Old Istanbul is the crowded streets of the Grand Bazaar, magnificent mosques, hamams (bathouses), and grand palaces of the Ottoman Empire. It’s boutiques selling one-offs by globally recognized Turkish designers and the Cihangir districts’ clubs, bars and restaurants rival Soho. The “Istanbul Modern” – showcases Turkey’s contemporary art. In Istanbul both these worlds co-exist. It’s a vital, ever changing city, charged with energy, creativity and commerce.
Other cities claim to be at the crossroads of Europe and Asia – but only Istanbul can legitimately claim to straddle both continents. Split by the Bosphorus the western bank of the city is in Europe whilst the eastern side is in Asia. Istanbul is surrounded on 3 sides by water – as well as the Bosphorus there is the Sea of Marmara to the south of the city, and a narrow inlet known as the Golden Horn splits the European side.
Istanbul is one of the biggest cities in Europe – home to a population of approximately 17 million. Turkey has a very young population – the average age is 29. The average age in Istanbul is even younger at 23 and some unofficial sources put it at 16. It’s also a university city, with over 150,000 students attending the 3 big universities and dozens of colleges.
Since 1923 Ankara has been the capital of Turkey, but Istanbul has always been and continues to be the financial and commercial capital. The country’s economy is one of the fastest growing in the world and the city has quadrupled in size over the last few decades.
Although over 95% of the population are Muslin, Istanbul has a long history of tolerance and multi-culturism with Jewish and Christian traditions present in the city. Islamic fundamentalists targeted the city in 2003 with Al-Queda bombs aimed at Jewish synagogues, the British Consulate and HSBC Bank, killing 78 people. In 2005 Turkey entered formal talks to become a member of the European Union but whilst Turkey’s dispute with Greece over Cyprus remains unresolved many believe it can’t happen.
Sultanahmet is the district that all tourists head for. This is ancient Istanbul with all the sightseeing heavy weights packed together with must-see mosques, palaces and the Grand Bazaar.
Eminonu and Cagaloglu
Eminonu is the transport hub of Istanbul. Cagalogu is a warren of trade shops.
Beyoglu and Taksim
The city’s heartland. Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) is a mile long pedestrianised grand boulevard cutting through Beyoglu. An ancient looking tram runs the length of Istikal Caddesi. Lined with nineteenth century former palaces and embassies which are now home to High Street brands. The Avenue is just as busy at night with pavement bars and restaurants serving the tourists.
It’s said that up to a million people walk up or down Istikal Caddesi every day. The streets off Istiklal Caddesi retain their Bohemian past and are home to many interesting independent shops, cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs.
Nisantasi and Macka
Nisantasi is the upscale, upmarket, expensive area of town. Designer and luxury boutiques – Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Armani etc; smart apartment blocks, good restaurants and people watching cafes. Abdi Ipekci Caddesi is a leafier version of Bond Street. The area doesn’t attract many tourists – rather it’s Istanbul’s super rich who come to shop.
Ortakoy and Besiktas
Besiktas is the grander of these 2 Bosphorus-based Suburbs, with a concentration of shoreline Ottoman palaces and pavilions. In the summer the waterfront of Ortakoy becomes party central, crowded with locals enjoying the bars, restaurants and super-clubbing venues.
Levent and Etiler
The financial heartland – lined with corporate skyscrapers and large financial institutions. Wealthy, with imposing villas glimpsed behind security fencing. Levent is the stomping ground of Istanbul’s rich and famous. This is the location of Turkey’s largest shopping mall – the Akmerkez, which was named best shopping centre in Europe in the mid 90s.
THE BIG SIGHTS
The top 5 are all in Sultanahmet – the ancient quarter of Istanbul. Aya Sofya – (also known as Hagia Sophia- The Church of the Divine Wisdom) This originally Christian basilica, is Istanbul’s finest site. Vast interior, stunning mosaics and a towering dome. The present building is the third to stand on the site.
The first was built in AD360 during the reign of Constantius, but after flood and earthquake damage it was rebuilt many times until this final structure was completed in 537. For a thousand years this was the largest building in the world. When Ottoman Mehmet II conquered the city in 1453 his first act was to declare Aya Sofya a mosque. Apart from removing some of the marble crosses and whitewashing the mosaic icons he left the church as it was. The 4 Islamic minarets which now stand at the corners were added after the Turkish conquest. In 1935 Aya Sofya was declared a museum and is the most visited site in the country with more than 2 million visitors a year.
Aya Sofya Aya Sofya Meydani Sultanahmet
Tel: (+90 212) 522 1750
For 400 years this pavilion palace was the residence of the Ottoman sultans who were the most powerful empire rulers in the world. Built by Mehmet the Conqueror shortly after his conquest in 1453, both as his command centre and as his indulgent home. The Palace is a city within a city consisting of interconnecting courts and between 5,000 and 7,000 people worked and lived inside to serve the sultan household. The Harem alone had 300 rooms – just 40 are open to the public.
Bab-I Humayun Caddesi Gulhane, Sultanahmet
Tel: (+90 212) 512 0480
Opening: 9am -7pm
THE BLUE MOSQUE
One of the most magnificent mosques in the Muslim world it takes its name from the blue iznik tiles which line its walls. Built during the reign of Sultan Ahmet (1603 – 1617) with 6 minerets, which at the time was a cause of controversy as only Mecca – the holiest site in Islam also had six. There is a stunning vast central dome.
At Meydam Sokak 17
Tel: (+90 212) 518 1319
Opening hours: 5.30am - 7pm
7 days a week but closed during Prayer times.
THE GRAND BAZAAR (ALSO KNOW AS COVERED BAZAAR)
Istanbul’s famed emporium. The heart of the Bazaar dates from the Ottoman conquest of 1456-61 and is a labyrinth of passageways and corridors with 64 streets, 3,000 shops, 22 entrances and 25,000 employees. It’s tourists who shop and barter here rather than locals. There is a huge range of goods including jewellery, antiques, leather goods, ceramics – and of course the infamous carpets.
Kapali Çarşı Beyazit
Tel: (+90 212) 522 3173
Opening: 8.30am – 7pm
This mosque dominates the ancient city skyline – standing on the highest hill. The mosque was the crowning achievement of the Ottoman susperstar chief architect - Mimar Sinan, who designed a vast number of buildings in Istanbul. Commissioned by Suleyman the Magnificent and completed in 1557 when the Ottoman Empire was at its height, as an Islamic answer to the Byzantine Aya Sofya. It’s the interior which is most impressive with a vast central dome and tiered domes surrounding it.
Tiryakiler Carsisi, Off Prof Siddik Sami Onar Caddesi Suleymaniye
Opening: 9am-7pm Daily
There is never a problem finding somewhere to eat and drink in Istanbul – from the street vendors selling grilled corn on the cob, simit – savoury bread with seasame seeds - and fresh grilled fish on the harbour – to the cafes and restaurants on almost every corner.
Boreks are another traditional Turkish snack – a savoury pastry filled with anything from cheese or vegetables or meat. Dolmas are stuffed – usally peppers or vine leaves. And of course there are grilled meat kebabs. Traditional non-alcoholic drinking can be tea – herbal or straight – served in small tulip-shaped glasses – never with milk but always with sugar. Everyone you visit offers you a glass and it’s considered rude to refuse. The centuries old tradition of smoking apple flavoured tobacco through a narghile (a waterpipe) is kept alive in coffee houses.
The district of Beyoglu is heaven for bar hopping. Avoid the main Avenue – Istiklal Caddesi and head for the side streets off the main drag which are packed with watering holes. The waterfront district of Orkatoy is the place for “superclubs” which party until dawn. Europe’s most celebrated dance djs stop off in Istanbul. Partying doesn’t get started until after midnight and the best time to be there is between 1am and 4am. Weekends are the busiest – but some clubs have special nights on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Electronic and techno. Weekends packed, Thursdays are relaxed with house sounds.
Crystal, Muallim Naci Caddesi 65, Ortakoy
Tel: (+90 212) 278 4578
Opening: Midnight-5.30am Thur-Sat
Istanbul’s most famous club. A swanky “superclub” with paparazzi lined up outside to snap the c-list celebs and playboys and girls who arrive in sports cars or speedboats. Turkish and euromed pop soundtrack. Drinks are very expensive.
Reina, Muallim Naci Caddesi 44
Tel: (+90 212) 259 5918
Is Istanbul’s Euro trash 5 star nightclub with black banquettes, huge glitter balls and gold chain mail curtains.
Blackk, Muallim Naci Cad, No: 71, Ortakoy
Tel: (+90 212) 236 7256
Kitsch interior and transvestite staff. Cocktails are served up to a camp pop soundtrack.
Cahide On5, 193 Mesrutiyet Caddesi, Beyoglu
Tel: (+90 212) 292 7368
Opening: 9.30pm-4am Tue-Sat
Another chic “superclub” – but not as exclusive as Reina. Resident and guest djs and stunning views of the Bosphorus.
Anjelique, Muallim Naci Cad, Salhane sok, No:5, Ortakoy
Tel: (+90 212) 327 2844
Many of Istanbul’s live music venues are on the backs streets which run off Istiklal Caddesi in Beyoglu.
An underground brick vault, this is Istanbul’s best live music venue. Electronica, jazz, international and world music can be heard here.
Babylon, Sehbender Sokak 3, Tunel
Tel: (+90 212) 292 7368
Alternative sounds. Spread over several floors – with a small performance area for live local bands.
Peyote, Kalyoncu Kullugu Caddesi 42, off Nevizade Sokak, Beyoglu
Tel: (+90 212) 251 4398
Opening: Midnight-4am Daily
The place for head-banging rock. Cover bands play rock classics from midnight.
Mojo, Buyukparmakkapi Sokak 26 off Istiklal Caddesi
Tel: (+90 212) 243 2927 / 243 2991
Opening: 10pm-4am Daily
A mix of genres – one floor is hip hop, one rock and another R&B.
Riddim, Siraselviler Caddesi 69/1, Taksim
Tel: (+90 212) 251 2723
Opening: 9pm-4am Daily
Beloved of package tourists a belly dancing and harem show can be booked at the Galata tower. Belly dancing originated in Egypt rather than Turkey, but can be traced back to the days of the Sultans, when both men and women danced for the Sultan’s entertainment. Male belly dancers still perform in Istanbul. There is a thriving transvestite and transsexual community in Istanbul and drag queens work in clubs like Cahide On5 in Beyoglu.
Galata Tower, Galata Square
Tel: (+90 212) 293 8180
The Grand Bazaar
With dozens of independent stores, state of the art shopping malls and bazaars and markets there is plenty of choice and competition. Fashion is a big deal in Istanbul and Turkey is the 4th largest exporter of ready make garments in the world. Turkish furniture designers such as Derin Design and Gaia & Gino are already stars.
Many American and European brands manufacture their clothing in Turkey and Istanbul now has a thriving market in seconds and overruns which can be bought at shops in Beyoglu. Off Istiklal Caddesi are several pasajs – covered arcades - stacked with knock-down clothes in bins or on rails. This is also the place to track down fake copies of well known brands.
Atlas Pasaji, Off Isktikal Caddesi, Beyoglu Similar to Camden Market in London – with a grungy vibe. As well as clothes it sells jewellery and kitsch collectibles.
Beyoglu Is Merkezi, Beyoglu is Merkezi 365, off Istikal Caddesi, Beyoglu A large pasaji with 3 underground floors. Bargains here are sporty lines and denim.LEISURE
Taking to the water in a Turkish bath (hamam) is a century old tradition in Istanbul. Cemberlitas Hamami is right in the heart of the ancient quarter in Sultanahmet. It has been a baths since the 16th century and is now mostly visited by tourists rather than locals, but it’s an architectural treasure.
Full of marble domes the baths were designed by Ottoman architect superstar Mimar Sinan. Clients are soaped, scrubbed, massaged and washed down by attendants in single sex sections of the baths.
Cemberlitas Hamami, Vezirhan Caddesi 8, Cemberlitas
Tel: (+90 212) 522 7974
Opening: 6am –midnight Daily