First known as Byzantium, then Constantinople (named after the Roman emperor Constantine), Istanbul is one of the largest cities in Europe, with Ataturk airport one of the busiest. Istanbul stands on the divide between east and west with the Bosporus flowing between both halves. Istanbul is also a city of contrasts as you might imagine, with western influenced architecture on the one side, and mainly eastern influences on the other side. I’ve been to Istanbul many, many times and it’s always been interesting and the people friendly. The other advantage is that it is friendlier on the wallet than any city in Europe.
For the tourist there are two parts of the city that are of interest. The first is Sultanahmet or the ‘old city’. The second is Taksim which is more the entertainment part of the city. They are separated by the Bosporus but are connected by the Galata Bridge. Sultanahmet is the historical beginnings of Istanbul. Here you can find the Roman Hippodrome with most of the significant attractions along its length. You’ll find the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, Aya Sofia, the Cisterns Basilica and, not far away, the Covered Market. All can be visited with short walks. The Blue mosque is the third most important place in the Muslim world. The architecture is impressive, with 6 minarets and a massive prayer hall decorously carved and adorned. Anybody can go in as long as it is not prayer time. Avoid the touts at the door and a priest will loan you a gown and slippers at the door for your visit (free of charge).
Aya Sofia is at the eastern end of the Hippodrome and has been converted from a working mosque into a cultural museum. Entry is 40 Turkish Lira and its well worth getting one of the accredited guides. Aya Sofia or Sancta Sofia is the world’s largest span unsupported dome. Built in the 9th century, it became a mosque after Constantinople was conquered by the Muslim army of Sultan Mehmed II. Again, magnificently adorned with murals, carvings and paintings. It is closed on Mondays, so plan your days accordingly.
The Covered Market is one of the biggest in the world and can be a real maze. It’s good to look through it, but there is little worth buying. Most of what’s on sale falls into the category of kitsch trinkets or overpriced carpets, leather goods or jewellery. Even bargaining gets you a paltry 10% discount. The food shops though are definitely worth an investigation. Turkish ice cream is one of the best in the world with vast quantities and varieties of very tasty dried fruits also available.
Taksim is the more ‘touristy’ part of Istanbul. Here you’ll find cinemas, restaurants and souvenir shops. There is also a tourist tram that goes up and down Istiklal Caddessi (the main pedestrian thoroughfare). It’s an old cable drawn tramcar, but its well worth a trip as Istiklal Caddessi is quite long.
The last area I’ll talk about is Kadakoy. This is where a lot of electronic gear is sold as well as cheap software and DVD’s. All the main shops are around the quay that doubles as a ferry stop. Speaking of ferries, this is the main way that citizens of Istanbul get across the Bosporus. The ferries are cheap, timely and reliable. There’s even time to have an Apple tea while you’re crossing.
There are three hotels that we have used in the past. In Taksim, the Comedy Hotel is reasonably well situated around the corner from the end of Istiklal Caddessi and has parking across the road and easy access to all the attractions. In Sultanahmet, there are two hotels we can recommend. For a couple or a party of up to 6 people, there is the Arena Hotel. It’s located near the end of the Hippodrome. An old Ottoman mansion, it has been turned into a hotel with 25 rooms. You have to go through the booking agents before the hotel will reply to an email, but after that they are quite happy to help. The second hotel is the Deluxe Golden Horn. It is a 4 star hotel located very close to the Hippodrome. It has a great rooftop restaurant overlooking Sultanahmet, but the only disadvantage is that it is dry (no alcohol). If this is a problem for you, then there are other options nearby. There are lots of restaurants close by, and its easy walking distance to all the attractions. One restaurant we can suggest is Faros. Great food and a good bunch of servers. They advertise that they have the best Testi in town. It’s not what you think though as a Testi is the Google translation of the Turkish word that is the name of a particular type of clay pot casserole.