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Istanbul, Turkey

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Did You Know …?

  • Istanbul is the only city in the world that sits on two continents (Asia and Europe).
  • The nearly 550-year-old Grand Bazaar has 80 streets, 4,000 shops and 22 entrances.
  • Istanbul, when called Constantinople, was named for the Roman Emperor Constantine.
  • The city’s Tunel is the world’s shortest subway (1,880 feet, built 1875).
  • Hagia Sophia was the world’s largest cathedral when it was built (537).

Location, location, location

Istanbul is well positioned, literally as well as figuratively, to make multiple claims on the attentions of the tourist. Not only does it sit where two continents (Europe and Asia) meet, but it connects Europe by land to the Middle East and beyond to Africa. It also guards the narrowest sea lanes, the Dardanelles and the Bosporus, between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

Istanbul, originally Constantinople, was the capital of three empires (Eastern Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman) from the fourth century until the 1920s. Emperors lavished funds on their capital, creating palaces, churches, mosques, major markets and a set of still-impressive city walls —which are among the reasons tourists show up, cameras, cash and curiosity at hand.

Istanbul’s location also has brought violence. Medieval Crusaders, en route to the Holy Land, took a terrible toll. The Ottomans, in 1453, won this prize after a bloody siege, perpetrated their own mayhem, then promptly began to rebuild.

As an important business and political center, Istanbul for centuries attracted citizens of many nationalities and religions. Although the Ottomans were Moslem, Istanbul was still largely a Christian city until the 1920s when Turkish nationalism forced Armenians and Greeks out.

That changed the population mix, but Istanbul remains a cosmopolitan city that is at once exotic for the North American and replete with the comforts and diversions of a western European capital. Night owls have many choices for clubs and live music; for all comers, dining runs the gamut for type and price range.

A ship entering the Dardanelles heads to the Sea of Marmara and through the Bosporus en route to the Black Sea. Istanbul overlooks the area where Marmara and the Bosporus meet; the Bosporus separates Istanbul’s European side from its Asian side. For the active, there are opportunities to sail on these waters, and for anyone, sightseeing boats provide a unique perspective.

Above all, Istanbul is a city for sightseers, especially history lovers — and for shoppers. There are obvious must-see attractions, beginning with Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, but there are must-shop places, too. The huge and noisy Grand Bazaar is just the starting point.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Travel on one of the passenger boats that zigzag their way up and down the Bosporus, making stops alternately on the European and Asian sides of the strait. You’ll see Ottoman palaces and impressive wooden villas. Stop at one or more of the small towns on the circuit.
  • Immerse yourself the nightlife in the Beyoglu district. Relish the activity along Istiklal Street.
  • Get rid of all the dead skin on your body: Head to a local hamam for a traditional Turkish bath. You can expect to be steamed, soaked, soaped, massaged and rubbed down with a loofah sponge.
  • Charter a yacht and sail across the Sea of Marmara, which takes you to the Dardanelles, site of a historic and tragic World War I campaign.
  • Attend a soccer game.
  • Take a hike in the woods of the Belgrade Forest six miles from city center.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Shop (and bargain) in the Grand Bazaar for as long as it takes! Buy a Turkish carpet.
  • Book a room in one of the city’s 18th century wooden houses (now converted to hotels) in the historic central district.
  • Attend a performance of the Istanbul Music Festival inside the Rumeli Hisari, or European Fortress, which was built in 1452.
  • Sample yogurt at Kanlica, a fishing village on the Asian side of the Bosporus. The village, now popular with locals, is well supplied with restaurants and cafes.
  • At Misir Carsisi, also called the Spice or Egyptian Bazaar, buy spices and candy to take home. This bazaar dates from the 17th century.
  • Have Turkish specialties for lunch on the grounds of Topkapi Palace. In this way, you have a lovely view of the Bosporus and Sea of Marmara and you can spend the day at the palace.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Book a cruise that makes stops at Istanbul and Kusadasi (for access to Ephesus).
  • Look for the Roman ruins, such as the parts of the Bozdogan-Valens Aqueduct that now straddle a highway in the old city center, the Basilica Cistern and the remains of the Hippodrome (near the Blue Mosque). Also, the four miles plus of restored walls which date from the fifth century will be hard to miss.
  • Dine in a former lighthouse on an island at the entrance to the Bosporus. The restaurant is inside the 18th century Kiz Kulesi, also known as Leander’s Tower; the tower is one of the most romantic symbols of Istanbul.

    Or, book a night cruise on the Bosporus.

  • On Sunday, come to Ortakoy, a charming village in the European side of the Bosporus, where artists exhibit their works in a streetside gallery. Shop for nice souvenirs in its stores.
  • See a program of traditional dances, plus whirling dervishes, at the Turkish Cultural Dance Theater.
  • See Istanbul’s best known current and former religious institutions, the Hagia Sophia, now a museum, and the Blue Mosque. They are a short walk from each other.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult the Turkish Culture and Tourism Office at