Istanbul, the capital of Turkey, is an ancient city of many faces and layers. It is where east meets west, a fusion of Greek, Roman, and Ottoman influences that are still evident today. Formerly known as Byzantium when it was founded around 660 BC, it was renamed Constantinople in the year 330, and then called Ankara in the 1920s, until its present name Istanbul. Part of the historic Silk Road, Istanbul literally straddles two continents, as one part lies in Europe and the other part in Asia. The two sides are separated by the 51-kilometer Bosphorus Strait, a busy waterway that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Once upon a time, Istanbul was the center of the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. This transcontinental city of 15 million people receives around 12 million tourists and is considered as one of the fastest growing economies around the world.
1. The Two Faces of IstanbulVisitors to Istanbul naturally end up dividing their tours into and comparing Istanbul’s European and Asian side just for the fun of it. The European side is where the more famous tourist spots are located such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It is also generally more crowded. The Asian side, on the other hand, is relatively more serene and quite residential where one can enjoy a more unhurried pace having a stroll along a scenic waterway, hobnobbing with locals, and having a foodie trip of delicious Turkish cuisine. A favorite destination is Kadikoy Market where one is greeted with choices of food, bars, and restaurants.
2. Shopping Turkish-StyleThe best of the east and the west is what every shopaholic will get in Istanbul. Apart from the popular Grand Bazaar and the nearby Egyptian Spice Bazaar, modern-day Istanbul is home to the largest shopping mall in Europe and the second largest worldwide — Istanbul Cevahir — with an area of 620,000 square meters. With more than 280 shops, 34 fast food outlets, and 14 restaurants, this is every shopaholic and mall rats’ mecca. Other equally huge malls in the city are the Anka Mall (the second largest in Turkey), Istanbul Mall, and the luxury shopping districts along Nisantasi and Bagdat Avenue. Some of the must-buys from Istanbul are Iznik ceramics, handwoven Turkish towels, Turkish tea, and meerschaum, a material that looks like ivory, which come in the form of carved pipes and jewelry.
3. Food… Glorious Food!Until recently with the explosion of food blogs and vlogs, Turkey’s best-kept secret has been its exquisite cuisine with influences dating back from ancient times. Istanbul, naturally, is a foodie paradise with lots of mouthwatering treats to offer. There’s more to Istanbul than its well-known, full-flavored Turkish coffee. Food lovers can have their fill of seafood from the restaurants lining the Bosphorus shores, or sample the delectable, elegant Ottoman-inspired dishes along with Middle Eastern food influences like the kebab. From the freshly-baked, bagel-like Simit and its sumptuous Kahvalti breakfast spread, to the delightfully spiced pizza-like Lachmacun to its famous delicate Baklava desert, Istanbul is certainly a feast for every foodie’s senses.
Istanbul Tourist Spots
1. Hagia Sophia: A Majestic and Beautiful SightOne of Istanbul’s most recognizable ancient structure and one of the most prized Byzantine structure that was every built, the Hagia Sophia built in 537 A.D. was once the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church for around 900 years before it was converted into a mosque during the time of Sultan Mehmed II and, currently, a museum. Consecrated by Emperor Justinian, the Hagia Sophia means ‘Holy Wisdom’. Its interiors are a treasure trove of Greek, Roman, Islam and other eastern traditions, with elaborate mosaics and well-preserved frescoes, among others. Outside, the four 60-meter minarets added during its Islamic takeover surround the huge dome and tower over the complex.
2. Blue Mosque: A Splendid Structure from the Ottoman EmpireThe majestic Blue Mosque is quite a fitting counterpart and complement to Hagia Sophia. Built sometime between 1609 and 1616 under the supervision of the architect Mehmet Aga and upon the orders of Sultan Ahmet I, the Blue Mosque is recognizable by its 43-meter high central dome and its striking six minarets. It’s most recognizable characteristic is, of course, the blue hue, courtesy of more than 20,000 handmade Iznik ceramic tiles that adorn its interiors in various intricate floral designs. While the Hagia Sophia has been turned into a museum, the Blue Mosque continues to function as an active mosque and has regular Islamic prayer times all throughout the day. This is also the reason why visitors are requested to observe the dress code and prayer times during which it is closed to tourists.
3. Grand BazaarIt is certainly a must to visit Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar at least once for the delightful shopping treats it has to offer. Truly a feast for the senses, the sprawling and colorful 30,700-square meter bazaar is one of the oldest and biggest covered markets in the world having been completed in 1461. Keep in mind that the bazaar has 22 entrances and 64 streets so don’t be surprised if you got lost at some point. From intricately designed vintage jewelry to beautiful handwoven carpets and textiles to colorful glass lamps and the must-have Nazar evil eye protection, you will leave the bazaar with bagsful of goodies. And feel free to go to a hammam, or Turkish bath, afterwards for some well-deserved rest and relaxation.