The fabled capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires is a glittering, glorious muddle of influences and impulses
Author Jacqueline Detwiler Photography Jan McGready
DAY TWO Each of Istanbul’s conquerors attempted to make his mark on the city, often right on top of the previous guy’s attempt, resulting in a sort of archaeological parfait. As you stroll through the Sultanahmet district, for example, ancient Byzantium is several meters beneath your feet, right under Roman Constantinople, which is under the Ottoman Empire. Today you’ll be descending into the 6th century, to the Basilica Cistern, a vast, column-ribbed subterranean chamber that provided water to the city during the reign of Emperor Justinian I.
It would be hard to miss another ruler’s mark, not far from the cistern: the impressive 17th-century mosque of Sultan Ahmed I, all tessellated domes and airy arches. It’s often called the Blue Mosque because of the intricate tiling adorning the interior, but it’s most famous for its six towering stone minarets, which—as one story has it—the sultan had originally envisioned in far-too-expensive solid gold. The royal architect offered these as a substitute (thereby retaining his head).
Feeling virtuous from your historical sightseeing, you decide it’s time to sample a few of the Turks’ pet vices. But first, lunch. You take a cab to the trendy, kitschy restaurant Dai Pera for plump shrimp fried in clouds of kadayif (pastry threads) and a perfectly cooked steak. You follow that with a puff on the narghile at Çorlulu Ali Pașa Medresesi, a tea garden filled with plush carpets, wiry cats and ash motes. Though your water pipe holds strawberry-flavored tobacco rather than the opium and crushed pearls of old, the multiple cups of Turkish tea and coffee you consume (they keep bringing it, and it would be rude to refuse) are consciousness-altering in their own right, and you enter the nearby Grand Bazaar in a haze.
Given your giddy state, you suspect that these convoluted passageways peopled with honey-tongued hawkers could be a dangerous place for your wallet. You are correct. Within an hour, you have amassed a hoard of carved backgammon sets, silver tea services, silk scarves and sundry glittery things to rival the treasury you saw earlier. Oops.
Fearful that you might start buying bits of the market itself, you make a retreat to the Çiragan Palace Kempinski, where you’ll be staying tonight. This sprawling complex—part of which was once an actual palace—contains an original marble hammam (Turkish bath), boasts an award-winning terrace restaurant and has hosted the weddings of Saudi royalty. You make your way to the infinity pool by the Bosporus and sink into a deep snooze.
The sunset call to prayer and a warm gust of wind from the Sea of Marmara, to the south, startle you from your slumber and remind you to get ready for dinner. You’re meeting a friend at a traditional Turkish tavern, called a meyhane, in the Kumkapi district: a fairy light–festooned jumble of balconies and sidewalk eateries where locals go to socialize and sip the potent anise spirit known as raki.
You choose Kumkapi Evren for dinner and select from a tray some charred and vinegary octopus, chopped purslane in tart yogurt, salted eggplant purée and petite shrimp in olive oil. The waiter then pours the first of many glasses of raki from the bottle on your table and adds water and ice. Drinking this and nibbling the mezes, your companion explains, will continue until you decide you’ve had enough booze. Then, he says, you will order a fish.
You nod but aren’t really paying attention, because a cadre of Gypsies has just set up a band in front of your table and is playing Turkish pop on a nasal-sounding horn. Over the next several hours, you sway in time to the music, sipping raki and waxing poetic about how much you just love the people of Istanbul until, finally, your increasingly impatient companion asks, red-faced, “Can I order you a fish?”