Istanbul, with its unique geographical location and a rich and diverse history that spans many different civilizations, is truly a privileged place. Istanbul’s unique location enhances its culture and aura. Located in the middle of the busiest trade routes, it is the proverbial bridge between East and West.
The city has always boasted a busy social life. Traders, intellectuals, envoys, officials, common folk –the streets of Istanbul have always been crowded with people from all walks of life, making it one of the few cities that never sleeps. Daily life in Istanbul is very nuanced, as if hundreds of universes are being observed simultaneously. The white-collar workers, teachers, and civil servants enjoy their coffee in the city; busy bazaars serve locals and tourists alike; houses of worship make visitors feel as if time has stopped to witness the everlasting tranquil moment of believers’ joy; and busy docks echo the yells and laughs of the workers and the cries of the seagulls.
A city surrounded by sea and located at the two sides of the world-renowned Bosphorus, one of the world’s most important straits, Istanbul’s history and present are wholly dependent on the sea. From legends to historic traditions that still influence the city today, Istanbul is a marine city— its spirit smells like the salt and the wind upon the waves.
Dynamic and vibrant, Istanbul is not only Turkey’s largest city, but it is also the country’s economic center. Industry, transportation, and tourism form the backbone of this surging economy.
Istanbul’s vibrant cultural life can be experienced through its many museums, photo exhibits, art events, historical monuments, music festivals and much more. Strategically located on the Bosphorus peninsula between the Balkans, Anatolia, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean, Istanbul was at various times the capital of the Eastern Roman, the Byzantine, and the Ottoman empires. Associated with major events in political, religious, and art history for than 2,000 years, the city is situated on a peninsula surrounded by the Golden Horn (Haliç), a natural harbor on the north, the Bosphorus on the east, and the Marmara Sea on the south. As a meeting point between Europe and Asia for millennia, it is now possible to come across and observe the historical legacy of the city at every corner. Some of the cultural icons include: Arasta Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, Beylerbeyi Palace, Ciragan Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, Galata Tower, and Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kulesi). Istanbul, which has been home to many civilizations throughout the ages, is from an art and cultural perspective a deeply gratifying city. The city’s art and culture calendar is always full. Hosting world famous artists in its stadiums and theaters, it has been putting on ballets, operas, and theatrical productions for years.
Turkish cuisine is one of the most appetizing and rich cuisines in the world, and Turkish people are known to be quite passionate about food. In addition to the grilled meat specialties (kebap), a wide variety of fresh seafood must also be tried. Regardless of the main course chosen, it should definitely be followed by any number of sweet delicacies, whether a silky rice pudding or a crispy piece of baklava. The Turkish art of cooking has a long and deep-rooted history, and its cuisine varies across the country. The culinary culture of Istanbul, Bursa, and Izmir pulls together many elements of the vast Ottoman cuisine. Istanbul, however, is the city where almost all kind of cuisines can be tasted due to its cosmopolitan nature. In particular, Beyoğlu, Sultanahmet, and Kadıkoy are the districts for heavenly food. Also, you will find yourself caught up in an array of Balik Ekmek vendors at Eminönü.
As a true metropolis, Istanbul benefits from a large network of transportation (public and private), including buses, taxis, sea ferries, tramways, subways, and more. Every day over 7 million people use public transportation in Istanbul. The main modes for transportation are the metro, the metrobus, the tram (through the Old City), ferries (mainly for trips between Europe and Asia) and the buses (everywhere). In addition, there are some quirky, only in Istanbul options, like minibuses and vans, as well as short connectors, such as the historic Tunel, which is the second oldest metro in the world.
Licensed taxis in Istanbul are yellow and have registrations numbers on the sides. They can be found on the ranks or hailed on the street. Taxis are ubiquitous and relatively cheap.
The sea route is usually the quickest way between the European and Asian sides, particularly during rush-hour. Istanbul ferries are a favorite form of transportation. You can cross from the Asian side to the European side on a charming boat with wood trim and upper decks, enjoying a cup of tea while passing Haidarpaşa Station or marveling at the view of Topkapi Palace. You can feel the wind in your face and hear seagulls calling as they dive into the ferry's wake to catch fish or gobble up pieces of simit (a Turkish bagel) thrown to them by ferry passengers.
Istanbul also has a number of rail options. One important railway line in Istanbul is the underground metro (subway) which is called Istanbul Metro. Servicing only six stations when it first opened in the early 2000’s, Istanbul Metro now boasts a number of lines on both the European and Asian sides, and those two networks are connected thanks to the Marmaray project, a train line that connects Europe to Asia via an underwater tunnel.
Other rail options include the city’s historic trams. The Beyoğlu Nostalgic tram, which is a restoration of old trolleys from the early 20th century, has become the symbol of İstiklal Avenue. The Beyoğlu nostalgic tram runs between Taksim and Tunel. The nostalgic tram operates with two wagons, making 14,600 trips per year, which amounts to 23,944 kilometers. The tram carries an average of 6,000 passengers per day and has become one of the most recognizable symbols of Istanbul.
There are many recommended routes for tourists to enjoy Istanbul’s vast and diverse treasures, five of them were picked here.
The Imperial Grandeur
Grand Bazaar - Blue Mosque – Spice Bazaar route is where you smell the Ottoman scent in the air. Unique Turkish style bazaars teeming with customers and salespersons, narrow streets paved with history itself, and the grandeur of Blue Mosque. The Imperial Grandeur route is undoubtedly the most famous and preferred route, always busy with tourists from all over the world. Easy access with trams and lots of hotels in the vicinity makes this route even more popular.
The Oriental Europe
Karaköy – Galata - İstiklal route is for those who would love to discover the old oriental Europe. Inhabited by Greeks, Levantine Europeans, and other minorities since antiquity, the Beyoğlu district righteously boasts being one of the most sophisticated Istanbul districts. The terminus of the Orient Express in Sirkeci and old international docks in Karaköy used to greet visitors of Istanbul in the Ottoman era. Then they would ascend to the hill overlooked by the Galata tower, following İstiklal Street to Taksim square.
One of world’s oldest subways, the famous Tünel, is located here. It takes passengers from Karaköy up to one end of İstiklal Street. Galata Tower, Pera Palace, and other historic landmarks are all features of this route.
The Turkish Renaissance
Dolmabahçe – Beşiktaş – Ortaköy route is where you can see the transition period of the Ottoman Empire into the Republic of Turkey. Famous Dolmabahçe Palace, built with great artistic prowess and vision, amazes all beholders with its highly detailed ornate style. Built in the late Ottoman era, this palace is also where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed into eternity, after 25 years of effort to create a modern Turkey.
Beşiktaş, which was already a well-established district during the Ottoman era, can be considered the heart of Istanbul, both mentally and physically. The road that goes from Dolmabahçe to Beşiktaş, with century-old trees on two sides, is just like a time tunnel. The route finishes in Ortaköy, with its famous and elegant mosque by the Bosphorus coast.
The Coastline Cruise
Just an extension of the previous route, the Arnavutköy – Bebek – Rumelihisarı route is for those who enjoy great scenery over everything else. Groves that used to be hunting grounds for sultans, villas built by the coastline that one would deem to be palaces in their own right, and the view of the Anatolian side and hills covered with trees.
The coastline route also hosts the best restaurants and entertainment centers of Istanbul. Along the route, world-famous restaurants invite their customers to enjoy amazing Turkish cuisine, which is diverse thanks to its imperial heritage. The route can be enjoyed either via walking or by taking a Bosphorus cruise tour.
The Anatolian Adventure
Üsküdar – Kız Kulesi – Prince Islands route is for those who seek the tranquility of the Orient. One of the oldest settlements in Turkey, the vicinity of Üsküdar used to be a retreat for the wealthy of Istanbul as well as local inhabitants who enjoyed a life that seemed to have the time stopped. Near Üsküdar is located the famous Kız Kulesi, “The Maiden’s Tower”, a small tower on a small island in the Bosphorus. There are various legends about the tower, it is up to your imagination to decide which one contains the truth.
A ferry from Üsküdar or Kadıköy would take you to Prince Islands, which were the refuge of exiled historical figures. The Islands are a good weekend trip destination for locals thanks to their great scenery and quiet groves.