A crossroad between East and West for thousands of years, Istanbul is packed with history left over from centuries of civilization. Home to 16 million people, making it Europe’s most populous city, Istanbul’s historical centre is testimony to its fascinating past.
Indeed, those interested in ancient times will be overwhelmed by the myriad of sites and attractions here, including the famous Blue Mosque. Happily for visitors, the city’s most important sites are grouped together making it compact and navigable.
Istanbul is a major international tourism and business destination. Turkish Airlines and many other global carriers, including several budget airlines, have regular daily flights to the city’s two international airports – one on the Asian side (Ataturk Airport) and another on the European side (Sabiha Gokcen Airport).
Some of the direct flying times to Istanbul include: 10 hours from New York,4 hours from London, 4 hours from Milan, 12 hours from Hong Kong and 3 hours from Moscow.
Istanbul is also well connected to many European cities by highways. Some private Turkish bus companies run scheduled buses to Istanbul from countries including Germany, France, and Greece, as well as several middle eastern countries
One other alternative is to come by sea, and there are several maritime companies that run car and passenger ferries from Greece and Italy to Istanbul.
Istanbul enjoys a mild year round climate, with temperatures ranging from around 7C in January to well above 30C in the peak summer months of July and August.
Visitors should bear in mind that the city tends to be a popular destination over bank holidays – particularly in Springtime – and you should book well in advance in order to ensure that accommodation is available during these spells.
Istanbul is blessed with so many sights and attractions that visitors could spend weeks here taking it all in. But since most will not have that long, it is necessary to be selective about what you choose to see and do. There is a vast array of companies offering tours of the city, including Turkey For Holidays, which offers first class private city tours in Istanul, as well as guided land tours in other Turkish regions.
Some of the ‘must-see’s in Istanbul include the Aya Sofya church, considered one of the world's finest example of Byzantine architecture. The church boasts stunning Byzantine mosaics and huge Ottoman circular shields.
Next door is the Blue Mosque, which was built as Islam's answer to the Aya Sophia, and is Istanbul's only mosque with six minarets. Blue Iznik tiles monopolise the interior, and blue light shines through its 250-plus windows. The interior is beautiful, and includes a vast central dome which draws your eye to the latticework-covered ceiling.
Another impressive site is the vast Topkapi Palace, which was originally built as a summer residence and the seat of government. Way back in the 16th century, it was home to harem, state administration and military personnel, with around 3,000 residents. It was abandoned in 1855, but many of the dazzling jewels of the original treasury remain.
Near the Palace’s Imperial Gate is the Haghia Eirene Museum, which serves as a venue for concerts during the International Istanbul music festival (see the ‘What’s on’ section below).
For shopping, there is pretty much only one place to head, certainly if you can only afford the time for a single trip. The Kapali Çarşisi is a famous and vast bazaar, dating all the way back to 1493. Its ornate ceilings and labyrinth-like layout remains as a legacy to the past, though the vast number of stalls (there are more than 4,000) sell mainly tourist-friendly goods including modern amenities such as plasma televisions.
Taksim Square is the hub of Istanbul's modern European side. This 1.5km pedestrianised boulevard is littered with shops, cinemas, markets and restaurants, and is particularly crowded at night.
Those finding street level Istanbul a little claustrophobic may want to head for the higher-lying district of Yildis, which provides a welcome relief from the bustle of the city. It boasts woodland and landscaped gardens, and is popular with couples and picnicking families. At the top are Malta Köşkü and Çadir Köşkü, two attractive 19th-century pavilions with several restaurants and cafes. The park is also home to the Yildiz Palace Museum, the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the City Museum.
The centre of nightlife in Istanbul is undoubtedly Beyoğlu, which draws visitors to its vast range of bars and clubs. Here you will find the ultra-cool rooftop terrace bar 360, which overlooks the city. Two of the most famous nightclubs in Istanbul are Reina and Sortie, located in the Ortakoy district, boasting several bars, dancefloors and restaurants, and often packed with local celebrities, models and millionaires.