Getting caught up in a freedom of the press protest was not exactly what I had in mind for my first few hours in Istanbul.

But when you stroll past the small army of fishermen on the famous Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn from the old city into the new and towards Taksim Square, you never quite know what you will stumble into.

Just beyond the landmark Galata Tower (once a fortification but now home to restaurants and cafes) is a gathering point for people who want to make a point.

On this Saturday afternoon in October, there was one small demonstration about political prisoners and another about protection of journalists.

A squad of police with riot shields and a water cannon vehicle stood by.

It all seemed to go off peacefully enough.

I signed a petition, moved on, passed the designer stores, cafes and restaurants in this very cosmopolitan part of the city to Taksim Square itself, the scene of major protests against the Turkish government last year, but otherwise the beating heart of this incredible metropolis.

Turkey is an emerging market economy.

And if you didn’t know already this you could work it out by spending even just a little time in vibrant, colourful, fast developing Istanbul, the meeting of place of East and West, Christianity and Islam, Europe and Asia.

I stayed at the Erten Konak Hotel, an traditional Ottoman family home, converted and refurbished into 16 rooms, situated in the Sultanahmet district.

It sits in the shadow of the magnificent Sultanahmet mosque, better known as the iconic Blue Mosque because of the 21,000 coloured tiles inside.

Opposite the gardens and fountains across the square sits the Church of St Sophia, now a museum, but once the fourth biggest church in the world.

It’s a stunning panorama in this area called Sultanahmet Kulliye – at night these incredible structures are bathed in different coloured lights.

One of the many great things about Istanbul is that much of it is walkable. History simply courses through every fibre of this city, once Constantinople and then Byzantium.

With my guide Serkan, I notched up eleven kilometres from the Old City, starting in the thriving Sultanahmet district and exploring the Topkapi Palace – home to the Ottoman Sultans for over 400 years, the Grand Bazaar (with 4,000 shops) and then across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn and into the new city.

The Grand Bazaar is huge and overwhelming.

Much more manageable is Spice Bazaar down near the waterfront.

Another site not to missed is the open-air Roman era hippodrome, for centuries the place for chariot races. The Egyptian obelisks remain.

For James Bond aficianados, Istanbul features in both From Russia With Love and Skyfall.

Istanbul has an excellent public transport network, notably the tram and metro systems. The trams were closed down in 1956 and then reopened in 1982 to combat growing pollution and congestion.

It’s efficient, cheap and very modern.

Every visitor should take a trip over the Bosphorus by boat or across the magnificent bridge built in 1973.

It leads to southern Istanbul, the rest of Turkey, the Middle East and beyond to Asia.


Andy Martin flew from Luton to Istanbul Ataturk with Atlas Global.

Unison Turkey offers a range of special interest tours in Istanbul, including itineraries focusing on history, culture, gardening and food. Visit for more information.

For more on the Erten Konak visit