28 February 2022
Where east meets west
Blending the lines between East and West, modernism and antiquity, secularism and piety, Istanbul is full to the brim with diversity. Istanbul’s amazingly layered cultural heritage is, in large part, thanks to its location: set on the Bosphorus Strait, the city straddles the line between Europe and Asia, making it perhaps one of the only cities that can legitimately claim to be the point at which east meets west. The city’s climate can be defined as “transitional Mediterranean”, with quite cold winters, but otherwise Mediterranean characteristics: the rainiest seasons are autumn and winter, and summer is hot and sunny. But whether it’s hot or cold, Istanbul enjoys more sun than most, with 2,185 hours annually.
One of the most populated cities on the planet, this vibrant city is home to some 15 million people. If you didn’t believe in the phrase “the city never sleeps” before now, Istanbul will surely change your mind. This sprawling metropolis is full of life both day and night, lulled only by the Islamic call to prayer that echoes across the city every evening. If you’re ready to get stuck into a new adventure, Istanbul is the place to go… This is where the most curious of Explorers go to discover 1,000s of years of history, taste amazing food that perfectly blends the traditional tastes of two continents, and see some of the most beautiful sights - from incredible architecture that spans empires, to grand markets teeming with life.
What makes Istanbul, Istanbul?
1. The views
Perhaps one of Istanbul’s most defining features is the Bosphorus Strait, which unites the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and divides the European and Asian sides of the city. Explorers can take a public boat tour or rent their own private boat to experience some of the most amazing sights of the city:
The Ottoman Waterfront Mansions
These insanely beautiful 17th century properties hide alluring pasts and tell delightful stories of Istanbul’s ethnic diversity during the era. The history and culture behind these mansions is so vast, I could talk about it forever… But we don’t have forever - so here’s a quick summary: traditionally built from wood, these houses were used as summer homes for state officials or rich families and were colour coded to reflect the social position or occupation of the owner. Red-colored yalıs belonged to civil servants; shades of grey indicated non-Muslim occupants such as Christians and Jews, while lighter colours like white, yellow, or beige were a sign of Muslims in residence. Look for the Köprülü Yalı - the oldest surviving yalı in Istanbul. Built in 1699, the property was originally much larger than it is now, but having suffered age-related decay and a fire, only one section of the once-spectacular mansion remains. If you’re looking for a great photo opportunity, keep your eyes peeled for the Kont Ostrorog Yalı. Known for its breathtaking architecture, this mansion ranks among the most glamorous buildings on the Bosphorus, so it will be hard to miss!
The 15 July Martyrs Bridge
This is no ordinary bridge. Glide under the most famous landmark of Istanbul, which connects two continents and carries nearly 200,000 vehicles a day. The bridge is as iconic during the day as it is at night, when it lights up the strait with LEDs that perfectly illuminate the structure.
This traditional fishing village can be found near the narrowest part of the Bosphorus. Anadolu Kavağı is a must-see, especially if you’re looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city. It’s hard to imagine, but this sleepy town has been a place of major strategic importance for millennia. Overlooked by the magnificent ruins of the Byzantine-Genoese Castle on the hill, the village’s position at the entrance of the Bosphorus explains why it is so dotted with historically significant monuments, from old fortifications to ancient temples. Today, however, it offers a peaceful spectacle with fishing boats stationed on its beach, lush green hills and wooden houses overlooking the Bosphorus.
If you’re looking to admire the Bosphorus from a distance, make sure to check out Galata Tower and Maiden’s Tower.
Built by the Genoese in 1348 as an observation tower to spot fires by the Ottomans, today Galata Tower offers breathtaking views of Istanbul’s skyline. Sunset views are amazing but be prepared to stand in line as everyone seems to have got the tip-off on this one!
Erected in the mediaeval Byzantine period, legend has it that a Sultan put his daughter in the tower to protect her from a prophecy that had predicted her death. It is this tale which gave the tower its name. Standing right on the shores of the Bosphorus, the tower offers spectacular views that have earned it a spot in two James Bond movies!
Fun fact: The Bosphorus strait is the second busiest strait in the world. On average 48,000 vessels per year transit between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea by using this Istanbul strait.
2. Sightseeing the incredible architecture
Ottoman palaces and Byzantine castle fortresses are just a fraction of the amazing historical sites you’ll find in Istanbul. Istanbul’s incredibly layered history is evident in each brick of every magnificent monument in the city.
Built nearly 1,500 years ago, the Hagia Sofia is one of Istanbul’s most cherished landmarks. This is a place that has stood the test of time… Originally built as a Christian basilica and once considered the central church of the faith, this is where new emperors went to be crowned. The church was so grand that the Byzantine Emperor considered it a grand declaration of his empire’s wealth and technical ability. The Hagia Sofia’s beauty was undeniable even to the Ottomans who conquered Constantinople. Rather than destroy this incredible monument, they transformed it into a beautiful mosque. Islamic calligraphy replaced the original Orthodox-themed mosaics, a mihrab was installed in the wall to indicate the direction of Islam’s holy city Mecca, and four minarets were added to the original building. To this day, the Hagia Sofia’s role in politics and religion is controversial. In 1935 - nine years after the Republic of Turkey was established by Ataturk—to 2020, it was repurposed as a museum, but after much campaigning by Islamic religious leaders in Turkey, it was once again classified as a mosque. This is a monument that has seen the rise and fall of entire empires, so it’s no wonder that it has earned its place as a long-enduring symbol of the city.
Istanbul is no stranger to controversial monuments. The Blue Mosque, built between 1609 and 1616, was built with six minarets just like the Great Mosque of Mecca - one of the most important mosques in Islam. The Blue Mosque’s minarets proved so contentious in the Muslim world that a seventh minaret was eventually gifted to Mecca to quell dissent. The mosque is aptly named after its interior decoration: tens of thousands of blue Iznik tiles make the mosque one of Ottoman architecture’s finest achievements. For the best view of the mosque’s domes, wander through the gardens between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia to admire their duelling domes in all their glory.
Originally built by Mehmet the Conquerer in the 15th century, this was where the sultans of the Ottoman Empire lived and ruled from - and who can blame them? Set beside the Bosphorus, this glorious palace is not just home to amazing views, but also Islamic art, opulent courtyards lined with intricate hand-painted tiles, and an incredibly regal interior. Today you can wander the battlemented walls and towers; admire relics of the Prophet Muhammad which are stored in the palace’s Sacred Safekeeping Room, or walk through the lavish Imperial Treasury which is full of artefacts from the Ottoman Empire, including large diamonds and gold-encrusted objects. Perhaps the most fascinating rooms of the palace are the Harem Complex, where the sultan’s concubines and their children would live; the Second Court, where you can walk through the seemingly endless palace kitchens and stand in awe at the dazzling interior of the Imperial Council Chamber, and the Third Court, which contained the sultan's private rooms. The palace is so grand, it’s likely to keep you occupied for most of the day - I’d recommend setting aside at least half a day to really experience the place in all its glory.
Istanbul has endless galleries, museums and religious monuments for you curious Explorers out there, but each and every corner of this city is just as enchanting. You’re just as likely to find yourself captivated by one of the city’s many ancient alleyways as you are by its grand landmarks.
Good to know: The Hagia Sophia has a storied history. Destroyed twice by riots, the first great Byzantine ruler ordered its reconstruction in 537 CE, only for its dome to collapse in 558CE after an earthquake. The dome was then reconstructed and columns from the long-abandoned and destroyed Ancient Wonder of the World, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, were used to fortify (and beautify) the interior of the church.
3. The city of Empires
Istanbul’s position on the Bosphorus Strait gives it unrivalled strategic and historical importance. The city has long been the focus of the world’s most powerful empires, whose occupations have all left an indelible mark on its culture and history. Uniting Europe with Asia, this is a place that can truly claim to be the point where east meets west. That was what first drew King Byzas to Istanbul in 7th century BC. The city - known as Byzantium back then - would be the seat of the Byzantine Empire for the next 1,100 years…
But Byzantium was so desired that the Byzantine reign was not entirely peaceful. In 330AD, the city was briefly conquered by the Roman Empire before being taken back by the Byzantines. During the Roman’s brief reign, however, the city experienced a huge transformation. It was renamed Constantinople after the Emperor Constantine, and became the site of the Roman Emperor’s “New Rome”, a Christian city of immense wealth and magnificent architecture. Today, the remnants of the Romans’ time in the city can still be seen in the Column of Constantine, the Mazulkemer and Valens Aqueducts, the Column of the Goths in Gülhane Park, and the Hippodrome of Constantinople which was built following the model of the Circus Maximus in Rome.
The Byzantines kept hold of the city for over a millennium, but the Arab Conquest posed a constant threat, invading and weakening the city’s defenses in 1204 before finally conquering Constantinople after a 53-day siege in 1453. And so, Istanbul - as we know it today - was born: a place where each monument tells a different story about the city of empires. The Hagia Sofia speaks to the once strong Byzantine Empire, vanquished by the Ottomans; the Blue Mosque, public baths and the Grand Bazaar showcase Islamic culture brought to the city by the Arabs, and the Milion serves as a reminder of Rome’s brief stint as the most powerful conquerors of the city.
Fun Fact: Under the Ottoman Empire, at a time when there were little to no toilets even in Europe’s royal palaces, Istanbul was famous for having more than 1,400 - a city truly ahead of its time…
4. The most amazing food
The food in Istanbul is amazing! This is a city whose gastronomists have made the perfect blend of its two continents’ traditional foods, to create a unique fusion of flavours unlike anything you’ll taste anywhere else. Sample the street food classics like simit (sesame bagels), or kofte (similar to meatballs, made of lamb, onion and parsley and served in a tomato sauce), or doner meat wraps. Or if you’re looking for something a little more slow-paced, sit down to a traditional meal of lamb and rice, lahmacun (crispy flatbread topped with minced meat, pepper, sauce and parsley, served hot), or imam bayıldı (a roasted and stuffed eggplant dish)... However you choose to eat, Istanbul’s food will blow. your. mind!
But what’s (somehow) even better than the food in Istanbul, is the culture that surrounds it. Whether it’s taking a long tea break after each meal, or sharing huge platters of food, at the heart of Turkish culture is the desire for community and friendship. Visit during Ramadan and you’ll find yourself at the heart of a culture that centres togetherness above all. This holy month is one of the most enchanting times to visit the city as locals rest during the day, leaving the city empty for you to explore… At sunset, the city comes alive as thousands of worshippers come together to break their fast with one another. The atmosphere after the evening prayer is unmatched in its vibrancy, as the community transforms mosque grounds into picnic areas where everyone can share. It’s an incredible time of year in Istanbul, as people bond over food and Turkish hospitality is extended to anyone who takes a seat at the table.
Fun Fact: Istanbul is the only pan-continental city, meaning it spreads over two continents (Europe and Asia) - no wonder it has such a diverse culture!
5. Its bazaars
Bazaars are a huge part of Istanbul’s identity. These labyrinthian marketplaces have been around for centuries and are the perfect place for Explorers who love a bargain. You could spend hours browsing the stalls and bartering for decorative tiles, handwoven rugs and antiques. The Grand Bazaar of Isanbul is one of the world’s largest markets, measuring more than 30,000 square metres, but there are so many bazaars to explore besides this most famous one. The Spice Bazaar which is nearby is almost just as massive and is home to an incredible array of spices, herbs and tea. If you’re looking for something a little more lowkey, most local neighbourhoods in Istanbul also operate their own weekly food markets as well, selling fresh produce from the countryside, cheeses, and fish from the nearby seas.
Good to know: The longest reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent, was admired as he protected his Jewish subjects by issuing a firman (a royal mandate) denouncing blood libels against the Jews.
Good to know
Mosques require women to cover their hair for religious purposes, so don’t forget to bring one with you or you could miss out on seeing some of the most beautiful architecture in the world!
Make sure to buy an Istanbul Kart - used to pay for all public transportation around Istanbul including buses, the metro and even ships! It costs a one-time fee of 10TL(Turkish Liras) and comes preloaded with 4TL.
As a woman who travels solo, I’d advise other women to dress conservatively in Istanbul. While it is not necessarily unsafe, it is not uncommon to experience unwanted attention from men.
If you’re planning to visit a few different museums and archaeological sites, make sure to grab an Istanbul museum pass! It costs 125TL and gives you one-time access to most museums and archaeological sites for 120 hours after the initial usage of the pass.
PDA is extremely frowned upon in Istanbul, so keep the kissing to a minimum!
Compared to most places in the Middle East, Istanbul is one of the most liberal cities that LGBT travellers can visit, but it is still advisable to exercise caution. Around Taksim, you’ll find plenty of gay clubs, bars, and restaurants. Trendy Beyoğlu is also somewhere where LGBT Explorers can feel safe. However, it would be a good idea to avoid less-developed or further-afield areas, as these would tend to be more conservative and wary of any tourists. Tophane, for example, is known as a community that holds more traditional views so be aware if visiting any sights there. Interestingly, you will actually see a lot of men holding hands or walking with their arms around each other's shoulders; this is a common expression of friendship.
The Grand Bazaar is huge! With over 4,000 shops and daily visitors ranging from 250,000-to 400,000, it can be difficult to navigate. Get the Grand Bazaar app to locate everything you need including ATMs, restaurants, restrooms and specific shops.
Istanbul is extremely crowded: a pickpocketer’s dream! Be extra mindful of your belongings in crowded places.
BiTaksi is Istanbul’s very own Uber - if you want to avoid the hassle of hailing a taxi, make sure to download this app!
Istanbul: A city of contrasts
This is the place where two continents, whose cultures are worlds apart, come together to create a city so diverse that Napolean once said “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” He wasn’t lying. This vibrant city is an endless treasure trove of experiences, regardless of what type of Explorer you are. Whether you’re looking to enjoy the thriving nightlife or you want to admire incredible ancient monuments - both religious and secular - Istanbul has it all.