All the clichés used for modern world cities that are born out of a lavish history are true for Istanbul – and then some. The city is secular and spiritual, fabulously wealthy with pockets of mind numbing poverty, dizzyingly modern and quaintly traditional, all in the blink of an eye. Young girls on the streets dressed in mini skirts and stilettos, gather disapproving looks from veiled women and old men with prayer beads. Conquered by three of the mightiest civilizations in history and coveted at different periods by many others, Istanbul has left much of its fossilized city status behind and is fast gaining a reputation as a nightlife hotspot in the region. Europe and Asia are almost fused together in this city, separated only by a 29 kilometer stretch of the Bosporus. Istanbul’s Asian half is home to sprawling suburbs while the European side is a cultural sojourners dream – magnificent palaces and mosques and bustling Turkish bazaars. Sip a cup of Turkish coffee at a roadside café, or inhale aromatic fumes from a hookah. Haggle at the many street shops and gawk at the city’s architectural wonders. Once in Istanbul, it really doesn’t matter what you choose to do – the city will get under your skin in a way few travel destinations can.
Istanbul was founded by Byzas the Megarian in 667 B.C. In 512 the city passed in to the hands of the Emperor Darius of Persia, beginning a long and tumultuous history of occupation by various conquerors. The Spartans grabbed hold of the city in 479 B.C., before it was added to the Athenian empire. Philip of Macedon attempted to take over Istanbul in 340 B.C., but his designs were thwarted by the locals. His son Alexander the Great was luckier than the father and was successful in adding this Turkish gem to his list of acquisitions. Upon his death, Istanbul was added to the mighty Roman Empire, where it stayed until the split of the Roman Empire into two in the year 395 B.C. Istanbul was chosen as the capital of the Eastern Roman empire, more commonly referred to as the Byzantine Empire. In 1453, the Ottoman King Mehmet II wrested control of the city and anointed it capital of the Ottoman Empire. In 1923 Turkey’s strong man Kamal Ataturk established the Turkish Republic with Ankara as the chosen capital. Istanbul however remains the financial, commercial and tourist hub of the country.
Trains from European cities arrive at Sirceci station while those from Asia arrive at Haydarpasa station. With cheaper fares, air planes are the best way to get into Istanbul. The Ataturk International Airport is serviced by all major airlines and includes a 24 hour pharmacy and clinic, ATMS, money exchange facilities, car rental desks and even a kiddie’s play area. Once at the Airport, take a taxi cab to the city center. For those on a budget, there’s a train service from the airport to the Zeytinburnu area, from where you can connect to Sultanahmet by tram. There’s also a shuttle bus service from the airport to the Taksim neighborhood. Many Istanbul hotels, however, offer pick up and transfer facilities for guests - check ahead to see if your hotel offers such services.
Istanbul’s metropolitan bus system provides an economical means of transport around the city, albeit a little difficult to navigate. The name of the destination and the intermediate points serviced are displayed above the front windshield of the bus, but won’t help you if you’re a first time visitor, unfamiliar with the layout of the city. The dolmus is the local mode of transport and is cheaper and can convey you to your destination quicker than a bus. Tell the driver where you want to go when you get in and also the fare for your destination. Istanbul’s tramways are perfect for those planning to camp in the Sutanhamet area. The city’s metro system is, however, a little more basic, but because the streets are so congested most of the time (you’ll find rush hour traffic even at midnight), traveling by metro will get you to your destination faster than road transport. Most of the top rental car companies have their presence in Istanbul, but you would have to be either insane or have nerves of steel to attempt to drive yourself around. Traffic rules are at best optional, there’s hardly any parking space and the road signs are mostly in Turkish. Too much hassle for a holiday. Hire a taxi instead. They are plentiful and most hotels will gladly arrange one for you. Avoid the taxis that gather around tourist spots – these are the ones most likely to fleece gullible visitors.
Where to Stay
Taksim is where most of the shopping and nightlife activities are centered. Sultanahmet has traditionally been the place to set up camp for foreign visitors but many establishments here have recently hikes up their rates dramatically. The Harabiye area has a number of budget and mid range hotels.
Where to Eat
For the best dining options in town, head out of the more touristy areas towards the restaurants in the Beyoglu area and Taksim areas. These eateries have a regular clientele of locals so they are unaffected by the tourist trade. Perfect for simple Turkish food and a few drinks. 24 hour doner restaurants serve delicious fare for those on a budget. The city’s international appeal ensures that you’ll never run out of places that include Western favorites on the menu.
What to See
Built in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the cathedral of Hagia Sophia was designed and constructed to surpass all other Christian monuments of the time. The basilica suffered through riots, arson and earthquakes before Mehmet II anointed it as a mosque in 1453. Islamic features like minarets, muezzin’s quarters, sultan’s lodgings, and ablution fountains were added. In 1935, the Hagia Sophia was converted in to a museum after extensive renovations and refurbishing of damaged icons and statues. The extravagant interiors with the massive dome and brightly colored tiles are awe inspiring and the Ayasofya (as it is known now) is easily one of the most recognized landmarks in the city.
Also known as the Blue Mosque, it was built by Sultan Ahmet I, who desired to build a namesake mosque that would equal if not outdo the Aya Sophia in architectural brilliance. As impressive from the outside as it is inside, this fully functioning mosque is one of the best known examples of the Ottoman style of architecture. The overwhelming use of blue Iznik tiles in patterns of lilies and tulips led to early visitors naming it the Blue Mosque. This being a place of worship, a strict dress code applies – shawls are provided to cover bare shoulders.
When Mehmet II entered the city in 1453, he wasn’t too enamored by the Byzantine palaces, so he went about building his own palace. Work began in 1459 and the Palace was completed 6 years later. Topkapi Palace is divided into four courtyards. The first contains the mint and the Archeological Museum while the second houses the kitchen, bakeries and the wazir’s chambers. The third courtyard displays holy relics, portraits and textiles of the sultans and the fourth is actually a multi leveled garden. This palace is a perfect example of the opulence of Ottoman emperors.
Looking at the tame nature of activities that the Hippodrome witnesses these days – families strolling along on pleasant afternoons – it’s hard to believe that this was the venue of frenzied chariot races and bloody massacres in the past. In its heyday, the Hippodrome could accommodate 100,000 people who gathered to watch and cheer gladiators. Don’t miss the three main monuments here- the Egyptian obelisk brought to the city in the 4th century, the Serpentines’ Column that originated in the Temple of Delphi, and the Column of Constantine that dates back to the 10th century.
Built by Sinai, the greatest architect in the Ottoman Empire, this mosque contains the remains of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his lover Hurrem.
Istanbul Archeology Museum
Located in the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace and spread out over three buildings, this museum has a staggering collection of nearly a million art objects, very few of them more recent than the 1st century AD. The most remarkable exhibits here are the collection of sarcophagi, some of them dating as far back as the 4th century BC. The Alexander Sarcophagus – so named because it was originally thought to be that of the mighty conqueror himself, but was later discovered to be actually that of King Abdalanymos – is covered with surprisingly detailed depictions of Alexander’s life and his various battles. There are more such intriguing sarcophagi on display at the museum as well as pre Islamic idols, sculptures and artifacts from Cyprus and Palestine, mosaic panels from Babylon, a 13th century Sphinx and many more such awe inspiring exhibits. The Cinili Kosk displays a collection of ceramic tiles and pottery from the Ottoman period.
The Grand Bazaar
A tourist attraction besides being a shoppers Mecca, Istanbul’s incredible Grand Bazaar is a labyrinthine maze of 2600 shops, 24 marketplaces, restaurants, tea houses, and mosques. Jewelers dole out anywhere from $5000 to $8000 in rent every month which explains why the marketing is so pushy, bordering on aggressive. Shops here tend to cluster together, so you have entire streets lined with gold and silver jewelry stores, another street for carpets, another for shoes and so on. Bargaining is de rigueur here, and you could end up with some treasures in your shopping bag if you really exercise your vocal chords. All in all, this is part of the quintessential Istanbul experience, even if some of the stuff on sale seems a tad more expensive than it would outside the Bazaar.
The staple purchase of every Turkish trip has to be the exquisite carpets. Less known to the outside world is the quality of Turkish leather goods that are comparable to Italian made ones in Florence. Besides these white copper ware, antiques, intricately craved gold and silver jewelry, ornamental tea sets, and embroidered bed linen are popular with visitors.
A typical night out on the town in Istanbul will include copious amounts of food accompanied by a flavored spirited beverage called raki, in a pub like setting known locally as meyhane. Earlier the preserve of men, it’s quite common now to find quite a few women in the mix. The growing popularity of Turkish wines has led to the burgeoning of wine bars in Istanbul. Most clubs here offer some form of live musical entertainment, from pop and rock to jazz and everything in between. Five star lounges are a more relaxed way to spend evenings and offer a calmer atmosphere than the frenzy of smoke filled pubs. Remember to take in a traditional Turkish show with a belly dancer and some other dance and music forms. Very touristy, but part of the Istanbul experience. Although homosexuality is frowned upon in Turkish society, there are a number of gay clubs in the Taksim area.
What to Do
If you’re in Istanbul, a Turkish Hamam bath is a must do. The Sulemaniye Bath, built by Sinan, is the only unisex hamam in Istanbul and is popular with families. The Cemberlitas bath has separate male and female divisions and is one of the more popular ones with tourists.