Istanbul Culture

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Istanbul Culture
Istanbul wears its history proudly, but its pulse has a contemporary beat. A stroll in the metropolis may reveal the ancient empires that have left their mark, but it will also uncover buzzing street life and a city with its eye on the future.
By Jessica Lee , AFAR Local Expert
Photo courtesy of the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism
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    Byzantine Glory
    During the Byzantine era, Istanbul transformed from a humble fishing port into a grandiose capital. Constantine raised a city in his name, and later emperors tried to outdo him with their own architectural legacies. Ottoman works eventually replaced or recycled many of these buildings, but some of the grandest remnants of Byzantine Constantinople have survived. Lording over the Old City district of Sultanahmet, the Aya Sofya is Istanbul's landmark Byzantine monument. And in Edirnekapi the lavish period comes to life in the vibrant mosaics that fill the Chora Church.
    Photo courtesy of the Turkish Ministry for Culture and Tourism
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    Ottoman Splendor
    The walls of Constantinople fell in 1453, and the city became the Ottoman Empire's capital. Skinny minarets punctuate the sky as evidence of this triumphant time. To appreciate the legacy of this period, wend your way uphill from Topkapi Palace, the power base and residence of the sultans, to the Blue Mosque, famous for the blue Iznik tiles that cover its interior. Continue through the Bazaar district to the Suleymaniye Mosque, which crowns the hilltop and was built by the famed architect Sinan for Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent. It's no wonder visitors were in awe of the city under Ottoman rule, when mosques and palaces were the signs of a mighty power on the rise.
    Photo by age fotostock
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    Contemporary Culture in Beyoglu
    Across the Galata Bridge, the Beyoglu district is home to bustling Taksim Square, which connects to the pedestrian shopping street Istiklal Caddesi. Once a rough neighborhood, Beyoglu is now a gentrified, caffeine-fueled quarter of cafes, boutiques, and cool galleries. Begin exploring this area at Taksim Square and make your way through the throngs of shoppers on ─░stiklal Caddesi. Weave down side streets that buzz with youthful energy, stopping for coffee at chic cafe Urban along the way. To check out what's new in the city, drop by the funky galleries-cum-cultural centers SALT Galata and Arter.
    Photo courtesy of Serkan Taycan/SALT Beyoglu
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    The Whirling Dervishes
    Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, has a famous sect in Turkey called the Whirling Dervishes. Members follow the teachings of the 13th-century religious leader Mevlana Rumi, who preached tolerance and peace through his poetry. To achieve a trance-like oneness with God, Dervishes perform a dance ceremony that involves repetitive twirling. Attending a ceremony is a hypnotic experience. The haunting notes of the ney (reed flute) call the participants to the floor. Slow and sonorous, the spinning builds to an exhausting, dizzying whirl. Watch the spiritual ceremony at the Galata Mevlevi Museum, where you can also see exhibits on Dervish history. Sultanahmet's Hocapasa Culture Center also stages performances several evenings per week.
    Photo by Jean-Baptiste Rabouan/age fotostock
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    Art through the Ages
    Istanbul has a long history of revering art, from the golden frescoes and mosaics of the Byzantines and Islamic calligraphy to the contemporary work of today's Turkish artists. The intricate blue iznik tiles that grace the tiny Rustem Pasa Mosque showcase the balance and harmony of Islamic artistry. To see how Ottoman artists portrayed life on canvas, visit the Pera Museum in Beyoglu, which has an extensive collection of paintings from the 17th to 20th centuries. Afterward, head to the Tophane neighborhood and check out the new wave of Turkish art at the Istanbul Modern, which is home to the city's major contemporary collection.
    Photo courtesy of Backpacker Concierge
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    Ancient Communities of Constantinople
    Ottoman Constantinople was the cosmopolitan city of its day. Communities of Greeks and Armenians, European traders, and Jewish refugees who fled the Spanish Inquisition all prospered under the sultan's rule. Stroll through Beyoglu's Pera neighborhood and the districts of Balat and Fener to explore the vestiges of this Ottoman melting pot. Don't miss Fener's Church of St. Stephen of the Bulgars and Istiklal Caddesi's Church of Santa Maria Draperis along the way. To delve into the history of the city's Sephardic Jews, take Turkish Heritage Travel's excellent walking tour, which stops at the Ahrida Synagogue in Balat and the Jewish Museum in Beyoglu.
    Photo by Tolo Balaguer/age fotostock
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    Hopping Over to Asia
    Istanbul sits astride two continents, yet most visitors confine themselves to the European shore. The commuter ferry that crosses the Bosphorus to Anatolia is the quickest way to get to the Asian side. Disembark in the tranquil suburb of Uskudar, where you can admire beautiful mosques and Ottoman architecture without the crowds. Then wander down to Kadikoy and explore its colorful produce market where the smell of spices, fresh fish, and grilled meat waft through the air. This suburb is a favorite hangout for university students, and its alleys are crammed with bars and cafes. If you want to join the fun, Kadife Sokak is the hub of all the action.
    Photo by Barbara Schoenfeld
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    Exploring the Old City on Foot
    The compact Old City is easy to explore on your own, and there's plenty to discover beyond the dueling behemoths of the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. A tangle of alleys leads to the Cankurtaran neighborhood, where wooden Ottoman houses line cobblestone lanes. From the remnants of the Hippodrome, follow the street downhill to the peaceful Kucuk Aya Sofya (Little Aya Sofya), which was built by Emperor Justinian and is now a mosque. Then turn onto Kennedy Caddesi and crane your neck upward. You'll be able to see the faded glory of Constantinople's city walls and the remains of the Byzantine Bucolen Palaceo.
    Photo by Martin Siepmann/age fotostock
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    Mansions and Museums
    Topkapi Palace may the most famous of Istanbul's former grand residences, but the sultans scattered opulent mansions along the length of the Bosphorus. Don't miss the grand Dolmabahce Palace in Besiktas with its over-the-top clash of Oriental and European decor. To escape the tourist crowds, go to Uskudar and visit the Beylerbeyi Palace, which served as the sultans' summer retreat. Even trips to many of the city's museums allow a peek at Ottoman mansion architecture. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts was once the home of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent's grand vizier. And next to Topkapi Palace at the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, you can see Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror's Tiled Pavilion.
    Photo courtesy of the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism
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    Offbeat Istanbul
    Istanbul has a decidedly quirky side that balances its pomp and splendor. It started with Emperor Justinian, who decided to deck the cistern that stored the imperial water supply with 336 columns. The resulting Basilica Cistern, with water dripping from the ceiling and fish darting between the pillar bases, is both enchanting and spooky. And it continues with Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence in Beyoglu. Among its many oddly gorgeous displays is an exhibit with more than 4,000 cigarette butts. The bizarre and the strange sit comfortably in this city of many faces. Seeking out the less obvious sights is time well spent in Istanbul.
    Photo courtesy of Turkish Heritage Travel