As Europe's capital of culture for 2010, Istanbul has put on a year of exhibits,displays and shows. But there is more than one side to the city's culture and it can be explored at any time on any visit.
Once it was only for Christians; then, just Muslims - now it is a place for all. No longer a site of worship, Aya Sofya still provokes a hushed awe that would do any deity justice. The building, now a museum, has always been Istanbul's greatest architectural masterpiece. It is a rare visitor who crosses its threshold without an intake of breath, a widening of eyes, a stop to stand and stare. Built in 532-537 AD, the structure is a mass of soaring archways, at their crest a vast, gold mosaic dome that glints in the half-light of countless stained glass windows.
For Ibrahim Yerli, a tour guide at Aya Sofya, the impact of its beauty never diminishes. "Whenever I come here, I see it for the first time," he says, taking off his baseball cap and gazing at the ceiling. But Ibrahim and Aya Sofya are old friends, and he knows her secrets - from the marble cistern said to bring pregnant women twins if touched, to the 9th-century graffiti etched by a Viking into the wall.
We pause in front of a restored mosaic of a six-winged biblical angel, Seraphim, thought to date from the 14th Century. Until recently her face was hidden under a mask of plaster, applied by the Ottoman Turks after they conquered the city - then called Constantinople - in 1453 and made Aya Sofya a mosque. Ibrahim, too, has left his mark on the place - seven years ago he was granted permission to plant a tree in the temple grounds. "I am fond of nature," he says, taking a fistful of the squat pine's needles in his hand. "And I am proud to have this here, in the shadow of such greatness."
Just around the corner is another example of Istanbul's magnificence - Topkapı, palace of the Ottoman sultans from 1465 to 1853. From the acres of manicured gardens - once lit by tortoises carrying candles on their backs - to the centuries of bling kept in the dimly lit cabinets of the Treasury, this royal residence is a monument to excess. There is barely a surface without a covering of gold-leafed wooden fretwork or jewel-coloured tiles.
Most impressive of all Topkapı's buildings is the Harem, a palace within a palace made up of more than 400 rooms. Not quite the den of iniquity that its title implies, the Harem was home not only to the wives and concubines of successive sultans, but to the ruler's extended family. A team of up to 200 black eunuchs maintained the privacy of this space.
The rooms' complexity is labyrinthine. A sun-dappled courtyard gives way to stern dormitories, shadowy corridors and a bathroom with huge gold taps. The cavernous Imperial Hall, carpeted and edged with low divan seats, has the faded glamour and scent of an ageing stately home. Beyond are more mysterious spaces: the Courtyard of the Favourites - an outside terrace reserved for the sultan's chosen ones - and kafes: small, cell-like rooms where the unwanted brothers or sons of the sultan were imprisoned. This is a maze with no centre; a puzzle that made sense only to those who called it home.
It is Saturday night in the district of Beyoğlu, and the clock has just struck nine. Wandering the tangle of narrow side streets that stretch from Tunel to Taksim, every corner I turn reveals the same scene: people, eating, outside. No-one dines alone. Meze is the most popular way to eat, and it demands a companion - or a willingness to look greedy. Each table is obscured by a smattering of tiny dishes being set at with forks and heels of bread, in between sips of rakı (aniseed brandy) and peals of raucous laughter.
Sofyalı 9 is one of Beyoğlu's best meyhanes (meze restaurants) and has the sort of informality that makes it feel like I'm having dinner in someone's front room. Mismatched tables fit into the multistoried dining rooms like jigsaw pieces, and traditional Turkish music drifts out through open windows. Outside, a group of women banter with the waiter as he refills their glasses with red wine.
All meals here begin with cold meze. There is no menu - instead, a gigantic tray piled with white bowls, each of which our waiter describes in careful English. We load our table for two with pickles, a cheese, chilli and tomato dip and a bean salad. As the waiter takes our order for hot dishes - a cheese-stuffed borek pastry, and mushrooms in tomato sauce - I wonder if we've gone overboard. Twenty minutes and five clean plates later, it seems not.
But the locals don't come to Beyoğlu just for meze. The next evening, a dusk stroll takes me - and apparently everyone else in the city - along İstiklal Caddesi, a wide, pedestrian boulevard lined with open-fronted shops, restaurants, galleries and bars.
Nearby Cezayir offers sanctuary from these busy streets. Housed in a former school built by the Italian Workers' Society in 1901, the restaurant's dark stairwell opens on to a sheltered courtyard surrounded by mature trees and abundant foliage - part dining room, part botanical garden. The menu, says manager Fatih Ariman, is "modern Turkish. Mediterranean cuisine mixed with the best of the Ottoman and Byzantine kitchens." I begin with a selection of starters - tiny chickpea croquettes and balls made from fried octopus follow shrimps wrapped in filo, and a pastrami stick pastry. Pastry is a recurring feature on Istanbul menus. "In Turkey, there's a pastry for every household," says Fatih. "Each has its own special recipe."
But no one is as passionate about baking as Nadir Gullu, the self-proclaimed "dessert despot". His family opened its first baklava shop in 1949, and in the intervening years Karaköy Güllüoğlu has acquired a devoted following. Adults queue at the gold-enamelled display counters like kids at a sweetshop. Every one of the tiny round tables is filled with people cradling small plates of their favourite variety. There is walnut or plain, and special products for dieters and diabetics, but most choose the customary pistachio: a succulent, syrupy cube of pastry, sprinkled with the green nuts.
This sweet was developed in the kitchens at Topkapı Palace, and its popularity with the sultans helped cement its position as Turkey's favourite sugary treat. "My friends call me Mr Baklava," says Nadir with pride. "And today, I am going to teach you the proper way to eat it." The lesson begins with a palette-cleansing sip of water. "Good baklava affects all of the senses. First, your eyes: presentation is important. Next, your ears, when you hear the crunch of 40 layers of filo." Spearing the piece with his fork, Nadir deposits it in my mouth. "Do you smell the butter, the pistachio? And finally, taste all the flavours on your tongue? Don't swallow immediately! You must chew, at least 10 times."
As I masticate obediently, a priest stops at our table to shake Nadir's hand. Gesturing to a bag laden with boxes, he explains he has travelled all the way from Greece. "I remember you, of course!" beams Nadir. "Over the years you must have eaten five tonnes of my baklava." The priest shakes his head. "Oh no. Never five... more like six."
- Sofyalı 9, Sofyalı Sokak 9, Tunel
- Karaköy Güllüoğlu, Rıhtım Caddesi, Katlı Otopark Altı, Karakoy
- Cezayir, Hayriye Caddesi 16, Galatasaray
"In Istanbul, we have a pastime that westerners don't share," says Arzu Tutuk, a guide in the city. "You could call it our secret." That secret is keyif: the art of quiet relaxation. "Keyif is all about that moment," Arzu explains. "Essentially it's about sitting still, and doing nothing. Most people, when they pause, they do something else, too - read a magazine, check their email, think about the future, or the past. But keyif is about stopping, and just enjoying now." Everyone's keyif is different, but Arzu finds hers on the shores of the Bosphorus, the sea strait that cuts Istanbul in two. "For me, it's about being somewhere that's not crowded, and watching the water."
Sunday brunch at the House Cafe, in the Istanbul suburb of Ortaköy, gives the opportunity to do just that. My table is on the waterfront, so close to the sea I can trail my fingers in it while gazing at the commuter ferries making their along the strait. Shirtless men in pairs sit fishing in little rowing boats, which bob and tilt in the backwash of large passing ships. With its white walls, mirrored panels and oversized table umbrellas, the House Cafe's brand of chic is west European. But it sits face to face with another continent - across the water is Asia.
I return to the old city by ferry, passing waterfront Ottoman Era palaces either repurposed as luxury hotels, or left to lie empty and sink into gradual decay. All along the shoreline, I see Istanbullus in pursuit of keyif. In a stretch of parkland, four elderly men sit on garden chairs in an intimate circle, playing backgammon. On a nearby bench a man presents a veiled woman with a single red rose. At Galata Bridge, a web of lines stretch down to the water, as throngs of people stand and fish. Others fill the city's nargileh cafes: quiet gardens where people come to sit, talk and smoke water pipes.
Erenler Çay Bahçesi is an old city nargileh cafe tucked away in a former medrese (Islamic school building) near the Grand Bazaar. Merchandise from the stalls of the covered market spills into the peaceful courtyard; the walls are hung with rugs, archways are lit with clusters of twinkling lanterns. As customers relax in small groups on red upholstered chairs and benches, men in uniform hurry from table to table with trays of tea glasses and shovels full of hot coals to stoke the nargileh pipes.
A waiter pauses to set down cups of thick Turkish coffee at the table of Emre Delidere and his friend, Nur Erol, regulars at Erenler. "I've been coming here with my father since I was about five years old," says Emre, "but he'd only let me smoke with him when I was 17." He passes the pipe to Nur, who disappears briefly into an apple and aniseed-scented cloud as Emre exhales. Is this his keyif? "Oh yes, absolutely," he agrees. "I get the same feeling doing this as I do sitting on the grass, barefoot on a summer's day."
- The House Cafe Ortaköy, Salhane Sokak 1, Ortaköy
- To get to Ortaköy by ferry on the Bosphorus, take a boat from Eminönü to Beşiktaş, then walk 15 minutes north along the shore
- Erenler Çay Bahçesi, Yeniçeriler Caddesi 36/28, Çemberlitaş
The 550-year-old Grand Bazaar is warm, and smells of spices. The sound of the ezan, call to prayer, summoning the faithful to the nearby Süleymaniye Mosque, filters down its warren-like avenues. As though carried by its notes men rush along, carrying boxes filled with everything from scarves to plums. Others hover in shop doorways, inviting every passing customer to look inside.
There is of course no shortage of carpets for sale in the souq, but few are as original as the kilims (pileless woven rugs) on offer at Dhoku. Every new rug is a patchwork of older pieces rescued from the scrapheap - a square from a worn out pair of harem pants, a section of an interior wall from a Yoruk (nomad) tent. "We buy fabrics from all over the country, from mountain villages to city flea markets, then we re-dye them," says the shop's owner, Memet Gureli, shaking out a finished kilim coloured a deep, inky blue. "The designs are very modern, but our rugs have a great deal of history."
Carpets are an important part of Turkish culture, says Memet. "They're not just mats for the floor, they're symbols of status and play a major role in how people live." But there is one carpet-buying tradition he is keen to move away from: haggling. "Such negotiations are so awkward. Even if someone ends up purchasing something at a good price, after that experience they probably wouldn't come away thinking they'd got a good deal," says Memet. "The traders are reluctant to give it up, but I'm proud that our prices are non-negotiable."
An equally calm shopping experience can be found on the other side of town, at the Çukurcuma antiques quarter in Beyoğlu. The buildings here look like stage sets for a period drama - uninhabited tumbledown wooden houses seemingly on the brink of collapse lean against the pastel coloured facades of apartment blocks. Each of the winding, hilly streets contains stores selling everything from fine Ottoman-era antiques to kitsch late-20th-century bric-a-brac.
At Şamdan Antique I find a beautiful example of ornamental calligraphy - a black plaque inlaid with mother of pearl. With many images of living things forbidden by Islam, Koranic texts became the focus for Turkish decorative artists. Nearby Tombak Antika is full to bursting, its haphazard collection spilling out from cabinets and over tables: taxidermy and copper coffee pots, silver penknives and tobacco tins printed with the faces of past sultans. The shopkeeper shows me textiles that would have once formed part of a girl's dowry, painstakingly hand embroidered with gold and silver thread. Çukurcuma is not just a place to find things to buy - its shopkeepers are urban archaeologists, excavating and preserving the relics of an ever-changing city.
- Dhoku, Kapalıçarşi Takkeciler Sokak 58-60
- Samdan Antique, Altıpatlar Sokak 20, Cukurcuma
- Tombak Antika, Faik Paşa Yokuşu 22, Çukurcuma
Best Istanbul ferry trips
A day on the Bosphorus
At the narrowest point of the strait that armies have fought over, the 15th-century towers of Rumeli Hisarı - the Fortress of Europe - face their counterparts on the Asian side. Bosphorus ferries pass these forts, as well as the late Ottoman pleasure palaces of Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi, and the resort of Yenıköy. Ferries stop at several points along the route before turning back at the village of Anadolu Kavağı. Bosphorus cruises depart from Eminönü quay near the Galata Bridge. There are three departures a day, and the trip takes 1. hours each way, with a lengthy stop at the turn-around point (￡11 round-trip).
Golden Horn cruise
The Golden Horn (Haliç in Turkish) is a smaller stretch of water than the Bosphorus, and the boat trip is less known to travellers. You will be able to see a very different and more intimate side to Istanbul here. The boat passes the district of Fener, the old home to the city's Greek population with its sprinkling of Christian churches, and makes its final stop close to the Eyüp Sultan Mosque - Islam's fourth holiest site. Golden Horn ferries leave Eminönü quay every hour during the day, stopping at five points along the route. The trip takes around 35 minutes and costs 65p each time you board.
Princes' Island escape
A place of exile under the Byzantine emperors, the Princes' Islands (Kızıl Adalar in Turkish) became popular summer resorts in the mid-19th Century. These largely forested islands lie 12 miles southeast of the city, in the Sea of Marmara, and are entirely car-free, with bicycles and phaetons (horse-drawn carriages) providing transportation. The two largest islands of Heybeliada and Büyükada are the most interesting for visitors. Ferries leave from Kabataş quay in the Beyoğlu district at least 14 times a day. The boat takes around 1.5 hours to get to Büyükada, stopping four times along the way. It costs ￡1.30 every time you board.
The article 'Cultural encounters' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.