Straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul—once known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empire—has for centuries been a bustling and cosmopolitan crossroads.
For visitors, what will probably be more striking than the meeting of East and West in Istanbul, is the juxtaposition of the old and the new, tradition and modernity. Brash concrete-and-glass hotels and office towers creep up behind historic old palaces, women in jeans or elegant designer outfits pass others wearing long skirts and head coverings, donkey-drawn carts vie with battered old Fiats and shiny BMWs for dominance of the noisy, narrow streets, and the Grand Bazaar competes with Western-style boutiques and shopping malls. At dawn, when the muezzin’s call to prayer rebounds from ancient minarets, there are inevitably a few hearty revelers still making their way home from nightclubs and bars while other residents kneel on their prayer rugs facing Mecca. What a wonderful city of contrasts that manage to coexist.
The Bazaar Area and Environs
The area between the Grand Bazaar and the shore of the Golden Horn teems with people during the day. Even though most of the old Byzantine and Ottoman buildings have long gone, the stalls and peddlers who line the narrow, rather grubby streets winding down the hill from the Grand Bazaar give an impression of what the city must have been like when it was the bustling capital of a vast empire. In addition to the Grand Bazaar and the Egyptian Bazaar, you’ll come upon some of the city’s most beautiful mosques here.
When exploring the Bazaar area, you might want to start at the Grand Bazaar and work your way downhill to Eminönü—it’s a rather stiff climb the other way. From Sultanahmet, you can take the tram partway down the hill to the Grand Bazaar. It’s almost impossible to get lost; just keep walking downhill until you reach the water. These streets can seem like one giant open air bazaar, and are much less touristy the Grand Bazaar itself. Note that the Grand and Egyptian bazaars are closed Sunday; the Beyazit, Rüstem Pasa, and Süleymaniye mosques are open daily but effectively—if often not officially—closed to non-Muslims at prayer times, particularly Friday midday.
Beyoglu: Istanbul’s New Town
The neighborhood that climbs the Galata Hill is known both as Pera and Beyoglu, and is often referred to as the “New Town,” where the first thing you’ll learn is that new is a relative term in Istanbul. Much of what you’ll see here dates from the 19th century. In the early part of the 20th century, Beyoglu was one of Istanbul’s most fashionable areas, home to large numbers of the city’s Greeks, Jews, and Armenians and filled with many grand, European-style apartment buildings. As the decades passed, more people started moving to the greener neighborhoods farther up the Bosphorus and what had once been one of Istanbul’s most elegant neighborhoods became crime-ridden and filled with crumbling buildings. Gentrification fever has hit the neighborhood recently, and many Istanbullus are rediscovering the splendid old buildings and incredible views.
Istanbul’s New Town clings to the hillside above Karaköy, and the Galata Tower, while only halfway up the hill, dominates the skyline. Tünel Square, just north of the docks, is an appealing gathering spot surrounded by shops and cafés—it also marks the start of Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Street), Istanbul’s main pedestrian area. Nearby is the Pera Palace, one of the most famous of Istanbul’s hotels, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express and where Mata Hari threw back a few at the bar. From the square, Istiklal Caddesi climbs uphill through Beyoglu, past consulates in ornate turn-of-the-century buildings, and across Galatasaray Meydani (Galatasaray Square) to Taksim Meydani (Taksim Square), the center of modern Istanbul.
As you walk along Istiklal Caddesi, look toward the upper stories and the heavily ornamented facades of the 19th-century buildings. Return your gaze to eye level, and you’ll see bookstores, boutiques, kebab shops, movie theaters, and every element of modern Istanbul’s vibrant cultural melting pot. The impressive building behind the massive iron gates on Galatasaray Meydani is a high school, established in 1868 and for a time the most prestigious in the Ottoman Empire.
The Bosphorus and Besiktas
As you leave the chaos of the city behind, you’ll see wooded hills; villages large and small, modern and old-fashioned; the old wooden summer homes called yalis (waterside houses) that were built for the city’s wealthier residents in the Ottoman era.
Eastern Thrace (the area historically bounded by the Danube and Nestos rivers, and the Aegean, Marmara, and Black seas) has a harsh climate—sizzling in summer, bitter in winter—and the landscape is unexceptional, but the region has some worthy sights, particularly Edirne, founded in the 2nd century AD as Hadrianopolis by the Roman emperor Hadrian. Edirne was the last great fortress city before Istanbul and was fought over for centuries by every would-be conqueror, including the Bulgars, crusaders, Turks, Greeks, and Russians. It was the Ottoman capital before it was moved to Istanbul, though the rulers often returned, particularly for hunting in the summer, and the many Sultans adorned the city with many magnificent mosques. With the fall of the empire it became something of a picturesque backwater.
Edirne, while no museum town, is a well-preserved Ottoman city; the overhanging balconies of the traditional Ottoman wooden houses shade Edirne’s still-cobbled lanes, and its rich collection of mosques and monuments remains mostly unspoiled by the concrete towers so prevalent in Turkey’s boomtowns. The rivers and borders have pushed development to the east, allowing the unique feel of an old town still surrounded by fields and greenery. Tourists tend to ignore Edirne, but those who visit appreciate its several remarkable mosques and its covered bazaars. Every summer, Edirne becomes the focus of attention as host of the Kirkpinar, the national grease-wrestling festival.
On the grounds of the Üç Serefeli Mosque is the Sokurlu Hamam, built by Sinan in 1568, and one of the country’s more elegant baths. It’s open to the public from about 7 AM until 11 PM for men and from 9:30 AM until 6 PM for women and costs $10 for a bath, $16 for a bath with massage.
The Prince’s Islands, known simply as Adalar in Turkish, are everything that Istanbul isn’t: quiet, green, and car-less. They are primarily a relaxing getaway from the noise and traffic of the big city, though can be quite crowded on sunny weekends. Restrictions on development and a ban on automobiles help maintain the old-fashioned peace and quiet—transportation here is only by horse-drawn carriage or bicycle. There are no real “sights,” per se; the attraction is the relaxed peaceful atmosphere. Of the nine islands, four have regular ferry service, but only the two largest, Büyükada and Heybeliada, are of real interest to the general traveler. Both are hilly and wooded, and the fresh breeze is gently pine-scented. They make fun day trips from Istanbul, and with some beautiful hotels, you can even stay overnight. There are frequent ferries—both the atmospheric old boats and the faster, less atmospheric catamarans known as sea buses—from Katabas, near Taksim at the end of the tram line.
These nine islands of the Sea of Marmara have provided various uses for the people of Istanbul over the years. Back in the days when the city was known as Constantinople, religious undesirables sought refuge here, while in the time of the sultans, the islands provided a convenient place to exile untrustworthy hangers-on. By the turn of the 18th century, well-heeled businessmen had staked their claim and built many of the Victorian gingerbread-style houses that lend the islands their charm. For several years in the 1930s, Büyükada, the largest of the islands, was the home of the exiled Leon Trotsky: the islands were considered to be safer than Istanbul, with its 35,000 hostile white Russian refugees.
From the ferry you can see the two smallest, uninhabited, islands, known in Greek and Turkish as the “pointy” Oxya/Sivri and the “flat” Plate/Yassi. Sivri’s main claim to fame was that in the 19th and early 20th centuries Istanbul’s stray dogs would be occasionally rounded up and dumped there, while Yassi was the site of the trial and execution of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes after the 1960 military coup. Two of the other inhabited islands are Kinaliada, popular with the city’s Armenians, and Burgaz Ada, know to be more Greek, though neither have any significant sights.