bad? I don’t have a single sour glass in the entire country. And Shadow’s juicy, tender strips of beef served on a bed of eggplant puree didn’t disappoint.
I dine in the company of a handsome Kurdish-American clothing merchant from San Diego (or so he said he was), who insists on picking up my tab after I deliver late in the conversation the news that I’m a journalist. As a Turkish seatmate had done during the Frankfurt to Istanbul leg of my journey, he lowers his voice and advises me to keep that to myself.
The conservative ruling party of this supposedly secular country has a contentious relationship with the media and with some of Turkey’s most vocal, Westernized citizens. Attempts at muzzling women and free speech are the reason I would stand in the middle of historic Taksim Square and enjoy a hearty public laugh, my humble gesture of solidarity and protest against a deputy prime minister’s proposal, in a speech about moral decay, that Turkish women be forbidden from openly laughing in public.
The government sometimes does act in bizarre and scary ways. The president sued a former Miss Turkey for retweeting a poem he found offensive. A prominent Chicago businessman recently spent eight distressing days in prison for buying a sword that authorities wrongly thought was an ancient relic. I’m warned by a guide not to photograph military installations.
But the people are another story: They go the extra mile for visitors. While buying or browsing, merchants offer tea and conversation. You haven’t lived until you’ve been chased down the length of the ancient Roman Hippodrome (now a plaza) by a rug salesman enchanted with your polite answer to the question he and everyone asks, “Where are you from, Spain?”
“No, Miami.” “Miami!!!”
That sometimes charming, sometimes wearing eagerness makes hosts particularly attentive.
As I leave Shadow, I run into the clerk who recommended the restaurant. I thought he might be picking up food or a commission for his referral. But he says that since it was my first night in town, he wanted to make sure that I had made it safely and was enjoying myself.
I travel widely and often — and that kind of care I had never experienced.
On my birthday the next night, I decide to splurge at the elegant restaurant at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, housed in a century-old neoclassical compound that was once a Turkish prison.
The fine Turkish wine, the dainty and sublime eggplant appetizer, and the perfect sea bass and potatoes dish cooked in earthenware are unforgettable — and so is the service. My waiter, who had worked at the Four Seasons in Miami, keeps me entertained with conversation.
After I ask for the bill, too full for sweets, he surprises me with a stylish, candle-lit birthday dessert. To top the night, on my way out, the manager gives me a tour of stately gardens that smell of jasmine and herbs, and of an adjacent prayer room used by prisoners, now gloriously restored for guests.
The night’s cost, given the strength of the dollar against the Turkish lira: $38 dollars, plus tip.
Visits to exquisitely tiled mosques, Turkish baths, the bustling Grand Bazaar and the fragrant Spice Market are the standard tourist fare in Istanbul. I dutifully don a scarf to cover my head, leave my shoes in a communal rack before entering, as required, and visit historic mosques built to honor Ottoman pashas and sultans by one of the world’s great architects, Mimar Sinan.
The exquisite Iznik tiling, the domed roofs, the minarets and the fountains for ablution, the Muslim rite of cleansing before prayer, are fascinating. But, regrettably, I run out of time for the leisure visit to the legendary hamams, where I’m told I’ll get the scrub of my life.
This is a walking city with distinct neighborhoods that beg to be explored on foot, by a combination of tram, rail line and bus, and of course, by ferries that connect East and West — and that’s how I best spend my time.
I become addicted to streets such as Istiklal in the New District that surprise with unique shops, public art, a hidden church — or simply a merchant’s imaginative window display of color and texture.
I tour the ancient Chora Church, where the mosaics and frescoes are considered some of the most important surviving examples of early Byzantine painting. They’re so engaging and high up that I leave with a strained neck, a condition that becomes chronic as the elaborate tiled patterns of domed ceilings also are the most striking features of mosques.
At the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, not only do I get to test my negotiation skills purchasing embroidered silk scarves, but I experience the infamous Turkish bathroom, a hole in the ground that costs a lira to use. That isn’t as much of a rip-off as it sounds. It’s kept quite clean.
Alas, I would later compare my purchases with other tourists and discover that my haggling skills aren’t good enough for these clever merchants. But win or lose, it’s all part of the cultural experience.
An excursion along the Bosphorus is a must-do, not only to appreciate the unique city skyline and coast, but also the history of what was once called Constantinople, conquered and renamed by the invading Ottomans in 1453. Istanbul was the seat of their empire until 1923.
From the water, the well-preserved Walls of Constantinople come into view, as does the architecture of landmarks such as Ortakoy Mosque, a signature sight with the Bosphorus Bridge in the background. And it’s one way to be right in the bustle of the waters of the Golden Horn inlet, the imposing Suleyman Mosque rising in the distance.
I’m regretful to be leaving, but after traveling to some of the most interesting regions of Turkey with a Rick Steves tour, I fly back from Izmir for an extra day’s stay in Istanbul. I decide to remain close to Ataturk Airport at the Renaissance Polat Hotel in the practical, seaside Yesilyurt enclave.
And here, Istanbul transforms into a cloak-and-dagger Casablanca of sorts.
My taxi driver tells me the hotel was bombed so there’s tight, airportlike security with metal detectors, baggage check and vigilant guards. When I stroll the grounds, I see tall chain-link fences and a padlocked dock. A man in white emirati robes, his black-clad female entourage, and their rambunctious children roam the high-end shops on the ground floor.
I’m nursing a bad cold, it’s too noisy in my room with planes landing and taking off at my window, and I attempt to walk the neighborhood looking for one last warm meal. But it’s too chilly, I’m too sick, and there’s Pamuk’s melancholic drizzle again.
I slip into the restaurant next door, Fener Lokantasi, inside a historic and working lighthouse, check the menu, and try to order a fish soup to go. But the host escorts me to a table with the bluest view of the Sea of Marmara and its waiting ships. I surrender.
I sip my heavenly soup and ask for the bill. The waiter refuses, explains that the soup is on the house.
“When you feel better, you come back and have a good meal,” he tells me, “and then you pay.”
I suspect that I will return. As it is with all the great European cities, to Istanbul you don’t bid a definitive goodbye — and I did leave that heavenly scrub pending.
If you go
What to do
Topkapi Palace: Istanbul is a storied city, and nothing brings history to life better than the walled complex from which sultans ruled the Ottoman Empire in the company of their harems.
View relics such as an emerald-studded dagger and a sultan’s ebony throne. Stroll gardens, courtyards and living quarters and learn not only about the wars and conquests of the powerful janissaries, but about the peace-time renaissance of art and culture known as the Tulip Era, in which a single bulb cost 30 ounces of gold.
Admission: About $9.50 for palace, $5.50 for harem. 011-0212-512-0480; http://topkapisarayi.gov.tr/en.
Hagia Sophia: A domed architectural masterpiece of grand proportions, this was once the Great Church of Constantinople, built at the request of Emperor Justinian by two geometricians and a cast of 5,000 over five years.
The Ottomans converted it into a mosque, and it’s now a museum, where you can appreciate some of the fraying religious frescoes the Islamic rulers plastered over, artful Arabic inscriptions and original Justinian mosaics.
Admission: About $9.50; located in the heart of Sultanahmet district; 011-0212-522-1750; http://ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/en.
Where to eat
Shadow Restaurant & Cafe: Located on the quaint cobblestone street nicknamed Backpackers’ Strip for the youth hostel there, budget prices for savory meat and lamb Turkish dishes, a friendly staff and a party atmosphere make this a good casual choice if you’re staying in the Sultanahmet district.
Meals start with pizza-sized flatbread and three sauces. If the hookah pipe is your thing, try the apple shisha. Akbiyik Caddesi No. 26, Cankurtaran; 011-90-542-621-8470.
Seasons Restaurant: Stylized but traditional Turkish cuisine is exquisitely prepared and served in an elegant atmosphere at the Four Seasons Hotel, featuring a tranquil garden view in a stunning neoclassical building that was once a prison. The signature dish is chef Savas Aydemir’s boneless lamb shank, cooked for eight hours.
Excellent service, reservations recommended. At the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, Teyfikhane Sok No. 1 Sultanahmet; 011-90-212-402-3150; www.fourseasons.com/istanbul.
Albura Kathisma: Find it via its street address next to the Arasta Bazaar and Blue Mosque, or through a “secret” backdoor entrance through ancient underground ruins where the Byzantine Magnaura Palace is said to have been once. The food is traditional Ottoman and Byzantine with a modern twist. Elegant but budget-friendly.
Cankurtaran Mh., Akbiyik Cd. No:36; 011-90-212-517-9031; www.alburakathisma.com/en.
Where to stay
Azade Hotel: Converted from an Ottoman house into a charming, white 33-room hotel, the hotel serves breakfast on a terrace with views of the Bosphorus, the Marmara Sea and the Blue Mosque. Sea view rooms cost about $30 more but are well worth negotiating for before you arrive. I booked mine off-season for $84 on Expedia.
Mimar Mehmet Aga 1719; 011-0212 517-7173, www.azadehotel.com.
Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah: In one of Istanbul’s historic hotels, the Agatha Christie Room and Ernest Hemingway Suite hint at the storied guests and the “museum-hotel” status, but it’s the strategic location overlooking the Golden Horn that’s the draw.
Pricey but an experience; you don’t have to stay here to enjoy a drink on the first floor and view the “Ataturk Museum” in Room 101.
Mesrutiyet Cad. Tepebasi, No: 52, Beyoglu; 011-90-212-377-4000; http://bit.ly/1K5LMkP