Istanbul remains world’s most beautiful city ‘despite everything’
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Turkey today might be doing its best to pave over Istanbul in concrete, but the city continues to resist, maintaining its status as the most beautiful in the world, said prominent travel writer and guide Saffet Emre Tonguç.
“Despite everything, despite us Turks trying to destroy this city, Istanbul is still the world’s most beautiful city. The city resists with the strength it takes from these 8,500 years,” he recently told the Hürriyet Daily News.
An extended holiday will start next weekend. What do you suggest for first timers, as well as those who have been living in Istanbul for some time, in the way of outings over the holiday?
With its 8,500-year history, Istanbul is so rich that there are too many things to do. For first timers, I suggest the historic peninsula with Haghia Sophia, which has decorated the city’s skyline for 1,500 years, and Topkapı Palace, where the Ottoman dynasty ruled the world for 400 years. There is also the Turkish and Islamic Works Museum and the Grand Bazaar, the world’s oldest and biggest covered market. I tell my visitors to go from the Grand Bazaar to the Spice Market (Egyptian Bazaar) via Mahmutpaşa [and see] all the local markets on the way. There is also Büyük Valide Han on the way. Its rooftop offers one of Istanbul’s best panoramic views.
For a different destination, there is the Fener-Balat neighborhood. Florence is said to be the city with the highest number of historic work per square kilometer. The streets of Fener- Balat can match Florence; the only thing is that the houses are not in such good condition; a touch of a restoration will render it even more attractive.
Another alternative is Karaköy. You have the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque. Istanbul hosts nearly 100 works of Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect. His talent is comparable to Michelangelo or da Vinci. Foreigners call this mosque The Don Quixote mosque since Cervartes worked on its construction. The hamam next door is one of Turkey’s best hamams. From Martha Stewart to Bill Gate’s son, I took many of my foreign guests there. Karaköy is also home to Russian rooftop churches, built to cater to Russian exiles in Istanbul.
And then there is the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus is for me the world’s most beautiful seaway. With 60,000 ships traversing it, Bosphorus is one of the world’s most strategic locations; it’s the only entry/exit to the Black Sea.
Istanbul is the world’s only city in which a sea passes through it, which has been the capital of three empires, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman and which sits on two continents.
The neighborhoods of the Bosphorus are really out of the ordinary. Actually they used to be small villages, but as the city got bigger, they became part of it. But they still harbor that authentic texture. To me, the best way to discover a city is to get lost on its streets.
You have to get lost in the streets in Boyacıköy [on the European side]; there you have the beautiful Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church, as well as an Armenian church. You can see some of the most beautiful examples of wooden architecture in the back streets of Boyacıköy. Going north, you have the Tarabya Hotel; enjoying happy hour on its terrace is magnificent. In Sarıyer and Rumeli Kavağı, you have fish restaurants. On the Anatolian side, you have Kanlıca, which is famous for its yogurt. Right across from Kanlıca is Emirgan [on the European side], where you have boats that get you to Kanlıca for 7.5 liras. You can have a joy ride in the Bosphorus, eat your yogurt and come back.
Or you can take a tour with the big boats. There are 600 mansions on the Bosphorus. Of those, 366 are historic.
Two of the world’s most expensive houses are on the shores of the Bosphorus; one is Zeki Paşa, which is on sale for 115 million dollars and the other one, Şehzade Burhanettin, was sold to the emir of Qatar for 150 million dollars. That was what they were asking for for this 65-room mansion. The tours I do on the Bosphorus are really popular and I also do them at night under the full moon. Istanbul offers a different beauty at night time.
What are the other alternatives?
For those interested in museums, the archaeology museum is one of the world’s best ones. We have very good private museums like the Sabancı Museum, the Rahmi Koç Museum and the Pera museum. These are among the must-do list. There are several thematic tours to take. One of my tours is called “Dan Brown vs James Bond.” Three James Bond movies were shot in Istanbul.
What do you think makes Istanbul special?
First of all, there are few places in the world where you can see so many different historic works, so many places belonging to so many different religion and sects.
There are more than 3,200 mosques and nearly 400 church belonging to different religious sects, from Armenian Catholic to Greek Orthodox and from Anglican to Syriac. There are also 19 synagogues and lots of chapels.
The most important characteristic of Istanbul is the fact that there is nothing ordinary. Everything is unexpected and very unique. At every corner, some surprise is waiting for you; good or bad. When you go to Paris or Madrid, you can guess more or less what type of architecture is waiting for you around the corner. In Istanbul you have art deco, art nouveau, Seljuk or Ottoman, eclectic or baroque architecture. There is an unbelievable perfect harmony.
Perhaps a bit of a chaotic harmony though?
To me, it is the most magnificent chaos in the world because it harbors so many things that can enrich you. This is a city with so many iconic constructions.
In Copenhagen you have the statue of the little mermaid; everyone takes a picture to put it on Instagram. In Brussels, you have the peeing boy. That’s all they have as a symbol. In Istanbul you have so many iconic buildings to put on Instagram; Süleymaniye Mosque, Topkapı Palace, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, Dolmabahçe Palace, the Bosphorus Bridge… They’re countless.
In addition to all its historic and cultural attributes, it has a rich night life and although some of the restaurants have been surrendering to kebap culture, there are very good examples of fine dining alongside various examples of local cuisine from other parts of Turkey, like Gaziantep or Mardin.
Do you think there is something unknown, or let’s say underrated, in the city?
I think Istanbul in general is very underrated. I have been the guide in Istanbul to some of the wealthiest Americans from Kelvin Klein to Michael Kors and from Marta Stewart to Robert Redford. They all know Rome and Paris. They come to Istanbul without any expectations. But then they end up saying “this is a magnificent city.”
Actually they come with such low expectations that they are tremendously impressed by what they see. They are so exposed to Paris and London that they actually know what they will see.
But when you take them to Topkapı Palace, it is impossible not to be impressed by the spoonmarker’s diamond or the Topkapı dagger; they are better than the crown jewels in London.
You tell them, we’ll take you to an underground cistern. They ask what a cistern is. You tell them it is a place to collect water. But once inside the 1,500-year-old Yerebatan cistern, they come across 366 gigantic columns with medusas, et cetera. These are tremendously attractive. You enter into the Kariye museum; it’s a tiny museum, but you see the most beautiful examples of Byzantine mosaics.
It seems Istanbul has not been successful in promoting itself.
There is a serious promotion problem. And there is also a perception operation; a manipulation. Istanbul is depicted as the capital of terror. There has been terror in India for instance; are we afraid to go there or to other cities where there have been terror incidents?
But then again; there is tremendous construction going on in Istanbul. Don’t you think all this concrete is shadowing the magical city you are talking about?
I have written 15 books, 10 of which are about Istanbul. I dedicated one of them to Istanbul, the city that I believe is still the world’s most beautiful city, despite everything. I have been to 130 countries and I have worked as a guide in 1,400 cities. Despite everything, despite us Turks trying to destroy this city, Istanbul is still the world’s most beautiful city. The city resists with the strength it takes from these 8,500 years.
Who is Saffet Emre Tonguç?
Born in 1966, Saffet Emre Tonguç studied at Istanbul’s Bosphorus University’s Tourism and Hotel Management.
Since 1987 he has worked as a tour guide for a number of major tour operators, as well as a semi-professional travel photographer. His work appears in various magazines and newspapers and he hosts a TV program called “Priceless Istanbul.” Tonguç is also a travel consultant for Turkish Radio and Television (TRT).
He is the author of several books, including “101 Must-See Places in Turkey,” “Istanbul: The Ultimate Guide” and “Bosphorus: The Ultimate Guide,” all of which were published in both Turkish and English.
He has accompanied more than 100 international celebrities as a guide in Turkey, including Oprah Winfrey, Rory Gates, Paul Allen, Martha Stewart, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Robert Redford, Kevin Spacey, Billy Crystal, Calvin Klein, Candice Bergen, Eric Schmidt, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Diane Von Fürstenberg and, Michael Kors.