Istanbul City Guide
The mesmerizing city of Istanbul is the only city in the world which has its foot in two continents. Istanbul’s ‘old city’ is situated in Europe while its more modern sections are located within Asia. These two distinct sections of Istanbul are separated by an inlet of the strait of Bosphorous. This strategic location of Istanbul has contributed much to its historical past and the city, which once was a prominent epicenter for much trade, also served as the capital city of two great empires, namely the Christian Byzantine and the Islamic Ottoman.
Istanbul until today continues to be the center for finance and culture in Turkey. As a result it is a major business travel destination. However this captivating city has much to offer for tourists on vacation as well in the form of Byzantine ruins, bustling treasure-filled bazaars, marble hamams (bath houses) spectacular palaces and ancient mosques, which co-exist in relative harmony with modern office towers and western style chic stylish bars, nightclubs and boutiques.
Where to stay in Istanbul
The Sultanahmet area of Istanbul is the heart of the Old City. This crowded and busy area is a maze of streets and hosts some of the most well-known attractions in Istanbul like the Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Byzantine Hippodrome and many other sites. The Sultanahmet area offers great sigh-seeing opportunities and is equipped with many restaurants and stores as well as hotels that cater to all budgets.
Luxury hotels, boutique hotels housed in old –world structures, backpacker’s hotels and other budget accommodation, Sultanahmet offers accommodation options to suit every travel budget. So if you seeking an authentic Istanbul vacation then you should probably choose Sultanahmet as your base in Istanbul.
This district is located close to the old quarter but is not as commercial or overrun by carpet salesmen like Sultanahamet . The Beyoglu district also offers a wide array of hotels that include luxury hotels, business hotels as well as discount hotel properties.
Along the Bosphorus
The area along the strait of Bosphorus hosts some of the most spectacular and expensive hotels in Istanbul. These luxury hotel properties offer water views and shuttle boat services for the guests as the location of these hotels is not very convenient for guests who wish to take in the many wondrous sights of Istanbul.
On the Asian Side of the Bosphorus
The hotels located on the Asian side are even more upscale and expensive than those on the European side of the Bosphorus since they are situated within mainly quite, residential neighborhoods. These hotels are ideal for those visitors who enjoy being away from the hustle and bustle of the ‘old city’ of Istanbul.
Places to see in Istanbul
Istanbul has several iconic attractions that are considered a must-visit on any trip or vacation to the city.
Istanbul’s ochre domed Hagia Sophia (called ‘Aya Sofya’) is perhaps its most famed attraction. The Hagia Sophia functioned as a church during Byzantine times (the 6th century) though it was transformed into a mosque when the Ottomans invaded Turkey( in the 15th century). In 1935, the founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the first president of Turkey then converted it into a museum.
The interiors of this grand edifice contain glorious remnants from its various religious avatars and feature Byzantine mosaics, icons, Islamic calligraphy, marble columns all of which illustrate its unique background most effectively.
The Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque dominates the skyline of Istanbul with its many domes and six minarets. This stunning mosque was constructed by Sultan Ahmet in the 17th Century who wished to create a place of worship in Istanbul whose beauty would eclipse that of the Hagia Sophia, located close by.
The blue mosque is renowned all over the world for its six minarets as most mosques have only one or two. The mosque was named the ‘blue mosque’ because its interiors are adorned with over mosaics of 20,000 Iznik tiles that are arranged in intricate patterns that depict trees, flowers and abstracts.
Non-Muslims can visit the mosque outside prayer times but they have to have their head covered and be barefoot and sport modest attire. The mosque also sports 260 stunning stained glass windows and is equipped with a carpet and Kilim museum, which has antiques from all over Turkey.
The Topkapi Palace Museum
This palace museum is located on one of the seven hills that surround Istanbul and offers stunning views of the Bosphorus. This palace was built as a residence by Mehmet the Conqueror
and the palace structure consists of a collection of buildings linked together by courtyards. This palace served as seat of power during the Ottoman rule in Istanbul that lasted over four centuries and it is believed to have housed nearly 3000 people in its various sections which are now open for public viewing.
The Grand Bazaar
The Grand Bazaar is the oldest and biggest bazaar in the world that houses nearly 4000 shops, tea houses, hammams, mosques and fountains located within a maze of 65 twisting streets and alleyways. The Grand Bazaar embodies all the exoticism that is associated with Istanbul and offers a treasure trove of shopping opportunities. The vendors at the Grand Bazaar sell a wide range of products that include carpets, jewelry, meerschaum pipes, textiles, ceramics, apparel and much more. Bargaining is an accepted mode of conduct in this vibrant market which was built by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461.
The Hippodrome was built as a stadium for horse and chariot racing during Byzantine times. Not much of the structure exists today and the site of the Hippodrome today hosts a beautiful public park that offers landmarks like the Basilica Cistern, the Fountain of Wilhelm II and the Serpentine and Constantine columns.
Best time to visit Istanbul
Istanbul experiences a typical Mediterranean climate with hot humid winters and wet, cold winters. The summer months in Istanbul extend between June and August and are characterized by mean temperatures of 73 °F (23 °C) though sometimes these Istanbul summer temperatures sometimes do peak at 90 °F (32 °C) for a few days.
January and February are typically the coldest months in Istanbul and usually see temperatures of 39 °F (4 °C) and much snowfall. The best time to visit Istanbul is during spring or autumn as the weather during these seasons is quite pleasant and conducive to walking around and taking in the sights.
However it is useful to remember that during the Muslim holy month of Ramadhan, many museums and holy places in Istanbul can get quite crowded while restaurants are usually closed for this period of ‘fasting’ The timing of Ramadhan changes every year so it is useful to keep a track of the event if you have a vacation to Istanbul on your agenda.
Getting around in Istanbul
Istanbul is usually accessed via its Istanbul Ataturk International Airport, which welcomes a whole host of air carriers from around the world and is situated 15 miles (23 km) to the west of the city. Fare Buzz in fact offers numerous flight deals to Istanbul from US cities periodically. If you have always wanted to visit this fascinating city, you should connect with Fare Buzz on Facebook and Twitter so that you get timely information of these cheap air flights to Istanbul.
Istanbul is served by a rather extensive and inexpensive public transport system that is made up of buses, taxis, dolmuses (communal minibus taxis),trams, ferries and the metro. These modes of transport serve the airport and most sections of the city; hence visitors to Istanbul don’t usually choose to rent a car for the duration of their stay in Istanbul.
Moreover Istanbul’s roads are often gridlocked with traffic and are a nightmare to navigate so it’s easier to use a taxi to traverse the city. If you are living near the old quarter you can easily explore its many enchanting sights on foot. A word of caution when hiring a taxi in Istanbul, you should check if the meter of the taxi is working since overcharging is quite common and you should also be aware that taxi rates in Istanbul usually go up 50% for night time journeys.
Where to shop in Istanbul
Istanbul’s 4000 store strong Grand Bazaar is the focus of most shopping expeditions in the city. Visitors flock to the bazaar to stock up on traditional Turkish arts and crafts like carpets and kilims, iznik tiles (colored tiles) and ottoman ceramics, fabrics and linens, jewelry, art and antiques, colorful scarves, slippers, maps and prints, furniture and more. Bargaining and haggling is an accepted form of doing business in the Grand Bazaar as is the case in most traditional markets around the world.
Another must-do market in Istanbul is the smaller Spice Market (Egyptian Bazaar), which is located near Galata Bridge in Eminönü. This market is the place to go to, if you wish to buy traditional delicacies like Turkish delight, honeycombs, dried nuts and fruit, cheeses, caviar, coffee, spices, packs of apple tea and various other herbal teas. Other Istanbul markets worth perusing include the market of the Kadiköy, district which is held on Tuesdays and the city’s biggest weekly market, which offers a wide variety of wares and is held on Wednesdays near the Fatih Mosque.
However Istanbul shopping is not just about traditional markets, for modern day Istanbul has enthusiastically embraced the mall-shopping culture. The city now features several luxe malls like Akmerkez (Etiler district), Istinye Park (Sariyer), Kanyon (Levent) and upscale Nisantasi. These sumptuous shopping centers offer a whole of host upmarket labels and products and are thus much favored by the city’s elite.
Besides malls and bazaars, the city is also home to various shopping quarters like the Galata, Cihangir, and Çukurcuma neighborhoods in the Beyoglu district which host several small individual boutiques and stores offering fashion forward attire, handcrafted jewelry and home wares. Similarly the upscale residential area, Nisantasi offers the best in luxury retail by way of outposts of luxe brands like Christian Louboutin, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Cartier, Dior, Gucci, Gianfranco Ferre, DKNY and so forth. A similar experience can be had within the Bagdat Caddesi neighborhood on the Asian side.
Shops in Istanbul generally stay open for business from Monday to Saturday from 9am to 8pm. Malls in Istanbul offer slightly longer shopping hours and stay open from 10 am to 10pm every day.
Non-EU residents can claim back the 18%VAT (called KDV in Turkey) if they spend a minimum of 118 Turkish Liras in one receipt. To get your VAT refund in Turkey, you have to get a refund form from the retailer and then have it stamped by customs before you leave the country. You can claim your refund in cash or as a refund on your credit card.
Where to eat in Istanbul
Istanbul offers a wide selection of restaurants that specialize in Turkish as well as international cuisines so if you enjoy discovering new cuisines on your vacation, you are in luck in Istanbul. Highly ranked and popular restaurants according to recent surveys and opinion polls include eateries like Mezze by Lemontree, Cintemani( in the Ritz Carlton hotel), Asitane, Sunset Grill and Bar, Refik( a traditional meyhane or Turkish pub) , Poseidon, Pasazade Ottomon Restaurant amongst others.
Nightlife in Istanbul
Istanbul has a legendary nightlife scene. Some popular nightclubs of Istanbul have been around for more than three decades, unheard of in the annals of nightlife history. On the Asian side of the city, nightspots are concentrated around Kadiköy district, while on the European side of the city they are more spread out.
Favored nightlife haunts in Istanbul currently include boites by the sea like Angelique, Blackk, Reina, Sortie and SuAda which are usually open for business during the Istanbul summers. The list of city-center all-weather hotspots include haunts like Al Jamal, Babylon, and Living Indigo.