City description

Surrounded by water and spanning the Bosphorus Strait, Turkey’s ‘cultural capital’, is a kaleidoscope of light, colour, sound and smell. A major Silk Road trading destination connecting Europe and Asia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, it’s hard to imagine a more strategic setting – or a more spectacular one. Influenced by 2,700 years of conquest, imperial power and immigration, its cosmopolitan residents are constantly reinventing themselves and their rich cultural traditions.

A stroll around the Old City of Sultanahmet brings Istanbul’s layers of history to life. At its heart, huge Sultanahmet Square still bears traces of its former role as the Hippodrome of Constantinople. This vast ancient arena hosted chariot races and events mainly during the city’s Byzantine era from 330 to 1453. At this time, the city was known as Constantinople and served as capital of the powerful Eastern Roman empire.

At one end of the leafy square stands majestic Hagia Sophia, originally an Eastern Orthodox cathedral from the 6th century. When the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453, they renamed the city Istanbul and converted Hagia Sophia into a mosque. It is now a museum. At the other end of the square is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque, a paradigm of Ottoman architecture with 13 domes, six minarets and a stunning tile-clad interior.

A short walk away sprawls Topkapı Palace, former residence of the Ottoman sultans. Its elaborate buildings now display Ottoman and Islamic artefacts. To delve yet deeper into history – literally – visit the huge underground 6th-century Basilica Cistern. Many of its 336 marble columns were ‘upcycled’ from former temples, turning a water supply system into an atmospheric underground museum.

Galata Bridge spans the natural harbour of the Golden Horn, connecting Sultanahmet with Istanbul’s modern European districts. Towering above cosmopolitan Beyoğlu, 5th-century Galata Tower offers panoramic views. Down below, buildings of every imaginable architectural style house trendy shops and eateries. Pedestrianised shopping boulevard İstiklal Caddesi curves through Beyoğlu towards Taksim Square, modern Istanbul’s bustling heart.

Stretching northeast along the waterfront are Beşiktaş, whose Istanbul Naval Museum explores the city’s seafaring traditions, and Ortaköy, at one end of the Bosphorus Bridge linking Europe and Asia. Before the 1.5km suspension bridge was built in 1973, the only way to cross the Strait was by boat – and this is still a fun way to switch continents. On the Asian side, the liberal Kadıköy district is known for its characterful bars and restaurants.

Talented young chefs are transforming Istanbul’s foodie scene with creative takes on age-old Turkish recipes. The old taverns, or meyhanes, with their meze snack platters, raki liqueur and live music, now compete with hip nightlife venues. Traditional cafés still serve little cups of mind-blowingly sweet Turkish coffee, but you’re just as likely to find a micro-roaster touting fair trade frappés and artisan croissants. Street food traditions remain strong, though. Down by the waterfront wafts the smell of balık ekmek, a grilled fish and onion sandwich that’s heaven on a cold day. Barbecued sweetcorn and chestnuts crackle on open fires, and simit breads, börek pastries and kebabs are on every corner. 

Istanbul’s atmosphere of transformation, combining tradition and modernity, is also palpable in the shopping experience. Buying a carpet in the maze-like Grand Bazaar is still fun if you like to haggle – as is shopping for spices and Turkish delight in the 17th-century Spice Bazaar down the hill. But it’s around the hip boutiques, designer stores and malls on the modern side of Galata Bridge that Istanbul’s young urban crowd now prefers to stroll.
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