by: Onur Uygun, Elif Eren Altınarık
10 reasons to love Istanbul…
1. The natural beauty
You may be partial to Paris or smitten with San Francisco, but there’s no denying that nature has generously blessed Istanbul. Steep as they are to climb, the city’s many hills provide endless vantage points of its wondrous waterways. From Ulus Park, you can watch the fishermen stationed along the banks of Akıntıburnu and the seagulls flying close to the water to scoop up their own day’s catch. From the Galata neighbourhood, expansive views stretch over the Golden Horn to the old city, and across the famous Bosphorus Strait to the Maiden’s Tower and the Asian shore beyond.
2. The rich history
Capital to three great empires between 330 and 1922, Istanbul has been a hub of activity for hundreds of years, and new discoveries of archaeological remains continue to enlighten us about its rich history. Important artefacts abound, from the Alexander Sarcophagus (which probably doesn’t contain the remains of ‘the Great’ one but is beautifully carved with images of him in battle) to the Christian mosaics in the Hagia Sophia to the incredible mosque architecture all around the city.
3. The culinary scene
People from all over Turkey have made their home in Istanbul, bringing their distinctive and delicious regional cuisine with them. Hundreds of small restaurants offer tastes of Trabzon, Gaziantep, Van and the rest of the country while a growing number of international kitchens extend the culinary variety beyond Turkey’s borders. From Halep kebabs to samosas, enchiladas to Thai soups, fried hamsi to ‘dirty rice’ (a cheap and filling dish of rice with chickpeas and chicken, often sold on the street), Istanbul has the flavours to satisfy every palate.
4. Bountiful arts offerings
While heavy-hitters like the Istanbul Modern and the Sakıp Sabancı Museum get the lion’s share of the attention (and most of the big-name artists), Istanbul’s side streets are full of small galleries featuring local artists from the city’s booming contemporary art scene. And the cultural wealth isn’t limited just to the visual arts. Istanbul’s film festivals are growing in number each year, delighting cinephiles with the !f Istanbul International Independent Film Festival in February, the Istanbul International Film Festival in April, Filmekimi in October and countless smaller festivals devoted to topics such as documentaries, sustainable living and women’s issues (see the Film feature in this issue). Musically speaking, the city echoes with Middle Eastern rhythms, classic Turkish ballads, techno, rock, jazz, opera and more. It’s not lacking in big-name concert acts, either: Madonna stopped in town last summer and Rihanna is on her way this May.
5. A street that never sleeps
If Istanbul is a microcosm of world cultures, İstiklal Caddesi is a microcosm of Istanbul, a world unto itself. Between the brightly lit chain stores on the main street and the local favourite spots tucked away in the backstreets, everyone can find something to love on or around İstiklal. We’ll brave its throngs any day for a taste of the Circassian-influenced food at Fıccın, the adventurous cultural programming at SALT Beyoğlu, the English-language book selection at Robinson Crusoe, the lively shows at Babylon… the list goes on and on. Its 24/7 energy, fuelled by post-football-match revelry, passionate protests or simply Saturday-night partiers, is another reason we can’t break our İstiklal addiction.
6. Unceasing opportunities
In addition to its museums, galleries, concerts and festivals, Istanbul offers so many cultural activities, you could fill your diary every week and still take part in only a fraction of what’s going on. Symposiums and talks are given on just about any subject, from food to filmmaking. If language lessons are what you’re after, schools and private tutors can be found to teach German, French, Greek, Arabic, Kurdish… even Ukrainian. Plentiful studios provide spaces to learn ceramics, swing-dancing or Brazilian capoeira.
7. Ample air connections
With so many budget airlines, including EasyJet and Pegasus, using Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport as a base between Europe and the Middle East, it’s cheap and easy to travel out of the country. Even obscure locales are within reach now that Turkish Airlines has expanded its flights to more than 200 destinations.
8. Ease of escape
Getaways closer to home are easy to come by as well. The Princes’ Islands in the Marmara Sea are a classic day-trip destination – just an hour and a half by boat, but a world away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Got a whole weekend at your disposal? The peaceful, beautiful, wine-producing island Bozcaada, just off the Aegean coast south of Çanakkale, is another favourite haven for weary Istanbulites.
9. The street animals
Stray cats and dogs have roamed Istanbul’s streets for years and their human neighbours generally take good care of them, leaving out bowls of food and water and even building makeshift kitty ‘condos’. The government provides veterinary care in each district to take in wounded animals and spay or neuter street dogs, while organizations such as the Animal Lovers Association aid in pet adoption and the Animal Rights Federation lobbies for animals’ proper care. The city’s streets wouldn’t be the same without our furry friends.
10. The whole ‘two continents’ thing
The idea of Istanbul as a ‘bridge between Europe and Asia’, the ‘only city to straddle two continents’, has been thoroughly run into the ground by travel writers, but there’s still something indefinably magic about this guidebook cliché. Gaze out from a car crossing the Bosphorus Bridge or a ferry plying the waters between Istanbul’s two sides and we think you’ll see what we mean.