Istanbul: Europe’s Most Beautiful Skyline?

The best skylines, it seems obvious to me, are the defining ones. It’s why Chicago’s my personal favourite: When I look at the Sears Tower and the Giant Bean rising up from the flat Midwest and Lake Michigan, I know what city I’m looking at. I know the attitude. I see the identity, from just a few buildings and a static image.

Toronto. Vancouver. Seattle. Hong Kong and Shanghai. They all have this. New York, of course, too. And they’ve all been rewarded in one of the Matador Network‘s many correspondent-curated lists, naming the globe’s Top 40 skylines.

Read: ‘40 of the World’s Most Impressive Skylines‘ by Alex Scola, Matador Network (May 13, 2014)

You have to scroll down to three to find Europe’s highest-ranked (London) and then further down to ninth to find Istanbul. They and Paris (13th) are the continent’s only three placers in the rag’s best 20, but it’s up at No. 5 where you might find the reason why:

“Its distinctive skyline is the result of an architectural preference for building upward instead of outward – high-rise apartments as an alternative to sprawl,” writes author Alex Scola, of Vancouver.

Up, not out.

That’s the motto of any grand city skyline, but Europe wasn’t built to go up. Nearly every city in the world’s most intimate, historical (as of now) continent had its foundations laid before space or scope or scale were an issue. Places like Rome, Amsterdam, and Barcelona were all birthed before modern crises were a glint in an economist’s eye. 21st century cities have to deal with population control and real estate prices and liveability and all that gumbo. Rome had to think about Rome.

The cities grew as the empire grew. As far as the army could march, that’s where the limits stopped.

It’s why Europe’s most beautiful don’t lend themselves to panoramas or side-of-the-river looks up. Unless you’re talking about somewhere small, like Porto or Toledo. Europe’s capitals are best seen from above – not from down low.

And this ain’t a bad thing. Think of what a high-rise skyline means: IKEA furniture and slick countertops, with a pricey grocery store on the ground floor and a Starbucks in the lobby. It means hotels from Hilton and Ramada. If a city’s trying to sell itself from far away – with a view that looks great from the outside – it means it’s probably compensating for something.

Europe is intimate. The cities are like a volcano – what’s hottest is on the inside. And the best cities, they don’t have a skyline. They have more like 10 or 20 skylines. They’re built as circles, in 3D, not a flat line or a dinner table where all the chairs are on one side.

It’s why I think London and Paris are shitty choices, even for this list. Yes, they’re gorgeous. And yes, they have their landmarks and postcard-worthy panoramas – think Big Ben and the Parliament in London, think Sacre Ceour or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But they don’t have a skyline, really – you can’t see Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and Sacre Ceour from one spot. You can’t see Big Ben or the Wheel from the Tower of London.

Istanbul, perhaps, wins this contest. And there’s probably a reason: it’s only half-European.

Topkapi Palace. Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, authors Carlos Delgado and Kadellar) Topkapi Palace. Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, authors Carlos Delgado and Kadellar)

Istanbul Panorama. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons authors Ben Morlok and Cavann) Istanbul Panorama. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons authors Ben Morlok and Cavann)

The Blue Mosque. Istanbul, Turkey. The Blue Mosque. Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo has been released into Public Domain)

My favourite European skylines…

Porto

Porto, Portugal. The River Douro. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Wurminister) Porto, Portugal. The River Douro. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Wurminister)

Toledo

The Old City of Toledo, Spain. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Diliff) The Old City of Toledo, Spain. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Diliff)

Frankfurt

Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Ras67) Frankfurt am Main, Germany. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Ras67)

Helsinki

Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Roccodm) Helsinki, Finland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Roccodm)

Edinburgh

Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Depthcharge101) Edinburgh, Scotland. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons, author Depthcharge101)

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