The history of Istanbul goes back some 3500 years and for 1500 years the city was capital to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Although it lost the title of Turkish capital to Ankara with the declaration of the youthful Republic, it has remained the country’s cultural, artistic, industrial and spiritual capital. Modern buildings, facilities and entertainment centers have now been added to the cultural and historical legacy of thousands of years of history of this magnificent metropolis.
Istanbul has always fascinated travelers with its sights, sounds and spectacular natural setting. Today the city is also on its way to becoming a business fair and congress capital. It offers visitors nearly inexhaustible opportunities for entertainment, excursions and shopping and is one of the few cities able to offer all of these at one and the same time. One can change continents in just a few minutes in Istanbul, either by ferry or by crossing the Fatih Sultan Mehmet and Bosphorus bridges from one side of the city to the other and within an hour you can be on the Black Sea coast. Shared taxis known as dolmus are a popular and convenient way of getting about the city and one can cross from one shore to another by means of small ferry boats. One can also travel from one end of the Bosphorus to the other on boats colloquially known as ‘gypsy ferries,’ enjoying the villas, palaces and scenery bright with a profusion of redbud trees. It is quicker to move around when the flow of traffic is comparatively light, avoiding the morning and evening hours when everyone is rushing to and from work. The old quarter of the city on the so-called ‘historical peninsula’ is home to Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, Sultanahmet Mosque, Yerebatan Sarayi (the Basilica Cistern), St. Irene’s Church, the Archeological Museum (a magnificent time tunnel in its own right), the Museum of Oriental Antiquities and the Ibrahim Pasa Palace housing the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.
Take a break from sightseeing to enjoy a delicious and inexpensive lunch in Sultanahmet, washed down with a glass of refreshing strong tea (or rabbit’s blood, as the Turks call it) The many Islamic buildings in Divanyolu and Beyazit Square are only a few minutes’ walk from Sultanahmet. You can see the Koprulu Library, the tomb of Mahmud II, the Vezir Han, the Cemberlitas Baths, the Koprulu complex, the Koca Sinan Pasa complex, Cemberlitas, the Corlulu Ali Pasa complex (where you can enjoy a nargile (hookah) in the cafe which now occupies the theological college and generally soak up the historical atmosphere), the Cevri Kalfa (Primary School housing the Turkish Literature Library), the Atik Ali Pasa complex, the Gedikpasa Baths (where there are still marble slabs for 27 men and 21 women), Beyazit Mosque, the Beyazit complex, the secondhand book market, Istanbul University with its tens of thousands of students and the Beyazit Tower, one of the landmarks of Istanbul which stands in the main university grounds and was originally built as a fire tower. If you go to the centre of Beyazit and take the narrow lane that leads off the main road at the side of the secondhand book market, you will find yourself in front of the main entrance to the Grand Bazaar and walking downhill to the waterfront on the Golden Horn will lead you to all the spellbinding colors of the Spice Market. Beyoglu is very definitely the place to be in the evenings.
Every corner of Istiklal Caddesi (street), which would seem a very long road in any other city but which is really no great distance in Istanbul terms, offers a wide choice of entertainment. There are numerous cafes and restaurants, but it is the pubs and taverns that give the area its special ambience. Just about every floor of every building in the side streets here contain a place of entertainment. The best-known of these streets is Nevizade Street, whose many bars make it a year-round open-air attraction. You can walk down the street right beside the famous Flower Passage, past the fried mussel and roasted meat vendors and listen to the street musicians.
What is more, you can do all this in the space of a single day. In Galata, just down the hill from Beyoglu, you could imagine yourself in Genoa. This is no surprise, because the Genoese set up a colony here during the days of the Byzantine Empire and were given permission to engage in commerce during the reign of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror. Galata enchants visitors with its buildings in cosmopolitan style and steep, narrow streets. Past Galata is Karakoy, with its pier for the ferries that Istanbul residents use to cross from one side of the city to the other and its dock for international shipping. There are many restaurants just opposite the pier at which to eat fish and enjoy a glass of raki. Feshane and the Rahmi Koc Science Museum stand on the Halic or the Golden Horn as it was known in Byzantine times and the green parks that stretch along the shore are the place to enjoy incomparable sunsets. With their mixed Turkish, Greek and Jewish quarters, Eyup, Fener and Balat are ideal for those who feel in the mood for a little time travel. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which administers 85 churches, stands in the Fener district. The Women’s Library in an Ottoman building in the same area houses a collection of works by and about women and holds seminars.
There are many superb restaurants here and the food is enhanced by lovely views of the Golden Horn. The Eyup district contains the grave of Eyup Sultan, a friend of the Prophet Muhammed who was killed here and Eyup Sultan Mosque, the first to be built after the city was captured by the Turks. The Pierre Loti cafe, named after the famous French novelist, stands on a hill with an unsurpassed view of the Golden Horn and is an ideal place to stop for refreshments. One of Istanbul’s best-known entertainment centers is Kumpkapi on the European shore of the Marmara Sea. Local residents made a living from fishing in the last century and have for many years now been running bars and fish restaurants. The Armenian Patriarchate is also in Kumkapi and every night happy crowds throng the streets near the shore. On the opposite shore to Besiktas, where the Dolmabahce and Ciragan palaces stand, is the historic district of Uskudar. On an islet just off the shore at Uskudar the legendary Maiden’s Tower stands in the middle of the Bosphorus, welcoming those who feel like eating and listening to music between two continents.
Another important point in the Halic region is Miniaturk, in which models of historical heritage of Turkey are exhibited. Should you wish to get away from the madding crowd, then the place to go is one of the hundreds of restaurants on the Asian and European sides of the Bosphorus. This waterway has a wide range of places to attract anyone who is carried along by its currents. North of Besiktas you come to Ortakoy, whose cafés, restaurants and bars are enjoyable by day or night. Plenty of live music is on offer here. The districts beyond Ortakoy on the European side of the Bosphorus all have great natural beauty, villas and places of entertainment: Kurucesme, Arnavutkoy, Bebek, Rumelihisari, Baltalimani, Emirgan, Istinye, Yenikoy, Tarabya, Kirecburnu, Buyukdere, Sariyer and Rumelifeneri. On the Asian side are Beykoz, Pasabahce, Cubuklu, Kanlica (do not leave here without trying the famous yogurt), Anadolu Hisari, Kucuksu, Kandilli, Vanikoy, Cengelkoy, Beylerbeyi, Kuzguncuk and Pasalimani.
Anyone from Istanbul will tell you that a lifetime is not enough to get to know this constantly changing city.There is even an old Istanbul song which goes;
“A whole lifetime is not enough to love even one of its districts properly.”
Münir Nurettin SELCUK