Istanbul – One City, Two Continents

If you like diversity and contrasts, you will definitely love Istanbul. It is the largest city in Turkey and the country’s historical, cultural and economic hub, but not also its capital city, as you might probably expect it to be. That title is currently held by Ankara, but in the past the amazing transcontinental city was the capital of four different empires (Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman). However, there are many imposing monuments that still speak of the city’s central role in history.

Istanbul

The Bosporus Strait works at the same time as a point of separation and an element of connection between the European and the Asian side of Turkey and Istanbul. It is fascinating to see the socio-cultural differences between the two sides of the city. Quite interestingly, it is the European side which has kept more of the oriental traditions, while the Asian part of Istanbul is where the occidental lifestyle has crept in, altering people’s way of living.

In the western neighborhoods you will most likely see many women with their heads and faces carefully covered, and men wearing traditional turbans and answering the Muezzins’ call to prayer. In the meantime, the other side of the metropolis is filled with elegantly dressed businessmen and young women wearing discreet make-up.

Topkapı Palace

Speaking of variety and diversity, the city has a very rich and diverse heritage. It was once a very important center of the Christian world, and then it became a thriving Muslim capital. Its story began with Thracian settlements, conquered in 657 BC by Greek colonists led by Kung Byzas. He established the city which became known as Byzantium. Centuries later, in 330 AD, Constantine the Great conquered the city and its name was changed to Constantinople, or “The City of Constantine”.

The emperor tried to advertise the new capital of the eastern side of the Roman Empire as Nea Roma (The New Rome), but the name did not catch on. Under Roman rule, the capital saw many changes and a remarkable evolution, with its peak of development taking place under emperor Justinian I. Numerous palace and churches were built under his reign, including the magnificent Hagia Sophia.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

Things changed dramatically after 1453, when Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans led by Sultan Mehmed II ‘The Conqueror’. The city was declared capital of the Ottoman Empire and its architecture began to change with the addition of new mosques. Even the Majestic Hagia Sophia was ‘transformed’: it received four minarets and was used as a mosque. Today it is only a museum, even though many Muslims still come here to pray.

This happened in 1923, after the country became a republic, and religion was separated from politics. To further mark the separation between church and state, the capital was moved to Ankara. Another construction whose original purpose changed after the last sultan was dethroned was the majestic Topkapi Sarayi palace, which is today a main tourist attraction in the city, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Dolmabahçe Palace

This was an enormous contruction with seemingly endless rooms and enough space to accommodate 4,000 servants of the sultans. The harem alone occupied 400 chambers. Today its visitors can admire beautiful collections of old weapons, superb jewelry, porcelains and other historically significant artifacts. Muslims also come here to see the preserved footsteps and even a tooth of the great Prophet.

Blue Mosque

Blue Mosque

Other tourist attractions in Istanbul include the Dolmabahçe Palace, which is the first one built in a European style, and the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi, or Sunken Palace), located only 500 feet from Hagia Sophia. Built in the 6th century, it is the city’s largest ancient underground cistern. Its domed roof is supported by 336 26-foot pillars. The cistern itself could hold 2825173 cubic feet of water, measuring 459 feet by 229 feet.

The list of sights may continue with the historic Hippodrome, Blue Mosque, Chora Church, Galata Tower, and Süleymaniye Mosque. And finally, don’t forget to visit a couple of museums while you’re here. Our suggestion: the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum and at least one archeology museum.

  • Driving in Istanbul is not exactly recommended, because the traffic may be overwhelming. The best way to come here is either by plane, or by ferryboat.
  • Tips are usually included in the bill. For taxis, restaurants and occidental hotels 5 to 10 percent is the general rule.
  • There are all types of accommodation options here, but if you want something truly special, then you should go for something like Hotel Ibrahim Paha, or the contemporary Sumahan-on-the-Water.
  • Because the weather in summer is torrid (temperatures often soar above 86°F), the best time to come here is April-June and September-October, when the average temperature is 68°F.

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