Istanbul (Turkish: İstanbul) is a city of fantastic history, culture and beauty. Called Byzantium in ancient times, the city’s name was changed to Constantinople in 324 CE when it was rebuilt by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. The name “Istanbul”, which – perhaps surprisingly – comes from Greek and could be translated as a corruption of “to the city”. While the term had been in widespread use for centuries, it only became the official name of the city upon the foundation of the Republic of Turkey in the 1920s.
The most populous city in Europe, Istanbul forms the financial centre of Turkey and confidently straddles the borders between Asia and Europe as it has for millennia: this is the result when you mix ancient Christendom, a medieval metropolis and the modern Middle East. Situated on either side of the Bosphorus, Istanbul retains its metropolitan status: the city’s population is more than 14 million people, making it one of the largest cities in the world.
Lauded in antiquity as “the second Rome”, this is a city where you most certainly should roam — culture and excitement lie around every corner and more than 2000 years of history await you.
With its long history at the centre of empires, Istanbul offers a wealth of historic and religious places to take in. The bulk of these ancient monuments, dating back to Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including the Hagia Sophia (entrance fees: 40 TL, Oct 2017), Topkapı Palace (40 TL, Oct 2017), Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque, free), and Basilica Cistern (20 TL for foreigners (Oct 2017), less for Turkish) are located around Sultanahmet Square, while some others are dispersed throughout the peninsula of old city, such as the Church of the Holy Saviour in Chora (Kariye Müzesi), the entire inside of which is covered by mindblowing frescoes and mosaics. An impressive section of mostly intact Theodosian walls, which mark the full length of western boundary of the peninsula, is right next to this particular church.
North of the peninsula of the old city, across the Golden Horn, is Galata, crowned by the Galata Tower. Istanbul Modern, with its exhibitions of contemporary Turkish art, is on the nearby waterfront of Karaköy. Another sight of the district, just north of the Tower, is the museum converted from the Dervish Hall of the Sufi Mevlevi order, which those interested in the teachings of Rumi will want to take a peek at. Further north is the Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s prominent pedestrian street running from near Galata Tower to Taksim Square, the central square of whole city.
Heading west rather than north from the old city brings you deeper into the banks of the Golden Horn estuary. A neighbourhood perhaps well worth a visit here is Eyüp, to visit the city’s holiest Islamic shrine and, with all the religious people wandering around the narrow cobblestone streets with their turbans and what not, just to see what the daily life in Ottoman Istanbul might be like. On the opposite shores of the Horn, in Sütlüce is the Miniaturk, the first miniature park in the city, with models from around the former Ottoman Empire.
North of Taksim Square is New Istanbul, main business district of the city. If venturing out to this direction, don’t forget to check out Military Museum, where Ottoman military music concerts (Mehter) are held every afternoon. Most of the skyscrapers of the city are located in the north of this district, around Levent and Maslak, with a totally different skyline from that of the old city. However southern reaches of the very same district has some fine neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings from the turn of the 20th century, around the neighbourhoods of Osmanbey, Kurtuluş, and Nişantaşı. Just east from here, with a little drop in elevation as you approach the shore, is the banks of Bosphorus, that is lined by pleasant neighbourhoods full of waterfront mansions (yalı) and a number of waterside palaces where you can admire what money could buy in times gone by.
Across the Bosphorus to east is Asian Side, centred around the historical districts of Kadıköy and Üsküdar, and perhaps best symbolized by Maiden’s Tower, located at about the halfway between these districts, on an islet just off the shore. Bosphorus and Marmara coasts of this half of the city is characterized by quite picturesque neighbourhoods, overlooked by Çamlıca Hill, one of the highest hills of the city which also has a view of much of the rest of the city, with a café and a pleasant park on its summit.
Southeast of the city, off the southern coast of Asian Side are the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago of nine car-free islands, characterized by stunning wooden mansions and pine groves.
Long ignored for their bad connotation with the Tulip era of 1700s, a period of ostentation and costly parties conducted by state elite amidst large gardens full of tulips (and also when the first bulbs were introduced to the Netherlands from Istanbul, by the way), which was later accused of economic destruction and the eventual dissolution of Ottoman Empire, tulips have regained much of their former popularity in the last decade and now serve as some sort of symbol of both Istanbul and the whole Turkey. They bloom from late March to early May (best bet is early to mid April) and while they can be seen on many avenues of the city wherever there is enough space for planting at the sides and the central strip of the road, if you are after admiring and/or photographing large patches of tulips with relatively exotic varieties, head to Sultanahmet Park and Gülhane Park in Sultanahmet; Emirgan Park near the northern Bosphorus neighbourhood of Emirgan; or Çamlıca Hill in Asian Side.
The Classic Bosphorus Cruise
From the terminal immediately east of the Galata Bridge starts the large ferry cruising to Anadolu Kavagi at the northern entrance of Bosphorus to the Black Sea via various stops. The fare is 25 TL. The departure time is early and is very popular, so arrive early and queue. The open decks are hugely popular, so unless you have an outside seat expect people to be standing all around you constricting the view. The ferry waits some hours in Anadolu Kavagi so as you alight you are confronted by a numerous restaurants and their spruikers. Firstly take the walk to the Yoros Kalesi, a strategic castle overlooking and controlling the entry to the Black Sea. This important fortification with a commanding view has been fought over for many years and was last in use in the 19th century. It has fallen into serious disrepair, but Christian engravings are still visible in the stonework. There are restaurants actually in the castle surrounds and naturally have spectacular views. There is plenty of time left to wander back to the village for lunch. It is late afternoon before arrival back at Eminonu, but a day well spent. A cheaper and faster Bosphorus cruise alternative is a TRY10 trip on a shorter cruise. Istanbul information from wikivoyage.
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