Istanbul without a doubt my most favourite city in the world, located in north western Turkey split in half by the Bosphorus, the straits that separate Europe from Asia. Not only is it the only City in the world to be situated in two continents simultaneously, but it is also one of the largest cities in Europe. The sheer scale of the city is at first intimidating and later impossible not to fall in love with, hence the reason I return every year. For most visitors your first glimpse of the city will be as your plane comes in over the Sea of Marmara, complete with seemingly motionless boats, once you sight land you notice the glittering minarets and tightly packed high rise blocks before touch down at the thoroughly modern Atatürk Airport. Once you venture out into the city you will be immediately struck by the hustle and bustle of life in Istanbul, the packed streets and noisy roads as twelve and a half million people go around their daily business.
Istanbul is not known as the “City of the World's Desire” without reason, it is almost impossible to imagine a city more magnificent, resting majestically on the seven hills of Istanbul with the Black Sea above and the Sea of Marmara below. Regardless of your reason for being there it is always a pleasure; just travelling from A to B is in itself an adventure as you try to soak up all the eye candy the city has to offer. Istanbul isn’t a city you can visit in just a couple of days there is a massive amount of things to do here so if you’re travelling on a limited timescale it might be an idea to read up on the city first and decide what you want to see, or face arriving and being entirely overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of things to see and do. As luck may have it a lot of the major tourist attractions are grouped together around the Golden Horn so if you’re staying in the city it might be advantageous to find a hotel around the Galata/Beyoğlu or Sultanahmet/ Eminönü districts.
It is easy to imagine the old city in all its Ottoman glory as much of it is still standing, and, with a push of the imagination you can imagine the city in Byzantium era as many historical gems from this era also remain. So what not to miss, most visitors head straight to Sultanahmet to see the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) something of a rarity built in 532 AD on the behest of Byzantine Emperor Justinian and considered the pinnacle of Byzantium architecture. It was the most important church in Christendom for 1000 years until 1453 when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottoman Turks and Sultan Mehmet II had it converted into a mosque, for almost five hundred years it continued in this role until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered it to be converted into a museum in 1935. Right next door to Hagia Sophia you will find some of Istanbul’s other attraction such as The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Camii), The Basilica Cistern and Topkapı Palace all within five minutes walk of each other. Don’t forget to head across the Galata Bridge to the Galata Tower with its stunning panoramic views of Istanbul. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, there is a wealth of history in and around Istanbul to jump in and explore these are just some of the most famous and popular ones, the old quarter of Istanbul is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Nightlife & Eateries
For me the night time in Istanbul has to start in Taksim Square (Beyoğlu District) the beating heart of modern Istanbul, in the centre of the square you will find the independence monument commemorating Atatürk the founder of the Turkish republic. From Taksim Square walk southwest down Istiklal Caddesi and you will find pedestrianised streets lined with bars, boutiques, cafes, consulates, restaurants, and an old restored Ottoman tram that services the area. The side streets are also lined with small bars known as meyhanes or tavernas offering a selection of live entertainment, in recent times rooftop bars have become popular with their semi open terraces and skyline views, if you can find one playing local folk or gypsy music even better as a bar full of strangers often ends up a bar full of dancing friends. The area really is east meets west with its heady mix of European and Asian culture and was in the past often referred to as the Paris of the East.
Lone male travellers are warned to be wary as it is known that there are a few scams that are used in this area to part you from your money, so best to politely avoid over friendly strangers that want to take you somewhere.
Travelling around Istanbul by public transport is probably the cheapest and easiest way to get around; free maps can be found when you arrive at the airport or at the tourist information centre in Sultanahmet. The public transport system consist of a selection of trams, buses, boats or the metro each time you travel on one you need to purchase a metal token (Jeton). To travel from Atatürk airport to Sultanahmet get the Metro from the airport to Zeytinburnu then get a tram to Sultanahmet, really simple and should cost less the 3YTL whereas airport transfers are normally about 30 Euros. Taxis in Istanbul are relatively cheap and mostly pretty trustworthy, although I prefer to find out a ballpark figure of the approximate tariff before I get in, it normally comes in cheaper then there estimations. Taxi drivers that want you to agree a fixed price first are probably trying to overcharge you, but if you are happy with the price then why mess around. A Dolmuş is a cheap shared taxi that takes 8 passengers, they drive along a set route, but will take minor detours to drop you off, they only leave once the dolmuş is full.
Shoppers have been travelling to Istanbul for thousands of years, mostly to hit the covered streets of the Grand Bazaar which is a must for any enthusiastic shopper, although if you venture into the surrounding streets you will find many wholesale areas where there are bargains galore particularly if you’re buying in bulk. Get the tram down to sultanahmet to see the quaint shops in the Arasta Bazaar located behind the Blue Mosque, or continue on the tram to Eminönü and the old Spice Bazaar. Look out for local markets at Kadiköy & Ortaköy. For high end designer shops head to Nişantaşi. Most shops in Istanbul stay open until fairly late in the evening.