Over the years, Istanbul served as capital for four empires. Today, it’s one of the biggest European cities, with a historical center designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, comprising incredible Ottoman, Greek, Roman and Byzantine buildings.
The modern Turkish name –Istanbul – can be attested as far back as the 10th century. The first name the city was known under was Byzantium. When Constantine I made the city the new capital for the Roman Empire in 330, the city was known under the name Constantinople (“the city of Constantine”).
The city has been nicknamed “The City of Seven Hills” because the historic peninsula –which is the oldest part of the city- was built on seven hills.
Stretching over both the European and Asian side of the Bosphorus, Istanbul is the only metropolis in the world located on two continents. Situated right on the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul encompasses the Golden Horn (natural harbor).
How to get to Istanbul
Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST) is the main gateway and the airport where international travelers arrive. The airport is located 20 km / 12.4 miles west of the city. To get to the city you can take the taxi, the express bus service, the metro or the tram.
Before heading to passport control, foreign tourists need to get a visa. It can be obtained within the airport and only foreign currency is accepted (early 2008: £15 or €10).
Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW) is a smaller airport where most charter flights and low-cost European carriers arrive. The express bus service connects the airport to the city.
Trains coming from European cities arrive at the station in Sirkeci. There are daily overnight trains connecting to Bulgaria (Sofia) then Serbia (Belgrade) and Hungary (Budapest). Daily overnight trains also connect to Romania (Bucharest). Less frequent are those connecting to Moldavia (Chisinau). Twice a day there are trains to Greece (Thessaloniki).
Trains coming from Asia arrive at Haydarpasa station. Weekly trains connect to Syria and Iran.
Istanbul has Mediterranean weather. The summers are hot and humid, while the winters are rather cold, rainy and often snowy.
The hottest month is July when average high temperatures reach 27.7 C/ 82 F. The coldest month is January when the average low temperatures reach 2.8 C/ 37 F.
Things to do
On the European Side
Hagia Sophia was originally constructed as a Byzantine basilica but was looted and turned into a mosque in the 15th century. Since the 1930s it’s been turned into a museum.
Topkapi Palace has been the imperial Ottoman palace for three centuries. Don’t miss visiting the Harem and the State Treasury (weaponry display). Enjoy the views of the Bosphorus from the Fourth Court.
Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) (photos left) is probably what defines Istanbul in the eyes of most travelers. Having six minarets, this is still a working mosque. Be careful what you wear if you want to visit (no shorts or bare shoulders).
The Museum of Archeology is a must see for any traveler. The museum is filled with masterpieces, including a collection of Sumerian tablets.
Ortakoy (photo right) is a really nice shoreline near-by Ortakoy mosque. It’s filled with cafes and a lovely place to relax.
Galata Tower is the perfect place to use all the space on your cam’s memory card. Offers 360 degrees view of Istanbul.
On the Asian Side
Beylerbeyi Palace stands right near the Bosphorus Bridge.
The Princes’ Islands is a group of 8 islands southeast of Istanbul. Two of them – Buyukada and Heybeliada- have boutique hotels on them, really appreciated by travelers.
- A visit to the Turkish baths is a must. You can choose among Suleymaniye Bath –there aren’t separate rooms for each sex!-, Cağaloğlu Bath –are extremely popular among tourists – and Cemberlitas Bath –there are separate sections for female and male visitors.
- Try the narghile (Hooka) even if you are not a smoker.
- Buy Turkish Delight (Lokum as it’s known locally). Avoid the rose-water or lemon flavors and try the pistachio one. Another nice “souvenir” to bring home is the Turkish Tea.
- Visit the Grand Bazaar and look for bargains. There are many shops and you can buy pretty much anything. Caution though when looking for quality merchandise. You’d better limit your purchases to souvenirs.