Historically the end of the Silk Road, and at the point where Europe meets Asia, Istanbul’s tumultuous history makes it a fascinating city to explore.
Istanbul – which uniquely straddles two continents – is arguably one of the world’s greatest cities as well as one of the most ancient. Founded by the Thracians more than 3000 years ago, it has been ruled over the millennia by Greeks, Romans, Christians and Muslims. Now it’s a city of contrasts, from the strikingly modern skyscrapers of the business district to the labyrinthine bazaar in the old quarter that has hardly changed for centuries.
Things to do and see
Among the many monuments, churches and mosques built over millennia, two stand out. Hagia Sofia (Aya Sofya) was first commissioned as a church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian after the city became the capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire in the 4th century, and later became a mosque under the Ottoman Empire. Topkapı Palace, the court of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and 19th centuries, was first built and inhabited by Mehmet the Conqueror. Later sultans built onto it according to their needs, resulting in a maze of buildings that gives insight into life during those times. For details and more top attractions, see our Things to See in Istanbul section.
The sprawling Grand Bazaar, in the heart of the old city, first began in 1431. Here, you can browse a fantastical array of wares, from antiques, jewellery and textiles to embroidery and leather goods. There’s also a glorious spice section. Be prepared to haggle, though, and it’ll take time to separate the tourist tat from the treasures. The city also has modern, air-conditioned malls; see our Shopping in Istanbul section for more details.
Eating and drinking
You’ll eat well here, too, whether it’s simple but delicious traditional kebaps (meat skewers), freshly caught fish and mezze (small dishes) eaten with the local workers at a taverna, or modern gourmet interpretations at swanky rooftop restaurants. Don’t overlook the street food, either – such as simit, Turkey’s version of a bagel and börek, a cheese filled flaky pastry. Check out our Restaurants in Istanbul section for the listings in a range of price categories.
Istanbul has a young and cosmopolitan population, and its nightlife is vibrant. There are sleek modern nightclubs, basement jazz bars, and romantically down-at-heel dives. Make sure you catch some Turkish folk music too: traditions are being kept alive by local musicians performing in venues around the city. Visit our guide to Nightlife in Istanbul