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Introducing Istanbul

Istanbul is an ancient city, said to date back to around 660 BC, when Greek settlers established a colony in the area. Istanbul has been known by multiple names over the years, from Byzantium to Constantinople and finally to Istanbul (with a brief stint as “New Rome” which didn’t really catch on). It has been the capital of many empires, including the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire. As the largest city in Turkey, Istanbul is the cultural, economic and financial centre of the country. It is located in the Northwest part of Turkey and lies on the Bosphorus strait. Istanbul holds the distinction of being the only metropolis in the world to lie on two continents, as it extends to both the European and Asia sides of the strait which separates the two continents.

Declared a “European Capital of Culture” in 2010, Istanbul’s historic areas have been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Keen to be seen as a modern megacity, Istanbul is bidding to host the 2020 Summer Olympics and make a big splash on the international stage. The city experienced exponential growth over the 20th century, leaving the outskirts spotted with “gecekondu” or “built overnight” buildings–hastily built squatter buildings. Some of these eyesores are being demolished and replaced with modern mass-housing compounds, however.

Quick facts
  • Istanbul is the third largest metropolitan area in Europe (if one includes the Asian side of the city) after London and Moscow
  • Although a very important city in Turkey, Istanbul is not the capital. Ankara has been the capital of Turkey since it became the Republic of Turkey in 1923
  • Istanbul’s subway (built in 1875) is the third oldest in the world after London’s (1863) and New York’s (1868)
  • Istanbul’s population increased tenfold between 1950 and 2000 as a result of explosive growth
  • During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul had over 1400 public toilets–at a time when there wasn’t a single toilet in any of the palaces of France or the rest of Europe
Exploring
Istanbul has turned into a modern, happening city seemingly overnight. With hip restaurants, bars, galleries and clubs, tourists have a lot more to see than just exquisite Ottoman mosques (of which there are plenty). With an abundance of historical sites and a vibrant art scene, Istanbul offers a variety of day activities for families. At night the city is transformed into a hot ultra-modern bar and club scene. The Turkish know, however, that their bread and butter is their historical and cultural appeal, so one can still find plenty of traditional meyhane (taverns) and çay bahçesi (tea gardens) to relax in. Turkish Baths are also commonly available for the ultimate in Istanbul style leisure.

Although Istanbul is primarily known for its Byzantine and Ottoman era architecture, the city’s buildings reflect a wide variety of styles left by the empires that have ruled in years past. Genoese, Roman, and Greek forms of architecture can be seen alongside Ottoman styling, just as historic churches and synagogues coexist peacefully beside imperial mosques. Historical shopping centres, such as the Grand Bazaar, offer a unique contrast to the modern high-end shopping malls offered around town. Tourist shops are also plentiful, but for good deals one has to explore the back alleys to find where the locals shop–and be prepared to be hassled. The currency in Istanbul is the Lira, which is unfortunately one of the least valuable world currencies. In tourist areas, you may see prices quoted in U.S. dollars instead.

Getting around
Istanbul has a respectable public transportation system to serve its more than 13 million inhabitants spread over the 5712 km metro area. With a series of transportation options, one has many opportunities to get around the area. Istanbul’s unique geographic location means that a variety of boats can be employed to travel around the region. Fortunately, Istanbul offers an integrated electronic ticketing system that covers buses, funiculars, the metro, commuter trains, ferryboats and trams with one smart card.

Metered taxis are common, and line up right at the pier for cruise travellers. Or one can choose to take a tram instead; the Tophane stop is located just a few hundred yards from the pier, and the tramlines are a convenient and inexpensive method for seeing many of the city’s historic sites. Walking is another delightful option, and a wonderful way to experience the sights (and smells!) of Istanbul. One can fairly easily walk from the pier area down the main street to the Bosporus. The Galata Bridge is safe to walk across, and will bring you to the Old City, where many major sites can be found. Once there, walking between the sites (such as the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, and Hagia Sofia) is also quite doable.

Beyond Istanbul
One of the most popular day trips from Istanbul is a day cruise on the Bosporus to Prince’s Islands, located south of Istanbul in the Sea of Marmara. Lovely and peaceful, these islands were once a haven for exiled royalty. Even the infamous Leon Trotsky escaped to these islands after being expelled from Russia. A great way to get away from the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, there is no traffic allowed on the Islands–the only way to travel is on foot or via horse and cart. One can experience horse-drawn carriage tours, visit churches and monasteries, or explore quaint old mansions. Hotels and restaurants are available on the main islands.

One can reach the islands via ferry from Istanbul’s many ferry ports; most of the ferry and ship service companies will visit four of the nine islands. Be wary of weather, however; although the Islands may get crowded during the summer months, during the spring and autumn ferry services may be called off due to storms and high waves. The islands are almost deserted during the winter months due to the biting cold and dangerously strong winds.

Local activities
Topkapi Palace
This opulent palace is the subject of numerous historic and colourful stories, and is reported to have once been the home of Selim the Sot (who drowned in the bath after drinking too much champagne), Ibrahim the Crazy (who went mad after being locked up for four years in this infamous palace) and others. Topkapi has been the subject of a feature film (Jules Dassin’s 1963 Topkapi) and even an opera (Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio). With lots to see, one could spend half a day exploring this fascinating site.

Dances of Colours Whirling Dervishes
A spiritual and informative tribute to the 13th century mystic, poet, and philosopher Rumi and his followers, the Dances of Colours programme starts with an introduction speech about the practice and is followed by Sufi Music and the 4-salam whirling dervish ceremony. Guests are encouraged to ask questions at this unique 800 year old cultural experience.

Basilica Cistern
The Basilica Cistern is an extraordinary underground structure built in 532 by a Byzantine emperor, and is the largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul. Delightfully cool, this is a wonderful tourist attraction to visit during hot summer months. Walk along the subterranean raised wooden platforms to admire the architecture, and follow up your tour with a stop at the small café near the exit for a casual cup of tea.

Local cuisine and drinks
Istanbul is known for many delicious foods including Lahmacun (a kind of pizza with spicy meat, onion, tomato, and greens) and Bul-bul-yuvasi (a crispy roll made of peanut butter formed into a curious nest). Don’t forget to try traditional Turkish Baklava (thin dough stuffed with nuts) or Turkish Delights for dessert with a strong Turkish coffee or the ubiquitous Turkish tea. Local Turkish beers are also commonly available, and are quite reasonable.
Where you are docked
The Port of Istanbul is the most important port in the country. As the city is essentially surrounded by water on all sides, water transport is vital to Istanbul. Cruise ships dock at the Yolcu Salonu (Passenger Terminal) in Karakoy, which is in the centre of the city at the northern end of the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. A quick taxi ride from the port will put you in the old city centre near most of the city’s highlights.
Regional weather
Istanbul experiences hot, humid spring / summers with contrasting cold, windy autumn/ winters. The warmest months of the year are generally July and August and the coolest month of the year is typically February.
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