As the only city in the world that straddles two continents, Istanbul has played a central role in much of European and Asian history. Originally founded as Byzantium around 660 B.C., it was renamed New Rome by Constantine the Great, but quickly became known as Constantinople; the name Istanbul was proclaimed by Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. Even though the city’s various incarnations have served as the capital of Rome and the Ottoman Empire, Ankara is the Turkish capital today. Located in the Marmara region of Turkey, which borders Greece, Bulgaria, and the Black and Aegean Seas, the city experiences hot and humid summer months, making spring and fall more desirable times to visit. Despite its southerly maritime location, snow is not uncommon.
The vast majority of Istanbulites are Muslim, which accounts for the more than 3,000 mosques whose spires dot the skyline. As one of the world’s most populous cities, with more people than all of Belgium, Istanbul regularly suffers from traffic congestion, so using the relatively small—but nonetheless impressive—metro can save time and aggravation. The nargile (Turkish water pipe or hookah) does not play as an important role in society as it once did, but it’s still quite common, particularly among men. The city’s location at the crossroads of two continents has exposed Istanbul to various cuisines, although its staple dishes mainly reflect a Mediterranean influence.
Now a museum, Hagia Sophia formerly played a central role in the city’s religions, first as a Christian church and then as a mosque during Ottoman rule. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more commonly known the Blue Mosque, has been in use since its construction in the early 1600s. A visit to one of the remaining hamams (Turkish baths) provides a glimpse into a local lifestyle that has persisted for hundreds of years, with the Cağaloğlu Hamamı often cited as having the most impressive architecture. A visit to the Grand Bazaar is a feast for the senses, with more than 3,000 shops under one roof.
The Sultanahmet (Old City), the oldest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site, contains the largest concentration of attractions, including the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, former residence of Ottoman emperors. Most of the nightlife can be found in Beyoğlu, one of the hippest neighborhoods and also the home of the Istanbul Modern, featuring the works of Turkish artists, and the Pera Palace Hotel, where the room in which Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express is preserved as a museum. Istanbul’s location spanning the Bosporus Strait means there are plenty of maritime adventures to be had, including a visit to the serene Princes’ Islands, where horse and cart replace motorized vehicles (which are banned) as the transport of choice.