Over the past years, Turkey has become a favourite holiday destination for millions of Europeans and North Americans, who flock to the country each year attracted by its long, sandy beaches, exquisite cuisine, bustling nightlife, an incredibly warm local population, and Istanbul, Turkey’s glorious capital city.
The biggest and most vibrant city in Turkey, Istanbul has in its 2500 years of existence been the centre of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empire, known as New Rome, Constantinople and Istanbul, respectively. Its strategic location on the crossroads of ancient civilisations made Istanbul, literally, the centre of the world, the unavoidable bridge between East and West.
Divided between Europe and Asia by the Bosporus Strait, Istanbul is the only city in the world that lies on two continents. Its current population amounts to an overwhelming 13 million inhabitants, giving rise to the world’s fourth largest city proper. It is surrounded by the sea from three sides and represents an astonishing coalition between its Oriental past and its European future. As such, few cities can compete with its millennia-old streets, splendid mosques and extravagant bazaars to provide tourists with an unforgettable short city break.
Sightseeing in Istanbul
Istanbul’s rich and turbulent history, marked by the rise and fall of great empires, has bestowed the city with an abundance of cultural and religious sightseeing attractions. The city’s oldest part lies in what is today known as Sultanahmet or the Historical Peninsula, delimiting what in essence used to be Constantinople. Sultanahmet contains most of the city’s renowned cultural and religious sites, including its two greatest pearls, Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque).
Located very close to Sultanahmet Square, these two edifices are an embodiment of Istanbul’s dual past. Hagia Sophia, meaning Holy Wisdom in ancient Greek, was built as a Christian basilica in the sixth century and is today viewed as the paradigm of Byzantine architecture. Its fate was radically changed when the Ottomans conquered the city in the sixteenth century and the monumental church was turned into a mosque. Today, the building is a museum boasting sublime mosaics and forms part of every tourist’s itinerary. The entrance fee is roughly £ 8 ($ 11).
The Blue Mosque was built in the seventeenth century at the order of Sultan Ahmed I and some of its architectural features bear a clear influence of Hagia Sophia. It is Turkey’s national mosque and impresses visitors with its six minarets and blue tiles on the exterior that give it its popular name. Unlike Hagia Sophia, there is no entrance fee to enter the mosque. Visitors should keep in mind that entering the mosque requires wearing long trousers and clothing that covers the shoulders.
In addition to mosques, the old city boasts numerous other sightseeing attractions, such as the Topkapi Palace and several museums. Art lovers will find these particularly interesting. The Topkapi Palace was the residence of Ottoman Sultans from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century and currently serves a museum. Not all of its vast rooms are open to the public, but visitors have the chance to see extensive collections of murals, weapons, jewellery, treasures, porcelain and manuscripts from the Ottoman period. The most notable museums are the Istanbul Modern and the Museum of Archaeology. The former boasts works by famous Turkish and international painters, while the latter has rare ancient pieces, such as the sarcophagus that was once thought to have been made for Alexander the Great and artefacts from Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Still within the old city, we find the Hippodrome of Constantinople, situated on what is now known as Sultanahmet Square. In the time of the Byzantine Empire, the hippodrome was the centre of Constantinople and the main place for social gathering; hence, it is an excellent place from which to start discovering the historical centre.
North of Sultanahmet lies Istanbul’s Galata district. The two districts are separated by an inlet called the Golden Horn, which serves as a natural harbour. Galata’s main attractions include the fourteenth century Galata Tower and the Galata Whirling Dervish Hall.
There is no better way to take in the architectural skyline of the city and get a genuine notion of its magnitude than by embarking on a boat that takes tourists through the Bosporus from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. You will also get an excellent view of Rumelihisarı, an enormous fifteenth century fortress located on Istanbul’s European side. The waterfront is replete with small palaces that give it a unique charm when viewed from the sea.
Shopping and Dining
Istanbul is rightfully associated with lavish bazaars and spectacular shopping. Its Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s biggest covered markets with up to nearly half a million visitors per day, covering close to sixty streets. It is also claimed to be the oldest shopping mall in the world. Shoppers have an incredible choice of jewellery, carpets, pottery and spices. Due to its popularity with tourists, certain items can be quite expensive, but it is definitely worth visiting to get a unique experience of Istanbul’s daily life.
Visitors to Istanbul generally do not miss the opportunity to purchase rugs, Turkish tea, Turkish delight and spices and herbs. An immense selection of the latter is available at the Egyptian Bazaar.
Turkish food is famous worldwide and has influenced the cuisine of a many European nations. Eating an authentic döner in a grillroom while in Istanbul is obligatory. You should also visit the restaurants serving delicious fish specialties on the waterfronts of both sides of the Bosporus. To get a genuine feeling of Turkish restaurant culture, be sure to visit a meyhane, a bar or restaurant serving savoury meze, small appetisers to accompany raki, an anise-flavoured, strong alcoholic beverage. Coffee and tea lovers must try Turkish tea and coffee, either in the company of a narghile, a smoking water pipe, or a Turkish delight.
Istanbul’s constantly bustling atmosphere provides it with one of Europe’s most vibrant and diverse nightlife scenes. The best nightclubs are located in Ortaköy, along the Bosporus. Many clubs stage belly-dancing performances and all types of popular music are represented, from traditional Turkish music to the latest electronic trends. The number of alternative joints is steadily growing and gay clubs are also available, mostly concentrated in the area of Taksim.
Getting to Istanbul
Istanbul is served by two international airports, Atatürk and Sabiha Gökçen. Atatürk Airport is the larger of the two and lies on the European side, while Sabiha Gökçen Airport is situated on the Asian side and is recommended for travellers staying on that side of the city. Both airports are well connected with other parts of the city by public transportation. There are direct flights to Istanbul from most major European and North American airports and Atatürk Airport receives airplanes flying in from all corners of the world. Low-cost flights to Istanbul Sabiha and Istanbul Ataturk are available from many of Europe’s budget airlines.
Please note that US, British and Canadian citizens require tourist visas to enter Turkey. These are sticker type visas that allow you to remain in Turkey for a period of three months and can normally be obtained upon your arrival at the airport. The visa fee is payable at the airport in cash and costs approximately £10 for UK nationals, $20 for US nationals and 60$ for Canadian nationals. Citizens of a number of European countries, such as Germany, Sweden and France, do not require an entry visa.
Visitors to Istanbul can choose from a wide variety of accommodation options, from cheap youth hostels to luxurious five-star hotels. Hotel facilities are available in virtually all parts of the city, but the districts of Sultanahmet, Taksim and Harbiye are the most popular places to stay due to their central location and excellent choice of accommodation. All three are located on Istanbul’s European side and serve as a great basis from which to explore the metropolis.
Room prices vary according to the time of the year. During low season, budget two-star hotels in the heart of the city can be found for as little as £ 20 ($ 28) per person per night. Some of these include Diva’s Hotel, Tash Konak, and Sarnic Istanbul, all situated in Sultanahmet and within a short walking distance from the main historical attractions.
Budget boutique hotels are also a great way of experiencing the city. The two-star Best Western Acropol Hotel, for example, was built in the style of a nineteenth century Ottoman mansion. With excellent facilities, a central location and a rooftop restaurant, it offers guests a unique historical perspective of the city at a nightly rate of around £ 50 ($ 70) per person. Slightly more expensive and located on Taksim Square is the Best Western Eresin Taxim Hotel. Boasting modern rooms and a very friendly staff, the hotel is an excellent choice for budget travellers looking for comfortable and convenient facilities.
Istanbul also has no shortage of great mid-range hotels. The centrally located three-star Orient Express Hotel offers fully equipped rooms, a terrace restaurant and convenient access to all major places of interest at a rate of £ 41 ($ 58) per person per night. The four-star Zurich Hotel is also situated in the centre of the city and offers rooms at similar rates. Guests are free to use the hotel’s swimming pool, sauna, Jacuzzi and fitness centre.
When it comes to high-end hotels, the two most prominent candidates are the Hyatt Regency and the Ritz Carlton Istanbul. The former offers guests all the luxury of a five-star hotel and dazzling views of the Bosporus. It takes five minutes to reach the historic part of city from the hotel. In addition to excellent rooms, the hotel also boasts a famous Italian restaurant, a business centre and outstanding fitness facilities. In order to provide you with a complete Turkish experience, the hotel also has its very own Turkish bath.
Living up to its reputation, the Ritz Carlton Istanbul is a truly spectacular five-star hotel. The design of the hotel bears elements from Istanbul’s three great historical empires, i.e. Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Like the Hyatt Regency, it is located in the centre of the city and offers spectacular views of the Bosporus.
Istanbul has a very complicated public transportation system that includes buses, boats, trams and metros and may seem a bit hectic to first-time visitors. The price of tickets for all these modes of transport is set at a flat rate and figures at around £ 0.60 ($ 0.85). The city is generally well-connected by the public transportation network, which represents a cheaper alternative to taxis.
Istanbul is generally safe when compared to other cities of similar size or even smaller Western capitals. However, no big city is short of its pickpockets and scammers. You should pay special attention to your belongings while walking around very busy and touristic areas and look out for children who might be potential pickpockets. It is also a good idea to avoid shoe shiners as they are known to use scams to get more money out of you. You should make it a point to have a sufficient amount of change in your wallet as shopkeepers and taxi drivers can sometimes claim to be short of it.
Also, be sensitive to cultural differences. Women should avoid giving even the slightest unintentional signs of interest to unknown men because they can interpret them in the wrong way. Turks are known to be a very generous and hospitable people, but they are also very proud of their history and identity. Take care not to insult them in any way and show respect for their culture at all times.
If you avoid suspicious side streets, use common sense and stick to the central touristic areas at night, you will have a safe and unforgettable holiday in one of the most exciting cities in the world.