Istanbul has always been considered the point where East meets West, both culturally and geographically. It spans both sides of the Bosphorus Strait which separates Europe from Asia, making it the most iconic transcontinental city in the world. It was once the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, making places like the Hagia Sophia a historical gem as it contains mosaics of the Virgin Mary right next to the minbar from its time as a mosque (it’s now a museum). With such a rich history and its current status as the most populous city in Europe, it can be quite a place for a traveler to navigate! This post serves as an intro with some important things to know before we get into the details of visiting Istanbul.
HistoryWhen Constantine became emperor in the 300s, he established Byzantium (the original name of the city) as the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire. Though he attempted to name it New Rome, the people were already referring to it as the city of Constantine, or Constantinople. The Byzantine Empire flourished as Constantinople became the largest and wealthiest city in the world. The Hagia Sophia was built during this time, as well as the Hippodrome sports arena which accommodated tens of thousands of people. During the Fourth Crusade in the 1200s, the city was attacked and left weakened and vulnerable, making way for the Ottomans who took the city in 1453 and declared it the new seat of the Ottoman Empire. Under the sultan’s rule the city was once again revitalized as a cosmopolitan hub with the building of the Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace. After a series of wars, the last Ottoman sultan was exiled in 1922, and Turkey was declared a republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. You will definitely hear this name and see the picture of this national hero everywhere you go in Turkey!
Culture, Language, ReligionThough a majority of the population is Muslim, Turkey is a republic, not an Islamic state. So while you’ll hear prayer calls from minarets and see some women with their heads covered, overall there aren’t many restrictions enforced against visitors. You should err on the side of modesty, and when visiting mosques be aware that shorts aren’t allowed and women must cover their heads. The official language is Turkish, but you will find many people in the old city who speak English.
There are so many neighborhoods in this sprawling city! If you only have a few days, you’ll probably be spending most of your time in Sultanahmet. It’s the historical center of the city, just south of the Golden Horn on the European side. The Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Hippodrome, Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace as well as several museums are all located here and within blocks of each other. The Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar are also within walking distance.
The area just north of the Golden Horn, Galata (aka Karaköy), is also a great place to visit and hang out. This area has always been an eclectic arts district, centering on the iconic skyline feature, Galata Tower. From Sultanahmet, you will need to find your way to the Spice Bazaar and cross the Galata Bridge which crosses the Golden Horn, connecting Sultanahmet to Galata. Galata is located in the larger district area called Beyoğlu which is known as the most active arts and entertainment district in Istanbul.
This is the body of water which separates Europe from Asia. Should you want to explore the Asian side of the city, there are two bridges that cross the Bosphorus, a rail tunnel, and ferry services. An hour long Bosphorus boat tour will give you a great introduction to the layout of the city. You can schedule one with any of the sales guys walking around the Sultanahmet area (trust me, they will find you before you can even start looking for them).
The city is served by two major airports: Atatürk International (IST) on the European side and Sabiha Gökçen on the Asian side. Atatürk is the larger and busier of the two, serving as a hub for Turkish Airlines with many other international carriers flying in and out. Sabiha Gökçen serves Turkey’s other budget carriers and offers regional flights as well as budget lines to some European destinations.
An extensive public transit network will help get you just about anywhere you need to go in Istanbul. Pick up an Istanbulkart at a news kiosk (there’s one at Atatürk airport as you’re heading toward the metro). These are reloadable and work for the metro, funiculars, busses and ferries and offer a savings versus paying for each ride separately.
The main line you should be familiar with is the T1 tram line (runs between Bağcılar and Kabataş stops). It offers easy access to many of Istanbul’s main attractions such as Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar, and Galata Tower.
Downloading an Istanbul Metro app will help you navigate more complex itineraries, as well as seeing which bus lines and ferry lines service which destinations (two good iPhone apps are here and here). If you plan on visiting the Asian side, a ferry ride can save you a tremendous amount of time versus trying to cross on one of the Bosphorus’ congested bridges.
Whether you’re visiting for history, art, or just to hang out, I bet you will wish you had just one more day in this truly epochal city. For more on what to see and do while you’re there, read the rest of our Istanbul posts below!
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