Something happens to taxi drivers in Istanbul, around 6 o’clock in the morning. The roads are clear, all of them, even the narrow lanes leading up to Sultanahmet Square. In the city centre, cleaners are getting the trams ready for the day, and the first of the day’s ferries, all lit up and all but empty, is crossing the Bosphorus from Asia.
There are no pedestrians, no lost tourists stepping out confused from the kerb, no guide-book sellers ready to accost them with their practised patter, no begging beggars or shouting shopkeepers. Only a few thousand of the city’s 17.5 million inhabitants are awake.
At six in the morning, the city’s floodlights are still on, though few other lights are. The hotels are still dark, the 4,400 shops in the Grand Bazaar still all of three hours away from opening time. But the buildings that matter stand out of the darkness as if you’re speeding through a 3D tourist map: the Bosphorus Bridge, its cables latticed with red lights like harp strings, Dolmabahce Palace with its watch tower and massive mosque, the Galata Tower up on the hill with the best views south across the Golden Horn, then the imposing bulk of the Yeni Mosque looking north over the quayside, the walls of the Topkapi Palace, and finally the Big Two rival monuments to monotheism, the 17th century Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia cathedral built by the Byzantines a thousand years beforehand.
Your average Istanbul taxi driver ignores all of this. He sees it every day. What matters far more is the road and the daily miracle of its temporary emptiness. At six o’clock in the morning there are no queues, no chaos, no honking horns, no fuming exhausts, fuming passengers or exhausted drivers. At six o’clock in the morning, there is no traffic at all. He doesn’t have to make his taxi jink and swerve and dodge to edge that bit nearer the red traffic light. He can get out of first gear. At six in the morning, everywhere in Istanbul, he’s in fifth.
In fifth, and in my case speeding from my luxurious hotel in the plush suburb of Besiktas to Ataturk Airport (think Greenwich to Heathrow) in 20 minutes’ flat. You’ve driven the A9, so you know the feeling you get when you suddenly hit a dual carriageway after lumbering behind a lumber lorry for 30 miles. It’s the same for the Istanbul taxi driver. At six o’clock, it’s the only time in the day that he – indeed, anyone – can see the point of Istanbul having roads. So he roars down them, like it’s Monte Carlo and he is Sebastian Vettel coming up behind some straggling grocer’s delivery van like a cheetah behind a tiring wildebeest. Pedal to the metal, and he’ll roar past, inside or outside, it doesn’t matter, just so long as he’s swinging back into a stretch of blissfully empty pre-dawn Tarmac.
Speeding past the markets and mosques, my own memories flash by. That first three-lira (£1) ferry ride across the Bosphorus to Uskudar and the Anatolian side and how I didn’t know what to see when I got there, so I caught another one straight away back to another pier further down on the European side. The portly masseurs of the Galatasaray Hamam, and how I wondered whether I was being ripped off by paying 155 lira for the top-of-the-range pasha’s massage, even though the price was there in black and white on the sign just inside the entrance.
Steaming away on a marble slab or taking the ferry to Asia, though, you are at least free from the tourist queues. The older and grumpier I get, the more seeing a city’s official “sights” has all the appeal of shuffling round Ikea on a Sunday morning, stubby pencil in hand. Yes, the Topkapi Palace is as impressive as Versailles, and its 300-room (plus nine bathhouses and two mosques) harem is as exotic and beautifully tiled as you could wish for, and certainly the Hagia Sophia is an architectural triumph of the Byzantine Church, but there’s something about following crowds round checklisted buildings that puts me right off. Far better to head off by myself: I might make mistakes, but at least those discoveries are my own.
Here are some of them. The street sellers outside the Hippodrome (“Want to buy guide book? No? How about a carpet? Oh, you are breaking my plastic heart. You want to buy a plastic heart?”). The Hippodrome itself, where you really have to use your imagination, because in the third century AD it used to hold 100,000 people and now all that’s left are two columns and an Egyptian obelisk from 1500BC. Drinking my first freshly squeezed pomegranate juice as I wondered how they got it there 1500 years ago. Strolling through Yilditz Park after the rain and coming across a couple who had just got married and were taking their wedding pictures. Next to them, a concrete grinning kangaroo with flowers in its pouch.
Want to understand Turkish history? Check out what the Military Museum has to say about the Armenian massacres in the First World War (basically, that it was Armenians doing the massacring: and no, don’t write in) or how the Turks defeated the (mainly) British and Australians down the road at Gallipoli, thereby ensuring that the First World War lasted another couple of years and helped to bring about the Russian Revolution. Gradually realise just how deeply Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern, secular, Turkey, changed his country or why Turks might hail Attila the Hun a “perfect ruler”.
So forget, for a while, the guide book’s list of top attractions. This is a sensualist’s city. Treat it as such. Relax. Spend time in the flea market at Beyazit Square, check out the Karakoy fish market or the Spice (or Egyptian) Bazaar by the Eminonu tram stop. Get gloriously lost in the Grand Bazaar (2,000 workshops, 18 fountains, as well as being probably the most famous market in the world) or buy a print in the Book Bazaar round the corner from the Beyazit Gate. Spend time finding a really good restaurant rather than the uninspiring tourist ones near Sultanahmet.
You won’t be able to do everything, so work out what you want to see when you visit it again. Museum of Innocence, for example, based on Nobel-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s novel and opened less than two years ago. An evening meal cruising the Borphorus as the sun sets behind the Golden Horn. I never got round to either of them. But next time...
And there will be a next time. Because already I’d seen enough to wonder why more Europeans don’t go to Istanbul for city breaks. And I’ve already learnt one valuable lesson too: when you leave, try to do so first thing in the morning. Because at six o’clock in Istanbul you can take a taxi ride to the airport that’s like nothing else on earth.
• David Robinson flew to Istanbul on a direct flight from Edinburgh with Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com), which puts you up for free in a four-star hotel overnight if the nearest onward flight is the next day and gives you a free tour of the city if you have the time before your next onward flight. Flights start from around £217 return. In Istanbul, David Robinson stayed at the Renaissance Istanbul Bosphorus (www.marriott.co.uk/istanbul), where double rooms start from around £107 per night.