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A New Taste of Istanbul's Turkish Delights

Illustration for TIME by Sarah Perkins


Istanbul, city of sultans and sages, has long attracted the adventure-seeking traveler. But at 9,000 km from Tokyo, the metropolis known as the bridge between Europe and Asia can seem a distant link to tourists from the Far East. Luckily, the leisurely chugging Orient Express is no longer the only way to access the Turkish landmark; Malaysia's and Singapore's airlines have acknowledged Istanbul's appeal with twice- and thrice-weekly flights, and Cathay Pacific has also recently begun flying twice a week from Hong Kong.

One of the most beautiful countries in the world, Turkey is also one of the most enigmatic. Tourists admire its overlapping strata of history--beginning more than 3,000 years ago and straddling the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires--and its renowned Midnight Express exoticism. But forget your notions of fez-wearing characters smoking hookahs while watching gyrating belly dancers; the city is modernizing rapidly, and the secular state that Mustafa Kemal Ataturk started in 1923 has moved far beyond its Ottoman roots toward greater international recognition and hopes to join the European Union. Modern high-rises now line Istanbul's multi-lane roads, and expensively suited businessmen are as common as carpet sellers and kebab vendors.

Not that the city's initial footings have been forgotten. From the time you pass through the meters-thick walls rimming the old city, it's clear that the fortress gates that shielded Byzantium for 1,000 years and guarded Constantinople from invaders like Attila the Hun have preserved some of the influences of past inhabitants.

In the south of the city, the structures of the Sultanahmet district span centuries. The Ayasofya, a 1,400-year-old cathedral-turned-mosque-turned-museum, served as the center of Byzantine religious life for nearly a millennium. In the 17th century, the Ottomans raised the Blue Mosque with seven minarets and elaborate adornments of blue Izmir tiles to rival the splendor of its Byzantine neighbor. Nearby, the Topkapi Palace, famed for its maze-like courtyards and the 300-room harem of the sultans, perches over Seraglio Point.

Hospitality abounds here: peddlers offer carpets, enticing potential clients from the streets with tea and tall tales, restaurateurs tempt passersby with mezze, lamb and eggplant and young boys run through the narrow streets carrying trays with tumblers of apple tea. In the winding passageways of the Covered Market, shoppers find still more carpets, tiles, trinkets and T shirts. In the aromatic corridors of the Spice Market, hawkers offer seasonings, fruit and Turkish delight.

End-of-the-day respite can be found at a range of hotels--from backpackers' haunts in Sultanahmet to the Kempinski Ciragan Palace Hotel, once the home of the 19th-century Sultan Abdulaziz (also where John F. Kennedy Jr. spent his honeymoon). There's the Pera Palace in Beyoglu, built initially for patrons of the Orient Express, now temporary home to such luminaries as Agatha Christie and Julio Iglesias. Istanbul may no longer be the gateway to Asia, but the city that straddles two continents has its doors wide open to all.


January 18, 1999

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