Straddling both the continents of Asia and Europe, Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey with an eclectic populace and a rich, complex history written in blood. Modern Istanbul is a metropolis with a lot of old soul.
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If I could use one word to describe Istanbul, it would probably be chaos. Don't take me the wrong way. Istanbul is vibrant, lively, sentimental, old and young - but it is these things all at once.
I spent about five days in Istanbul and the time was just enough for me to explore the city's best-loved landmarks. Everybody's first stop in Istanbul has got to be the Hagia Sophia. It's a living legend - one of the holiest of sites claimed by both the Christians and the Muslims. For that reason alone, I wouldn't have missed it. When I actually stepped into the imposing building with its vaulted ceilings and gargantuan marble pillars, I found it difficult to suppress my sense of awe. The architecture is spectacular because it contains elements of both Christian and Muslim influences - both religions once lay claim to it. While you're at it you could also stop by the Blue Mosque just next door. The interior of the blue mosque is exquisitely decorated with tiny blue square tiles. Both landmarks are worth a visit for the sense of awe they evoke.
Once you've gotten the history out of the way, I'd suggest you take some time exploring the smaller streets (pasajis) off the main shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi. The main street is the same old city jazz - housed in ancient buildings with exquisite european architecture. You'll find familiar brands like Zara, Topshop and Starbucks there. But the real experience is off the beaten track. Take an afternoon off wandering the Çukurcuma neighbourhood just a street away, lined with antique shops. The facade looks a little like Diagon Alley - try not to wander around at night! It can get a little creepy as all the shops close at around 6pm. In the day though, you can get lost wandering around the numerous antique shops cluttered with all sorts of curios, from vintage car models to 16th century oil paintings.
The Grand Bazaar is a hot tourist spot but I felt it was too commerialised and crawling with tourists. It's a good place to stop by for some souvenirs but I wouldn't linger.
Stop by Aponia Store at Galipede Caddesi just off the main Istiklal Street for a unique souvenir instead. It's a small, modern local graphic design store with quirky printed tees and notebooks. Their most famous shirt design reads “They call it chaos, we call it home”. And how true that is – Istanbul is a massive melting pot of the old and the new. In my short time there I walked into a total of three demonstrations, but I walked away with a sense of the country's pride and fighting spirit.