The smell hits you first. Even before I’ve passed through one of the 21 decorative gateways of Istanbul’s 15th-century Grand Bazaar, I’m met by an intoxicating scent of saffron, rose and leather mixed with the rich scent of strong Turkish coffee.
“The first ten minutes inside will be great,” my guide Koray Yalkut advises, as we move through the crowds heading in the same direction. “Then the second ten minutes are overwhelming. And after half an hour you want to leave again.’
Clearly he underestimates my commitment to a bargain.
One of the world’s largest covered markets spanning 62 streets, the bazaar attracts up to half a million visitors a day in more than 2,000 shops, some of which are still run by the 15th generation of the same family.
Within minutes I am lost in the ornate alleys, enchanted by rows of Turkish delight, rainbow colored pashminas and pomegranates. At a shop called Aladdin, staff present bowls of pistachios and baklava, while I choose between bottles of floral oil perfumes and giant packs of dried fruit. They send me on my way with a lavish farewell and a free bag of fragrant herbs.
Historical: During a trip to Istanbul, Siobhan Grogan visits Hagia Sophia, a large church built by the Romans that is now a mosque
It is the same everywhere in Istanbul. I’m offered artisanal chocolates at the posh jewelry store Begum Khan, and apple tea at a shop in Besiktas that sells ceramics and crystals. Everyone is welcoming.
But last November, a terrorist bomb killed six people on a main street of the city, highlighting Turkey’s hostile political regime, particularly towards the Kurdish population.
Many locals believe the divisive – and increasingly autocratic – President Erdogan (who is up for election today) will eventually turn Turkey into a superpower, but everyone I meet rolls his name. No one will say much about him right away, but everyone wants to keep Istanbul as a secular, progressive and safe city. After all, it was an open-minded meeting place of cultures and continents long before Erdogan. Bordering Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus, it was the capital of three empires, survived many attacks and earthquakes, and was an important hub on the East-West Silk Road trade route.
It’s now Europe’s most populous city with nearly 16 million people – but this chaotic, charismatic metropolis is often overlooked as tourists rush south to the country’s beach resorts. They miss a city as captivating as Rome or Athens, with as many historical marvels, as well as vibrant bars and gourmet restaurants.
For the best access to both, I stay at the Shangri-La Bosphorus, a beautifully converted 1920s tobacco warehouse near the Maritime Museum and the extravagant Dolmabahce Palace. There’s a ferry on your doorstep to cross continents in minutes, or the hotel can arrange a breakfast cruise to see domed mosques, Ottoman castles and, if you’re lucky, dolphins leaping out of the water as the sun rises over Asia.
During rush hour, it is also the fastest way to bypass the almost endless traffic jams and get to the old city of Sultanahmet on the European side of Istanbul.
Here, traces of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires make every street a museum, albeit with dogs napping in the sun and candy-striped stalls selling simit (Turkish bagels) to office workers eating breakfast.
The main sights are clustered around the fountains of Sultanahmet Square, including the Sultanahmet Mosque – nicknamed the Blue Mosque for its colorful tiled interior – and the Hagia Sophia.
Siobhan likes to get lost in the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest covered markets (file image)
Rooms at the Shangri-La Bosphorus start from £438 b&b, (shangri-la.com). Turkish Airlines flies to Istanbul from Heathrow, Gatwick, Edinburgh, Birmingham and Manchester (turkishhairlines.com). For more information, see visit.istanbul/en.
The latter is a former 5th-century church built by Roman Emperor Justinian I, and turned into a mosque in 1453 by invading the Ottomans.
It has been a museum since 1935, although Erdogan controversially declared it a mosque again in 2020. Women now have to cover their hair to enter, but it remains an architectural marvel with a 55-meter-high dome shimmering with tiny golden mosaics. Next door is the eerie underground Basilica Cistern that once supplied water to the Byzantine palaces.
It was discovered in 1545 when locals revealed they could lower buckets under their cellars to catch fish. Now the water still drips intermittently from the ceiling into the shallow pools where carp dart between the shadows.
Later I return to the Grand Bazaar – and not just for one last shopping spree. Yalkut leads me up a rickety staircase at the back of a sari shop to walk across the terracotta rooftops of the Bazaar, an area only accessible with a private guide.
Abandoned despite thousands of shoppers below, it’s the best spot for sweeping views of the city, and I recognize it as the spot where Daniel Craig zoomed across the skyline on a motorbike in the opening sequence of Skyfall. Trust that James Bond knows the best way to avoid traffic.