Sometimes described as 'the crossroads of Europe and Asia', Istanbul - formerly Constantinople - is a vast, heaving metropolis with an imperial history that stretches back for more than 1,500 years. No longer Turkey's capital but still the cultural heart of the nation, this city of 13 million sprawls across both sides of a land bridge spanning two continents.
Istanbul's unique position on the Bosphorus Strait, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean, has resulted in the city being a jealously guarded center of world trade since the Byzantine era.
Protected by water on three sides, with the natural harbor of the Golden Horn nestled within the city, Istanbul has always enjoyed an ideal location for conducting east-west trade and building empires. The city fell to the Ottomans in 1453 but remained a vital trading post for spices and textiles brought to Europe via the Silk Road from as far away as China.
Because of its prime geographic position, Istanbul has suffered from frequent sieges over the centuries. That which started out as a Hellenic outpost to New Rome, the world's first Christian capital, went on to become the headquarters of the Ottoman Sultans, masters of the world's biggest Muslim Empire. Its identity today is altogether more secular but still combines both eastern and European characteristics.
As a result of such a rich and varied history, Istanbul's architectural inheritance is second to none. Fine examples are visible throughout the city with stunning Ottoman mosques, classical columns, Byzantine structures, ancient city walls and fine Orthodox churches.
In recent years, rapid industrialization has drawn thousands of rural poor to the metropolis, resulting in a vast social gap between ‘natives' and migrants and a very high growth rate. However, with Turkey's economy making an upturn in recent years and future EU membership firmly on the cards, Istanbul is currently thriving - for the wealthy at least. The city has become increasingly cosmopolitan of late: the arts and music scene is flourishing, and new bars, clubs, private art galleries, restaurants and designer fashion outlets are opening all the time.
Where to Go in Istanbul »
It takes time to see Istanbul properly, since examples of its 2,000-year-old past can be difficult to find amid the chaos of the present. Most visitors go straight to the Sultanahmet district, the oldest part of the city, where there are at least some remnants of Byzantine Constantinople, such as Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), among the splendors of Imperial Ottoman architecture, such as Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque. Sultanahmet is, however, a ‘tourist quarter' with the usual irritations of badgering touts and crowds of people and it is not the only historic part of the city.
The city center, including the areas referred to as ‘the old city' and ‘the new city', which are separated by the estuary of the Golden Horn, is located on the European side of Istanbul, on the western side of the Bosphorus Strait.
Northwest of Sultanahmet lies the area of Beyazit, focused around the famous Kapali Çarsi (Covered or Grand Bazaar), while directly north from Sultanahmet, following the tramway, visitors will quickly hit the noisy, chaotic Eminönü docks on the Golden Horn.
From here, across the Galata Bridge, the area beginning at Karaköy port, running up to the landmark Galata Tower and then up through Beyoğlu and Taksim, was for centuries the designated residence of foreigners, including Italian, Greek and Levantine traders.
The Tünel climbs the hill from Karaköy port to the start of Istiklal Caddesi, a mile-long pedestrian thoroughfare leading up to Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul and home to much of its nightlife.
Mosques are almost always open to visitors, outside prayer times, although shorts and sleeveless clothes should not be worn. Shoes are left outside and women will be loaned a shawl to covers arms and hair. Visitors should not take photographs of women wearing the traditional black çarsaf, as this is forbidden. Parents of little boys in their full circumcision regalia will usually allow photos, although a small gift of money to the child is traditional.
Istanbul's museum system is confusing, as each is run by different ministries, municipal authorities or private owners. Entrance charges or opening hours can change suddenly. Check with tourist offices for up-to-date opening times and prices.
Sophia, known as Aya
Sofya and translated as 'Church of Divine Wisdom', is considered the world's finest example of Byzantine architecture. Consecrated in 537AD, its vast dome rises to 56m (183ft), designed to appear suspended in space and thus representative of heaven. So impressed was Mehmet the Conqueror that when he took the city in 1453, he dedicated it as a mosque, and it remained so until declared a museum when the Turkish Republic was founded. Highlights include Byzantine mosaics and huge Ottoman circular shields containing calligraphy of Koranic verses.
Sultanahmet, in front of Topkapi Palace
Tel: (0212) 522 1750.
Opening hours: Tues-Sun 0900-1700 (winter); 0900-1800 (summer) plus first Monday of every month.
Originally built as a summer residence and the seat of government, Topkapi
Palace was home to harem, state administration and military personnel in the 16th century, with around 3,000 residents. Sultans abandoned it for Dolmabahçe
Palace in 1855, but many of the sumptuous jewels of the original treasury (including the Topkapi dagger, and gold-plated throne of Murat III), the armory, silk ceremonial robes, Chinese ceramics and the collection of manuscripts, all convey the old Ottoman decadence. Near the Imperial Gate is Haghia Eirene Museum, venue for concerts during the International Istanbul music festival. The prison-like Harem, comprising several dozen ornate rooms which once housed up to 300 concubines, is only open to guided tours and requires a separate ticket (and separate queue). Weekends and holidays are more crowded.
Babihümayun Caddesi, Sultanahmet
Tel: (0212) 512 0480.
Opening hours: Wed-Mon 0900-1600 (winter); Wed-Mon 0900-1900 (summer).
Kapali Çarşisi (Covered or Grand Bazaar)
The famous and vast bazaar is the best known of Istanbul's markets. It was instated shortly after the 1493 Conquest and contained the slave market, as well as the hans
, or caravanserais of old, where Silk Road traders could rest themselves and their camels, as well as sell their goods. While the ornate ceilings and labyrinth-like layout still hark back to the past, these days the vast number of stalls (more than 4,000 of them, in over 60 streets) sell mainly tourist-friendly goods and plasma television screens belie any sense of a timeless atmosphere. The complex also contains two mosques, money change offices, a police station, cafes and an information point. Haggling is essential at most stalls.
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 0900-1900.
Misir Çarşisi (Egyptian or Spice Market)
This L-shaped market, facing the Golden Horn, was built in the 17th century as an extension to Yeni
Camii (New Mosque), and financed by the money paid as duty on Egyptian goods. Originally famed for its exotic spices and oils from the Orient, these days it also sells dried fruits, caviar and Turkish delight, as well a plethora of souvenirs at prices generally lower than the Grand Bazaar. Its surrounding streets are a hub of commercial activity, with local craftspeople, traders and a great selection of cheeses and olives.
Opening hours: Mon-Sat 0800-1900.
Istanbul Travel Tips »
Getting There By Air:
Istanbul Atatürk International Airport (IST)
Tel: (0212) 465 5555.
Rebuilt, state-of-the-art Atatürk International Airport is located 23km (15 miles) west of central Istanbul, in Yeşilköy.
Facilities include bureaux de change, ATMs, two 24-hour health clinics, pharmacies, lost and found, banks, post office, 24-hour left luggage, business-class hotel (including accommodation
at an hourly rate), baggage service, restaurants, snack bars, hairdresser, tourist information, shops, duty-free, 24-hour hotel reservation (private companies), travel agencies and car hire from Avis
. There are also Business facilities.
Transport to the city:
service bus (tel: (0212) 465 4700; website: www.havas.com.tr
) to Aksaray and Taksim Square departs from the international and domestic terminals every 30 minutes (journey time - 30-40 minutes) between 0400-0100. Buses also run every 30 minutes as far as Bakirköy sea bus pier between 0630-2030 (weekdays), 0810-2130 (weekends). Buses also travel to the Akmerkez shopping center in Etiler every two hours. IETT
public buses run from nearby Yeşilköy into the city center. There are plenty of taxis outside the airport; insist on the meter being used. A taxi to Taksim should cost around US$20. The Metro has regular trains between the airport and Esenler Otogar, the main bus station, and Aksaray.
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW)
Tel: (0216) 585 5000.
Sabiha Gökçen airport is located on the Asian side of Istanbul, 50km (30 miles) east of Taksim, the European center of Istanbul, 1.5km (1 mile) from the TEM motorway, and 12km (7.5 miles) from Pendik sea bus jetty and train station. This airport has relieved some of the overload at Atatürk Airport with its domestic terminal and international terminal mainly serving German cities, plus London and Amsterdam. It also handles a small number of charter flights to central Asia, and cargo and military planes
These include information and help desks, ATMs, a bank, post office, duty-free shops, gift shops, bookshops, restaurants, cafes, wheelchair service, a VIP lounge, conference and business facilities and parking. Car hire is provided in both terminals by Avis
Transport to the city:
service bus (see above) operates hourly to Taksim between 0400-0100, with stops including Pendik, Bostanci, Kadiköy and Harem. Cheaper IETT public buses run to Levent, Kadiköy and Kozyataği. Taxis are available 24 hours a day and cost at least US$60 to Taksim, more to Sultanahmet.
Approximate flight times to Istanbul:
From London is 3 hours 30 minutes; from New York is 9 hours; from Los Angeles is 13 hours; from Toronto is 10 hours and 30 minutes and from Sydney is 22 hours.
Getting There By Road:
Although the road network throughout Turkey is extensive, with some dual carriageways and numerous three-lane highways, maintenance can be poor and conditions dangerous - Turkey has one of the worst accident rates in the world. European road rules are now better enforced than before, with fines rising yearly, although the great volume of buses and trucks still make driving in Turkey challenging and visitors are advised to drive cautiously.
The route from Europe has been greatly improved by the Istanbul bypass and two Bosphorus bridges which lead to the Istanbul-Ankara express. The fastest roads are the otoyols
(multilane highways), linking Istanbul to several major cities.
The legal driving age in Turkey is 18 years. Drivers bringing cars into Turkey must show their registration documents, passport and international driving license at the place of entry. If arriving from Europe, visitors must have a Green Card (available from insurance companies) as well as appropriate top-up insurance. A valid driving license, passport, logbook, insurance certificate and vehicle registration must be carried at all times. Driving is on the right and drivers must give way to the right at all times. The speed limit on motorways is 120kph (75mph), 90kph (56mph) on main roads and 50kph (31mph) in towns. Visiting drivers should also note that traffic lights change abruptly from red to green. Officially, the blood/alcohol limit is 0.05%, however, this is poorly enforced.
British motoring associations have reciprocal agreements with the Turkish Touring and Automobile Association
) (tel: (0212) 282 8140; website: www.turing.org.tr
Emergency breakdown service:
To report an accident, call the Traffic Police
(tel: 154). SOS phones are available on the roadsides on motorways.
Routes to the city:
The E-80, E-90 and Trans European Motorway (TEM) are the three main roads leading to Turkey from European borders. The main motorway from the Turkish border at Edirne straight through to Istanbul, Ankara and beyond is the E-80, closely paralleled by the somewhat smaller D-100. The route to Antalya follows the E-80 to Izmit and then heads south on the D-650.
Approximate driving times to Istanbul:
From Ankara - 6 hours; from Antalya - 12 hours.
The safest and most convenient method of internal transport, especially for travel to southern Turkish resorts, is Turkey's vast system of intercity coaches.
Uluslararasi Istanbul Otogari
or International Istanbul Bus Terminal (tel: (0212) 658 0505) in Esenler, about 10km (6 miles) west of the city center, serves all international and most domestic lines. Most major intercity companies have free service buses from central Istanbul to the bus station. Most of these shuttle services leave (in good time before the coach scheduled departure time) from Inonu Caddesi and Sirasilveler Caddesi in Taksim, also home to many ticket offices. Visitors can book tickets here any time before departure and most offices take credit cards, with the biggest firms accepting online bookings.
The Esenler bus terminal can also easily be reached by the Hizli Tren
(rapid train) service from Aksaray, or from Sultanahmet by using a combination of tram and metro. IETT
city bus 83-O runs direct to the bus station from Taksim square. A few Anatolian services leave from Harem otogar
(tel: (0212) 333 3763) on the Asian side.
Some of the best companies include: Kamil Koç
(tel: (0212) 658 2000 or
444 0562 (toll free); website: www.kamilkoc.com.tr
), which serves a wide range of destinations throughout Turkey, including Bursa, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Bodrum, Fethiye and Çanakkale; Ulusoy
(tel: 444 1888 (toll free); website: www.ulusoy.com.tr
), which serves international destinations, Ankara, the Black Sea, as well as Izmir and Antalya; Varan
(tel: 444 8999 (toll free) or (0212) 658 0270; website: www.varan.com.tr
), which serves Greece and Austria as well as much of western and southern Turkey. Long journeys are usually made at night, leaving Istanbul between 2200 and 2400 and arriving at the destination in the morning.
Getting There By Rail:
Turkish State Railways
) (tel: 444 8233; website: www.tcdd.gov.tr
) operates the national railway network, with rolling stock that is often slow and lacking air conditioning, although cheap. There are two stations in Istanbul - Sirkeci Station, Ankara Caddesi, near Eminönü on the European side (tel: (0212) 527 0051), and Haydarpaşa Station, Haydarpaşa Istasyon Caddesi, near Kadiköy on the Asian side (tel: (0216) 336 0475). Both stations are equipped with restaurants, newspaper kiosks and waiting rooms.
Trains bound for Sofia, Belgrade, Bucharest and Budapest (with transfers to Munich and Vienna) leave from Sirkeci Station, departing in the evening. Trains for Turkish destinations (Asian side) leave from Haydarpaşa Station. There are express trains between major Turkish cities but cheaper rural routes can be painfully slow and crowded. There are several services to Ankara, some overnight, the quickest being the daytime Başkent Express
(journey time - 6 hours 30 minutes). There are also daily trains to Izmir (journey time - 11 hours including ferry crossing to Bandirma), Gaziantep (journey time - 27 hours) and Denizli (journey time - 15 hours).
Istanbul Activities »
Istanbul's cultural activities, both traditional and contemporary, are rich and varied, although not invariably well publicized. Matching the city's exploding youth population is a growing number of festivals, galleries, new music venues and film centers and, within the last decade, Turkish artists have begun to make an international impact. There are now a number of independent record companies in the city, releasing experimental works that combine Turkish traditional artists with contemporary groups. The Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Art
, the Istanbul Kültür ve Sanat
Istikal Caddesi 64, (tel: (0212) 334 0700; website: www.istfest.org
), puts on an impressive series of international festivals. The French Culture Center
, Istiklal Caddesi 4 (tel: (0212) 393 8111; website: www.infist.org
) often has French film screenings, and dance performances.
Tickets can be hard to come by for the popular film and jazz festivals, so visitors should book well in advance for any events at existing concert venues, especially the Atatürk Cultural Center
or Atatürk Kultur Merkezi
, Taksim Square, Taksim (tel: (0212) 251 5600) and the Cemil Topuzlu Açik Hava Tiyatrosu
(Open Air Theater). The annual Contemporary Artist Istanbul Exhibition celebrates the work of young local artists, many of whom progress to being internationally renowned. Akbank Culture and Arts Center
, Istiklal Caddesi, Zambak Sokak 1, (tel: (0212) 252 3500 or
3501; website: www.akbanksanat.com
), is also the venue for jazz and classical music.
The private sector has helped take the load off Istanbul's government-supported venues, by opening specialized arts events and private galleries, many of which can be seen on Istiklal Caddesi and the Taksim area. Among the most adventurous is the Borusan Center for Culture and Art
, Istiklal Caddesi 213 (tel: (0212) 336 3280; website: www.borusansanat.com
), which alternates ‘conceptual' Turkish and international exhibitions, plus an enormous music library and concert space for classical music performances. Platform Garanti Contemporary Art Center
, Istiklal Caddesi 115A (tel: (0212) 293 2361; website: www.platform.garanti.com.tr
), is a three-story venue with regularly changing exhibitions and artists in residence. The recently opened attractive Pera Museum
, Meşrutiyet Caddesi 65, Tepebaşi (tel: (0212) 334 9900; website: www.pm.org.tr
), often hosts major art exhibitions.
Tickets for most cultural events are available at Biletix
outlets (website: www.biletix.com
), from locations including Ada bookshop on Istiklal Caddesi, Vakkorama, MMMigros
supermarkets and Raksotek
The Guide Istanbul
), published bi-monthly and available at newsstands and in bookstores and major supermarkets, provides up-to-date information on cultural events and performance in the city. Other excellent sources of information are available at www.mymerhaba.com
, an expatriate forum. Turkish Daily News
) also has listings.
Istanbul Shopping »
Istanbul has been a top choice for shoppers for more than 1,500 years, famed as the trading point connecting the Silk Road from China with Europe. Visitors tend to flock to the famous Grand Bazaar
in Beyazit, with what's left of its Ottoman atmosphere and cool covered streets (see Key Attractions
). This is a good place for an overview of goods and prices, however better bargains can often be found in the smaller shopping areas of Sultanahmet and Beyazit.
Likewise, the famous Spice Bazaar
in Eminönü is a must see, if only for the mountains of Turkish delight
and its busy surrounding streets selling delicious olives, cheeses and dried fruits (see Key Attractions
As a designated tourist quarter, the Sultanahmet area is competitive in terms of price and variety of specialized goods, such as carpets, kilims
(flat-woven rugs), silver jewelry and collector's items. For a more authentic atmosphere, however, Istanbul's street markets are well worth a look, like the farmers' market
(sacks of seeds and gardening products) adjacent to the Spice Bazaar, and, on Tuesdays, near Fenerbahçe Stadium, the enormous Kadiköy market
(plus a weekend flea market too). On Sundays, the restored harbor area at Ortaköy
is taken over by a craft and antique market.
Çukurcuma (along Turnacibaşi Sokak, off Istiklal Caddesi) is the heart of the antiques district. Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu has a plethora of clothes, music, and book stores (an increasing number have lovely cafes inside), while the real fashionistas should head to the area of Nişantaşi, known as the Champs Elysees of Istanbul, with Gucci, Armani, Hugo Boss and the like, and the fancy department store Beymen
, the Istanbul equivalent of Harvey Nichols.
Bağdat Caddesi on the Asian side also has a good range of fashion boutiques and department stores. Huge shopping malls tend to be found in the suburbs, such as Galleria
, in Ataköy, and Akmerkez
, in Etiler. In Levent, the huge swanky Kanyon
mall opened in 2006 and is Istanbul's best collection of international designer brands.
Typical Turkish gifts include wooden boxes of Turkish delight, delicate albeit cheap tea sets, spice trays and painted ceramics. If you aren't tempted by the carpets, smaller and cheaper alternatives include bags and cushion covers made from old kilims
. A blue ‘eye' talisman is highly popular in the city - almost every shop, home and room is equipped with one.
Outside of the state-owned markets, most shops stay open until late evening, although the official opening hours are Monday to Saturday 0900-1800. Even at midnight, however, there are traders on the main pedestrian thoroughfares selling toys, socks, black-market CDs and even antiques laid out on the ground.
Value-added tax (KDV
in Turkish) is at 18%, and it is usually already included on most items, except hotels. Foreign passport holders are exempt on goods costing more than YTL118 in the specially designated tourist shops, which issue a specific invoice that can be presented at customs for refunds at the airport. Visitors should always make sure to get an invoice for items that could be considered ‘antique', as the penalty for smuggling antiquities is very high and customs officials are often poorly informed as to what constitutes an antique.