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Istanbul : The Magical City Where The East Meets The West

Istanbul is a beautiful medley, across the road for Europe and Asia, of Byzantine and Islamic cultures, past and present, of modern and ancient.

“The World is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.”- St. Augustine.

Mark Twain said “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you did not do than the things you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sail. Explore!”

The word travel probably originates from French word “travail”. The literal meaning of the word “travel” is to go from one place to another, to undertake a journey.  And whether, one travels out of choice or compulsion; for business or pleasure, whether one travels in business class or aboard a luxury cruise or  goes backpacking on a shoestring budget, there is this indescribable joy in exploring the unknown and unraveling the unseen.  Whatever is the reason for travel, one indisputable fact remains that travel is a great teacher. Travel teaches precious and priceless lessons of life. In fact, travel is the best education you can get. Travel unites people Travel knows no caste or creed, neither race nor does colour, travel remind us that we are bound by the similarities. Travel is also food for the soul, many renowned authors and poets have said that it aids spiritual growth. Whether spiritually inclined or not, travel is life-changing. With travel, tastes in music and literature broaden and one learns more about art and culture. The traveler’s world lights up and his eyes, heart and mind open up to a world of endless opportunities and boundless discoveries.

I have always believed that to truly experience life, one needs to travel to different lands and understand different cultures. I have had a deep rooted passion to see the unseen and to discover the unknown. And, I am not alone, every day more and millennials are driven by the desire to work hard and invest a part of their savings into travelling around the world and to unravel the priceless gems of mother earth. After all, we need a break to rejuvenate our souls and refresh our minds. Deep within us all, is an inherent desire to get away from the mundane madness of our daily lives to a modern day utopia, an idyllic paradise where we can find time to just sit back and relax. Being in a serene and beautiful place and experiencing something “once in a lifetime” is a great catalyst for some deep thinking which eventually enables us to bounce back into our professional lives with more energy and out of the box, ideas.

I recently travelled to the cultural hub of Turkey and the country’s biggest city with a population of just over 15 million people, Istanbul. One of the largest cities in Europe, I feel the magical city should be on everyone’s bucket list of destinations. It has so much to offer in terms of history and culture and is a rare confluence of cultures. Located in the Marmara region of Turkey, Istanbul is uniquely positioned, the only city in the world which straddles two continents. Given its unusual geographical location, it is easy to understand why Istanbul is a melting pot of cultures and influences. Flanked on both sides by the beautiful Bosphorus River, the Western half of the city is situated in Europe while the eastern half is located in Asia. The Asian side is essentially residential and the city’s big attractions are on the European side across two districts – Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu.

As I walked into the magical city, I was mesmerised by the numerous architectural marvels. Steeped in history and culture, the east meets the west in this beautiful city, once can see varied influences and a juxtaposition of religion and cultures. There are traces of Christianity in the Byzantine churches and Islamic touch in the magnificent mosques. I began my city tour with a visit to the Sultanahmet, which is home to the city’s most important attractions like Hagia Sofia. Hagia Sofia was a former Greek Christian cathedral and was transformed into a Mosque and eventually made a modern day secular museum open to public in 1935.The large iconic dome is a fascinating manifestation of Byzantine architecture and houses holy relics and intricate murals.More than 1400 years old, it is a must visit. Steeped in centuries of history and culture, its beauty can’t be captured in words, it has to be witnessed. After Hagia Sofia, I visited the Topikapi Palace, the largest palace in Istanbul, it was the primary residence of the Ottoman Empire’s most powerful sultans and the final resting place of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. This significant monument is an architectural and cultural gem and boasts of unsurpassable beauty. Commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian, consecrated as a church in 537 and converted to a mosque in 1453 and declared a museum in 1935, Topikapi Palace is enchanting in more ways than one. After this, I headed to the famous Blue Mosque. The ‘Blue Mosque’ owes its name from the rich blue tiles which comprise the interior of the mosque. The monument consists of one main dome, six elegant minarets, and eight secondary domes. Constructed back in 1609 and interestingly to this day, it is still functional as a mosque. My last stop for the day was the underground city of Basilica Cistern, the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul.

The next day was for shopping and relaxation. I visited the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. The former is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with over 4000 shops. The Grand Bazaar is a shopper’s delight, the famous shopping arcade is bustling with local flavour and energy, and it is a colourful and chaotic market in the heart of Istanbul’s Old City. The Grand Bazaar is like a maze, from earthy spices to shining crystal to rich fabrics, everything is up for the grabs. One can splurge on carpets, Turkish tea, Turkish sweets and the ubiquitous evil eye or buy all sorts leather goods, bags, jewellery, carpets, clothing, furniture, ceramics, and souvenirs. Though, a Shopper’s paradise, I would suggest being wary of haggling and pushy shopkeepers.

After sauntering around, we had lunch at a local café, and headed to the Spice Bazaar is famous for numerous shops selling dried fruits, nuts, spices and other Turkish goodies. So much walking had made us all exhausted and we were unsure how to spend the evening when the hotel staff recommended a dinner by the Galata Bridge. The famous iron bridge is popular for high end restaurants and tea houses and cafes .The picturesque bridge spans the golden horn of the city and has been featured in famous paintings. The numerous restaurants and cafes serve a variety of cuisines. A walk down the stunning Galata Bridge is an enchanting way to close the day.

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The third day, I headed to the Taksim Square, a popular tourist and leisure destination located in the Beyoğlu area.Famous for antique shops and modern cafes and bistros, the city’s main pedestrian boulevards is a beautiful sight to behold. Taksim Square is a long strip buzzing with energy with a modern big city vibe. Swanky, designer boutiques alongside small antique shops and quaint, colourful cafes make the marriage of the old and new come alive yet again and it is this unique and beautiful juxtaposition of modernity and ancient tradition that Istanbul is known for. Istanbul offers various shopping and dining and night life options. Quaint colourful bistros and Turkish bakeries were tempting and I especially relished almond Turkish chocolates. In fact, the locals are passionate about their culinary delights and the restaurants in Istanbul are the best in the country. There is a lot of variety to choose from – one can visit çay bahçesis (tea gardens), kahvehans (coffeehouses), meyhanes (Turkish taverns) and kebapçıs (kebab restaurants).

I devoured the succulent kebabs and delicious platters and would recommend the delicious Turkish Ice cream as it is accompanied by a lot of fun and mimicry by the ice cream vendors. When in a culturally and geographically rich city, one must take the ferry crise , the best way to experience Istanbul in its full glory with its amazing monuments, bustling skyline so around sunset, I hopped on the Cruise on the Bosphorus . The strait offers magnificent views of the Istanbul coast and skyline.  Truly the best way to take in the mesmerising beauty and vibrant culture of numerous monuments and the rich history of the city of Istanbul.

Incredible views from the waterway made the cruise memorable, the only amusing part being my inability to understand the guide constant announcements in the local language. In the beginning, many tourists of different nationalities were struggling with google translate, trying to hold on to different complex words but as the ferry moved along, people were enamoured by the impressive landscape of the city. With or without an audio guide, it was an incredible experience and the grand finale was the delightful sight of dancing dolphins in the Black Sea. The last evening on the cruise was just like the city itself, surreal and unforgettable.

Istanbul is a beautiful medley, across the road for Europe and Asia, of Byzantine and Islamic cultures , past and present, of modern and ancient. Istanbul as a city offers all that a tourist can possibly ask for, Architectural beauty, authentic culture, rich history, vibrant culture and diverse shopping, culinary delights.

Image via Pixabay

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