Istanbul and the summerhouses of the Bosphorus

Next year, Istanbul is set to open the first phase of its new airport – the biggest in the world. The huge new structure will join architectural attractions of the region that span more than a thousand years and feature vaulted canopies. Such designs are inspired “by the local use of colours and patterns, the quality of light, as well as traditional architecture,” according to the design team led by Sir Nicholas Grimshaw and design group Haptic. This exciting venture is sure to bring Istanbul metaphorically closer to travellers from around the world.

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Modernity connecting with history

Located 20 miles outside the city on the Black Sea Coast, it’s likely that the 90 million passengers futuristic airport will serve in its first phase will head straight for the city’s ancient attractions – beginning with the elegant Sirkeci train Station. This stately, yet accessible building still houses the original Orient Express restaurant. The Suleymaniye, Hagia Sophia, and Sultanahmet mosques have 1,000 years of craftsmanship behind them and are some of the best religious sites, and sights, in the world.

Facade of Sirkeci railway station in Istanbul, Turkey

Sirkeci train station. Image credit:

Add to the secular sites like the vast Topkapi Palace, the seat of the Ottoman Empire for more than three centuries, with its huge courtyards, numerous halls, and kitchens once serving 6,000 meals a day, and you have the makings of a cultural city break comparable to any in the world.

The tour doesn’t end there, as there are marvels to explore underground too. The Yerebatan Sarnici, constructed in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, being one. It’s just one of the city’s many underwater cisterns but its 336 immense columns, sculptures, and reliefs create an arresting cathedral-like space. In its time, the ancient cistern has contained everything from carp to film crews shooting From Russia with Love and now makes for a fantastic walk along its raised wooden platforms.

Basilica Cistern Interior, Istanbul, Turkey

Yerebatan Sarnici. Image credit:

Accessing ancient architecture on the Bosphorus and the Black Sea Coast

While the airport will serve the attractions of the city, it could also open up the formidable sights found along the Black Sea Coast itself to more travellers. Here, the 32 kilometre Bosphorus strait marks the border between Eastern and Western Europe where a very different kind of architecture dominates – telling the more recent history of the city. Over 600 Ottoman yali houses line the strait on both sides and were mostly constructed during the 19th century. They sport beautiful carved balconies, the occasional turret, and were built as the waterfront summer houses for wealthy Ottomans.

Buildings in Istanbul City, Turkey alongside the Black Sea coast

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Usually made of wood, the yalis stand as reminders of a city whose location made it one of the most important trading posts in the world. Even now, they’re owned by some of the country’s richest residents such as Erbilgin Yalısı – worth an estimated $100 million according to Forbes magazine. Others have been turned into sumptuous, and expensive, boutique hotels where rooms start at around £400 per night.

The Kanlıca neighbourhood of the Beykoz district is home to some of the most striking yalis, where the oldest dates back to 1699. The mammoth Abud Efendi yali, owned by silk and leather merchant Mehmet Abud Efendi in 1900, can also be found here as can Sadrazam Kadri Pasha Yalısı. The latter of these wonderful buildings was lovingly restored by the heirs of Grand Vizier Kadri Pasa after a ship had crashed into it. Kandilli in Uskdar also has a number of exquisite examples of traditional riverside architecture, including the unusual Kont Ostorog, once owned by a Polish count and expert on sharia law.

It’s not all about size and pomposity, though. My personal favourite is the tiny Amcazade Huseyin Pasa yali – a dilapidated wooden house perched improbably on rocks over the water. Located in the Anadoluhisari quarter, it’s a small remainder of what was once a grand complex of three seaside mansions. It is, though, the oldest yali on the Bosphorus and, having been built in 1699, is the oldest existing private residence in Istanbul.

Istanbul view of Golden Horn and Galata Bridge

Galata Bridge. Image credit:

To get the most out of your trip to the Bosphorus, you’re best off arming yourself with a good guidebook, or printouts from websites like How to Istanbul and Very Turkey, and jumping on one of the ferries near the Galata Bridge. I highly recommend this as you can do your own two-hour tour of the yalis for about £5 instead of overpaying for one of the organised tours.

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