Istanbul is such a diverse city that it's almost impossible to split it up into definable districts. The only real distinction that can be made is between the European and Asian sides, which are separated by the Bosphorus Strait. Stretching from the Black Sea, straddling across the Bosphorus, touching the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul, with an estimated population of between 10-13 million, has become a city of unlimited scope.
Most people who come to Istanbul land feet first in Sultanahmet. This peninsula (known as Sarayburnu) juts out into the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara. Rich in history, it's a natural magnet to millions of tourists every year. The home of
Situated right on the waterfront on the Golden Horn, Eminönü is the end of the tramline. It is generally buzzing with activity during the day, with street peddlers selling you things you never even knew you wanted. The vast
Beyoglu / Taksim
A veritable symphony of Occident and Orient, Beyoglu is the pulsating heartbeat of Istanbul's day and nightlife.
This is undoubtedly Istanbul's Bohemian Quarter, which not so long ago was perceived as a bad part of town, with its dark deserted streets and creepy abandoned buildings. However, the area has undergone tremendous development in recent years. Tiny cafes, live music venues, and open-air restaurants and bars now quietly coexist with art galleries, antique bookshops and music stores.
Around the first century BC, there was a tiny village situated on the mini peninsula of the Golden Horn where the modern suburb of Karaköy stands today. These days, Karaköy is a bustling port with a lively fish market, a hectic ferry terminal and a shady nightlife; an intriguing landscape at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Scores of locals fish from the Galata Bridge and an array of vendors peddle all kinds of goods along the sidewalks. A vast underground marketplace where you can buy electrical appliances and guns, among other things, provides not-so-safe passage under the busy road to the entrance of Tünel. Up the hill is Bankalar Caddesi, an historical area filled with banks, art galleries and do-it-yourself stores. All visiting international cruise ships dock in Karaköy.
The most interesting part of the Golden Horn district comprises of the stretch of land between Eminönü and Ayvansaray, up as far as Eyüp. The Selimiye Mosque, the Fethiye Mosque and St. Steven's Church grace the shoreline while the Kariye Müzesi (Chora Church) and Mihrimah Mosque are further inland. The old city walls start at Ayvansaray and snake overland to Yedikapi.
Besiktas and Ortaköy
Besiktas -- which is actually dismally devoid of places to help you paint the town red -- is at the center of the three-way fork that leads up the hill to Levent. Ortaköy, on the other hand, is a bustling suburb on the waterfront. Bubbling over with cafés, bars, restaurants and tea houses, this area is a popular weekend hangout for locals. Ortaköy's back streets are buzzing with handicraft stalls filled with trinkets and souvenirs on summer weekends. This part of town is renowned for its mosque, church and synagogue within close quarters of one another. The Bosphorus Bridge spans the waterway overhead.
Bosphorus: Arnavutköy to Sariyer
The Bosphorus shore on the European side is lined with Ottoman-style mansions, high society hangouts and fish restaurants. There is only one main road and it follows the shoreline all the way to Zekariyeköy, a popular weekend getaway for the citybound.
Sea of Marmara Coast: Kumkapi to Yediküle
Kumkapi is a distinctly touristy area filled with over-priced fish restaurants and not much else besides views of the sea. The coast road heads out toward the airport past the old city walls and Yediküle Fortress.
Asian Side & Bosphorus: Kadiköy to Anadolu Hisari
Kadiköy is a quieter version of Beyoglu with a more subdued atmosphere. The tiny cobbled lanes are filled with restaurants, cafés, bars, cinemas and shops, but most importantly, residents! The Asian side of town is where most Istanbulites live; you'll have a harder time with no Turkish language skills here, but it's worth it to pop over on the ferry and experience a more relaxed way of life. The coast road snakes past Üsküdar, a pretty suburb with plenty of fine examples of Mimar Sinan's work, including the
There are four islands in the Sea of Marmara that attract crowds escaping the summer heat: Büyükada, Heybeliada, Kinaliada and Burgazada. Ferries leave from Sirkeci, Kadiköy and Bostanci regularly. There are no cars on the islands -- the transport here is limited to horse-drawn carriages. Each island offers plenty of places to eat and sleep, and there are Greek monasteries atop the hills of Büyükada and Heybeliada.
A settlement on Sarayburnu was established around 655 BCE. Triangular in shape, with water on two sides, it was a ready-made fortress. To the north, this peninsula later to be named the Golden Horn (Haliç in Turkish) formed a natural deep-water harbor. The site offered easy access to the Mediterranean, Africa and the Black Sea, and lay at the crossroads of mainland transit routes crossing Europe and Asia. The small colony's founding was attributed to a sailor by the name of Byzas, hence the name Byzantium.
The Persians eagerly took control of the city in 550 BC, followed by the Spartans, then the Athenians. The Byzantines developed a series of shrewd alliances and were able to keep their predatory neighbors at bay. King Philip of Macedon tested the walls and will of Byzantium for an entire year from 340-341 BC.
In 196 CE, the Byzantines backed the wrong side in the imperial Roman power struggle. After a prolonged siege, Septimius Severus had Byzantium's walls torn down, the city put to the torch, and much of the population put to death. He then rebuilt the city on a grander scale with new temples, a colonnaded avenue, and bigger, better walls enclosing an area almost twice the size of the previous city. However, nothing of Severus' city remains today.
Early in the 1st Century CE, the Roman Empire became too unwieldy to govern from Rome, and was thus subdivided, one section's capital being Byzantium. Power struggles among the new governors of the territories of the Roman Empire led to Byzantium becoming a perpetual battleground. In 324 CE, Constantine, governor of Byzantium, defeated his counterpart Licinius and set about changing the course of history. He promoted Christianity and shifted the capital from Rome to Byzantium. In 330 CE, Constantine inaugurated his new seat of power as Nova Roma.
Constantine soon renamed Nova Roma Constantinople and the new emperor was keen on development. He commissioned the church of Haghia Eirene (the first Christian cathedral) and rebuilt the city walls. Other than a burnt column, little evidence of Constantine's work survives, but he laid the foundations for an empire that was to endure for over 1000 years.
The beginnings were not auspicious. On Constantine's death in 337 CE, achievement and stability ended. His sons quarreled over the succession, and the Byzantine Empire was divided into eastern and western segments. Theodosius II (408-450 CE) reinforced the city walls and erected the massive Egyptian Obelisk, pilfered during a campaign in Luxor. Constantinople began to move towards a new era of greatness, reaching its apex during the era of Justinian (527-565 CE).
Justinian's reign was marked by great confidence, and the empire expanded to include most of the Mediterranean coast, including Italy. He embarked on a program of reconstruction, building more than 40 churches and immense water cisterns like Yerebatan Sarayi. The crowning glory was a new cathedral, Sancta Sophia(Hagia Sophia).
Byzantine fortunes were restored during the reign of Basil II (976-1025), who expanded the empire into Armenia and Georgia. Basil's most significant contribution to history came in 989 AD when his daughter Anna married Vladimir (Prince of Kiev), and the pagan prince converted to Orthodox Christianity.
At the hands of the Ducas and Comneni families, Constantinople became the most decadent city in the world, filled with intrigue, dethronings and murder. The empire now relied on wealth and diplomacy as opposed to military force. With the Seljuk Turks as the greater threat, Byzantium was forced to enlist the aid of Latin armies. By 1394 Constantinople had become a Byzantine island in an Ottoman sea. The city was confronted with a Turkish army at its walls.
Soon after becoming the Ottoman sultan in 1452, Mehmet II constructed the fortress of Rumeli Hisari on the European shore of the Bosphorus just north of the city.
Mehmet the Conqueror encouraged craftsmen and artisans from Bursa and Edirne to move to his new city and build Topkapi Palace. Soon the new capital was well-endowed with mosques, hamams and the beginnings of what would develop into the Grand Bazaar.
After Mehmet's death in 1481, his elder son Beyazit II won succession. Beyazit's son Selim (known as "Selim the Grim" for his habit of having his grand viziers executed) succeeded him. During Selim's eight-year reign he presided over significant military victories, adding Syria and Egypt to the imperial portfolio. He quelled a Portuguese threat to Mecca and was rewarded with the keys to the Holy City, the sacred relics of the Prophet, and the title of Caliph, or Successor of the Prophet.
Süleyman the Magnificent (1520-66) ruled an empire that covered the spread of North Africa, stretched east to India, and rolled from the Caucasus through Anatolia and the Balkans, to Budapest and most of modern-day Hungary.
Istanbul became synonymous with grandeur under Süleyman. He married Roxelana and commissioned a promising young architect, Mimar Sinan, to construct the Haseki Hürrem Mosque complex as a birthday present. This was Sinan's first major commission in Istanbul, launching a glorious career which spanned 50 years, during which time left his indelible mark on the city and indeed on most major cities of the Ottoman Empire.
Süleyman was succeeded by Selim, beginning an era that saw weak sultans manipulated by their wives and mothers between whom there were often violent struggles for power.
In 1683 the Ottomans failed to recapture Vienna. This marked the beginning of a series of backward steps for the Ottomans. The Janissaries (once the sultan's finest troops) were out of control, threatening the sultan and killing ministers, and plagues were recurrent.
When Selim III took the throne in 1789 he had a lot on his plate: disobedient guards, ongoing and long-lasting outbreaks of disease, economic decline, military defeats, moribund culture and a restless populace. The Janissaries were finally crushed in 1826 by Sultan Mahmut II (1808-39). He implemented much-needed reforms and local government was introduced to Istanbul for the first time, together with the city's first police and fire services. Quarantine and plague hospitals were also established.
Abdül Mecit (1839-61) continued his father's reform programs, resulting in what was to be a last blossoming of the Ottoman Empire. The sultan embraced the new era by moving out of Topkapi Palace into the imperial palace at Dolmabahçe.
Beyond debate is Atatürk's status as one of the most influential political figures of the 20th Century and a military commander of unrivaled genius. A true reformist, Atatürk changed the face of the country. Elected in 1923 as the Republic of Turkey's first president, he instituted a modified Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic script Turkish previously employed, and he even moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara. Atatürk's new Turkish constitution did away with Islamic law, and instead imposed secular laws largely based on the Italian justice system. After his death in 1938, chaos ruled. Democracy was reinstated in the 1960s but there was still no real consensus on which direction to take: East, West or Soviet-style? In 1980, there was a huge army takeover. A wave of terror ensued, resulting in over 100,000 arrests, and this dark period in Turkey's history has become the subject of a great number of Turkish books and films over the years.
Atatürk's popularity is still at an unbelievable high in Turkey -- there are statues of him on nearly every block of the city, and his representations of his likeness abound in public buildings and private homes alike. His face is also imprinted on every denomination of Turkish lira -- bills and coins. Though his face itself may seem to be the most lasting impression he has left on Turkey, in fact it is his secular policies and laws that are still being studied and fought over today. There is an ongoing and significant struggle between secular and non-secular factions in Turkey. Indecisive elections in 1995 resulted in an unpopular center-right Islamic coalition. Fueled by decades of hatred for the country's secular institutions, they set about destroying everything they couldn't control, bringing the economy to the brink of collapse. In the interest of avoiding another army coup, a more stable multi-party coalition was formed.
A long-awaited metro system, promising relief from traffic congestion, is up and running. Istanbul's yearly GDP recently surpassed those of other major world cities such as Berlin, Delhi, Singapore, Vienna, Munich, Stockholm, Cairo, Bangkok and Johannesburg, among others. The mood in Istanbul at the moment is one of much optimism and hope.
Whether you feel like staying in an Ottoman palace, a family home, a restored mansion, a traditional wooden house, a converted prison or a youth hostel, you will certainly find all of the above in Istanbul. Following a recent boom in tourism, Istanbul's hotels and guesthouses now cater to every taste as well as all budgets. There are many hotels catering to tourists clustered around the Sultanahmet area but business people tend to prefer the more centrally-located Taksim, or they stick to hotels around Atatürk Airport. There are hundreds of hotels all throughout the city, ranging from the lowliest budget hostels offering the mere basics to luxury five-star hotels with superb facilities.
Breakfast and 18% KDV (value-added tax) are often included in the price of a room but it's always wise to check. Tipping hotel staff is very common -- a few lira in the hands of the help ensures high quality service.
Sultanahmet is overwhelming and too touristy in parts, but in other parts, it overflows with history and charm. The Four Seasons Hotel (located in an old prison) is the top choice in the area -- everyone knows this hotel, which is renowned for its service and facilities. Yesil Ev is a restored Ottoman mansion with a lush garden and oodles of charm. The Empress Zoe offers its guests spectacular views of the Bosphorus from the rooftop terrace and a 15th Century Turkish bath is located in the basement. The family-run Kybele Hotel exudes eclectic eccentricity, with thousands of colored-glass lamps hanging from the ceiling. The Hotel Valide Sultan Konagi offers modern facilities, Ottoman-style, while the Ayasofya Pansiyonlari are a string of replica Ottoman mansions lining a quaint cobbled street. The Hotel St Sophia is opposite Yerebatan Sarayi (Yerebatan Basilica Cistern), behind Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) in the heart of the old city. The Turkoman Hotel overlooks the At Meydani (Hippodrome) and the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque). The centrally-located Side Hotel & Pension is popular with low-budget travelers and backpackers.
Eminönü, at the mouth of the Golden Horn, is a bustling market area. Most hotels here are conveniently located near the Sirkeci Train Station. The Hotel Yasmak Sultan is a short walk from Sultanahmet Square, the Grand Bazaar and the Galata Bridge. The Orient Express Hotel offers an alternative location near the old city, with excellent views of the Golden Horn. The Romance Hotel is a newer addition to the gaggle of hotels with excellent modern facilities.
Istanbul's center for culture and arts, Beyoglu has become a busy hub for business people and toursits alike. Here, you'll find the Hilton, the InterContinental Ceylon, the Hyatt Regency (with its beautiful swimming pool) and one of the most famous hotels in Istanbul, the Marmara Istanbul. The Marmara Pera boasts an impressive gym with incredible views. The Hotel Euro Plaza (located near the British Consulate) designed their modern rooms with business people in mind. The Hotel Yenisehir Palas is just a short walk away from a string of restaurants, cafes, bars and nightlife. The Dilson Hotel -- with dedicated staff and modern facilities -- is just a few steps away from the metro and all public transport. The charming terrace bar at the Büyük Londra Hotel is also worth visiting for a drink.
This developing Bohemian quarter plays host to artists and intellectuals. The American Consulate is also in this area. Travelers from the Orient Express stayed at the Pera Palas Hotel, which once played host to both Atatürk and Agatha Christie. The elegant Richmond Hotel is superbly located on the main street and there is a wonderful cafe (Cafe Lebon) at street level. The four-star Mercure Hotel stands over the Tüyap Exhibition Centre (incidentally, probably the ugliest building in the city) nearby.
Golden Horn-Marmara Sea Coast
This is a sprawling suburban district spread out along the shore roads of each waterway and surrounding the old city walls. Out of the center, it's the preferred location for business people and tourists with time on their hands. Located in Topkapi -- between the old city and the airport -- the Barceló Eresin Topkapi Hotel is a favorite with business people. The Citadel offers guests magnificent views of the Marmara Sea, near the fish restaurants of Kumkapi. The Kariye Hotel in Edirnekapi is a restored 19th-century Ottoman mansion and the Asithane downstairs serves fine Ottoman cuisine.
An area of combined business and pleasure, Besiktas is laid out on a hill while Ortaköy spreads itself along the shores of the Bosphorus and plays host to thousands of day-trippers and weekenders in the warm seasons. The most notable hotel in the area is the elegant Çiragan Sarayi (Çiragan Palace) -- the luxurious home of the Ottoman sultans -- with its spectacular outdoor pool. The Conrad Hotel, also with a quite luxurious pool is perfectly situated for business meetings and conferences and the Swissôtel atop the hill combines glorious views of the Bosphorus and the city with top-quality services and facilities.
For a quick getaway or those tedious middle-of-the-night flights, there are several excellent hotels situated near Atatürk International Airport (Atatürk Havalimani). Five minutes from the airport is the five-star Polat Renaissance Istanbul Hotel with its ultra-modern décor and views of the Marmara Sea. The luxurious Radisson and Cinar hotels are also in the same area. The Ataköy Tatil Köyü is situated on the coastal road near the Ataköy train station and caters to campers and caravans.
Asian Side and Bosphorus
The Asian side of Istanbul has a less manic atmosphere than the European side. While tourists prefer to stay in the historical areas, business people prefer convenience -- much of Istanbul's business happens over here. The Harem Hotel overlooks the Bosphorus and caters to young families with its reliable childcare services. The Bosphorus Pasha in Beylerbeyi is similar to an English stately home while the Kent is a small, budget hotel located a short walk from the heart of the cobbled streets of Kadiköy and the ferry terminals.
Set in the Marmara Sea, the islands attract citysiders escaping metropolitan madness at weekends. During the week, things are much quieter and discounted hotel rates make a mid-week cruise to paradise even more attractive. Try the Merit Halki Palace on Heybeliada for unparalleled views of the surrounding sea and the city in the distance. The Splendid Palace offers superb facilities on the waterfront at Büyükada.
A new trend in Turkey, vegetarianism has had a slow beginning but there has been some progress. Nuh'un Ambari, Nature and Peace, Badehane, and Zencefil in Beyoglu are just a few of the hot spots for herbivores on the European side. Also try Hercai whilst in Kadiköy on the Asian side.
Europeans and Asians alike seem to love to feast on the streets, buying delicious snacks from vendors wheeling carts. Istanbul is no different: a midnight snack could include stuffed mussels (midye dolma), a fried mussel sandwich, meatballs made with barley (icli köfte), or even raw meat (cig köfte). Gözleme (filled pancake) is a favorite lunch-time snack, along with baked potatoes filled with anything you want (kumpir), and even plain old chicken and rice. Breakfast could consist of simit (bread rings with sesame seeds), pogaca (cheese- or potato-filled pastry), catal (a cracker-like snack), or a variety of sweets dripping with syrup, honey, and/or rosewater.
A nasty side effect of the rapidly changing cityscape is that drinking dens come and go with frustrating frequency, and the bar you were at last night may not be there tomorrow; but fear not, as it's not hard to find a new one!
More famous for its historical sites and pushy salesmen, Sultanahmet has a few good cafes where you can sit and write your postcards home. Spend some time at the Rumeli Café for excellent people-watching. Try Cheers for cheap beer or Sultan Pub for terrace seating.
The cafe-bar scene changes faster than most people can blink. "Here today, gone tomorrow" seems to be the motto. However, there are a few hangers-on like Dulcinea, Madrid, Pia, Kaktüs Cafe, and Kemanci. The distinction between "café" and "bar" has become very blurred recently and most places do a combination of both. Cafés include Yagmur Cybercafé, Lounge, Café Frappé, Kafe Cute, (a popular gay hangout), and 35mm (located in the Fitas Cinema complex). The best nightclubs -- all thumping out techno until the wee hours -- are Switch, Milk, Taxim She, and Orange. Live music venues Roxy and Babylon are the hottest hits in town at the moment. Bar Bahçe and Neo are excellent gay bars, while the best gay clubs are Prive and Club 14. Some of the finest wine bars in the world have popped up recently: check out Pano Wine Bar, Sarabi Wine Bar, Vareli, or Sappho.
Less manic than Beyoglu, Kadiköy has its own style of nightlife. Rock bar Karga fills up fast with students, and the Belfast Pub and Shaft do live music. If it's coffee you're after, Café Antre is mellow and female-friendly and Mosquito Café is fun.
Other Notable Watering Holes
The Wall in Ortaköy fills fast with leather-clad rockers and boppers, and another great option is the up-market Coco Pazzo in Arnavutköy.