Centuries and continents collide on the banks of the Bosphorus
It takes just one sunset to fall for Istanbul. You may be sipping tea among canoodling couples along the Bosphorus in Üsküdar with a backdrop of skyscrapers and minarets, or smoking a hookah in Tophane as freighters glide by on their way to the Black Sea, when the sun dips down low and sets the whole city afire. Just as the lights of the modern metropolis begin to sparkle, the muezzin rises from a nearby mosque, filling the streets with plaintive wailing. The effect is narcotic.
Istanbul is one of those accidents of geography where there will always be a city. For millennia, poets have been scrambling for new clichés to express how this area links past and present, Europe and Asia. Napoleon referred to it as the ‘capital of the world’; two empires were inclined to agree.
In the simplest terms, Istanbul is a place of fusion and transition, a land that boasts a glut of history and Europe’s youngest population, home to a people who fast during Ramadan and gobble up Prada and iPhones. Istanbul is truly gargantuan: with a population of nine million, it is one of the biggest metropolises in the world. From the rooftop club 360 in Beyoglu, the city is a whirlpool, rising and falling on hillsides, broken only by water. The sheer slopes can make for teeth-grinding frustration when you’re trying to slither your way through a crowded market in Fener or dodge dozens of solicitous cabbies in Taksim Square.
The essential sights and experiences are straight from the pages of National Geographic: browsing mountains of produce fresh from Anatolia among legions of headscarved old women at the bazaar; chilling out along the railing of an Asia-bound ferry while hovering gulls beg for scraps of ‘simit’, the traditional pastry; a wiry teenager winding through the crowds with 80 of those simit balanced expertly on top of his head.
A city with so much can only be uncovered by degrees. The sites in Sultanahmet never fail to astound first-timers. Return visitors might find their way to Beyazit Square – home to a breathtaking mosque, a university and the Grand Bazaar. Experienced travellers might venture out to the city’s thousand-year-old walls and nearby Chora Church, within it the world’s greatest collection of Byzantine frescoes. Even some residents have yet to see Dolmabahçe Palace or ride the cable car up to Pierre Loti café for the exquisite view and Turkish coffee.
Not to be outdone by the wonders of the past, the Turks have built a canyon-shaped shopping mall, a restaurant floating in the Bosphorus, and are working on the first intercontinental tunnel. As Turkey regains its place among the global players, Istanbul will join the shortlist of the world’s most vibrant cities.
Getting there Turkish Airlines flies to Istanbul from Dhs1,546 return, including taxes.
Where is it? Straddling the Bosphorus Strait, which links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and separates Europe from Asia.
Climate Hot and dry Mediterranean summers and cool, rainy winters.
Major sights Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar.
Where’s the buzz? Cihangir, Etiler, Moda.
Insiders’ tips The Bosphorus neighbourhoods Bebek and Arnavutköy, Prince’s Islands for a summertime getaway, Kadıköy for the Asian side at its edgiest.
Earliest evidence of civilisation While excavating around Yenikapı for the Marmaray Tunnel Project in 2008, archaeologists uncovered a Neolithic settlement dating to 6500 BC. The previous oldest settlement – in Fikirtepe – dates to 5500 BC.
Previously called Byzantium, Constantinople, Stamboul, Tsarigrad. In 1930 the Turkish authorities ensured Istanbul was recognised under its new name by returning mail sent using any of the others.
Capital status Istanbul has been capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires, yet Ankara is the capital city of modern Turkey.
Early plumbing Under the Ottomans, Istanbul had more than 1,400 public toilets, far ahead of other European cities. Over the past 80 years, internal plumbing has seen Turkey’s 2,500 hammams (bath-houses) fall to about 100.
Biggest covered bazaar in the world The Grand Bazaar, founded by Sultan Mehmed II in 15th century. Slippers, mirrors and fur have been sold here for more than 500 years.
Diameter of the dome of the Hagia Sophia 31.24m
Commercial vessels passing through the Bosphorus 53,000 each year.
Football teams Bes, iktas, Fenerbahçe, Galatasaray.
On familiar terms Yogurt, pilaf, coffee, baklava, shish kebab, pitta, kilim, sherbet and caviar are all words of Turkish origin now used in ordinary English.