Uniquely among the world’s cities, İstanbul stands astride two continents, Europe and Asia. As if its spectacular geographical location were not enough, it can also boast of being the only city to have played capital to consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, a role that has shaped the region’s history for more than 2500 years and bequeathed to İstanbul a staggering wealth of attractions; these range from the masterpiece Byzantine church of Aya Sofya to the formidable city walls, and the domes and minarets of the Ottoman mosques and palaces that dominate the city skyline. Although no longer its capital, the city remains the vibrant economic, cultural and intellectual heart of modern Turkey, a bustling, go-ahead city where east really does meet west.
In conservative districts such as Fatih, bearded men sporting skullcaps and baggy shalwar-style trousers devoutly heed the call to prayer, while women wouldn’t dream of leaving the house with their heads uncovered. Yet across the water, the tidal wave of humanity sweeping down İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Street) holds young Turkish men and women in designer jeans and trainers who have never been to the mosque in their lives. In business districts such as Şişli, commuters arrive via the metro to work in high-rise office blocks, shop in state-of-the-art malls, and at weekends can be out clubbing until 6am.
Whether yours is the İstanbul of the Blue Mosque and the Topkapı Palace, or the Beyoğlu nightclubs and swish rooftop cocktail bars, the city takes time to get to know. Three to four days is enough to see the major historical sights in Sultanahmet and take a ferry trip on the Bosphorus. But plan on staying a week, or even two, if you want to explore fully the backstreets of the Old City and the outlying suburbs and islands.
In 2008, while digging the Yenikapı metro station, archeologists uncovered a Neolithic settlement dating back to circa 6500 BC. In popular tradition, however, the city was founded in the seventh century BC by Byzas, from Megara in Greece – hence the original name of Byzantium. Over the next thousand years, Byzantium became an important centre of trade and commerce, though not until the early fourth century AD did it reach the pinnacle of its wealth, power and prestige. For more than 350 years, it had been part of the Roman province of Asia. On Diocletian’s retirement in 305, Licinius and Constantine fought for control of the empire. Constantine finally defeated his rival on the hills above Chrysopolis (Üsküdar) and chose Byzantium as the site for the new capital of the Roman Empire in 330 BC. The hilly promontory, commanding the Bosphorus and easily defensible on its landward side, was a superb choice. It was also well placed for access to the troublesome frontiers of both Europe and the Persian Empire.
In 395, the division of the Roman Empire between the two sons of Theodosius I left what was now named Constantinople as capital of the eastern part of the empire. It rapidly developed its own distinctive character, dissociating itself from Rome and adopting the Greek language and Christianity. Long and successful government was interrupted briefly, in Justinian’s reign, by the Nika riots in 532. Half a century later, however, the dissolution of the Byzantine Empire had begun, as waves of Persians, Avars and Slavs attacked from the east and north. The empire was overrun by Arab invaders in the seventh and eighth centuries, and by Bulgars in the ninth and tenth. Only the city walls saved Constantinople, and even these could not keep out the Crusaders, who breached the sea walls in 1204 and sacked the city.
As the Byzantine Empire declined, the Ottoman Empire expanded. The Ottomans established first Bursa, then Edirne, as their capital, and Ottoman territory effectively surrounded the city long before it was taken. In 1453, Mehmet II (the Conqueror) – also known as Fatih Sultan Mehmet – besieged the city, which fell after seven weeks. Following the capture and subsequent pillage, Mehmet II began to rebuild the city, starting with a new palace and continuing with the Mosque of the Conqueror (Fatih Camii) and many smaller complexes. Tolerant of other religions, Mehmet actively encouraged Greek and Armenian Christians to take up residence in the city. His successor Beyazit II continued this policy, settling Jewish refugees from Spain into the city in an attempt to improve the economy.
In the century following the Conquest, the victory was reinforced by the reign of Süleyman the Magnificent (1520–66), “the Lawgiver” and greatest of all Ottoman leaders. His attempted conquest of Europe was only thwarted at the gates of Vienna, and the wealth gained in his military conquests funded the work of Mimar Sinan, the finest Ottoman architect.
A century after the death of Süleyman, the empire began to show signs of decay. Territorial losses abroad combined with corruption at home, which insinuated its way into the very heart of the empire, Topkapı Palace itself. Newly crowned sultans emerged, often insane, from the institution known as the Cage, while others spent time in the harem rather than on the battlefield, consorting with women who increasingly became involved in grand-scale political intrigue. As Ottoman territory was lost to the West, succeeding sultans became interested in Western institutional models. A short-lived parliament of 1876 was dissolved after a year by Abdülhamid II, but the forces of reform led to his deposition in 1909. The end of World War I saw İstanbul occupied by Allied troops as the victors procrastinated over how best to manage the rump of the once-great empire. After the War of Independence, Atatürk’s declaration of the Republic in 1923 and the creation of a new capital in Ankara effectively solved the problem.
The population of Greater İstanbul has increased twelvefold since the establishment of the Turkish Republic, and stands today at around 15 million. This rapid urban growth has left the city with more than its fair share of problems, from horrendous traffic congestion to housing and water shortages and rising crime rates. A UNESCO threat to revoke the city’s “World Heritage” status and place it on the “In Danger” list focused the minds of the government and local authorities on preserving the city’s glorious heritage, and İstanbul emerged from its year as a European Capital of Culture in 2010 with great credit.
Much else has been done to improve the infrastructure of one of the world’s leading cities. A government-backed housing scheme offers quality, affordable housing to low-income families in order, eventually, to replace the shanty-dwellings that have long ringed the suburbs. The gigantic Marmaray transport project will see the European and Asian sides of the city linked by a rail tunnel under the Bosphorus by 2015, and the metro systems either side of the Golden Horn should be linked by a (controversial) bridge around the same time. The Horn itself, once heavily polluted, has been cleaned up, and both anglers and cormorants can now be seen successfully fishing in its waters.Read More
İstanbul is undoubtedly far safer than most European or North American cities, and cases of mugging and assault against tourists are rare. Having said this, the crime rate is soaring, due in part to the increasing disparity between rich and poor.
For the average visitor, pickpocketing is the main cause for concern: be particularly careful around Sirkeci station, the Eminönü waterfront, the Galata Bridge, and around Taksim (especially at night). Also avoid being on or around the Byzantine land walls at dusk/night. Be very careful, too, on public transport, particularly when it is crowded. If you feel anyone is harassing or attempting to pickpocket you, try calling out imdat!, ‘meaning “help!”,’ and contact the tourist police.
The Bosphorus Cruise
The Bosphorus Cruise
Taking a boat trip up the Bosphorus, from the bustling quays of Eminönü to the quiet fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı, is a highlight of any visit to İstanbul. The long Bosphorus Cruise, run by the Şehir Hatları company (t444 1851, wsehirhatlari.com.tr), leaves from the Boğaz Ferry Terminal just east of the Galata Bridge in Eminönü (daily: May–Oct 10.35am & 1.35pm, Nov–April 10.35am; one-way TL15, round-trip TL25).
In summer, especially at weekends, the queues to buy tickets can be very long, so allow at least half an hour, or, preferably, buy your ticket a day or two in advance. There are also often long queues to board, so late-comers end up sitting in the worst seats. The ferries are rather antiquated but comfortable enough, and you can buy snacks, sandwiches and drinks on board. The round trip, including a 2hr 30min lunch stop at Anadolu Kavağı, takes about seven hours.
The boat stops at Beşiktaş, Kanlıca (Asia), Yeniköy, Sariyer and Rumeli Kavağı (all Europe) and, finally, Anadolu Kavağı (Asia); the only stop on the return is Beşiktaş. You can leave the boat at any of the landings to explore the waterfront or hinterland, but most passengers do the return cruise. A shorter version is also available for TL10, departing from the same ferry terminal and covering the same distance with no stops (other than to pick up more passengers at Üsküdar). The tour takes around two hours, departing Eminönü at 2.30pm (April–Oct daily; Nov–March Sun & public holidays).
On Saturday nights only, between early June and mid-September, a night-time Mehtaplı cruise (TL20) makes an attractive alternative, with the great suspension bridges lit up like Christmas trees, and the lights of Asia and Europe twinkling on either side. The boat departs Eminönü at 7pm, reaching Anadolu Kavağı at 8.30pm, where it moors for dinner, before arriving back in Eminönü around midnight.
The private Turyol company also runs tours up the Bosphorus, as far as the Fatih bridge. Boats depart every hour on the hour on weekdays, more frequently at weekends, and the 1hr 30min round trip costs TL12.
The annual festival calendar is pretty full, especially between April and October. The most important modern art event is the International İstanbul Biennial, held on odd-numbered years. Organized by IKSV, the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (wiksv.org), it uses venues ranging from historic buildings like the Topkapı Palace to urban-chic warehouses.
International Film Festival
wfilm.iksv.org/en. Turkish, European and Hollywood movies premiere at İstanbul’s cinemas, mainly in Beyoğlu, plus the best of the non-English-speaking world’s releases from the previous year.
Week-long festival honouring the national flower, including concerts, arts events and competitions at different locations around the city. Over three million bulbs flower across the city, planted by the municipality.
wchilloutfest.com. Dance and electronica festival held in the incongruous surroundings of ultra-posh Kemer Golf and Country Club in Belgrade Forest.
wibb.gov.tr. Week-long celebration of the Ottoman conquest of old Constantinople (May 29, 1453) – concerts by the Ottoman Mehter military band, fancy-dress processions and fireworks.
wmillerfreshtival.com. Held in Maçka’s Kücükçiftlik Parkı, this festival mixes indie, dance and rock sounds, with both international and local acts and DJs.
International Puppet Festival
t0212 232 0224. A celebration of Turkish Shadow Theatre, or karağoz – silent puppets perform behind a two-dimensional screen.
International Theatre Festival
wiksv.org. The year’s best Turkish plays (both local avant-garde and established theatre groups), and performances by visiting foreign theatres.
Efes Pilsen One Love
wefespilsenonelove.com. Moderately alternative city-centre weekend-long festival, usually held at Santralistanbul, with plenty of DJ-led dance sets and performances from international bands such as Röyksopp and Klaxons, plus assorted home-grown acts.
The International Music Festival
wiksv.org. This hugely successful festival was launched in 1973 to celebrate Turkey’s fifty years of independence and brings top-notch orchestras and soloists from all over the world to perform in such atmospheric venues as the church of Aya Irene.
wsonispherefestivals.com. Two-day head-banging event for (mainly Turkish) heavy-metal lovers.
International Jazz Festival
wiksv.org. Two weeks of gigs and jamming sessions from world-class performers (with the definition of jazz stretched to include rock artists such as Lou Reed and Marianne Faithful).
Rumeli Hisarı Fortress Concerts
Nightly summer concerts within the walls of this Ottoman fortification overlooking the Bosphorus – a varied programme from classical to rock.
Rock N’ Coke
wrockncoke.com. Attracts major international acts – often a little past their prime – to the (defunct) Grand Prix track on the Asian side of the city.
İstanbul Arts Fair
wtuyap.com. A week-long fair selling the work of some fifty or so İstanbul galleries and visiting foreign artists – paintings, sculptures, pottery and fabrics.
International İstanbul Biennial
wiksv.org. Multimedia contemporary arts festival that usually runs mid-September to the first week in November. Held odd years: 2013, 2015, etc.
Akbank International Jazz Festival
wakbanksanat.com. Two-week festival concentrating on traditional jazz, with performers such as Dave Holland and Henry Threadgill. Events include film screenings, informal jamming sessions and drum workshops. Varied venues include the Byzantine church of Aya Irene and the Babylon Performance Centre in Beyoğlu.
Efes Pilsen Blues Festival
Two-day late-night blues festival – a showcase of new local talent and famous foreign bands.
İstanbul’s three leading football teams Beşiktaş, Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray receive fanatical support – match times remain one of the few occasions when the city streets fall silent – and dominate the Turkish league. While there are sporadic outbreaks of football violence, the chances of a foreigner getting caught up in it are slim. There are two Turkish daily newspapers, Fotomaç and Fanatik, devoted almost entirely to the three İstanbul heavyweights, while matches (Aug–May) are staggered over each weekend in season so television coverage of the three doesn’t clash.
(t0212 236 7202, wwww.bjk.com.tr) play at the most convenient and attractive ground of the three, Inönü Stadium on Kadırgalar Cad, between Taksim and Beşiktaş, opposite the Dolmabahçe Palace; walk down the hill, or take bus #23/B from Taksim Square or #30 from Sultanahmet or Eminönü.
the wealthiest club (t0216 449 5667, wwww.fenerbahce.org), play at the 52,000-capacity Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadyium on Bağdat Cad in Kızıltoprak on the Asian side of the Bosphorus; take a ferry to Kadıköy, then a dolmuş marked “Cadde Bostan”.
(t 0212 251 5707, wwww.galatasaray.org.com) play at the Türkcell Arena Stadyumu in Aslantepe (Şişli); catchthe M2 metro from Taksim to Sanayı then the branch line to Seyrentepe.
are sold at the stadiums two days before a match. Regular fixtures cost from TL25. Tickets are also available online from Biletix (wwww.biletix.com) and Biletix outlets. For information in English see wwww.budgetairlinefootball.co.uk.
New hotels open in İstanbul on a seemingly daily basis, so it’s nearly always possible to find a decent room with a modicum of advance planning – but bear in mind that spring and autumn are the busiest and most expensive times. For nightlife stay across the Golden Horn in Beyoğlu, while to be on the doorstep of the major historical sites base yourself in or around Sultanahmet. Virtually all but the most basic hotels have free wi-fi. Note that walk-in rack rates can often be unrealistically high, having been fixed in a busy season or for the benefit of tour companies, and many hotels will be happy to bargain. High season is mid-March to mid-November, and Christmas and New Year. Some establishments are a little cheaper in July and August, and most places offer discounts during the main low season, usually around fifteen to twenty percent.
İstanbul is home to Turkey’s best restaurants, including several that lavish time and skill on old Ottoman cuisine, and, thanks to the lengthy coastline, fish is a firm menu favourite. Snacks are ubiquitous, with kebab stands, pastry shops, fast-food outlets and cafés across the city catering to locals, workers and tourists alike. Restaurants around tourist honey-pot Sultanahmet tend to be of poorer quality, and are more expensive than elsewhere in the city.
With such a youthful population, a booming economy and relentless Westernization, it is not surprising that İstanbul is establishing a major reputation for clubbing. The best bars and clubs are in Beyoğlu, Taksim, Ortaköy and the richer Bosphorus suburbs such as Kadıköy. For a more traditional night out, head to a meyhane (tavern), where a fasil band might accompany your food and bottle of rakı. Alternatively, try a Türkü bar, where you can drink and listen to the plaintive sounds of Anatolian folk music. Both meyhanes and Türkü bars are enjoying something of a revival of late, but if you want something more familiar there are countless café-bars and modern nightclubs as well.
Arts, entertainment and festivals
Arts, entertainment and festivals
İstanbul hosts a decent range of annual cultural festivals, and matches other European cities for the breadth of its arts scene. State-subsidized theatre, opera and ballet make performances affordable for all, and there’s something going on almost every night at venues around the city. Music features heavily over the summer months, when international festivals draw musicians from all over the world.
Shopping in İstanbul is an experience. Whether or not it’s a pleasant one depends on your ability to ignore the hustlers when you’re not in the mood, and to bargain hard when you are. Don’t miss the Grand Bazaar, a hive of over four thousand little shops. Equally interesting shopping districts scattered around the city include İstiklal Caddesi for clothes, Nişantaşı for upmarket international fashion; and the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı) and its environs for spices and sweets. Out of the centre, shopping malls have taken off in a big way, good for homeware and clothes. The covered bazaar is credit-card friendly, as are all shops except the smallest of grocers (bakals) or kiosks.