Home to at least 18 million people, Istanbul spreads over two continents, and has a past so rich that it would take you a lifetime to get to know it properly. And yet, it is so vibrant and full of sensations and experiences that it feels more like sheer pleasure than a history lesson, particularly in winter. The Bosphorus provides the city with balmy and sunny weather, and the city is empty of the usual hordes of tourists, leaving you with more space to explore and to enjoy the fresh sea air, the enticing aromas of the historical districts, of tea in the cafés and of roasted chestnuts from the street vendors.
There are the inevitable tourist sites that you must see in Istanbul and, conveniently, they are located in a relatively small area, in the Sultanahmet district, the ancient heart of the city by the Golden Horn, where in 660 BC Greeks established a city called Byzantium. Byzantium became the core of the city which would later become Constantinople and Istanbul, and now the district is dotted with sites from centuries of being one of the most important capitals of the world. There is the stunning Hagia Sophia and the majestic Blue Mosque, and the ancient Hippodrome still preserves the ancient Greek Serpentine Column and the Obelisk of Theodosius. The former palace Topkapı is a place to marvel at the treasures of the Ottoman Empire and also at the vistas of the Bosphorus, while the nearby Archaeological Museums exhibit finds such as the oldest written poetry and treaty in the world, and a sarcophagus that possibly belonged to Alexander the Great.
The Sultanahmet area is also the home of the Million, the 4th century AD stone marking the beginning of all the roads in Constantinople, and the subterranean Sunken Basilica, a vast cistern still full of water.
Here you will find the hustle and bustle of the Grand Covered Bazaar, with its vaulted aisles crammed with merchandise (gold and silver, clothes, rugs and leather goods, you name it) and of the smaller, but aromatic Egyptian or Spice Bazaar with its heaps of pepper, saffron, curcuma and many more.
Walking across the bridge over the Golden Horn, you will pass by the rows of people catching fish and the stalls of the street vendors selling some of the most delicious street food ever made, and arrive in another Istanbul. The hills of the Beyoğlu area are covered with late 19th and early 20th century houses in European styles. Overlooked by the majestic 14th century Galata Tower, it is a charming place of quiet antique shops and shadowy lanes lined with crumbling old houses, of shopping arcades and lazy stray cats.
Istanbul is packed as well with lesser known gems. Among them is a place with a strong Bulgarian connection: the Iron Church of St Stephen in the Fener neighbourhood was built by the Bulgarian community with Viennese cast iron at the end of the 19th century. Nearby is the Chora Church, a stunning example of golden Byzantine mosaics, one of the best in the world. In the Karaköy neighbourhood there is the Yeraltı Camii, an underground mosque located in the room where one end of the chain that could close the Golden Horn to enemy ships used to be located.
Eating out in Beyoğlu is an experience to remember
Crossing the Bosphorus by boat is a favourite pastime for visitors, but if you want to explore the straits, hire a car and drive all the way north on the European side. The trip will take you by the gorgeous Dolmabahçe Palace (do stop for a visit) and then on to quieter neighbourhoods of beautiful wooden mansions, the forbidding Rumeli Fortress and to green areas of small houses, yachts, and fish restaurants. Your trip will end at Rumeli Feneri, a picturesque lighthouse guarding the beginning of the Bosphorus and looking towards the Black Sea, whose waters are filled with ships queueing to gain entry to the straits. Here, according to legend, were the Symplegades, the clashing rocks that prevented sailors from entering the Black Sea until Jason managed to get past.
For you, however, it is time to go return to Istanbul: a city full of treasures and experiences to discover and rediscover.
The magnificent Blue Mosque owes its name to the blue ceramic tiles covering its interior
The cats of Beyoğlu
The old tram still running along İstiklal Avenue is one of the most beloved sights in the Beyoğlu neighbourhood
Stunning Byzantine mosaics still shine on the walls of the Chora Church, centuries after they were made
The Rumeli Fortress on the Bosphorus
The Sunken Basilica was in fact a Byzantine reservoir. An action sequence in the 1963 Bond movie From Russia With Love was filmed inside
A Bulgarian trace in Istanbul: St Stephen Church, made entirely of iron