Istanbul has a population of over 14 million and rising, and sprawls for dozens of miles across two continents and the vast Bosphorus Strait waterway that divides them. But, fortunately for the visitor, many of its historic churches and mosques, museums, art galleries, best eating and night-time spots are located within a compact heartland

Sights and attractions

Sights and attractions in Istanbul

Nowhere else in the world will a two-minute metro journey or a 20-minute ferry ride whisk you from one continent to another. Equally, no other city has been home first to a Christian empire (the Byzantine), then a Muslim one (that of the Ottoman Turks). Istanbul’s unique geo-strategic location and incredible history make it a visitor’s paradise. From the Asian-side seafront, gaze across the blue-ribbon of the Bosphorus to Europe and the sprawling Topkapı Palace, once home to the sultan. Take a 15-minute stroll around the historic Sultanahmet area to see the landmark Blue Mosque; the iconic church-cum-mosque-cum-museum of Hagia Sophia; the ancient chariot racing arena; and a pretty row of pa­­stel-coloured, wood-built Ottoman houses. Cross the Golden Horn river to the Beyoğlu borough to take in a panoramic view from the Genoese Galata Tower, shop ’til you drop along elegant 19th-century İstiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), visit a Whirling Dervish lodge or pop into a contemporary art gallery or two.

Art and culture

Art and culture in Istanbul

Ankara may be the county’s capital, but pulsating Istanbul is undoubtedly Turkey’s arts and culture hub. The impressive trio of Archaeological Museums hold treasures from former Ottoman domains throughout Europe and the Middle East, while the Kariye (or Chora) Museum boasts one of the most vivid collections of Byzantine mosaics in the world. For contemporary tastes, Istanbul Modern has a fabulous position on the Bosphorus waterfront and some great art, whilst bustling Istıklal Caddesi is peppered with small but innovative (and free) contemporary galleries. Amongst a number of excellent cultural events held throughout the year, the month-long Istanbul Music Festival (June-July) and the Istanbul Biennial (every odd year in October-November) are good choices

Food and drink

Food and drink in Istanbul

Cynics may cry “kebabs, kebabs and more kebabs”, but more knowledgeable culinary experts rank Turkish cuisine as one of the world’s best – and they are right. Meyhanes (traditional taverns) are the places for long, voluble meals of meze (like Spanish tapas) and grilled fish; the chic Bosphorus-front fish restaurants do a similar job in a rather more refined style. Elsewhere, Istanbulites huddle around a long charcoal grill at an ocakbaşı (literally, by the stove – which is how you’ll spot them) as the chef carefully tends to their chosen cuts of meat, whilst business and tradespeople favour lunch-time sulu yemek (stews) eating places. Chic rooftop bars, Turkish coffee and baklava joints and, of course, kebab emporiums fill out the picture. For innovative twists on traditional Turkish cuisine, try Lokanta Maya in hip Karaköy or Meze by Lemon Tree in buzzing Beyoğlu. Lively meyhanes line madcap streets Nevizade Sokak and Asmalımescit in Beyoğlu. And for a trendy cocktail with a view try the sleek Leb-ı Derya or head to the bars beneath the landmark Galata Bridge for a casual beer.

Shopping

Shopping in Istanbul

With over 4,000 shops huddled beneath the domes of a sprawling 500-year-old complex of buildings, the Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest malls. Haggle for antique carpets, fake Rolexes, designer leather bags and much, much more. Otherwise, assail your olfactory senses at the equally historic Spice Bazaar, or peruse the quality İznik pottery, carpets and kilims and peştemals (Turkish bath wraps) at the delightful Arasta Bazaar, beneath the Blue Mosque. The more adventurous skip across to Asia to take in Kadıköy’s fish and antique markets, or enjoy the down-to-earth Çaraşamba Bazaar, which covers dozens of streets every Wednesday in Fatih. Istanbulites love shopping, and over 100 gleaming new malls (try Demirören in Beyoğlu, Kanyon in Nişantaşı and the Zorlu Center) have spread across the city in recent years, selling most of the world’s leading brands as well as quality Turkish wares such as Beyman and Vakko clothing, Yargıcı accessories and Mavi jeans. For upmarket clothes, jewellery and accessories and household items, the wealthy suburbs of Nisantası, near Taksim, and Bağdat Caddesi across in Asia, are appealing.

Unique to Istanbul

Unique to Istanbul in Istanbul

There are relatively few green spaces left to escape the stresses of metropolitan living in oft-frenetic Istanbul, but this city has plenty of open water to soothe those frayed senses. Get a taste of the city’s USP with a short hop across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city, where you might spot a school of porpoise arcing through the waves, along with merchant ships heading up the strait to the Black Sea. An Istanbul must – and as popular with locals as visitors – is the Bosphorus Cruise (typically a half- or full-day trip). Starting from the landmark Galata Bridge, boats zig-zig up the strait, pass under two trans-continental suspension bridges and glide past historic waterfront mansions, palaces and Ottoman castles before stopping for a fish lunch near the Black Sea. Alternatively, the ferry ride up the Golden Horn gives superb vistas of the old city’s mosque-capped hills.

Day trip

Day trip in Istanbul

Hop on the T1 tram to its terminus in Kabataş and board a ferry heading south to the magical Princes’ İslands, a tiny archipelago sprinkled across the blue waters of the Sea of Marmara. Get the sea-bus and you’ll be there in half an hour, but to enjoy a sunny day the slower ferries (50 minutes to the nearest island) have open seating areas. All four visitable islands are free of motorised vehicles, so visitors either walk, take a horse-drawn phaeton or hire a bike. All the islands have beaches, and plenty of places to enjoy a fish meal and relaxed vibe. The largest, Büyükada, has some fantastic fin de siècle architecture, the house where Trotsky was exiled, a fascinating little museum and a hill-top Greek Orthodox church and café with amazing views.

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