Istanbul, once known as the capital of capital cities, has many unique features. It is the only city in the world to straddle two continents, and the only one to have been a capital during two consecutive empires: Christian and Islamic. Once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul still remains the commercial, historical and cultural pulse of Turkey, and its beauty lies in its ability to embrace all its contradictions. Ancient and modern, religious and secular, Asia and Europe, mystical and earthly all co-exist here.
Its variety is one of Istanbul’s greatest attractions. The ancient mosques, palaces, museums and bazaars reflect its diverse history. The thriving shopping area of Taksim buzzes with life and entertainment. And the serene beauty of the Istanbul Strait, Princes Islands and parks bring a touch of peace to the otherwise chaotic metropolis.
The Istanbul strait
From the Tunel area to Taksim square, is one of the city’s focal points for shopping, entertainment and urban promenading: İstiklal Caddesi is a fine example of the contrasts and compositions of Istanbul; fashion shops, bookshops, cinemas, markets, restaurants and even hand-carts selling trinkets and simit (a sesame bread snack) ensure that the street is packed throughout the day until late into the night. Apart from the old tramcars which have been brought back into service and which shuttle up and down it, this fascinating street is entirely pedestrianized. There are old embassy buildings, Galatasaray High School, the colorful ambience of Balık Pazarı (Fish Bazaar) and restaurants in Çiçek Pasaji (Flower Passage). Also on this street is the oldest church in the area, St Mary’s Draperis, dating back to 1789, and the Franciscan Church of St Antoine, demolished and then rebuilt in 1913.
The street ends at Taksim Square, a big open plaza that is the hub of modern İstanbul and always crowded, crowned with an imposing monument celebrating Ataturk and the War of Independence. The main terminal of the new subway is under the square, adjacent is a noisy bus terminal and, at the north end, is the Ataturk Cultural Centre, one of the venues for the Istanbul Theatre Festival. Dotted around this area are several five-star hotels like the Hyatt, Intercontinental and Hilton (the oldest of its kind in the city). North of the square is the İstanbul Military Museum.
Taksim and Beyoğlu have for centuries been the centre of nightlife, and now there are many lovely bars and clubs off Istiklal Cadesi, including some of the only gay venues in the city. Beyoğlu is also at the centre of the more bohemian arts scene.
Sultanahmet: Many places of tourist interest are concentrated in Sultanahmet, in the heart of the Imperial Centre of the Ottoman Empire. The most important places in this area, all of which are described in detail in the “Places of Interest” section, are Topkapı Palace, Aya Sofya, Sultanahmet Mosque (the Blue Mosque), the Hippodrome, Kapalı Carşı (Covered Market), Yerebatan Sarnıcı (Basilica Cistern) and the Museum of Islamic Art.
In addition to this wonderful selection of historical and architectural sites, Sultanahmet also has a large concentration of carpet and souvenir shops, hotels and guesthouses, cafes, bars and restaurants, and travel agents.
The name Ortaköy reflects the university students and teachers who would gather to drink tea and discuss life, when it was just a small fishing village. These days, however, that scene has developed into a suburb with an increasing amount of expensive restaurants, bars, shops and a huge market. The fishing, however, lives on, and the area is popular with local anglers, and there is now a huge waterfront tea-house which is crammed at weekends and holidays.
Sarıyer: The first sight of Sarıyer is where the Istanbul Strait connects with the Black Sea, past the bend in the river after Tarabya. Around this area, old summer houses, embassies and fish restaurants line the river, and a narrow road, which separates it from Büyükdere, continues along to the beaches of Kilyos.
Sarıyer and Rumeli Kavağı are the final wharfs along the European side visited by the Istanbul Strait boat trips. At weekends and during holidays, these districts, both of which are famous for their fish restaurants along with Anadolu Kavagı, get very crowded with Istanbul residents escaping the city.
After these points, the Istanbul Strait is lined with tree-covered cliffs and little habitation. The Sadberk Hanım Museum, just before Sariyer, is an interesting place to visit: a collection of archaeological and ethnographic items, housed in two wooden houses. A few kilometers away is the huge Belgrade Forest, once a hunting ground of the Ottomans, and now a popular weekend retreat as the largest forest area in the city.
The iskele, or Mihrimah Mosque, is opposite the main ferry pier, on a high platform with a big covered porch in front, often occupied by older local men watching life around them. Opposite this is Yeni Valide Mosque, built in 1710, and the Valide Sultan’s green tomb rather like a giant birdcage. The Çinili Mosque, built in 1640, takes its name from the beautiful tiles which decorate the interior.
Apart from places of religious interest, Üsküdar is also well known as a shopping area, with an old street market selling traditional local products, and a good flea market with second hand furniture. Along the quayside, there are plenty of good restaurants and cafes with a great views of the Istanbul strait and the rest of the city. In the direction of Haydarpaşa is the Karaca Ahmet Cemetery, which is the largest Muslim graveyard in Istanbul. The front of the Çamlıca hills lie at the ridge of this area and also offer great panoramic views of the islands and river.
Kadıköy: Further along to the south, towards the Marmara sea, Kadıköy has developed into a lively area with up-market shopping, eating and entertainment making it popular especially with wealthy locals. Once prominent in the history of Christianity, the 5th century hosted important consul meetings here, but there are few reminders of that age. It is one of the improved districts of İstanbul over the last century, and a fashionable area in which to promenade along the waterfront in the evenings, especially around the marinas and yacht clubs.
Bağdat Caddesi is one of the most trendy – and label-conscious – fashion shopping streets and, for more down-to-earth goods, the Gen Azim Gündüz Caddesi is the best place for clothes, while the bit pazari on Ozelellik Sokak is good for browsing through junk. The Benadam art gallery is in the Moda district along with many other foreign cuisines, restaurants and cafes.
Haydarpaşa: To the north of Kadikoy is Haydarpasa, and the train station built in 1908 with Prussian-style architecture, which was the first stop along the Baghdad railway. Now it is the main station going to eastbound destinations both within Turkey, and internationally. There are tombs and monuments dedicated to the English and French soldiers who lost their lives during the Crimean War (1854-56) near the military hospital. The north-west wing of the 19th Century Selimiye Barracks once housed the hospital, used by Florence Nightingale to care for soldiers, and remains to honour her memory.
Polonezköy: Polonezköy, although still within the city, is 25 km. away from the centre and not easy to reach by public transport. Translated as “village of the Poles”, the village has a fascinating history. It was established in 1848 by Prince Czartorisky, leader of the Polish nationals who was granted exile in the Ottoman Empire to escape oppression in the Balkans. During his exile, he succeeded in establishing a community of Balkans, which still survives, on the plot of land sold to him by a local monastery.
Since the 1970,s the village has become a popular place with local Istanbulites, who buy their pork meat there (pork being forbidden under Islamic law and therefore difficult to get elsewhere). All the Poles have since left the village, and the place is inhabited now by wealthy city people, living in the few remaining Central European style wooden houses with pretty balconies.
What attracts most visitors to Polonezkoy is its vast green expanse, which was designated Istanbul’s first national park, and the walks through forests with streams and wooden bridges. Because of its popularity, it gets crowded at weekends and the hotels are usually full.
Kilyos: Kilyos is the nearest beach resort to the city, on the Black Sea coast on the European side of the Istanbul Strait. Once a Greek fishing village, it has quickly been developed as a holiday-home development, and gets very crowded in summer. Because of the ease of getting there (25km away, with plenty of public transport), it is good for a day trip, and is a popular weekend getaway in either the many hotels or one of the campsites.
Şile: A pleasant, small holiday town, Şile lies 50km from Üsküdar on the Black Sea coast and some people even live there and commute into Istanbul. The white sandy beaches are easily accessible from the main highway, lying on the west, as well as a series of small beaches at the eastern end. The town itself if perched on a clifftop overlooking the bay’s tiny island. There is an interesting French-built black-and-white striped lighthouse, and 14th century Genoese castle on the nearby island. Apart from its popular beaches, the town is also famous for its Şile bezi, a white muslin fabric, a little like cheesecloth, which the local women embroider and sell on the street in Şile and all over Turkey.
The town has plenty of accommodation available with hotels, guest houses and pensions, although it can get very crowded at weekends and holidays as it is very popular with people from Istanbul, especially in the summer. There are small restaurants and bars in the town.
Prince’s Islands: Also known as Istanbul Islands, there are eight in the Marmara Sea within one hour’s journey from the city. Boats serve the islands from Sirkeci, Kabataş and Bostancı, with more services during the summer. These islands, on which monasteries were established during the Byzantine period, was a popular summer retreat for palace officials. It is still a popular escape from the city, with wealthier people owning summer houses there.
Büyükada The largest and most popular one is Büyükada (the Great Island). Large wooden mansions still remain from the 19th century, when wealthy Greek and Armenian bankers built them as a holiday villas. The island has always been a place predominantly inhabited by minorities.
Buyukada has long had a history of people arriving there in exile or on retreat, its most famous guest being Leon Trotsky, who stayed for four years writing ‘The History of the Russian Revolution’. The monastery of St George also played host to the granddaughter of Empress Irene, and the royal princess Zoe, in 1012.
The island consists of two hills, both surmounted by monasteries, with a valley between. Motor vehicles are banned, so getting around the island can be done by graceful horse and carriage, leaving from the main square off Isa Celebi Sokak. Bicycles can also be hired.
The southern hill, Yule Tepe, is the quieter of the two and also home of St George’s Monastery. It consists of a series of chapels on three levels, the site of which is a building dating back to the 12th century. In Byzantine times, it was used as an asylum, with iron rings on the church floors used to restrain patients. On the northern hill is the monastery İsa Tepe, a 19th century house.
The entire island is lively and colorful, with many restaurants, hotels, tea houses and shops. There are very big well-kept houses, trim gardens, and pine groves, as well as plenty of beach and picnic areas.
Heybeliada ‘Island of the Saddlebag’, because of its shape, is loved for its natural beauty and beaches. It also has a highly prestigious and fashionable water sports club in the northwest of the island. One of its best-known landmarks is the Greek Orthodox School of Theology, with an important collection of Byzantine manuscripts. The school sits loftily on the northern hill, but permission from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener is needed to enter. The Deniz Harp Okulu, the Naval High School, which was originally the Naval War Academy set up in 1852 and then a high school since 1985, is on the east side of the waterfront near the jetty. Walking and cycling are popular here, and there are isolated beaches as well as the public Yöruk Beach, set in a magnificent bay.
There are plenty of good local restaurants and tea houses, especially along Ayyıldız Caddesi, and the atmosphere is one of a close community.
Sweet Eskihisar fishing borough south east of Istanbul, and its marina can be anchored in by yachtsmen after daily voyages in the Marmara Sea. Turkey's famous 19th century painter, Osman Hamdi Bey's house in the borough is now a museum. Hannibal's tomb, between Eskihisar and Gebze, is one of the sites around a Byzantium castle.
There are lots of Istanbul residents' summer houses in a popular holiday place 65 km. from Istanbul, Silivri. This is a huge holiday area, with magnificent restaurants, sports and health centers. Its conference center is also attracting businessmen escaping the rapid tempo of urban life for "cultural tourism" and business - holiday mixed activities. A scheduled sea bus service connects Istanbul to Silivri.