Istanbul is a city of two halves, bisected by the Bosporus Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. The channel not only delineates the city; it also marks the border between Europe and Asia, both physically and culturally.
In 600 BCE, Istanbul was the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium, capital of the Byzantine Empire. It prospered due to its ability to levy tolls on ships passing through the Bosporus.
The city changed hands several times before becoming part of the Roman Empire in 73 AD, and in 330 AD, Byzantium was renamed Constantinople by the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great.
In 1453, Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered the city and made it the capital of the Ottoman Empire, calling it Istanbul, although the name wasn't officially changed until 1930.
The national capital in all but name, Istanbul is the country’s cultural and financial center and the most populous metropolis with more than 13 million residents. The city also acts as a hub for Eastern Europe, with regular trains and flights to destinations such as Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.
The majority of Istanbul’s sights are concentrated around the old city peninsula in areas such as Sultanahmet Square. Start your city tour here at the Sultanahmet Mosque. Informally known as the Blue Mosque—for obvious reasons—the working mosque features six minarets as well as sweeping architecture. Sitting almost adjacent is the magnificent Haghia Sofia, which was built as a cathedral and converted to a mosque. It now serves as a museum. Bordering the Haghia Sofia is Topkapı Palace, the historic hub of Ottoman power. Overlooking the Bosporus from Seraglio Point, the 300-room palace is now an imperial museum and houses some of the most holy Islamic relics.
North of the old city, across the Galata Bridge, is the district of the same name; head to the Galata Tower, a 66-meter medieval stone tower with a superb 360-degree view across Istanbul. Nearby, at Karaköy on the banks of the Bosporus, is Istanbul Modern, an art gallery with exhibitions of contemporary Turkish art.
Taksim Square is the heart of the city and a popular tourist destination. İstiklal Caddesi is a lengthy pedestrian shopping street that ends at Taksim Square; a nostalgic sightseeing tram runs from the square along the avenue.
On the east of the Bosporus is the other half of Istanbul, referred to as the Asian side. The historical districts of Kadıköy and Üsküdar have plenty of attractions, including Maiden’s Tower on an island just 200 meters offshore. The area also has many quiet and picturesque neighborhoods and is largely residential.
Eating out in Turkey involves food far more sophisticated than the döner kebab. However, this staple ingredient of Turkish stereotypes can be found in cafes across Istanbul; Taksim Square is home to dozens of small döner restaurants. Other local favorites include hamsi, a Black Sea anchovy that migrates through the Bosporus. This "catch of the day" can be enjoyed at the small restaurants behind the fish merchants on the Karaköy side of the Galata Bridge.
Istanbul also has numerous street vendors selling everything from roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob to simit, a warm bread not dissimilar to a sesame seed bagel. Local ice cream, dondurma, is also sold; its peculiar chewy consistency doesn’t melt and makes for entertaining vendor performances.
Istanbul is a great nightlife destination, and several areas are renowned for their cafés, bars and live music. These include Beyoğlu and Nişantaşı, both just north of the Galata Bridge, and Kadıköy, an easygoing suburb on the Asian side of the Bosporus that many consider to be worth the intercontinental trip from old Istanbul.
Off the southern coast of Istanbul are the Princes’ Islands, nine small islands where dynasty members were exiled during Byzantine and Ottoman times. The only way to reach the islands is by sea; take a boat from Kabataş on the European side or from Kadıköy or Bostancı on the Asian side.
Motorized vehicles are prohibited, so residents and tourists travel by horse-drawn carriage or fayton. Destinations and prices are fixed. Enjoy the islands’ stunning wooden mansions, surrounded by pine groves and fragrant mimosa trees.