From mystical mosques to harbourside bars, this city of two halves shimmers with energy. Nick Redman dips his toe into life on the banks of the Bosphorus.
1. Sirkeci Station
For a trip back in time, take a peek inside Sirkeci station, set almost within the shadow of Topkapi Palace – for decades this was the way to arrive, aboard the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople. The route still operates, and if the station has lost some of its gleam, it still radiates the same eastern promise it did on opening in 1890, during the twilight of the Ottomans. Outside, the look is OTT, a salmon-pink sultan’s pavilion; within, you’ll find the Orient Express Restaurant (tel +90 212 522 2280) on the platform beside track one. Its glamour is in its faded simplicity and the pomp of the waiters who serve you glasses of dry white Villa Doluca. Two of these and you’ll be dreaming of boarding one of the liveried trains bound for Europe, tucked in a couchette as it rumbles through the spooky forests of Bulgaria to somewhere suitably end-of-empire, like Budapest.
2. Eminonu quay
A cherry-stone’s throw from here is Eminonu quay, crammed with ferries bound every 15 minutes for the magical, mysterious Asian shores. They’re laced vividly with scarlet lifebuoys, and belch black smoke as they pull away, swan-like. The 20-minute crossing to Uskudar costs about 50p, and it’s a breezy pleasure, taken with stiff tea in tiny tulip glasses. The view is a showstopper: billowing mosques, brandishing their spires like bayonets; the giant pencil-shape of Galata Tower, a relic of Genoese-colonial times; and Topkapi Palace, home of the sultans, lurking alluringly behind a veil of vegetation. Clouds splay the sunshine into searchlights playing on the choppy surface of the Bosphorus, and the Princes’ Islands lie like lumps of coal out in the Sea of Marmara, far south. Suddenly the engines go quiet, the tyres on the quayside screech complainingly. Welcome to Asia.
If you’ve only done the main picture-postcard districts of Istanbul, you’ll find Uskudar an eye-opener. In Athenian antiquity it was called Chrysopolis, “city of gold”. Now it’s a traditional headscarved quarter of genuine Istanbul in which to while away an hour or two. Dominating the main square is the magnificent Iskele Camii, which was built sometime around 1557 by Sinan, architect of Turkey’s greatest mosques. This one is a tribute to Mihrimah, the drama-queen daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent, and you can usually take a discreet peek inside, where the faithful stoop in waves of worship. If you make it to Yeni Valide Camii – a later Ottoman edifice – you’ll find a peaceful courtyard to sit in with cats for company.
4. Kanaat Lokantasi
Istanbullus will cross from west to east just to savour the traditional flavours at Kanaat Lokantasi (Selmanipak Caddesi 25), a clean, plain, brightly lit canteen. Big tureens brim with classic mezzeler (shared starters), including imam bayildi – aubergine, tomato, onions and olive oil, baked to zingy perfection. Over the chattery hubbub of lunching workers, the well-dressed waiter pencils your order and brings it with the professional aplomb of someone serving at Claridge’s. No fuss, no laminated menus in four languages, no tourist-tout twaddle. Terrific.
5. Kiz Kulesi
A five-minute taxi ride south of Uskudar is Salacak: hopping-on point for a quick boat trip out to the strange Kiz Kulesi (Maiden’s or Leander’s Tower). (It costs about £3. Visit kizkulesi.com.tr for more information.) You’ll probably have seen pictures of it in guidebooks: that children’s-storybook lighthouse on a rocky outcrop. It’s so old that it’s wreathed in fanciful myths – imprisoned daughters and poisonous snakes smuggled in to do dirty work. Have a drink and a ponder, and take in the outstanding Bosphorus views back across to Europe – the shores are encrusted with extravagant mansions and palaces.
From Kiz Kulesi, you can return straight across the waters to Europe – boats leave hourly from 9.30am weekends and 12.30pm weekdays (for the full timetable visit kizkulesi.com.tr) and cost about £2 a ride. Destination: Ortakoy, a sort of waterfront Camden clustered around a splendid boxy mosque. High above, the traffic of the First Bosphorus Bridge whirrs and hoots. Below, in Ortakoy square, entwined lovers wander, bargain-hunters rifle through jewellery and nick-nacks, and wistful-eyed loners idle at cafés, gazing out at the gargantuan ocean-going ships until the Asian shore gradually deepens to dusk, and millions of golden windows light up.
7. House Café Ortaky
There’s fashionable people-watching here at House Café Ortakoy (Salhanesi Sokak 1; tel +90 212 227 2639), the perfect pit stop for coffee or a shared bottle of Turkish rosé. It’s one of a city-wide chain of brasserie/faux-boho outlets and it’s utterly at home among the end-of-day slouchers, with its smart-timber surfaces and sink-into sofas. As you devour pizza on the water’s-edge terrace, the life aquatic holds your attention – great container ships rumbling north to the Black Sea, sexy yachts prowling south. In a district of casual-chic bars and cafés, this one tops the bill.
8. Four Seasons Hotel
The last port of call has to be the new Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus for a post-prandial snifter. Traffic south from Ortakoy can turn treacle-slow, so don’t rule out walking – a brisk 25 minutes should do it. The next-door Ciragan Palace hotel must be spitting – Four Seasons has a modern-classic winner in this updated late-Ottoman palace, decked out in outré lobby sculptures and plump sofas. On the vast marble-clad terrace the geraniums are out in full-blooded force, and the Asian shore glitters – a cityscape of diamonds and charcoal – to make this one of the most perfect Martini moments on earth. Tel +90 212 381 4000, fourseasons.com.