At 20:10 tomorrow evening, a music and light show over the Golden Horn harbor will broadcast Istanbul's arrival as a European Capital of Culture for 2010. The citywide launch party also calls for fireworks and for concerts by an Ottoman-style military band in historic Sultanahmet, local pop star Tarkan at Taksim Square, and alternative rock band Mor ve Otesi at Kadikoy Square on the Asian side on the Bosporus. Many museums will be free and open until midnight.
In a sure-to-be-appreciated concession, some restaurants in the trendy Beyoglu district have been granted permits allowing them to serve alcohol from 4 a.m. to 7 a.m. all year long, reports the WSJ. Officials also recently abolished a 50 percent surcharge on nighttime taxi rides. (Come back to Beyoglu in daylight to wander buzzed-about contemporary art galleries like Galerist that are located in the Misir Apartments, 311/4 Istiklal Caddesi.)
Hundreds of events fill the 2010 calendar, among them festivals devoted to shadow theater and to Balkan music, dance performances, cultural exchanges, and blockbuster art shows—perhaps the biggest being "From Byzantium to Istanbul," which lands at Sakip Sabanci Museum in September.
You can already explore a new museum complex, Panorama Istanbul 1453, on the grounds of Topkapi Palace, and July brings two more openings. The Museum of Innocence, whose name references a novel by Nobel Prize-winner Orhan Pamuk, documents city life from the '50s to the present. A ferry ride away, on the island of Buyukada, the Museum of the Princes' Islands focuses on the traditions of this sleepy archipelago in the Sea of Marmara, home to many Greeks and Armenians.
Throw into the mix new hotels, renovations to landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia, and a new terminal at Sabiha Gokcen Airport, and you can understand why we considered Istanbul for our list of the Top Budget Travel Destinations for 2010.
It was the budget bit that stopped us. Istanbul may still come out as affordable when compared to some western European capitals (1 Turkish lira = 69 U.S. cents). But prices have risen in step with the city's rising profile—and travelers are noticing. Check out this heated TripAdvisor forum, Istanbul - what a rip-off!
Here's a more fundamental topic for debate: just how European is Istanbul, anyway? MiddleEastOnline.com brings up the political element of the European Capital of Culture accolade and whether it may factor into Turkey's slow-moving quest to become a member of the E.U. club. (This year's two other capitals of culture are already insiders: Essen, Germany, and Pécs, Hungary.)
The Hurriyet Daily News, Turkey's English-language paper, raises its own doubts about the sustainability and choice of cultural projects. The paper quotes Urban Implementations Director Korhan Gumus, who argues that at least Istanbul is bringing something new to the table:
"Istanbul's culture capital process has brought up a question that no other European city could, and that is the process of modernization," said Gumus. "Before, the definition of a cultural capital was set in terms of belonging to the European nation-states. But with Istanbul it has shifted to an awareness of modernization."