About Istanbul

Istanbul

Istanbul is Turkey’s most populous city as well as its cultural and financial hub. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally. Istanbul’s population is estimated to be between 12 and 19 million people, making it also one of the largest cities in Europe and the world.
Expanding the ancient Roman colony of Byzantium by the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, the imperial city of Constantinople was for nearly a thousand years the last remaining outpost of the Roman (later termed Eastern Roman or Byzantine) Empire. It was finally conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II on 29 May 1453, an event sometimes used to mark the end of the Middle Ages. It was the nerve centre for military campaigns that were to enlarge the Ottoman Empire dramatically. By the mid 1500s, Istanbul, with a population of almost half a million, was a major cultural, political, and commercial centre. Ottoman rule continued until it was defeated in WWI and Istanbul was occupied by the allies. When the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 after the War of Independence, Kemal Atatürk moved its capital to the city of Ankara. However, Istanbul has continued to expand dramatically; today its population is approximately 14 million and increases at an estimated 400,000 immigrants per year. Industry has expanded even as tourism has grown.
Istanbul is divided in three by the north-south Bosphorus Strait (Istanbul Bogazi), the dividing line between Europe and Asia, the estuary of the Golden Horn (Haliç) bisecting the western part and the Sea of Marmara (Marmara Denizi) forming a boundary to the south. Most sights are concentrated in the old city on the peninsula of Sultanahmet, to the west of the Bosphorus between the Horn and the Sea. Across the Horn to the north are Galata, Beyoğlu and Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul, while Kadıköy is the major district on the comparatively less-visited Anatolian side of the city. The Black Sea forms the northern boundary of Istanbul.
Istanbul has a temperate oceanic climate which is influenced by a continental climate, with hot and humid summers and cold, wet and occasionally snowy winters.

History

What is now called Asian Istanbul was probably inhabited by people as early as 3000 BC. Eventually, in the 7th century, Greek colonists led by King Byzas established the colony of Byzantium, the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus. Byzas chose the spot after consulting an oracle of Delphi who told him to settle across from the “land of the blind ones.” Indeed, Byzas concluded, earlier settlers must have been deprived of their sight to have overlooked this superb location at the mouth of the Bosphorus strait. This proved an auspicious decision by Byzas, as history has shown Istanbul’s location important far beyond what these early Greek settlers might possibly have conceived. Byzas gave his name to the city: Byzantium.
In the early 100’s BC, it became part of the Roman Empire and in 306 AD, Emperor Constantine the Great made Byzantium capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. From that point on, the city was known as Constantinople.
The mid 400’s AD was a time of enormous upheaval in the empire. Barbarians conquered the western Roman Empire while the Eastern, also called the Byzantine Empire, kept Constantinople as its capital. In 532 during the reign of Justinian I, antigovernment riots destroyed the city. It was rebuilt, and outstanding structures such as Hagia Sophia stand as monuments to the heights Byzantine culture reached.
The attribute that made the city so desirable, its incomparable location for trade and transport between three continents, was also its nemesis. For the next several hundred years Persians, Arabs, nomadic peoples, and members of the Fourth Crusade (who for a time governed the city) attacked Constantinople.
Finally, in 1453, when Constantinople was so weakened by almost constant invasions and battles, the Ottoman Turks led by Sultan Mehmet II were able to conquer the city. Renamed Istanbul, it became the third and last capital of the Ottoman Empire. It was the nerve center for military campaigns that were to enlarge the Ottoman Empire dramatically. By the mid 1500’s, Istanbul, with a population of almost half a million, was a major cultural, political, and commercial center. Ottoman rule continued until it was defeated in WWI and Istanbul was occupied by the allies.
When the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 after the War of Independence, Kemal Ataturk moved the capital to the city of Ankara. The city of Istanbul has continued to expand dramatically and today its population is over 15 million and increases at an estimated 700,000 immigrants per year. Industry has expanded even as tourism has grown. It continues to be a city that creates its own history at the meeting point of the two continents; Europe and Asia.
Some of the interesting districts of the city are: Sultanahmet, Haydarpasa, Uskudar, Eyup, Galata, Pera, Ortaköy, Taksim, Eminönü, Fatih, Balat, and The Bosphorus. Princess Islands are a popular summer resort for local people.

Museums

 
Istanbul, a city with millennia of history behind it, is today home to some of the world’s best museums. In recent decades, the city has also built up a reputation as a hotbed of modern art. Several museums have opened their doors to the public, adding to the already dizzying array of exhibitions. Whether it’s ancient artefacts, contemporary sculpture or high-concept literature you’re interested in, Istanbul’s museum scene really has something for everyone.

Topkapı Palace

The Topkapı Palace was constructed in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror
Mehmed the Conqueror constructed the Topkapı Palace in the mid-15th century
Sultans, concubines and courtiers all lived in the beautiful Topkapı Palace between the 15th and 19th centuries when it was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Constructed in 1453 by Mehmed the Conqueror, the palace is a standout feature of Istanbul’s skyline. The palace museum, which stands on the historic peninsula that overlooks both the Golden Horn and the Bosporus Strait, gives visitors a glimpse into royal life in the Ottoman era. It contains several halls and pavilions lined with exquisite İznik tiles, and displays a massive array of artefacts including imperial jewels, arms and weapons of Umayyad and Ottoman origin and even relics attributed to the Prophet Muhammad. Go straight to the harem section where the sultan’s concubines lived, as it closes earlier and gets crowded quickly, before having a wander around the four courtyards that include the treasury. Allocate half a day to this museum, as it’s easy to get lost wandering through the ancient palace halls.
Take a walk around the Harem Complex
Take a walk around the Harem Complex

Hagia Sophia Museum

The Hagia Sophia Museum is situated in the Sultanahmet district
The Hagia Sophia Museum is situated in the Sultanahmet district
One of the most impressive structures in the world, the Hagia Sophia Museum was once a Byzantine church, 916 years before the conquest of Istanbul by Sultan Mehmed II. It was later converted into an Ottoman mosque before becoming a museum in 1935. Inside, visitors will find giant discs with Islamic inscriptions hanging next to dazzling Christian mosaics built into the domes and walls. Located in the Sultanahmet district (across from the Blue Mosque), it is a must-see, meaning it’s also one of the most crowded, so go early. While public museums in Turkey usually close on Mondays, Hagia Sophia recently began admitting crowds on this day as well to accommodate even more visitors.
The museum was once a church before being converted into a mosque
The museum was once a church before being converted into a mosque

Sadberk Hanım Museum

There are around 18,000 artefacts on display at the Sadberk Hanım Museum
There are around 18,000 artefacts on display at the Sadberk Hanım Museum
Housed in a converted 19th-century mansion on the shores of the Bosporus Strait, the Sadberk Hanım Museum is a little-known cultural treasure that contains an impressive collection of artefacts (some 18,000 pieces) from the Anatolian civilisation. Dating from prehistoric times to the Byzantine era, some of the collection’s most beautiful pieces include woven Ottoman textiles and a world-class selection of İznik tile art going back to the 16th century. Relatively unknown even among Istanbul residents, the museum is a great way to take in some history and get away from the crowds. Sadberk Hanım is open on weekdays only.
Istanbul Modern
The Istanbul Modern opened its doors in 2004
The Istanbul Modern opened its doors in 2004
Dedicated to modern and contemporary art, the Istanbul Modern has been an important part of the city’s art scene since 2004. While the institution’s Karaköy exhibition space undergoes a major renovation (expected to be completed in 2021), visitors can head to the beautiful Union Française building in Beyoğlu, where it has taken up temporary residence. It’s a minute’s walk from the renowned Pera Palace Hotel in the heart of downtown, and previous notable exhibitions have included British sculptor Tony Cragg’s Human Nature (2018-2019) and Fantastic Machinery (2013), which showcased the work of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Robert Rauschenberg. Make sure you go early to beat the crowds.
The museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art
The museum is dedicated to modern and contemporary art

The Quincentennial Foundation of Turkish Jews

Located at the Neve Şalom Synagogue Complex in Beyoğlu (just a short walk from Galata Tower), this museum is a living chronicle of Turkey’s Jewish population, containing photographs and videos that detail the long contribution Turkish Jews have made to the country. The museum itself is separated from the neighbouring synagogue by a glass barrier, allowing visitors a glimpse into modern Jewish practices. The museum café is known for cooking up excellent Sephardi cuisine for visitors to try. For security reasons, you may be asked to show your passport at the entrance. The museum closes on Saturdays.

Sakıp Sabanci Museum

Stroll through the Sakıp Sabanci Museum’s vast grounds before taking in the world-class art inside
Stroll through the Sakıp Sabanci Museum’s vast grounds before taking in the world-class art inside Situated in the green coastal neighbourhood of Emirgan, the popular Sakıp Sabanci Museum houses one of Turkey’s best collections of historical art and continually hosts contemporary, world-class exhibitions such as 2018’s Ai Wei Wei on Porcelain. The museum is set in gorgeous garden grounds, and the collection includes calligraphy compositions and manuscripts (including a notable example from Sultan Mahmud II), as well as paintings by Osman Hamdi Bey and other prominent figures from the 1850’s to the 1950s. Visitors can stop by the internationally acclaimed museum restaurant run by the Culinary Arts Academy of Istanbul for a midday break. You can take advantage of free admission every Wednesday.
Head here to see one of Turkey’s best collections of historical art 
Head here to see one of Turkey’s best collections of historical art

Istanbul Toy Museum

Founded by Turkish poet Sunay Akın, the Istanbul Toy Museum is a great place for families and history lovers to see toys dating back to the 1700s. The museum takes visitors on an unexpected historical journey through the time periods in which the toys were produced, from World War II to modern day. Located in the laid-back residential neighbourhood of Göztepe on the Asian side of the city, the museum regularly offers children’s activities and other creative events. Like most museums in the country, it is closed on Mondays.

Pera Museum

The Pera Museum hosts exhibitions covering a variety of styles and subjects
The Pera Museum hosts exhibitions covering a variety of styles and subjects 
Designed by Achille Manoussos in 1893, the building housing the Pera Museum is an integral part of Istanbul’s architectural heritage. Situated in the heart of the central Taksim neighbourhood, it has hosted several past exhibitions featuring artists like Rembrandt, Frida Kahlo, Picasso and more. Pera’s permanent collection includes a fascinating weights and measures section, which contains commerce-related objects from various Babylonian, Roman and Anatolian civilisations. The museum’s painting collection features one of the most famous works in the Orientalist tradition, Osman Hamdi Bey’s The Tortoise Trainer (1906-1907). Closed on Mondays, the highly popular museum is free to visitors on Fridays from 6pm to 10pm.

Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul
The Basilica Cistern is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul
Right next to the Hagia Sofia is one of the most magical buildings in all of Istanbul. The Basilica Cistern is a large underground water reservoir. The cistern holds 336 columns, with two of them shaped with Medusa heads. As legend has it, Medusa is one of the gorgons of Greek mythology and was used to protect this great building. At the Basilica Cistern, you have an opportunity to dress up as a sultan or a Turkish princess and have your photo taken against this mystical, stunning backdrop.
The cistern holds 336 columns

Istanbul Archaeology Museum

The Istanbul Archaeology Museum contains over a million artefacts from every corner of the Ottoman Empire
The Istanbul Archaeology Museum contains over a million artefacts from every corner of the Ottoman Empire
This museum is actually made up of three units: the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, the Ancient Orient Museum and the Tiled Kiosk Museum. They are all worthwhile, but visitors should start with the first, which contains over a million artefacts from every corner of the Ottoman Empire. Important pieces include the sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and objects from pre-Islamic Arabia, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Located in the heart of the tourist district next to Gülhane Park, the museum is one of Istanbul’s best and most popular. Closed on Mondays, there is no parking available, so take the T1 Kabataş-Bağcılar tram line to get there quickly.
Take some time out to appreciate the Sidamara Sarcophagus

The Museum of Innocence

Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk opened The Museum of Innocence in 2012, a few years after his novel of the same name was published. The novel details life in Istanbul over a 50-year period, and focusses on wealthy protagonist Kemal Bey’s love for his distant cousin, a beautiful shopgirl called Füsun. The museum presents the everyday items that its main characters used, wore and collected in the story, including a collection of over 4,000 cigarette butts smoked by Füsun. For those who have read the book, its final pages contain a ticket that serves as a valid museum admission pass. Located in Central Beyoğlu, the museum enables visitors to see Istanbul from the lived perspective of its inhabitants, and is a truly unusual experience.
With its long history at the center of empires, Istanbul offers a wealth of historic and religious places to take in. The bulk of these ancient monuments, dating back to Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Basilica Cistern are located around Sultanahmet Square, while some others are dispersed throughout the peninsula of old city, such as Church of St Savior in Chora (Kariye Müzesi), entire inside of which is covered by mindblowing frescoes and mosaics. An impressive section of mostly intact Theodosian walls, which mark the full length of western boundary of the peninsula, is right next to this particular church.
North of the peninsula of old city, across the Golden Horn, is Galata, crowned by the Galata Tower. Istanbul Modern, with its exhibitions of contemporary Turkish art, is on the nearby waterfront of Karaköy. Another sight of religious significance close by is the Galata Whirling Dervish Hall of Sufi Mevlevi order, just north of the Tower. Further north is the Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s prominent pedestrian street running from near Galata Tower to Taksim Square, the central square of whole city.
Heading west rather than north from the old city brings you deeper into the banks of the Golden Horn estuary. A neighbourhood perhaps well worth a visit here is Eyüp, to visit city’s holiest Islamic shrine and just to see what daily life in Ottoman Istanbul was like. On the opposite shores of the Horn, in Sütlüce is the Miniaturk, the first miniature park in the city, with models from around the former Ottoman Empire.
North of Taksim Square is New Istanbul, main business district of the city. If venturing out to this direction, don’t forget to check out Military Museum, where Ottoman military music concerts (Mehter) are held every afternoon. Most of the skyscrapers of the city are located in the north of this district, around Levent and Maslak, with a totally different skyline from that of the old city. However southern reaches of the very same district has some fine neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings from the turn of the 20th century, around the neighbourhoods of Osmanbey, Kurtuluş, and Nişantaşı. Just east from here, with a little drop in elevation as you approach the shore, is the banks of Bosphorus, that is lined by pleasant neighbourhoods full of waterfront mansions (yalı) and a number of waterside palaces where you can admire what money could buy in times gone by.
Across the Bosphorus to east is Asian Side, centred around the historical districts of Kadıköy and Üsküdar, and perhaps best symbolized by Maiden’s Tower, located at about the halfway between these districts, on an islet just off the shore. Bosphorus and Marmara coasts of this half of the city is characterized by quite picturesque neighbourhoods, overlooked by Çamlıca Hill, one of the highest hills of the city which has a view of much of the rest of the city as well, with a cafe and a pleasant park on its summit.
Southeast of the city, off the southern coast of Asian Side are the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago of nine car-free islands, characterized by stunning wooden mansions and pine groves.

City Guide

Sultanahmet-Old City
Essentially the Constantinople of the Roman, Eastern Roman/Byzantine, and much of the Ottoman periods, this is where most of the famous historical sights of Istanbul are located.
Galata
Housing many of the nightlife venues of the city, this district includes Beyoğlu, Istiklal Street, and Taksim Square also its own share of sights and accommodation.
New City
Main business district of the city with many modern shopping malls and districts such as Elmadağ, Nişantaşı, and Etiler.
Bosphorus
European bank of the Bosphorus dotted by numerous palaces, parks, water-front mansions, and bohemian neighbourhoods, such as Beşiktaş and Ortaköy.
Golden Horn
Banks of Golden Horn, the estuary that separates the European side into distinctive districts. Eyüp, with an Ottoman ambience, is located here.
Princes’ Islands
An excellent getaway from the city, made up of an archipelago of nine car-free islands—some of them small, some of them big—with splendid wooden mansions, verdant pine gardens and nice views—both of the islands themselves, and also on the way there.
Asian Side
Eastern half of Istanbul, with lovely neighborhoods at the Marmara and Bosphorus coasts.
Museums and such: Haghia Sophia, then on to the Topkapı museum (these two should take at least three to five hours), preferably along the road in the back of the Haghia Sophia, where there are some nicely restored houses. Then on to the Blue Mosque and the square with the obelisks on it (At Meydani). Along its side is the very good Museum of Islam Art. Descend slightly and find the small Haghia Sophia with its nice garden (it was under restoration, but you probably can get in). Then uphill to the Sokollu Mehmet mosque complex, top notch tiles inside.
Take a tram or walk to Eminönü (where the boats leave for trips to Asia or up the Bosphorus). Visit the New Mosque at the back, then the Egyptian Bazaar next to it, and going further in that direction, locate the Rüstem Pasha mosque with its excellent tiles. It’s on a raised platform near an old clothes market, you may have to ask directions. Then take a cab or find a bus to Eyüp mosque complex, a mile or three up the Golden Horn. Visit this Eyüp complex at your leisure (the mosque is not particular, the court is, and the milling of believers, with many boys-to-be-circumcised amongst it; a Friday might be a good day to do this). Then, if you have the stamina, it might be nice to walk back too; maybe all the way (five miles or so), but taking a route along part of the city wall to first the famous Kariye Church with its mosaics, then on to Selimiye Mosque with its great view on the Golden Horn (and a fine mosque by itself), then the Fatih Mosque (passing through some very religious and lively neighbourhoods), then on to the well-restored Sehzade mosque, and next to Süleymaniye (don’t forget to enjoy the view from the Golden Horn side). If you have some energy left, you might go on to the University complex, and by then you are very close to the Beyazit mosque. A book market (it’s small) is behind this good, unexceptional (nice courtyard though) mosque.
Once again go to Eminönü, but this time take the boat (those large ferries) to Üsküdar. You will arrive before a fine mosque in front, another one four hundred meters off to the right, slightly inland behind a traffic roundabout, and a third, very small, at the sea front. See the market stretching inland, walk about and don’t forget to walk along the shore, maybe eating a fish meal in one of the bobbing boats along it. This is a good visit for late afternoon, early evening, fleeing the city. You will be joined by thousands of people going home from “town” but the way back will be on a near-empty ferry. The frequency of ferries will go down in the evening, so make sure there is a connection back.
Go to the railway station and find a Sirkeci-Halkali suburban train, and get out at (from memory, Yedikule station). You will be quite close to Yedikule, a nice fortress, and will have fine views of the city walls. The trains leave every 15 minutes or so, the ride is peculiar (the material is bad, but if you are in luck every second stop another salesman will enter and try selling his wares, it’s fun). The ride is takes anywhere from twenty minutes to half an hour. This is not a “must”, but it can be great fun.
You will have missed the covered bazaar in all this. That is because you will get there anyhow. If you go to Beyazit and the book market you are almost at two of its many entrances. Try and find the Nuruosmaniye Mosque and its complex at the other side, it’s worth it. And after having explored the covered part, take a relaxing walk downhill, into the general direction of Eminönü, where it is “uncovered bazaar” all the way. Cross the Galata bridge to see some things on the Northern side (for instance take the “tünel” teleferik ride up much of the hill (entrance close to the opposite side of Galata bridge, ask around)), then continue to Taksim. Shops are of the international variety.