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  • Sep 19, 2014
  • Updated: 8:19pm

Multicultural 'city of world's desire'

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 July, 2012, 12:00am

Istanbul, in Turkey, is known for its delicious cuisine. Many of its stalls serve freshly made kebabs (meat on skewers), sesame-dotted pretzels or salted corn cobs.

For those of you with a sweet tooth, the lokum, or Turkish delight, is really fantastic; it's made with fresh nuts such as pistachio, dates and hazelnuts.

Dondurma, literally meaning 'freezing' in Turkish, is the local ice cream. Its stretchy, chewy texture and resistance to melting sets it apart from other kinds of ice cream.

Cart vendors often tease customers by pretending to serve a dondurma upside down, before flipping it over at the last minute. Walnut-stuffed figs and Turkish apricots make great gifts to take home, too.

Istanbul forms the country's historical, economical and cultural heart. Once known as Constantinople, it offers visitors an intriguing mix of history, cultures, and people, and has been dubbed the 'City of the World's desire'.

Its appeal is universal; seven million foreigners visited Istanbul in 2010, making it the world's 10th top tourist destination.

Geographically the city forms a 'bridge' between Europe and Asia. It lies along the historic trading route, the Silk Road. Its importance led to it being the capital of each of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empires.

During the Roman and Byzantine Empires, Istanbul encouraged the spread of Christianity before the Ottomans conquered it and replaced the Christian faith with Islam.

To get a better sense of the city and its 13.5 million residents, it is essential to walk around and do some sight-seeing.

The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet), with its minarets (spires with crowns) and blue-tiled domes, lies in the old centre, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. Built between 1609 and 1616, during the rule of Sultan Ahmed I, the Blue Mosque was meant to rival the beauty and grandeur of the nearby Aya Sofya. Inside the impressive structure, tourists can admire painstakingly detailed architecture and observe worshippers coming in to pray.

Once a Greek cathedral, then a Roman Catholic cathedral, before finally becoming a Mosque and now a museum, the Aya Sofya's interior reflects its many religious affiliations over the centuries. Its walls have wooden plates with Islamic calligraphy and golden mosaic tiles from Christian times.

Yet the city is not stuck in the past. It has become an increasingly modern, socially vibrant city in recent years, with widespread development leading to the opening of many new art galleries, restaurants and night clubs.

The city is also hoping to beat the challenge of rivals Tokyo and Madrid to host the 2020 Olympics. The choice of the winning city will be revealed in September.

For shopping, Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is hard to beat. One of the world's largest and oldest covered markets, it sells carpets, jewellery, leather goods and furniture.

If you enjoy people-watching, spend a few hours relaxing at restaurants, bars and tea houses near the Galata bridge.

The ideal way to end your visit is a boat trip on the Bosphorus, a strait linking Europe to Asia.

Night boat cruises are especially beautiful, offering views of the old city and blinking lights of the Bosphorus bridge, as you sail past.

Visas

HKSAR passport holders do not need a visa to visit Turkey and can stay up to three months. American passport-holders need to get a tourist visa from the Turkish embassy or consulate in the United States, or they can buy a sticker-visa for US$20 on arrival at the airport in Turkey. British passport holders require a visa, which they can obtain at the Turkish border. Australians require no visa and can stay for up to three months.

Health and safety

It is always best to be careful when travelling. Turkey is not a dangerous country, but beware of pickpockets or scams.

Most of the population is Muslim, so use common sense regarding dress. Be aware that shoes must be taken off when visiting mosques and women should bring a shawl to cover up. Drink bottled water as tap water quality varies.

Currency

The currency in Turkey is the Turkish lira; one lira is worth about HK$4.25.

Weather and climate

The best times to visit Istanbul are from April to May and September to October. Avoid July and August, when there are many tourists and the weather can be very humid. In the winter, strong winds and snow are common.

Transportation

There are six direct flights each week from Hong Kong to Istanbul, via Turkish Airlines.

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