Explore Istanbul and around
İstanbul, uniquely amongst the world’s cities, 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 which has shaped the region’s history for over 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 which 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, in the tidal wave of humanity sweeping down İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Street) are 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 out for the afternoon 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.
İstanbul is divided in two by the Bosphorus, the narrow 30km strait separating Europe from Asia and linking the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Feeding into the southern end of the strait from the European side is the Golden Horn, a 7km-long inlet of water that empties into the mouth of the Bosphorus. The city effectively has two centres, separated by the Golden Horn but both situated on the European side of the Bosphorus. The Old City, centred on the Sultanahmet district, is the historical core of the city and home to the main sights, while Taksim and Beyoğlu across the Horn are the fulcrum of the modern city. The two can easily be made out from the water, distinguished respectively by the landmarks of the Topkapı Palace and the modernMarmara Hotel.
A little way west of Sultanahmet is the massive Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), the focal point of a disparate area stretching from the shores of the Sea of Maramara in the south up to the hill overlooking the Golden Horn to the north. Above is the commanding presence of the impressive Süleymaniye Camii. Some 6km west of the Old City, stretching between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, are the remarkably intact Byzantine land walls.
From Sultanahmet and Eminönü, you’re most likely to cross the Golden Horn by the Galata bridge, entering the port area of Karaköy, then heading up the steep hill to the ancient Galata district. Near the northern end of Galata bridge is the Tünel, the French-built underground funicular railway, which chugs up to Beyoğlu, the city’s elegant nineteenth-century European quarter. From the upper Tünel station, an antique tram runs the length of Beyoğlu’s pedestrianized boulevard, İstiklâl Caddesi, to Taksim Square, the twin focal points of the modern city’s best hotels, bars, clubs and restaurants.
North of Taksim, and on the metro line, are the city’s newest business districts of Harbiye, Etiler, Nişantaşi and Şişli, location of many airline offices and embassies. Downhill from Taksim, on the Bosphorus shore, lie Tophane, Beşıktaş and Ortaköy, inner-city districts with scenic waterside locations and a number of historic palaces and parks. Across the straits, in Asia, the main centres of Üsküdar, Haydarpaşa and Kadıköy form part of İstanbul’s commuter belt, but also have a few architectural attractions and decent shops, restaurants and clubs.
In 2008, while digging the Yenikapı metro station, archeologists uncovered a Neolithic settlement dating back to circa 6500 BC. But in popular tradition the city was founded in the seventh century BC by Byzas, from Megra in Greece – hence the original name of Byzantium. Over the next thousand years Byzantium became an important centre of trade and commerce, though it was not until the early fourth century AD that it would 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. It was a fine choice – its seven hills (a deliberate echo of Rome) commanded the Bosphorus and its landward side was easily defensible. 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. It fell after seven weeks and, following the capture and subsequent pillage, Mehmet II began to rebuild the city, beginning with a new palace and following with the Mosque of the Conqueror (Fatih Camii) and many smaller complexes. Mehmet was tolerant of other religions, and 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 great military achievements of Selim the Grim and 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, mainly British, 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.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 (thirty percent up according to recent statistics), 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). You should also be careful 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.
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. There are sporadic outbreaks of football violence here, but 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, and matches (Aug–May) are staggered over each weekend in season so television coverage of the three doesn’t clash.
Beşiktaş (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. The wealthiest club, Fenerbahçe (wwww.fenerbahce.org), play at the 52,000 capacity Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadyium on Bağdat Cad in Kızıltoprak on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. Galatasaray (wwww.galatasaray.org.com) play at the Ali Sami Yen Stadyumu in Mecidiyeköy. Tickets are sold at the stadiums two days before a match. For regular fixtures tickets start from 30TL for Beşiktaş and Galatsaray, from 45TL for Fenerbahçe. Tickets are also available online from Biletix (wwww.biletix.com) and Biletix outlets. For information in English see www.budgetairlinefootball.co.uk.
The annual festival calendar is pretty full – at least between April and October, when most of the best events take place. The highlights are detailed below; for more information, consult the city tourist offices or the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts.
International Film Festival 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 and new prints of classic films – visiting celebrities add glitz and glamour. 2009 saw over 200 films screened. Midweek tickets are usually a bargain.
Tulip Festival Week-long festival honouring the national flower, including concerts, arts events and competitions at different locations around the city, and a final showing of the hundred best tulips. Over three million bulbs flower across the city, planted by the municipality.
Conquest Celebrations 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.
International Puppet Festival A celebration of Turkish Shadow Theatre, or karağoz – silent puppets perform behind a two-dimensional screen.
International Theatre Festival The year’s best Turkish plays (both local avant-garde and established theatre groups) and performances by visiting foreign theatres. Biennial event.
Efes Pilsen One Love Moderately alternative city-centre weekend-long festival (2009’s was 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 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.
International Jazz Festival 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 wwww.rockncoke.com. A weekend of Western and Turkish rock.
Electronica Music Festival Venues change from year to year, as do sponsors and therefore names. In 2008 held in Parkorman, north of the city, with David Guetta and Dorfmeister.
İstanbul Arts Fair 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 Multimedia contemporary arts festival that usually runs mid-September to the first week in November. Held odd years, next up in 2011.
Akbank International Jazz Festival 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.
Filmeki Week-long film festival brings the pick of the crop from Cannes, Sundance and Berlin to İstanbul, hosted by the Emek Sineması.
With new hotels opening on a seemingly daily basis, it’s nearly always possible to find a decent room with a modicum of advance planning. Be aware, however, that during major conferences and international events (such as the Formula 1 Grand Prix) prices in many establishments will be higher and the choice less. Where you stay depends on your interests. For nightlife head across the Golden Horn to Beyoğlu, to be on the doorstep of the major historical sites it makes more sense to base yourself in or around Sultanahmet. Virtually all but the most basic İstanbul hotels have wi-fi.
Many hotels offer discounts for cash or booking through their website, though some, fed-up with “no-show” internet bookers, require payment upfront – which means you’re stuck with the room even if on arrival you find it doesn’t match up to your expectations. Hotels in the major tourist and business areas tend to quote in euros, smaller hotels still use the TL, but all should accept payment in either currency.
Some of the city’s best small hotels, pansiyons and hostels are in Sultanahmet, the historic heart of touristic İstanbul, within a few minutes’ walk of the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and Aya Sofya.
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.
Workers’ cafés and lokantas open as early as 6am and serve until 4pm; other cafés generally open daily between 9am and 9pm. Restaurants open for lunch and dinner, with last orders at 10 or 11pm, with more popular areas (such as Nevizade Sokak) and live music venues staying open until the early hours. In the more commercial districts, eateries follow the shops and close on a Sunday. Credit cards are widely accepted in all but the smallest restaurants.
Cafés and budget eating
Today’s İstanbul has a wide range of cafés, ranging from sophisticated continental cafés serving trendy coffees and imported alcoholic drinks to simple lokantas dishing up cheap-and-cheerful stews from bains-maris.
Budget options include lokanta-style buffets (where what you see is what you get), and pide or kebap salonu for cheap and filling meat- and bread-based staples. Barrow-boys all over the city offer simits and other bread-type snacks, fishermen in Karaköy and Eminönü serve dubious fish sandwiches off their boats, while sizzling tangles of sheep innards (kokoreç), stuffed mussels (midye dolması) and pilaf rice are sold from booths and pushcarts in the more salubrious areas. Prices vary depending on the establishment and location, but range from 0.50TL for a simit to 2TL or so for a takeaway chicken durum (slivers of döner chicken and salad in a flat-bread wrap). A café latte or similar, by contrast, will likely set you back at least 6TL.
Generally the Old City, including Sultanahmet, can’t compare with the city’s Beyoğlu entertainment hub for variety or quality, but there are a few exceptions. Kumkapı, south of Laleli, off the coast road, Kennedy Caddesi, boasts over fifty fish restaurants. It’s a popular spot on a balmy summer evening, with candlelit tables spilling out on to the narrow, traffic-free streets. Restaurants in Beyoğlu, Galata and Taksim cater for theatre- and cinema-goers and young people filling up before a night out, as well as for those who want to spend all evening over a meal and a bottle of rakı. The most lively spot is undoubtedly Nevizade Sokak where restaurants serve mezes, kebabs and fish, accompanied by the sound of serenading street musicians. Otherwise you can try your luck in the cobbled streets around the ferry terminal in Ortaköy, where there are numerous trendy options rubbing shoulders with older, more traditional places, or across the Bosphorus in Üsküdar or Kadıköy.
Expect to pay more for extras, such as live music or to dine on a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus, while fish is always pricier than meat. Main courses start from 5TL at a cheap restaurant frequented by locals, though run up to 60TL or more at a swish restaurant with all the trimmings. Set meals at 50–70TL represent the best value, with a wide choice of mezes followed by a substantial main course, Turkish desserts and, usually, half a bottle of wine or rakı.
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 traditional 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.
İstanbul, away from conservative Islamic areas like Fatih and Eyüp, takes drinkers in its stride and you’ll find bars ranging from the dangerously seedy to the chic and overpriced. Sultanahmet’s bars are dull in comparison to buzzing Beyoğlu, where drinking goes on well into the early hours. There’s a variety of bars along the lively streets leading off İstiklâl Caddesi, at the Taksim Square end – from jazz joints to student-bars, sophisticated rooftop cafés to throbbing basement rock-bars. Kadıköy on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, boasts a number of drinking haunts. To reach Kadıköy’s studenty/arty Kadife Sokak, walk or take a taxi from the Kadıköy ferry terminal south down Moda Caddesi, until it turns into Doktor Esat Işik Caddesi – Kadife Sokak is on the left.
The line between İstanbul’s bars and cafés tends to blur, with most open during the day to serve food and coffee, becoming more alcoholic as the evening progresses. A cover charge is often introduced between 10pm and 2am if there is live music.
Clubs and live music
İstanbul’s best clubs are bang up to date in terms of design, lighting and atmosphere, while live music – jazz, rock, alternative, blues, R&B and even reggae – is plentiful around the backstreets of Beyoğlu. Expect to spend no less than you would in London, New York or Sydney on a night out. Most places have entry charges (anything from 10TL to 60TL) and tend to be open from around 9pm until 2 or 4am.
Local and visiting foreign bands also play at a welter of annual festivals – including two jazz festivals, a rock festival, an international music festival, plus separate dance and techno and blues events.
Gay bars and clubs
Gay bars and clubs
İstanbul is the country’s gay capital, with the scene centred on Taksim and Beyoğlu. For information on the gay scene check out wwww.istanbulgay.com, which gives a run down of the best gay bars and clubs (including guided cruises of the best venues) and gay-friendly hotels, reviews the sauna cruising scene and has a section on lesbian İstanbul. Otherwise the weekly Time Out İstanbul reviews gay and lesbian venues.
Arts, entertainment and festivals
Arts, entertainment and festivals
İstanbul hosts a decent variety 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 various venues around the city. Music features heavily over the summer months when international festivals draw musicians from all over the world.
Tickets for many cultural events, as well as sporting events, can be purchased online from Biletix (w www.biletix.com.), whose website is in both Turkish and English. There are also many Biletix outlets around the city, the most useful of which is the Ada bookstore on İstiklâl Caddesi.
The most important modern art event in the city is the International İstanbul Biennial, organized by IKSV, the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts (w www.iksv.org). The biennials (held on odd-numbered years) are themed and use different venues across the city, from historic buildings such as the Topkapı Palace to urban-chic industrial warehouses.
There are hundreds of cinemas (sinema) all over İstanbul showing mainly Hollywood releases with Turkish subtitles. Many of the modern complexes are situated in large shopping malls, with the best old-style cinemas in Beyoğlu, once the centre of domestic film production. Most still have a fifteen-minute coffee and cigarette interval. Tickets cost around 10TL, but most cinemas have one or more day(s) midweek where tickets are discounted. The annual International Film Festival (mid-April to May) takes place mainly at cinemas in Beyoğlu.
Theatres and concert halls
There are regular classical music, ballet and opera performances in İstanbul, held at Taksim’s Atatürk Cultural Centre (under restoration at the time of writing) and at other venues across the city. The main annual event is the International Music Festival during June and July, which includes jazz, classical and world music concerts, as well as performances by the İstanbul State Symphony Orchestra. Theatre is popular, but it’s mostly Turkish plays that are performed on the thirty or so stages in the city. Information on all music and theatre events, and on the various cultural festivals, is available from the İstanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts w www.iksv.org.
Turkish music and Cabaret
A night of traditional Turkish music in a friendly bar-restaurant is not to be missed. Most venues offer either a kind of Türkü (folk) music, usually played on a bağlama (long-necked stringed lute), or fasil, generally played by gypsy bands and heavy on the violin with ud (lute), darabuka (drum) and maybe a zurna (clarinet). In bars featuring livelier music, you’ll be expected to dance. As well as places around Beyoğlu, most of the fish restaurants in Kumkapı on the Sultanahmet side of the Horn have live fasil music in the evenings.
Cabaret is probably the most expensive and least authentic way to develop a feel for the Orient. Stick to the more established venues otherwise you may be overcharged for anything you eat or drink and belly dancers expect to be given generous amounts of money (stuffed in their bras) by foreign tourists.