For the better part of two millennia, Istanbul, Turkey, has been one of the greatest cities in the world, and it remains one of the most vibrant and magical places in Europe and the Middle East. It is not the capital of Turkey—that honor was bestowed on Ankara in the 1920s—but Istanbul is the country's largest city, its main commercial, historical and cultural center and the heart of its tourism industry.
Istanbul's centuries of empire have left an extraordinary collection of palaces, churches, mosques and markets from every period of history. Its unique position as a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, has given Istanbul an unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere. Alongside all the life and color of the Middle East, Istanbul has a high standard of living with many of the accoutrements of a European capital, such as luxurious shopping malls and upscale international restaurants.
But Istanbul's charm is that despite its great history, it has not become a static museum-city like its historic rival, Venice. Istanbul is very much a living city, and although its traffic jams, air pollution and high-rise buildings lack the grace of its venerable landmarks, they're proof that Istanbul remains the hub of Turkey, a vital metropolis that's made up of more than ancient palaces and smoky bazaars.
The Bosporus Strait divides the city into two sections, one in Europe and one in Asia. The European side of Istanbul is divided again by the Golden Horn, a 4-mi/7-km inlet from the sea that is spanned by four bridges, including one metro bridge and one with tram and pedestrian access.
On the southern side of the Golden Horn is the Old City, which in ancient times constituted the entirety of Byzantium. It is there that most of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments are found. The Old City has several districts. Sultanahmet lies on the eastern edge, along the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, and is the site of many of Istanbul's most famous attractions. Beyazit is to the west (inland) from Sultanahmet, and Sirkeci/Eminonu is to the north, along the waters of the Golden Horn.
Just across the Golden Horn is Beyoglu, which includes the old European quarter of Galata, and commercial districts that once were enclaves for Greeks, Genoese, Armenians and Jews. At the northern end of Beyoglu is Taksim, where many of Istanbul's largest hotels and convention centers are located. Beyond Taksim are the tony shopping streets of Nisantasi and Tesvikiye. Running along the north coastline of the Bosporus are a string of Imperial palaces, such as the Dolmabahce and Beylerbeyi (on the Asian side), and waterside suburbs including Ortakoy, Arnavutkoy and Bebek.
The Asian side of the city is not as crowded with tourists and has a more relaxed atmosphere. Kadikoy and Uskudar are the most touristed parts of Asian Istanbul; Kadikoy is young, trendy and good for shopping, whereas Uskudar is a conservative suburb full of Ottoman mosques. Bagdat Caddesi, the Madison Avenue of the Asian side of Istanbul, is a popular hangout for Turks, with wide sidewalks that are lined with upscale shopping, coffee shops and restaurants.
The city's roots can be traced to the mid-seventh century BC when, according to legend, a Greek explorer named Byzas was told by the Oracle at Delphi to sail up the Bosporus and found a city. The city-state of Byzantium was the result, and throughout the next 1,000 years, it became an important center of trade and commerce. In the early fourth century, Emperor Constantine made it the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, renaming it Constantinople. Like Rome, the new capital was built on seven hills, but unlike Rome, Constantinople was protected by water on two sides, making it easier to defend.
As the Western Roman Empire fell to successive waves of barbarian invasions in the fifth and sixth centuries, the eastern half, known as the Byzantine Empire, remained to become Rome's successor. For the next 1,000 years, the empire's fortunes waxed and waned. In 1453, the city finally fell to the Ottoman Turks, led by Mehmet II ("the Conqueror"), after a hard-fought siege. Mehmet renamed the city Istanbul and began at once to rebuild and repopulate it. Greeks, Armenians and Spanish Jews were encouraged to immigrate there. Successive sultans used wealth gained in further conquests to fund the construction of impressive palaces, mosques and bazaars.
As the Ottoman Empire grew to include all of the Middle East, North Africa and much of the Balkans, Istanbul became a melting pot of nationalities. Yet, in the 17th century, what was once among the most powerful and cosmopolitan cities on Earth began a slow decline. By the 1800s, Istanbul had lost most of its former glory. A nationalist movement began gaining steam in the late 19th century, culminating in the overthrow of the sultan in 1922 and the establishment of the Turkish Republic.
After the War of Independence, the nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created a new capital in Ankara, a small provincial town in central Anatolia. Istanbul remained the nation's cultural and commercial center, however. Ataturk's ambitious modernization plans began a large-scale transformation of Turkish life, and the city embarked on its sometimes bumpy ride toward industrialization and secularization. In 1980, the Turkish government fell to the third of a series of military coups, but power was ceded to an elected democracy a few years later.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in power for 11 years as prime minister before being elected president in 2014, was the first leader in more than a decade to govern without coalition parties; he initially moved quickly to promote Turkey's application to join the European Union, but progress in these talks has reached a near-stalemate because of the ongoing conflict over Cyprus, concern about the pace of Turkey's reforms and opposition within some EU countries. Domestic politics and ongoing regional strife have since dominated Turkey's agenda, leaving relations with Europe on the backburner, though attempts in 2016 to find a joint solution to the refugee crisis sparked by the Syrian war and other regional conflicts have re-opened the door to a potential acceleration of Turkey's EU accession talks.
Exploring all of the city's vast offerings could take many days, if not weeks, so it's best to be selective. Fortunately, many of Istanbul's best sights are grouped near one another.
Begin in Sultanahmet, in the heart of the Old City. The four must-sees in this quarter are practically side by side: Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom), Sultan Ahmet Camii (the Blue Mosque), the Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cistern) and the Topkapi Palace. Plan on more than a single day for this quartet. You can easily spend an entire day in and around the Topkapi Palace alone, seeing, among other things, the Treasury, the Hall of Holy Relics and the Harem. Also nearby is the Arkeoloji Muzesi (Archaeological Museum). The site of the Roman Hippodrome runs along one side of the Sultan Ahmet Camii.
Another whole day could be spent exploring the Kapali Carsi (Grand Bazaar), which is in Beyazit next to one of the main buildings of Istanbul University. It's considered among the most extraordinary bazaar quarters in the world, and is certainly one of the oldest and largest. Although it still stocks some exotic goods in its dustier back corners, these days most of the merchandise is aimed squarely at tourists, and it's one of the last places in the city where merchants still expect to haggle right down to the last lira. It's well marked and easy to find—although just as easy to get lost in.
Overlooking the waterfront at Eminonu is the Egyptian Bazaar (Misir Carsi), commonly known as the Spice Bazaar. Most people love a trip there to see the wooden kiosks of spices, sweets and other delicacies. However, more usual tourist souvenirs are starting to fill many of the shops. Walk around the outside parts of the market to see a variety of cheeses, fruit and vegetables, and even leeches on sale to the locals.
Take a little time to venture northwest of Sultanahmet to see the Kariye Camii (Church of the Holy Savior in Chora) and its superb Byzantine mosaics, as well as the nearby Byzantine city walls. A bit farther afield, in the Besiktas area on the European shore of the Bosporus, is Dolmabahce Palace. Although far less old than many of Istanbul's other landmarks, this opulent palace is a masterpiece of 19th-century kitsch. It has more than 280 rooms, some 40 halls and six hamam complexes. Most are open to the public on guided tours. Its extensive gardens look out over the Bosporus.
When you need a break from walking, take a gentle boat ride down the Bosporus, which will show you another side of Istanbul and its environs: waterside suburbs and grand residences with waterfront entrances. You'll also get to see the impressive Istanbul skyline with its many mosques and a growing number of skyscrapers. On your return trip, watch for the dozens of locals fishing from the Galata Bridge.
Consider investing in the Museum Pass Istanbul. Valid for five consecutive days (120 hours), it costs 85 TL and gives admission to Topkapi Palace and the Harem, Aya Sofya, Istanbul Archaeological Museum, the Chora Church and other attractions. The main advantage is not so much saving money (though the admission fees can add up without it) as being able to avoid standing in the long ticket queues in summer. The pass also offers discounts at assorted other venues about town. http://www.muzekart.com/en/museum-pass.
When it comes to nightlife, things tend to get going fairly late in Istanbul. Many bars don't fill up until midnight, and a lot of patrons stay well past 3 am. Beyoglu is the liveliest district in town, with a wide range of bars, dance clubs and other hangouts. Unaccompanied men will find that some bars have security at the door that will not let them in. Unaccompanied women, however, have carte blanche everywhere—though they may also be subjected to unwanted attention.
There is an excellent selection of live music in Istanbul, as well as plenty of disco and techno clubs. In addition, many restaurants and cafes have music, which they crank up after midnight. Such places allow you to combine dinner and dancing without changing location.
For a more sedate experience, the bars at upscale hotels in Istanbul are generally comfortable, and many are popular with both Turks and foreign visitors. They can give you the chance to meet Istanbul natives while enjoying the ease of ordering from an English-speaking staff.
Though it may not be Turkey's political capital, Istanbul beats Ankara hands down when it comes to dining choices, with restaurants dishing up samples of the best cuisine from all four corners of the country, if you know where to look. All around town are kebab houses and informal lokantas
that serve popular local dishes such as kofte
(grilled lamb meatballs), pide
(a slab of thin dough covered with various ingredients including cheese and salami) and home-style soups, stuffed vegetables and stews. A traditional favorite is lahmacun
—minced meat, onions and tomato sauce baked on paper-thin bread.
Visitors should also be sure to try one or more of Istanbul's fine seafood restaurants, the best of which tend to be found—appropriately—along the Bosporus, generally in outlying areas such as Arnavutkoy, Bebek and Kurucesme, past the first Bosporus Bridge. (It pays to be a bit careful with your bill at these restaurants—inflated prices and billing errors are not unknown.)
Also good—and more accessible for people staying in Sultanahmet—are the fish restaurants in the Kumkapi district of the Old City, which are popular for outdoor dining. A number of these restaurants enliven the atmosphere with Turkish music and/or belly dancers. They do a brisk business in summer, so reservations are rarely taken. Check prices carefully before ordering anything. A little farther west from Kumkapi, Samatya (Kocamustafapas) is also starting to get in on the outdoor fish restaurant action.
The most concentrated dining area is Beyoglu, particularly between Tunel and Taksim squares. This area offers everything from swanky rooftop fusion restaurants to crowded pavement eateries where diners jostle along shared tables—although there are fewer of these than there used to be after a government-sanctioned crackdown on outdoor seating.
Wherever you're eating, most Turkish meals begin with a selection of mezes (appetizers), which come in dozens of varieties with new ones being concocted all the time. The best-known are dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), but also popular are stuffed vegetables (often eggplant or peppers) and a variety of vegetables and greens cooked in olive oil. Next come ara sicak (hot starters) such as fried mussels and borek, flaky pastries generally filled with cheese, meat, spinach or potatoes.
A common accompaniment to any meal is raki, a potent clear liqueur that's flavored with aniseed (dilute it with some water, which will turn it a milky color).
Traditional desserts include fresh fruit, syrup-soaked pastries and milk puddings. Helva (sometimes, but not always, made from crushed sesame seeds) is also an authentic Turkish delight.
Breakfast is typically served 7-10 am and lunch noon-2 pm. Dinner usually carries on well into the evening, especially in summer. Don't plan on eating before 8 pm—most restaurants don't get busy until 9 pm or later. The late hours are well-matched to the Turkish custom of making dinner an extended form of entertainment, fueled by musicians, many plates of mezes, and lots of wine, Efes beer and raki.
The one thing that sometimes surprises visitors to the city is the relative shortage of restaurants serving ethnic cuisine. The situation is slowly improving, especially when it comes to Italian and Japanese restaurants, but it is much easier to find fusion menus mixing Turkish mezes with pastas than to find genuinely international establishments.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, tip or tax: $ = less than 25 TL; $$ = 25 TL-50 TL; $$$ = 51 TL-70 TL; $$$$ = more than 70 TL.
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