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Istanbul

“If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”

– Napoleon Bonaparte

Where Two Continents Meet

About Istanbul

Welcome to Istanbul

Home to 15 million people and covering an area of 1,539 square kilometres, Istanbul is one of the largest cities in the world. It is divided into 39 districts: 25 on the European side and 14 on the Asian side.

Each district has it’s own atmosphere and offers visitors something unique. To get a good feel for the city, we recommend that with each visit you see at least three or four of the different areas on your first trip.

This magical meeting place of East and West has more top-drawer attractions than it has minarets (and that’s a lot).

Living History

İstanbul’s strategic location has attracted many marauding armies over the centuries. The Greeks, Romans and Venetians took turns ruling before the Ottomans stormed into town and decided to stay – physical reminders of their various tenures are found across the city. The fact that the city straddles two continents wasn’t its only drawcard – it was the final stage on the legendary Silk Road linking Asia with Europe, and many merchants who came here liked it so much that they, too, decided to stay. In so doing, they gave the city a cultural diversity that it retains to this day.

Local Life

Some ancient cities are the sum of their monuments, but İstanbul factors a lot more into the equation. Chief among its manifold attractions are the locals, who have an infectious love of life and generosity of spirit. This vibrant, inclusive and expanding community is full of people who work and party hard, treasure family and friendships, and have no problem melding tradition and modernity in their everyday lives. Joining them in their favourite haunts – çay bahçesis (tea gardens), kahvehans (coffeehouses), meyhanes (Turkish taverns) and kebapçıs (kebap restaurants) – will be a highlight of your visit.

Art & Architecture

The conquering armies of ancient times tended to ransack the city rather than endow it with artistic treasures, but all that changed with the Byzantines, who adorned their churches and palaces with mosaics and frescoes. Miraculously, many of these remain. Their successors, the Ottomans, were quick to launch an ambitious building program and the magnificently decorated imperial mosques that resulted are architectural triumphs that together form one of the world’s great skylines. In recent years, local banks and business dynasties have reprised the Ottomans’ grand ambitions and endowed an impressive array of galleries, museums and festivals for all to enjoy.

Culinary Heritage

‘But what about the food?’ we hear you say. We’re happy to report that the city’s cuisine is as diverse as its heritage, and delicious to boot. Locals take their eating and drinking seriously – the restaurants here are the best in the country. You can eat aromatic Asian dishes or Italian classics if you so choose, but most visitors prefer to sample the succulent kebaps, flavoursome mezes and freshly caught fish that are the city’s signature dishes, washing them down with the national drink, rakı (aniseed brandy), or a glass or two of locally produced wine.

Places to be

Where is Istanbul?

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Places You Must See

Istanbul's Gems

The bridge between the two continents

Istanbul

Basilica Cistern

Istanbul is not only fascinating above ground, but also underground with the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan). This exquisite piece of Byzantine engineering is a spectacular underground cistern, once bringing drinking water with aqueducts from current Bulgaria to Istanbul.
With its dimmed light and classical music to the background sound of dripping water, some find it romantic while others experience it as slightly spooky.
Tread the walkways and watch the fish swim between the 336 columns that support the ceiling. Walk all the way to the end to see the Medusa head, placed upside down as the base of one of the columns.

Istanbul

Grand Bazaar

Bargain hunting at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Over 500 years old, but still one of the largest covered bazaars in the world. Its 60 streets contain no less than 5000 shops, 60 restaurants, 18 fountains, 12 mosques, and even a school.
This is not a tourist trap as some claim. Locals shop here every day, but odds are they’re better at bargaining than you are. The bazaar is very famous for its carpets, leather, ceramics, souvenirs and jewelry.
It’s hard not to get lost in this chaos, so try to remember where you’ve entered before wandering around.

Archaeology Museum

People often skip the Archaeology Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi), and that’s a pity. This is a real hidden Istanbul gem, displaying one of the world’s richest collections of classical antiquities.
Top attractions here are the marvelous sarcophagus of Alexander the Great depicting important phases of his life, the blue tiled Karaman Mihrab, the beautiful Tiled Pavilion, and the Treaty of Kadesh – the world’s earliest surviving peace treaty. Not an option with kids? Wait until they see the model Trojan Horse in the children’s section.
You can reach the Archaeology Museum by going left down the hill in Topkapi Palace’s first courtyard, or via Gülhane Park.

Süleymaniye Mosque

Instead of the iconic Blue Mosque, I prefer the less famous Süleymaniye Mosque. I think it’s the nicest and most impressive Istanbul mosque, and not invaded by thousands of tourists every day.
The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed by the famous architect Sinan for Süleyman the Magnificent, and is a great tribute to both. It’s actually much more than a place of worship. It’s a complex of buildings containing a hospital, a kitchen, a school, etc.
Don’t forget to visit the tombs of Süleyman and Roxalana behind the graveyard, the tomb of Sinan outside the complex, and eat kuru fasulye (haricot beans) in one of the many restaurants in the Alley of Addicts.

Chora Church / Kariye Museum

The Chora Church, Church of St Savior, or Kariye Museum is a bit off the beaten track, but well worth a visit. Located in Chora/Edirnekapi, next to the old city walls, it is one of the most amazing religious building Istanbul has to offer.
The walls and ceilings of this church are adorned with stunning Byzantine mosaics and fabulous frescoes. Some are considered as the most significant in the Christian world.
And while you’re there, enjoy the remains of the fifth century city walls and the wooden Ottoman houses.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace is just fascinating. A few facts to demonstrate my point here. The palace is huge — 600 meters in length — containing no less than 285 rooms and 43 salons. It was built in 1856 by Sultan Abdüi Mecit, basically to prove that the declining Ottoman Empire was doing just fine, whereas the construction resulted in exactly the opposite.
Nevertheless, no expenses were spared, proof of which the excessive use of gold leaf, crystal and marble. Obvious key features are the Baccarat crystal staircase, the main bathroom, and the ceremonial hall with its 4.5 ton chandelier. Just seeing the latter is impressive!
After the foundation of the Turkish Republic, Atatürk adopted the palace as its home, and died there November 10, 1938 at 09:05. As a tribute, all clocks in the palace show that time.

Galata Tower

The Galata Tower is one of the best spots in town to get a 360 panoramic view of Istanbul. On a bright day you can even spot the Princes’ Islands from this 60 meter high tower. There is also a restaurant/cafe at the ninth floor, but feel free to skip that entirely.
Instead, walk around in the cozy streets of Galata surrounding the tower and have a drink or some food on one of the many terraces. Not only will you enjoy it much more, you’ll also get a much better deal.

Bebek and Ortaköy

Bebek and — to a lesser extend — Ortaköy are two village by the Bosphorus worth visiting, yet lesser known among tourists.
Bebek is a lively, green and wealthy neighborhood by the Bosphorus. It’s well known and frequently visited by locals during the weekends. It’s a local all-time favorite to have a (late) breakfast with a stunning view followed by a nice stroll on the boardwalk, topped with a drink in one of the many cafes. Other come later, and enjoy the buzzing nightlife.
If you took a Bosphorus tour, it’s hard to miss Ortaköy. Its cozy mosque by the shore just before the first bridge stands out. Another thing that draws a lot of attention is the Sunday crafts market, as well as the many car-free cobblestone streets filled with restaurants and cafes.

Istanbul’s Nightlife


Istanbul’s nightlife can compete with the rest of the world. Whether you want to enjoy a (local) live performance while sipping on your favorite drink, attend concerts of current and past world stars, or dance the night away in open-air venues by the Bosphorus or while enjoying a rooftop 360 view, Istanbul has it all.

Getting Scrubbed in a Hamam

There is nothing better to rejuvenate your body than getting scrubbed in a hamam. Just picture this after a long day of walking: wearing nothing but a cotton cloth, first relax in a steamy room laying on hot marble, listening to the echoes of running water. Then a brisk soapy body scrub, followed by a sultan’s massage until your skin is smooth and soft.
There are several hamams available in the city. Among the oldest are the (recently renovated) Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamam and Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamam. The first is right on Sultanahmet Square, the latter is in Tophane-Karaköy, not far from Istanbul Modern.

Visit Local Markets

Turkey’s kitchen is among the richest of all, blending flavors of different continents and cultures.
All these dishes are made with fresh produce, stuff you too can buy first hand by visiting local markets in Istanbul. These town markets (pazar) can look overwhelming at first, but be assured that you’ll receive a warm welcome by stallholders. Communication may be difficult, but the experience is priceless.

Places to be

Istanbul Neighborhood Guide

Sultanahmet is the historic and cultural heart of Istanbul. It’s the oldest part of the city and is surrounded by bodies of water to the north, east and south, and old city walls to the west.

Located north of the Sultanahmet district, Beyoglu is one of the liveliest districts in Istanbul and our top recommendation for where to stay for those on a budget. Home to the popular pedestrianized Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), this district attracts locals and tourists day and night.

Galata is a neighbourhood located north of the Golden Horn. Although technically part of the Beyoglu district, this neighbourhood has a distinct feel and flair.

Karaköy is a small district situated at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Once one of the city’s most important ports, this area was left to deteriorate for decades and is rich in authenticity of ancient history. There are lots of restoration projects currently underway to restore the buildings to its old glory.

The Grand Bazaar is a colourful and chaotic district located in the centre of Istanbul. Built around the centuries-old Grand and Spice Bazaars, this area is where you’ll find a wide variety of vendors, shops and boutiques. Grand Bazaar is our top recommendation of where to stay in Istanbul for families.