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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 both a certain 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, 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—thanks in part to its stint as the European Capital of Culture in 2010—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 heart it’s a Mediterranean city, whose friendly inhabitants are effusively social and eager to share what they love most about it.
REASONS TO GO TO ISTANBUL
Spend the morning in Europe and the afternoon in Asia, with just a ferry ride in between; how cosmopolitan is that?
CRUISE THE BOSPHORUS
Taking a boat ride up the strait, past scenic waterfront neighborhoods and forested slopes topped with fortresses, is quintessentially Istanbul.
HAGGLE IN THE BAZAARS
Bargain like the locals do as you make your way through the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar—it may be a bit touristy, but it’s fun.
MARVEL AT ANCIENT DOMES
From the stunning Aya Sofya to the graceful Süleymaniye Mosque, the city’s greatest works of imperial architecture never cease to impress, especially from the inside as you look up.
OGLE AT OPULENCE
With their sumptuous decor and fascinating harem quarters, the Topkapı and Dolmabahçe palaces offer a glimpse of the splendor of the Ottoman Empire.
Summer in Istanbul is hot and humid. Winter usually hits around October and lasts until April, and the months from November and February see a fair amount of rain. All the surrounding water generally keeps the temperature above freezing, but a cold wind blows off the frozen Balkans and there’s an occasional dusting of snow. May and September are pleasant and the most comfortable times for exploring.
Istanbul Film Festival. Every April for two weeks, the Istanbul Film Festival presents films from Turkey and around the world, giving film buffs a great opportunity to see contemporary Turkish cinema subtitled in English. Screenings are held mainly in Beyoğlu, as well as in Nişantaşı and Kadıköy. Make sure to purchase tickets in advance, as seats are reserved and the festival is extremely popular. www.iksv.org.
April also sees Istanbul’s Tulip Festival, when parks all over the city become a riot of color.
The well-regarded Istanbul Music Festival, held during several weeks in June, features mostly classical music performed by world-class musicians
The Istanbul Jazz Festival is generally held in the first two weeks of July and brings in major names, new and old, from Turkey and around the world.
In the fall, the Istanbul Biennial is held in odd-number years, while the Istanbul Design Biennial is held in even-number years; both showcase cutting-edge work in venues around the city
Bus service within Istanbul is frequent, and drivers and riders tend to be helpful, so you should be able to navigate your way to major tourist stops like Eminönü, Taksim, and Beşiktaş. You must have an İstanbulkart to board, and the fare is 1.95 TL.
For travel around the country, Turkey has an extensive system of intercity buses, and Istanbul’s large, chaotic Esenler Otogar is the heart of it. Esenler itself is a bit out of the way, though easily accessible by metro from Aksaray. Alternatively, most of the major bus companies have offices located near the top of İnönü Caddesi (which winds down from Taksim Square to Kabataş), from which they operate shuttle buses, known as a servis. These take passengers either to Esenler or to their own ministations on the main freeway, allowing you to avoid making the trek out to Esenler via public transport.
A second, smaller bus station, at Harem on the waterfront on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, is easily accessible by ferry from Eminönü
If you’re entering or leaving Istanbul by car, E80 runs from the Bulgarian border and through Turkish Thrace to Istanbul, continuing on to central Anatolia in the east; this toll road is the best of several alternatives. Getting out of the city by car can be challenging, as the signs aren’t always clear. It’s always useful to have a driving map.
Istanbul is notorious for congested traffic, a cavalier attitude to traffic regulations, poor signposting, and a shortage of parking spaces. In short, don’t even think about renting a car for travel in the city.
A dolmuş, or shared taxi, is a cross between a taxi and a bus: they run set routes, leave when full, and make fewer stops than a bus, so they’re faster. Most dolmuşes are bright yellow minibuses. Dolmuş stands are marked by signs but you can sometimes hail one on the street; the destination is shown on a roof sign or a card in the front window. Dolmuşes mostly head out to the suburbs, but visitors may find a few routes useful, including those that go from Taksim to Beşiktaş and from Taksim to Nişantaşı/Teşvikiye (for both routes, dolmuşes leave from the top of İnönü Caddesi near Taksim Square, and the fare is 2.25 TL). Dolmuşes also run between Taksim and the Kadıköy neighborhood (5 TL) on the Asian side, which is useful if you are coming back at night after the last boat.
Istanbul is a walker’s city, and the best way to experience it is to wander, inevitably getting lost—even with a good map, it’s easy to lose your way in the winding streets and alleyways. When in doubt, just ask. Particularly in the old part of the city, most of the main sites are within a short distance of each other, and the easiest way to get to them is on foot.
It’s no surprise that Istanbul is well served by ferries. With the exception of the leisure-oriented Bosphorus cruises, ferries are most useful for crossing the Bosphorus (rather than going up and down it) and for getting to the Princes’ Islands. The main docks on the European side are at Eminönü and Karaköy (on either side of the Galata Bridge) and at Kabataş, while Üsküdar and Kadıköy are the most important docks on the Asian side. Traditional large ferry boats operated by Şehir Hatları (www.sehirhatlari.com.tr), as well as smaller, faster-moving ferries run by two private companies (Turyol and Dentur Avrasya), crisscross the Bosphorus day and night, and cost about the same as land-based public transport. The Princes’ Islands are served both by Şehir Hatları and by İDO, which operates “sea bus” catamarans that are faster, sleeker, and completely enclosed (www.ido.com.tr).
Taking a ferry is also one of the best ways to get in and out of Istanbul. “Fast ferries,” some of which carry cars, leave from Yenikapı, which is south of Aksaray and a short taxi ride from Sultanahmet, to various ports on the southern side of the Sea of Marmara. The most useful routes are the ferries to Yalova, Bursa, and Bandırma, for travelers heading to İznik, Bursa, and Çanakkale, respectively.