By Jessie Williams
Istanbul is one of the few cities to span two continents, straddling Europe and Asia either side of the Bosphorus Strait. Founded by King Byzas in the seventh century BC, it is Turkey’s biggest city and has a cultural diversity reflecting its unique geography and long history.
Contemporary art hub
Istanbul has a flourishing contemporary art scene. The city’s modern art museum, Istanbul Modern, on the shores of the Bosphorus, is undergoing a multimillion-dollar revamp designed by internationally renowned architect Renzo Piano. Until it reopens its doors in 2021, residents can view the museum’s collection and exhibitions at its temporary site less than 1km away in Beyoglu.
One of the highlights on the international arts calendar is the Istanbul Biennial, which runs this year from September 14 to November 10. The event — this year’s is the 16th since the biennial started in 1987 — promotes contemporary artists from Turkey and around the world.
Global financial ambitions
The Turkish government is determined to establish the country as one of the world’s 10 largest economies by 2023, and transform Istanbul into a financial centre to rival New York and London. The Istanbul International Finance Center (IIFC) is a $2.6bn project to house the governing bodies of the country’s financial markets, banks and related businesses on the eastern outskirts of the city. The project is due to be completed by 2023, with the aim of attracting more international investment to Turkey.
Street food to savour
You haven’t tried a proper kebab until you’ve eaten one from one of Istanbul’s many vendors. Street food is a big part of life in the city — from carts, stalls or trays carried on heads. Sample a simit (a cross between a bagel and a pretzel) for breakfast, a pide (an oval Turkish pizza) for lunch, misir (grilled corn on the cob sprinkled with salt or spices) for an afternoon snack, and kokorec (an offal sandwich) in the evening.
Keyif, a Turkish term that translates as joy, contentment, bliss or idle pleasure, is a national pastime that is taken very seriously in the homes and cafés of Istanbul. Everyone’s keyif is different, but common keyif activities include drinking tea (or cay) and eating freshly made baklava, a sweet dessert pastry, from one of the city’s many bakeries, such as the popular Cigdem Pastanesi, or strolling beside the Bosphorus with friends.
The streets of Istanbul are visual feasts showcasing the city’s varied history. Influences include the Greeks, Romans and Ottomans, which sit alongside some dynamic designs from the modern day. The old city has four Unesco World Heritage zones, which include the Hagia Sophia Museum with its looming minarets and huge dome, the Blue Mosque, decorated with more than 20,000 ceramic Iznik tiles, and the Topkapi Palace, once home to Ottoman sultans.
Photographs: Dreamstime; Getty Images; Bloomberg