Istanbul is the largest and most populous city in Turkey (and the 5th largest in the world). It is the cultural, financial and historical heart of Turkey.
Although not a capital today, the city played that role in several empires, namely in the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The city has been known under several names throughout its diverse history; Byzantium, Constantinople and Stamboul among others. Its former glory and importance can still be observed in the architecture which was preserved to this day.
It has a unique geographic position. It is the only city on Earth that lies on two continents, as it is spread along both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, with the old part of the city on the European continent and the modern city on the Asian continent. The city itself is a mixture of eastern and western cultures.
Due to its seaside location Istanbul served as an important commercial port and military station during the Roman Empire. Under the Ottomans it was the seat of the sultans but after the war of Independence in 1923 it lost that status and was replaced by Ankara as the country’s capital.
Istanbul’s charm lies in its confluence of east end west, chaos and splendor. The city is filled with marvelous palaces, Byzantine ruins, churches and mosques, colorful bazaars, and bath-houses (hamamms) while the modern city is super-hip, with trendy restaurants, clubs and bars, and a bustling all night party atmosphere.
Istanbul has a Mediterranean climate with hot, sunny and humid summers, and cold wet winters with heavy snowfall between November and April, even though the temperatures rarely plunge below 0. Summer temperatures (from June to September) average 28°C. Summers are relatively dry with occasional rain.
January average temperature 6 deg Celsius 94 mm rainfall February average temperature 6 deg Celsius, 61 mm rainfall March average temperature 8 deg Celsius, 58 mm rainfall April average temperature 12 deg Celsius, 51 mm rainfall May average temperature 17 deg Celsius, 30 mm rainfall June average temperature 21 deg Celsius, 28 mm rainfall July average temperature 24 deg Celsius, 23 mm rainfall August average temperature 24 deg Celsius, 23 mm rainfall September average temperature 20 deg Celsius, 30 mm rainfall October average temperature 16 deg Celsius, 56 mm rainfall November average temperature 12 deg Celsius, 86 mm rainfall December average temperature 8 deg Celsius, 114 mm rainfall
Istanbul is Turkey’s gateway and getting here by air is easy. The city is served by two international airports.
Atatürk International Airport is the city’s main airport and lies 23km west of the Old İstanbul.
The second international airport is Sabiha Gökçen and lies at Kurtköy on the Asian side of the city. It is mostly used by European low-cost carriers and charter flights
From Atatürk International Airport
You can choose from a variety of transport options: - A Taxi ride costs around 30 TL. - Express bus service departs every half hour and costs approximately 10 TL. - A metro to the city center takes 45 minutes.
From Sabiha Gökçen Airport
A ride with Havas bus to Taksim station in the center of Istanbul takes approximately one hour. Another option is taking a regular bus line E10, which is cheaper but takes longer. This service connects to Kadikoy from where you can take a ferry to Eminonu or Karakoy districts.
The public transportation system is somewhat confusing and it is difficult to use without a map. With some effort it a cheap means of getting around.
Fares on all forms of public transport (tram, metro, bus, or boat) are paid by a small metal token which costs 1.50 TL and can be bought at kiosks on bus, train, and metro stations. Fares are the same on all forms of transit and do not depend on how far you are traveling.
For people who consider using public transport for several days in a row it is worth purchasing a smart cart called AKBIL. It is filled at designated booths and can be used by more people at the same time by simply running it as many times as there are travelers.
Taxis are cheap and easy to use and are a convenient way of reaching destinations within the city. Expect to pay approximately 2.50 TL (€1.2) as a starting rate and 1.4 TL (€0.67) for each kilometer. There is no night time surcharge. Use only taxis with a taximeter and demand the driver uses it. Also, remember to settle the price of the ride in advance - the taximeter usually comes very close to that. Do not use taxis waiting on bus stops as they are usually expensive tourist traps. Instead, try to hail it on the street, or take it from a legitimate taxi stop.
Shared taxi or Dolmuş
They can take up to 8 passengers and are private yellow taxis marked with a Dolmuş sign and are more comfortable than buses.
Renting a car or driving in Istanbul is not recommended, traffic is congested and driving conditions are hectic.
Hammams are typical Middle Eastern steam baths, found all over Istanbul. They were inspired by the Roman and Byzantine public baths and introduced bathing as a cleansing and socializing opportunity, as at the time few houses possessed running water. The hammams are no longer used on a daily basis, but they still provide a glimpse into Istanbul’s culture and history.
Each neighborhood surely has a Hammam, but they vary in cleanliness to a great degree. They offer sauna, massage and scrub. They are extremely popular with locals and usually comprise a warm room, a hot room, cooling bath, massage and cooling room.
SHOPPING / BAZAAR
The Grand Bazaar is a world famous market, and is supposed to be the oldest ‘shopping mall’ in the world. It consists of approximately 4400 shops, dotted along covered streets, all interconnected in a fun maze of cultural and shopping delights.
Shops are organized according to what they sell, namely carpet shops are clustered together, as are the silver jewelry shops, etc.
Hubbly bubbly or the Turkish water pipe once represented the very cornerstone of social and political life. Today it remains an essential part of socializing as locals puff away in dreamy bliss. You can find many coffeehouses offering a hookah near the Grand bazaar. Usually there is a range of flavors, but the most popular seems to be apple scented tobacco.
Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s most popular landmarks. It was commissioned as a cathedral in the 6th century, but was converted into a mosque when Constantinople was seized by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century. Today it is a museum. It is famous for its large size and stunning architecture. Its most striking feature is undoubtedly its vast interior and huge dome which measures 30 m in diameter and is supported by 40 ribs. It is one of the world’s finest examples of Byzantine architecture. The interior comprises an array of decorations, from superb Byzantine mosaics, to icons, Islamic calligraphy inscriptions and marble columns.
THE BLUE MOSQUE - SULTAN AHMET CAMII
Address: Hippodrome, Sultanahmet Phone: (212) 518 1319 Access: Sultanahmet tram stop Open: daily (except during prayer time – especially midday Friday)
The mosque was named ‘Blue’ by the Europeans due to blue tiles that adorn its interior. It was constructed in 1609 as an Islamic rival to Hagia Sophia, with a dome 23.5 meters wide and 43 meters high. The mosque has 6 minarets, a tomb of its founder, a madrasah and a hospice. The mosque is still performing religious service so tourist visits are limited to non-worship times.
THE GRAND BAZAAR - KAPALI ÇARSI
Address: Kapali Çarsi, Beyazit to Eminönü Harbour Transport: Tram to Beyazit, Üniversite or Sirkeci Open: daily 8:30 am – 7:00 pm (except Sundays) Admission: Free
Kapali Çarsi is one of the oldest and biggest covered bazaars in the world. It was built in 1461 and grew rapidly as more and more streets were covered by roofs and arches to amalgamate into a huge trade center. Today the bazaar is a vast labyrinth of 65 intertwined streets, with 4,400 shops, coffee houses, hammams, mosques and storehouses and is one of Istanbul’s most popular attractions. You can wander through its streets and delve into jewelry, spices, textiles, ceramics, clothes, carpets, pipes and sweets and try your hand at bargaining.
Topkapi Palace (Topkapi Sarayi) was the residence of the sultans and the administrative seat of the Ottoman Empire for almost 400 years. It was home to over 3,000 people, it served as a royal residence and a harem, state administration and military base. It was built by Mehmet the Conqueror on the site of the former Constantine's Imperial Palace, on one of city’s seven hills at the tip of a historic peninsula, with a superb view of the Bosphorus River and the Golden Horn. The palace is a massive collection of buildings with several interconnecting courtyards. The palace is lavishly decorated – you can visit the royal chambers, terraces, halls, fountains, intricate gateways, and the Treasury. The harem attracts even more visitors. It was once home to 300 sultan’s wives and concubines who lived there with their children.
Yerebatan Saray or the Sunken Palace is an underground cistern which was built by emperor Justinian around 542 to provide water supplies for the city’s inhabitants. The impressive underground arched waterways are supported by 336 illuminated marble Corinthian columns, rising some 8 meters above water level. The stones used for the construction of this impressive Byzantine water tank were taken from older buildings, such as Roman houses and Greek temples. The place also served as a setting for a scene for the James Bond movie From Russia with Love.
Istanbul is a bridge between East and West, geographically, culturally and culinary. Istanbul cuisine offers a delicious mix of both cultures. Most eateries and restaurants can be found in the Sultanahmet area, the Edirnekapi and Ortaköy areas, where many traditional Turkish restaurants can be found. Beyoglu and Sisli are home to fusion restaurants. If you are looking for cafés, explore the Taksim and Ortaköy areas.
Traditional Turkish cuisine is based on Ottoman cuisine heritage. It is a combination of Central Asian, Middle Eastern and Balkan traditions. Prevalent ingredients vary according to location, but these are the main ingredients: meat, eggplants, green peppers, onions, garlic, lentils, beans and tomatoes. Nuts, for example, pistachios, pine nuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and walnuts, are much loved and eaten together with spices.
The Turkish use spices a lot, with parsley, cumin, black pepper, paprika, mint, oregano and thyme being the most popular.
The event has a long tradition, as it has been held for over a decade. It is one of the biggest in Turkey and offers a program of ballet, opera, traditional music and European classical music by artists coming from around the world. Performances are held at various stunning venues throughout the city.
The Turkish Formula One Grand Prix is held at a newly built track, located 62 km from city center on the Asian side. It is one of only three tracks that run anti-clockwise, like the Brazilian and San Marino Grand Prix.
THE BOSPHORUS SWIM
Date: July Location: Kanlica
This annual event takes place in the Bosporus Strait. Thousands of swimmers attempt the 7 km distance separating the two continents, accompanied by brass bands and dance performances.
Istanbul is Turkey’s most lively city with loads of fashionable bars, clubs and pubs. The best areas to explore are Taksim - Beyoglu, Levent, Etiler, and Nisantasi, on the European side, and Bosphorus and Kadikoy districts, and Bagdat Street on the Asian side of the city. This throbbing metropolis truly comes alive at night and the selection is big. From stylish electronic music parties to traditional belly dancing performances, there is something to be found for every taste.
An evening out is best started at one of numerous traditional Turkish taverns. Later you can continue to one of the clubs. Best clubs can be found in the Ortaköy neighborhood, situated over the Bosporus, and the most popular are Reina and Sortie, favorite haunts for the rich, famous and beautiful. The Beyoglu area offers numerous wine bars, jazz clubs and chic rooftop bars.
In general, bars and clubs stay open quite late and prices are modest when compared to European standards.
Be careful when visiting striptease and belly-dancing clubs, as many are notorious tourist traps. Settle the price before ordering anything.
Istanbul occupies an important geographical and historical position; it changed hands- and names – several times throughout its turbulent history.
The area was settled already 3000 B.C. But it was not a city until the arrival of Greek colonizers in the 7th century B.C. The colonists, led by King Byzas took an interest it the location due to its strategic position. The king named the city Byzantium after himself. In the 300s A.D. the city became part of the Roman Empire. It was largely remodeled by Emperor Constantine the Great. His aim was to give the city an imperial look. In 330 he named the city Constantinople, after himself, and declared it the capital of the Roman Empire, during which time the city grew and prospered greatly. After the death of emperor Thodosius in 395 the empire was divided into two parts and in 400s the Constantinople became the capital of the Eastern – Byzantine Empire. The city suffered a lot of damage during the 532 anti-government upheavals, but was rebuilt and upgraded with magnificent structures such as Hagia Sophia, as Constantinople became the center of Greek Orthodox Church.
Istanbul’s favorable position which enabled trade and transportation was also its greatest adversity. The city was under constant attack of Arabs, Persians, and various nomadic tribes for the next several hundred years. Finally it came into the hands of the Catholic Latin Empire. Tensions between the Latin and the Greek empires continued and as a result the city went bankrupt, its population and defense declined. Finally it was returned to the Byzantine Empire in 1261, while the Ottoman Turks were consistently conquering the surrounding cities, cutting Constantinople off from its surroundings. On May 29, 1453 the city was conquered by the Ottomans. It was named the capital of Ottoman Empire and renamed to Istanbul. Sultan Mehmed took to refurbishing the city and built the Grand Bazaar, its numerous architectural monuments, schools, hospitals, public baths, and splendid mosques. He brought back the escaped Catholic and Orthodox inhabitants and introduced also Muslim, Christian, and Jewish population. The population grew until it reached 1 million by mid–1500s. Istanbul remained in the hands of the Ottoman Empire until the WW I when it surrendered and was occupied by the allies.
MODERN (20TH CENTURY)
After the allies took over Istanbul, the Turkish war of Independence broke out. Istanbul became part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. The city was not its capital and was largely overlooked as the majority of funds went into the capital, Ankara. The city made its comeback in the 1940s and 1950s as numerous boulevards, parks and avenues were built at the expense of many historic buildings.
1970 marked another booming, as the city rapidly spread outwards, consuming the surrounding villages and forests to develop into a huge metropolis.
Today Istanbul is home to approximately 13 million people, and continues to grow by 700,000 immigrants per year. It has a prolific industry and tourism, and many of its historical areas were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Its importance is growing and the city was nominated for the European Capital of Culture for 2010.
Dress conservatively, which especially applies to women.
Small gifts are expected, especially in the business world.
Religion: Most mosques are open to public during the day, but visitors should refrain from visiting on Fridays when Muslims are required to worship. Women should not have exposed shoulders, arms and legs and should wear a scarf over their heads when entering while men should not wear shorts. Also, shoes must be removed before entering a mosque.
Tipping: it is customary to give a small tip for most services or round up the bill. In hotels and restaurants the service charge is not included and it is customary to leave from 10 to 15% of the sum.
It is forbidden to take photos or video of some military and police buildings. Also, it is prohibited to take photos in most museums.
Women wearing the traditional head-to-toe chadors prefer not to be photographed.
Beware of pickpockets in crowded areas, keep a copy of your travel documents and passport and leave the originals in a hotel safe.
Money scams: a typical scam often occurring at small hotels is to quote the price in Turkish Lira but when payment is due, Euro is demanded. If the personnel suggest you pay when leaving, it can be a telling sign. Another money scam is related to coins. The two-Euro coin looks a lot like 1 Turkish Lira. The usual scam is a guy trying to exchange two Euro coins for a 50 Euro bill, but only the first coin is really a Euro. Many bars pass out counterfeit bills. They are hard to notice in the dark but are smaller, if compared to real money. Also, if you hold them against light you can check the watermark.
Taxi scams: Taxis are not expensive compared to Western European standards. The drivers, however, have several scams up their sleeves. One of them is wiring the taximeter so that it counts minutes instead of kilometers, etc. Others may take unnecessarily long routes. Also, when paying for the ride, taxi drivers are known to switch bills, e.g. you give a 50 Lira note and he switches it with a 5 and demands more cash. Avoid such scams by negotiating the price of the ride in advance, sitting in the front seat to monitor the driver, and knowing the route you are taking.
Stalkers: foreign women can fall prey to stalkers, who approach them looking for sex or money. They usually try to either steal money or sell overpriced goods. It is best to go where other people are or create a public scene to chase them away.
Bar and club scams: Some bars or clubs have counterfeit menus with inflated prices which they charge to unsuspecting tourists. These bars are mostly located in the Aksaray, Beyazit and Taksim areas. Often, tourists are approached by ‘friendly strangers’ who know a ‘good bar/club’ where the scam is then carried out.
Emergency Phone Numbers
Police: 155 Emergencies/Ambulances: 112 Fire Brigade: 110 Information: 8088