Istanbul: bridging cultures & continents

A vibrant mix of ancient and modern straddling two continents, Istanbul – formerly known as Byzantium, and then as Constantinople – has attracted more than its fair share of rampaging armies and international traders over the centuries thanks to its strategic location across the Bosphorus strait. Ruled by both the Greeks and the Romans before the Ottomans took centre stage, Istanbul was also the final stop on the legendary Silk Road linking Asia with Europe, and physical reminders of these myriad influences are found across the city, from the Byzantine church of Hagia Sophia to the domes and minarets of Ottoman mosques and palaces that pepper the city skyline.
Although no longer the capital, Istanbul remains the vibrant economic and cultural heart of modern Turkey, a thriving city where calls to prayer vie with the cries of street hawkers, commuter boats shuffle across the Bosphorus and modern galleries and nightclubs throng with the city’s young inhabitants.
The museums, hotels and restaurants remain very much open for business, and as some travelers stay away, the ancient sites are quieter and prices more reasonable.

KEY SIGHTS & ACTIVITIES IN ISTANBUL

You’ll need a good three days to take in the major sights, most of which are in the district of Sultanahmet. Many tours of Turkey begin in Istanbul and include guided tours of the main historic attractions, with some also taking in out of the way markets or foodie hotspots. You could always choose to tag on a few days at the end or start of your trip if you want to fully explore the backstreets of the old city, or the outlying suburbs and islands.

Hagia Sophia

Once the biggest cathedral in the world, Hagia Sophia is one of the shining stars of Byzantine architecture. Built between 532 and 537, it spent close to 1,000 years as a Greek Orthodox basilica, before becoming a mosque in 1453 after the Ottomans defeated the Byzantines, and then a museum in 1935 with the birth of a secular Turkish Republic. The intricate interior beautifully reflects the city’s eclectic history, with detailed Christian mosaics sitting alongside brilliant Islamic calligraphy.

Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)

Istanbul’s most striking building was the grand project of young Sultan Ahmet I (1603-17), who was hoping to outshine the builders of Hagia Sophia. The result? A beautifully curvaceous exterior topped with domes and six skinny minarets. On the inside, 20,000 blue handcrafted Iznik tiles give the building its unofficial name, and at its heart is an expansive courtyard with 260 windows and a massive central prayer space. The mosque is closed to non worshippers during the six daily prayer times and only worshippers are admitted through the main door.

Hippodrome

The sport of choice amongst the Byzantines? Chariot racing. And there was nowhere better to witness this adrenalin fuelled spectacle than the Hippodrome: a rectangular arena set next to Sultanahmet Park and decorated with obelisks and statues, some of which are still there today. It was also the go to space for court ceremonies, coronations and parades and, as a result, witnessed numerous political dramas over the years. Today it’s less a place for politicking and more a space for meetups and afternoon strolls.

Topkapi Palace

The very name of this opulent palace conjures up images of the scheming, intrigue and lavish living that went on here for centuries. A long line of sultans along with their wives, courtiers and concubines lived and worked here; and a visit provides a fascinating look at their lives. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after the 1453 Ottoman conquest, the palace was the court of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries. Highlights to look out for include the First, Second, Third and Fourth courts, the palace kitchens, the sprawling harem and the jewel stuffed imperial treasury.

Dolmabahce Palace

Overlooking the Bosphorus from the European side, this grand neoclassical palace was built between 1843 and 1856 and was home to the last six sultans of the Ottoman Empire. It may feel more European than Turkish but that doesn’t stop the crowd swooping in to gawp at the ornate suites and apartments.

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Gastronomic delights

Istanbul’s cuisine is as diverse as its heritage, and some tours include visits to foodie hotspots. The Turkish take their eating and drinking seriously, and joining the locals in tea gardens, coffee houses and taverns, or amid the smoke of street stalls is one of the real pleasures of a trip here.
No visit to Istanbul is complete without stopping by the Spice Bazaar in Eminönü. A colourful and fragrant gastronomic highlight since 1664, it’s also known as the ‘Egyptian Bazaar’ or 'Corn Market' and is the best place to pick up dried fruits and nuts, spices, olives and Turkish delight. The area around Eminönü has some excellent street food, in particular barbecued corn, roasted kestane (chestnuts) and, of course, kebabs.

How to get to Istanbul

How to get to Istanbul Most people arrive in Istanbul by air, unless they’re on a multi county overland tour. The city's main airport, Atatürk International Airport, is in Yeşilköy, 23km west of Sultanahmet, while the smaller Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, is in Kurtköy on the Asian side of the city. A major new airport is currently under construction and due to be fully operational by 2025.

Once in Istanbul, there’s a wide range of public transport available including buses, a metro, funiculars, dolmu? (shared minibuses) and historic trams, not to mention ferry services across the Bosphorus.

Best time to visit Istanbul

March to May and September to November are the best times to visit the city, as the weather is warm, and crowds at the city’s attractions are fewer. Summer can be unpleasantly hot and winter bone chillingly cold, with rainy or even snowy conditions
Written by Nana Luckham
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fatih Yurur] [Hagia Sophia: Jorge Láscar] [Topkapi: Fred Bigio] [Turkish coffee: arrrl]
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