Istanbul Destination Guide
Istanbul is vast and old. It was founded as a Greek colony in the 7th century BC; for about 1,000 years it was the ancient capital of the East Roman (later known as the Byzantine) Empire; and came under Ottoman rule in the Middle Ages. Its strategic position, bridging 2 great continents, has always been an important one. Today, Istanbul's commercial and historic centre lies in Europe but at least one third of its population lives in Asia. Colourful, loud and awash with landmarks and treasures from old and new worlds, Istanbul is an experience.
There are so many things to do in Istanbul but here's a few sites you should aim to visit even if you're only here briefly. Topkapi Palace – the oldest palace in the world, this was the jewel of the Ottoman Empire (note it's closed Tuesdays). The Blue Mosque – this is a superb piece of classical Ottoman architecture; its vast main chamber is lit by 260 windows and decorated with more than 20,000 Iznik tiles. Hagia Sophia – built in the 6th century, it was one of the largest basilicas in the world and was converted to a mosque after Ottoman conquest; now it's a stunning museum. Grand Bazaar – one of the largest covered markets in the world, with more than 4,000 shops.
There's a lot of competition for the tourist dollar in the old town (Sultanahmet area) so just be prepared to be engaged in conversation at every eatery doorway. It's worth going beyond this area to sample top wining and dining options but as Istanbullus love to go out, note you'll probably need a reservation at the city's better restaurants. If you don't want to wander the streets – as pretty as they are – and choose at random, here's a few Istanbul restaurants and bars to check out: La Mouette (in Beyoglu), Lokanta Maya (in Karakoy), Leb-i derya (in Beyoglu) and Mikla (in Beyoglu).
Where to Stay
First time visitors to Istanbul will probably spend most waking (and sleeping) hours in or near the Sultanahmet – the old city on the European side. This is where the top sites are and several quality hotels, though budget travellers are catered for here too. The Bazaar Quarter is just next door so if a visit to the world's oldest covered marketplace is on your list, consider this area. Taksim is the centre of the new city on the European side and has many moderately-priced establishments. Like the city, Istanbul accommodation caters for everyone but if you want to stay amid the nightlife, find a spot in the Beyoglu area.
The mother of all Istanbul shopping experiences has to be amid the 4,000 plus stores, 58 streets, endless cups of tea and haggling in the Grand Bazaar. Founded in 1461, this has to be the oldest shopping mall on the globe. Don't worry about getting lost, just accept you might and immerse yourself in the colour and tradition. Tiles, carpets, brass, maps, silverware, leather goods and books are among the wares sold here. The broad, pedestrian boulevard of Istiklal Caddesi sports global brands and Turkish companies. If you come away from both those sites without buying a thing, you should be immortalised.
Istanbul like a Local
Even by 500 AD, Constantinople – as Istanbul was long known – had almost half a million people. It jostled with Rome for the world's largest city and its population has fluctuated dramatically since then. Today it's home to more than 13 million, stretching the full length of the isthmus flanked by the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. The point is, don't expect to see it all. Pick a few highlights and try not to rush. It's been there for centuries, you can always go back.