The only city in the world that can lay claim to straddling two continents, Istanbul—once known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empire—has for centuries been a bustling metropolis with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Istanbul embraces this enviable position with chaos and inventiveness, ever-evolving as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan crossroads.
It’s often said that Istanbul is the meeting point of East and West, but visitors to this city built over the former capital of two great empires are likely to be just as impressed by the juxtaposition of old and new. Office towers creep up behind historic palaces, women in chic designer outfits pass others wearing long skirts and head coverings (sometimes chic and designer as well), peddlers’ pushcarts vie with battered old Fiats and shiny BMWs for dominance of the noisy, narrow streets, and the Grand Bazaar competes with modern shopping malls. At dawn, when the muezzin’s call to prayer resounds from ancient minarets, there are inevitably a few hearty revelers still making their way home from nightclubs and bars.
Most visitors to this sprawling city of more than 14 million will first set foot in the relatively compact Old City, where the legacy of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires can be seen in monumental works of architecture like the brilliant Aya Sofya and the beautifully proportioned mosques built by the great architect Sinan. Though it would be easy to spend days, if not weeks, exploring the wealth of attractions in the historical peninsula, visitors should make sure also to venture elsewhere in order to experience the vibrancy of contemporary Istanbul. With a lively nightlife propelled by its young population and an exciting arts scene that’s increasingly on the international radar, Istanbul is truly a city that never sleeps. It’s also a place where visitors will feel welcome: Istanbul may be on the Bosphorus, but at its heart, it’s a Mediterranean city, whose friendly inhabitants are effusively social and eager to share what they love most about it.
POINTS OF INTEREST
While some of the waterside enclaves on the Asian side of the Bosphorus are popular stops on day cruises, spread out along the Asian shoreline of the lower Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara are also some large residential districts. They have few “sights” as such but offer a pleasant change of pace from the faster tempo of the European side—as well as a welcome escape from the tourist crowds. Üsküdar has several Ottoman imperial mosques and presents a slice of Istanbul life that is more traditional than what visitors generally see across the water. Farther down the coast, Kadıköy has a youthful, relaxed vibe; the pedestrian-only area off the waterfront and lively nightlife are among its top draws. From Kadıköy, a short taxi or dolmuş ride takes you to the beginning of Bağdat Caddesi, or “Baghdad Avenue,” a 6-km-long (3.7-mile-long) boulevard that is the Asian side’s ritziest avenue. Lined with elegant apartment buildings, upscale designer boutiques, and trendy restaurants, it gets increasingly posh as you get farther away from Kadıköy towards Suadiye.
A short ways up the Bosphorus from Karaköy is one of Istanbul’s most visited attractions outside the Old City: the stunning neoclassical Dolmabahçe Palace, each room more ornate and over-the-top than the last. Nearby Beşiktaş is home to attractions like Yıldız Parkı and the Naval Museum, which showcases an impressive collection of Ottoman artifacts in a specially designed venue overlooking the water. Most of Istanbul’s luxurious Bosphorus-side hotels, including a couple that are housed in former Ottoman palaces, are likewise found in and around this area. A major transit hub, Beşiktaş is also the gateway to the Bosphorus neighborhoods to the north, and a departure point for ferries to Istanbul’s Asian side.
Up the hill from Beşiktaş is Nişantaşı, the city’s high-fashion district, home to the flagship stores of internationally known luxury brands as well as local talent; numerous contemporary-art galleries are also scattered amid the upscale hotels, restaurants, patisseries, and third-wave coffee shops here, which offer plenty of opportunities to take a break and enjoy some good people-watching. The Military Museum is just a short walk away on Cumhuriyet Caddesi, which then leads back to Taksim Square.
Beyoğlu has traditionally been thought of as the “new town,” and this is where you will feel the beating pulse of the modern city: the district is a major destination for eating and drinking, shopping, and arts and culture. “New” is of course a relative term in Istanbul, and many of the grand, European-style buildings you’ll see on the hill above Galata date from the late 19th century, when this part of Beyoğlu—then known as Pera—was one of the city’s most fashionable areas, home to large numbers of the city’s non-Muslim minorities and the foreign diplomatic community. After a period of decline in the latter decades of the 20th century, Beyoğlu was revived around the turn of the millennium, as Istanbullus rediscovered the elegant old buildings and incredible views.
At the southern end of the neighborhood, Tünel Square marks the start of İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue). Istanbul’s main pedestrian street, İstiklal is lined with shops, cafés, and nightlife venues; allow some time to stroll along this bustling thoroughfare and simply take in the scene. İstiklal climbs gently uphill through Beyoğlu and across Galatasaray Meydanı (Galatasaray Square) to Taksim Square, the center of modern Istanbul. The Galata Mevlevihanesi (Galata dervish lodge), historic Fish Market, and private art museums and art galleries, including the Pera, are also in this area.
Just across the Galata Bridge from Eminönü, Karaköy was formerly a major port and its busy trading houses and banks made the neighborhood the economic hub of the late Ottoman Empire. Today, only ferryboats and cruise ships stop here, but the area still has a historic feel to it: Ottoman mosques line the waterfront, and Istanbul’s Jewish Museum is also here. The Istanbul Modern, nestled among the mosques in a former shipping warehouse near the Tophane tram stop, is the city’s leading art museum. Tophane is also one of the most popular spots in Istanbul for nargile (water pipe) smoking, featuring a long row of cafés filled with customers puffing away. In the last few years, Karaköy has started to become gentrified, with cafés, restaurants, art galleries, boutiques, and hotels elbowing out dingy hardware stores and import-export offices. Galataport, a massive redevelopment project slated for the area, is likely to further revitalize the shoreline but also erase much of its historic character.
Just uphill from Karaköy is Galata, one of Istanbul’s oldest neighborhoods, dominated by the 14th-century Galata Tower about halfway up the slope. Like Karaköy, Galata has become increasingly popular and gentrified in recent years, though the neighborhood’s long history is still palpable. Serdar-ı Ekrem, one of the main streets leading off the square around the Galata Tower, is lined with cafés and cutting-edge fashion designers’ boutiques.
The Princes’ Islands—a cluster of nine islands in the Sea of Marmara, known simply as “Adalar” in Turkish—are everything that Istanbul isn’t: quiet, green, and car-less. They are primarily a relaxing getaway from the noise and traffic of the big city, though they can be quite crowded on weekends, particularly in summer. Restrictions on development and a ban on automobiles help maintain the charmingly old-fashioned and quiet atmosphere —transportation here is only by horse-drawn carriage or bicycle. There are few real “sights,” per se; the main attraction is the laid-back ambience and natural beauty of the islands, which are hilly and mainly wooded, with a fresh breeze that is gently pine-scented. Thanks to frequent ferries from the mainland, an excursion to the islands makes a fun day trip, or a pleasant overnight getaway from the city.
The islands have served various purposes for the people of Istanbul over the years. Back in Byzantine times, religious undesirables and deposed members of the royal family sought refuge here, while during the Ottoman Empire, the islands likewise provided a convenient place to exile troublesome princes and other notables—hence the name. By the mid-19th century, well-heeled Istanbul businessmen had staked their claim and built many of the Victorian gingerbread–style houses that lend the islands their charm. The islands became especially popular as summer residences for Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities (Jews, Armenians, and Greeks), and were known for their cosmopolitan way of life. For several years in the 1930s, Büyükada, the largest of the islands, was the home of the exiled Leon Trotsky; the islands were considered to be safer than Istanbul, with its 35,000 hostile White Russian refugees.
Of the nine islands, four have regular ferry service, but only the two largest, Büyükada and Heybeliada, are of real interest to the general traveler, offering a variety of places to eat and stay and a few small beaches and other attractions. Two of the other inhabited islands are Kınalıada, long popular with the city’s Armenians, and Burgazada, which has traditionally been more Greek. From the ferry you can see the larger two of the uninhabited islands, known in Greek and Turkish as the “pointy” Oxia/Sivri and the “flat” Plati/Yassı. Sivri’s main claim to fame is that in the 19th and early 20th centuries Istanbul’s stray dogs would be occasionally rounded up and dumped there, while Yassı was the site of the trial and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes after a 1960 military coup.
Sultanahmet is the heart of Old Istanbul, where many of the city’s must-see attractions are located: an incredible concentration of art and architecture spanning millennia is packed into its narrow, winding streets. At the eastern edge of the Old City, Topkapı Palace—the center of Ottoman power and the residence of sultans for centuries—sits perched on the promontory overlooking the Bosphorus and the mouth of the Golden Horn. Behind the palace rise the imposing domes and soaring minarets of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, two of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks.
As you walk through the Hippodrome, explore the underground Basilica Cistern, and view the Byzantine mosaics displayed in the Mosaic Museum, you’ll also get a feel for what the city of Constantinople looked like more than a thousand years ago, well before the Turks conquered it in 1453. The three buildings that compose the Istanbul Archaeological Museums showcase an incredible collection of artifacts going back even further in time, left by ancient civilizations that once thrived in Anatolia and around the region. When the call to prayer echoes from Sultanahmet’s great mosques, pause for a moment to soak up the atmosphere here; nowhere else in Istanbul do you get such a rich feel for the magic of this ancient and mysterious city.
The area between the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar was historically the city’s center of business and trade, and the streets here still teem with tradespeople and shoppers. You could easily spend hours exploring the Grand Bazaar, and the Spice Bazaar also has its charms. But take time to wander outside them, too, whether along Nuruosmaniye Caddesi with its upmarket jewelry, antiques, and carpet boutiques or through the narrow, somewhat run-down streets—lined with stores and stalls selling all manner of everyday items at bargain prices, primarily to locals—that lead from the Grand Bazaar down toward the Golden Horn.
Even though most of the old Byzantine and Ottoman buildings have long disappeared, the area gives an impression of what the city must have been like when it was the bustling capital of a vast empire. The beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque, one of the architect Sinan’s masterpieces, is grandly situated on a hilltop just a stone’s throw from the Grand Bazaar and is worth a detour. The Rüstem Paşa Camii and Yeni Cami, both located near Eminönü on the waterfront, are also particularly striking. When exploring this area, it’s a good idea to start at the Grand Bazaar and work your way downhill to Eminönü—it’s a rather stiff climb the other way.
Whether explored in person or seen from the vantage point of a boat on the water, the Bosphorus shores are home to some of the prettiest parts of the city. Both sides of the strait are dotted with palaces, fortresses, and waterfront neighborhoods lined with old wooden summer homes, called yalıs (waterside mansions), which were built for the city’s wealthier residents in the Ottoman era. As you cruise up the Bosphorus, you’ll have the chance to disembark at some of these waterside enclaves for a stroll.
The historical peninsula’s western districts are farther off the beaten path than the heavily tourist-trod Sultanahmet and bazaar areas, but the rewards of visiting are a number of interesting sights and a more authentic atmosphere. Just inside the ancient city walls, the former Chora Church, now Kariye Müzesi, contains a wealth of gorgeous Byzantine mosaics and frescoes whose splendor surpasses those in the Aya Sofya. The Great Walls themselves, sections of which have been restored, give an idea of the scale of the ancient city and of how Constantinople successfully resisted so many sieges before finally falling to the Ottomans in 1453. Along the water, Fener and Balat—once predominantly Greek and Jewish neighborhoods, respectively—are home to several historic churches, including the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, as well as the city’s oldest synagogue. Farther up the Golden Horn, the Eyüp Sultan Mosque complex is an important Muslim pilgrimage site.