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Istanbul – sum of opposites

Istanbul is a crazy place. It’s busy and laid back at the same time. It’s ancient and modern, flipping expensive and affordable.

It just depends on how you consume the city, because it can chow your bucks faster than you can gather your wiles to stretch your rands. The cheapest way to get around Istanbul is to hot foot it, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s a walk in the park. Everything looks much closer together on a map, and nowhere on Google does it say anything about the inclines that your calves have to endure while taking a walk. It’s not far-fetched to step-count well above 30 000 on your mobile device, or roughly just under 20km, in a day’s walking.

HISTORIC. Istiklal Avenue is one of the most famous avenues in Istanbul, visited by around three million people daily. Picture: Hein Kaiser
HISTORIC. Istiklal Avenue is one of the most famous streets in Istanbul, visited by about three million people daily. Picture: Hein Kaiser

Unveiling Istanbul’s timeless treasures

Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities in the world, with a rich history that dates back more than 2 500 years. It was the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Today the city houses about 15 million people and is home to some of the most iconic landmarks in the world, including the Bosphorus River that splits the city, with one side part of Europe, the other on the Asian continent.

Picture: Hein Kaiser
Picture: Hein Kaiser

A visit to Istanbul is not complete without seeing some of its most iconic sites. The Hagia Sophia, or blue mosque, is probably the most famous. It was built in the sixth century AD as a Christian church, but was converted into a mosque after the Ottomans won Constantinople in the mid thirteenth century. Since 1935, when it was declared a museum, it has become a significant global attraction. When you visit the mosque, make sure you allow yourself at least an hour or two to queue.

Then, there is the Topkapi Palace which was the main residence of the Ottoman sultans, who ruled Turkey for over 400 years and the Basilica Cistern which was an underground water reservoir built around the same time as the Hagia Sophia. It is one of the largest cisterns in the world and visitors can now walk inside in and admire the genius of ancient engineering.

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ROMAN REMINDER. A view of Hagia Sophia from the tramway in Sultan Ahmet Square.
ROMAN REMINDER. A view of Hagia Sophia from the tramway in Sultan Ahmet Square.

From Grand Bazaar to bargaining strategies

Istanbul also has a number of other interesting places to visit, such as the Galata Tower, the Chora Church, and the Istanbul Archaeological Museums. Even if it is just for curiosity sake, the Grand Bazaar is a must visit.

It’s a massive market shopping complex that’s in turn, surrounded by an entire city quarter of market stalls and alleys. It’s very touristy, but in-between the souvenir stalls it’s possible to find some real treasures. You just have to look, and look, and look. And looking comes with walking. A lot. And on the way to the bazaar, it’s all uphill.

Picture: Hein Kaiser
Picture: Hein Kaiser

It’s a good idea to stop every now and then, grab a coffee or a Turkish baklava at one of the many food vendors, before moving on. Türkiye, and the bazaars in particular, are well known for fantastic quality leather products.

These days they are overshadowed by what the market vendors call high quality replicas of designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Prada and so on and so forth. In everyday language, it’s a mall of fakes. Which is disappointing, because the quality is good. But a fake is a fake.

Yet, they wouldn’t be selling it if there was no demand…. Still there are several stalls that sell locally made and unbranded leather jackets, Turkish rugs, lanterns, coffee sets that are not pre-packaged with I Love Turkey iconography.

But, buyers beware. An exact same leather jacket was on sale at a bargain price of €250 (about R5 100) at one stall was €200 a few metres down the drag, and negotiated down to €120 at the opposite and of the market. And here the salesmen are masters at their craft. It’s easy to be relieved of your rands.

Picture: Hein Kaiser
Picture: Hein Kaiser

From Byzantium to modern Türkiye

Istanbul has an incredibly rich history and because of its geographic location, trade has been at the centre of its existence. It was founded in 667 BC by the Greek colonists as the city of Byzantium. Three hundred years later, in 330 AD, the Roman emperor Constantine I recognised its importance to the empire, conquered it and renamed the city Constantinople and it became the new capital of the Roman Empire. Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, for over 1 000 years. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered the city and ruled Istanbul for over 400 years.

Picture: Hein Kaiser
Picture: Hein Kaiser

It became a European centre of Islamic art and culture and a lot of Istanbul’s most well-known landmarks were built during this period. The Republic of Türkiye, as we know it today, along with the name change of Constantinople to Istanbul, happened in 1930.

Getting around can be expensive if you take a taxi. The traffic in Istanbul is terrible and while you might only want to jump in and out and spare your feet a kilometre or five, the meter doesn’t stop running at a traffic jam or a red light. It can take two hours to get to the bazaar from the Hagia Sophia on a bad traffic day.

FRESHLY GROUND. Spice baskets at a market in Istanbul. Picture: Hein Kaiser
FRESHLY GROUND. Spice baskets at a market in Istanbul. Picture: Hein Kaiser

From metro rides to street eats

Invest in a metro ticket, There are trams and buses that cover all the points of interest and tickets are cheap, with tourist passes affordable. Go as much on foot as you can, because that’s how taking in the local vibe is done best. It’s also the easiest and more affordable way to eat. Dining can be very expensive in Istanbul with touristy eateries around every corner. A pitta bread with cheese, a puff bread and hummus with two bears can set you back up to R1 000. Street food is the answer, from roasted corn and nuts streetside for as little as R20 a pop. Avoid the magic ice cream vendors who attract people with their magic tricks.

Picture: Hein Kaiser
Picture: Hein Kaiser

It lures you into spending between R100-R200 for a small scoop of gelato on a cone. You’re paying for the show, and because, of course, you’re a tourist. Some attractions are free, too. Cross the Gelato bridge where loads of fishermen spend their days jostling for space to get the catch of the day. It’s fascinating to see, and even more so when you inspect their catch. The river must be fished out, because much of the day’s catch looks like you’d need a magnifying glass before filleting and prepping.

Underneath the bridge there is a second level of restaurants for tourists. It’s best to have a drink only, because for the price of a meal you could buy a bucketload of baklava elsewhere. To really enjoy the city, and all it has to offer, a minimum of two days of intense touristy pursuits is advisable. It’s physically demanding, if you plan to walk about, and can be very expensive if you swipe at first sight.

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