Fought over for centuries, Istanbul’s amazing cultural heritage is in part due to its location straddling the Bosphorus straits. At a crucial confluence where Europe meets Asia Minor, the city can legitimately claim to be the point at which east meets west.
Once home to the Byzantines, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 15th century, after which it morphed into Istanbul. Today it’s an exciting, modern and creatively driven metropolis – one of the biggest in the world with around 14 million people.
Through most of its 2,500-year-long history, Istanbul was a cultural melting pot. Today, the city is largely Turkish, but feels extremely cosmopolitan – perhaps due to the reach of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from the Balkans to Egypt.
Many of Istanbul’s most important landmarks are UNESCO World Heritage sites, including stunning Ottoman mosques ranged along its slopes, as well as the many surviving Byzantine churches – not least Hagia Sophia. There are also catacombs, columns of Hellenistic temples and the remains of massive medieval city walls.
Juxtaposed with the visible glory of its history is the frantic pace of 21st-century life, with busy traffic-choked streets, chaotic markets, classy shopping hubs and countless cafés. The city boasts a flourishing arts and music scene too with the hippest bars, clubs, art galleries and designer fashion outlets found on the northern side of the river in the vibrant Taksim Square and Beyoglu area. With dancing, live music and plenty of raki (an anise-flavoured alcoholic drink) into the small hours, you’ll also find a fair share of hedonistic nightlife here.
As for food, there’s far more than kebab here. Turkey’s diverse cuisine can be found both in traditional ‘workers’ diners and swanky, contemporary restaurants.
Don’t leave without taking a boat over to the Asian side, which contrasts with Beyoglu. A grid of little boutiques, traditional restaurants, bookshops and a few bars can be found in the bustling Kadiköy district near the river, which is dominated by the impressive Haydarpasa Terminal. It’s yet another example of why Istanbul is one of the world’s most architecturally impressive cities.