Istanbul has been named the European Capital of Culture for 2010 and for anyone who has visited the city, this is merely confirmation that Istanbul is a cultural hotspot, full of landmarks, history, adventure and great Istanbul hostel accommodation.
To commemorate Istanbul 2010, a number of special events and celebrations are planned. On 6 September, rock legends U2 will be on stage at the Istanbul Atatürk Stadium to perform a special concert, while Estonian composer Arvo Pärt has composed a special piece for Istanbul entitled Adam’s Lament which will be premiered on 7 June 2010.
The Süleymaniye Mosque complex, originally designed by the Ottoman Empire's most talented architect Sinan between 1550 and 1557, will house a new museum dedicated to the artist himself.
So, just what is all the fuss about and why is Istanbul a place of such cultural significance? We’ve compiled an Istanbul Travel Guide to help those of you considering checking out the latest European Capital of Culture get the most out of your trip.
Possessing one of the longest and most colorful histories in the world, Istanbul is a historian and architect lover’s dream. Ankara is the current capital of Turkey but Istanbul once served as the capital city of both the Roman and Byzantine Empires and the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire which dominated much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia for almost 500 years.
The point at which Europe and Asia collide, Istanbul is one of the world’s most important and busiest trading ports and has been for more than 2,500 years.
Today, it is Turkey’s largest city and the country’s cultural and financial center alive with bustling market bazaars and a host of restaurants and coffee shops.
You need only take a walk through the immaculately kept gardens of Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul’s 2,500 year Old Town to realize that the city has something special.
Its incredible history and heritage is made clear by the city’s three most famous and iconic landmarks; Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Tokapi Palace.
Hagia Sophia is home to some of the best preserved architecture in the world. From beautiful minarets to delicate mosaics, balconies and mini-galleries, the interior is quite stunning.
It started life in the 6th century as the patriarchal church of Constantinople, becoming a mosque in 1493 in the period of Ottoman rule. It was at this point that the much admired minarets and beautiful mosaics were added to the already impressive structure.
Its central dome is an outstanding piece of architecture and the way the light shines through the dome and casts light upon the beautiful interior is worth the visit alone. Many of the mosaics and hand-drawn decorations in several sections of Hagia Sophia have been restored for the 2010 celebrations. Plans are also afoot to set up an icon museum at Hagia Irene to display Byzantine icons and mosaics.
The Blue Mosque stands opposite Hagia Sophia and dwarves it in size. Adorning so many postcards, you will immediately recognize the six minarets that dominate the skyline.
The patio in front of the main entrance is huge and is often packed with devotees who are unable to get inside at prayer time. Inside, all the walls are tiled blue, which is how the mosque earned its nickname. The mosque’s actual title is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, so called to recognize the sultan at the time of construction- Ahmed I.
The building is widely recognized as the last great mosque of the classical period. Built sometime in the early part of the 17th Century, the mosque contains the tomb of its founder and a hospice.
It is a practicing mosque and before entering you must cover up and remove your shoes. Despite the lengthy wait be patient, the décor inside is out of this world and really has to be seen to be believed.
The other ‘must-see’ attraction in Istanbul is the Tokapi Palace, another building of huge historical significance. Built in the 15th Century, it was the administrative center of the Ottoman Empire and an enormous complex full of courtyards and spectacular rooms. Wandering around, it is easy to forget that this was once the place where the sultans and concubines of one of the world’s most powerful empires went about their business.
In the Topkapi Palace, the kitchens housing the stupendous Chinese and Japanese porcelain collection – the largest in the world outside of China - have been restored for 2010.
Another landmark worth a look is the remnants of the Theodosian Wall. These great fortifications of Constantinople (best-preserved out to the west) were built in the 5th century and stretched for several kilometers around the entire city.
The roots of the city’s unique cultural heritage can be identified in the daily activities of locals, the infrastructure of the city and the longstanding traditions that have become diluted by a combination of Western and Eastern influences.
Invariably you will go shopping during your stay and you will also end up in and around the Grand Bazaar and the numerous markets in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area. Trade is big business and once you have experienced an afternoon in the bazaars you will learn that cheerful bartering and haggling is a way of life in this city
Covering a colossal 54,656 m2, the Grand Bazaar houses more than 4000 shops, and was the first shopping mall ever built. It sells almost everything you can think of, and while the merchants can be very pushy, there is no need to be scared as they are friendly and natural flatterers. Everything has its price in the market but bear in mind that price is changeable.
The key is to have a fixed price in mind that you are prepared to pay and negotiate down to it. It’s also worth exploring all the different bazaars and shops around town before entering negotiations. The Spice Market, built some 350 years ago to promote the spice trade, is also well worth a look and popular among locals in the know.
The other cultural activity that has been around for generations is the ritual of the turkish bath. First introduced to the city in the 1400s, these baths, also known as hammams, were initially only used by commoners because their houses had no baths or running water. Later, they became popular places to meet and greet friends, regardless of age, social status or gender.
Hammams are everywhere in Istanbul, and are a welcome respite from all the sightseeing and shopping. Women and men normally bathe in different areas and the process is a lengthy one of several stages that should not to be rushed.
It starts with a trip to the hararet (steam room) where you bathe yourself with water from a small basin. You are then led into another room where you are vigorously scrubbed, washed and massaged by an attendant on both sides of the body. The attendant finishes by washing your hair and gently massaging your scalp. You are then free to return to the hararet and finish bathing at your leisure. The process is exhilarating and you will come out the cleanest you’ve ever been in your life!
With so much to see and do, having somewhere nice to lay your head and recharge your batteries after a full day sight-seeing is important. Location is the most important factor when choosing your Istanbul cheap hotel
or hostel, and you want to be in the thick of it all, not out in the suburbs away from the all the action.
The best places to stay are in the Sultanahmet area. Here you are near a number of restaurants, bars and delis, and just few minutes away from all the main attractions of the Old Town.
There are a number of affordable hostels in Istanbul available in the Sultanahmet area and beyond, including the Antique Hostel Istanbul and the Metropolis Hostel. Both are a short walk from the popular attractions in the center of town, have great facilities and comfortable rooms available at prices that won’t break the bank.