Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. Spread over 1539 square kilometers, it is also the third-largest city in Europe. Istanbul is located in the northwestern part of the country in the Marmara region. The city is unique because it is partly in Asia and partly in Europe, which is one major reason why Istanbul travel is so popular. The city is divided by the Bosporus Strait. The Thracian or European side has the financial and historical centers, while one-third of the city’s population lives on the Anatolian or Asian side. 15 million people live in Istanbul according to the 2017 census.
With 7 million tourists visiting the city, tourism is one of the most important revenue sources. Spring and early autumn bring a lot of visitors to Istanbul. There are many tourists even in the summer despite the relatively higher temperature to enjoy the beaches. Many visit to see the mosques, museums, palaces, and bazaars of Istanbul. Major tourist attractions in the city are Hagia Sophia, The Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Grand Bazaar.
Istanbul has a unique culture because of the region’s history. The Ottoman Empire, Islamic rulers, and Christian settlements have all left their mark on Turkey. Archeological evidence suggests that there was a human settlement here as far back as the 6th century. The Greeks established Byzantium on the European side in 660 B.C. However, the Romans captured it in 73 A.D and the city was named Constantinople. It was the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453. Muslim influence converted the city. To this day, Islam is a major religion.
The name Istanbul literally means ‘in the city’. The name comes from a Greek phrase. The city was also called Byzantium and Constantinople in the past.
Istanbul – 10 Quick Facts
- Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey but not the capital.
- Currency – Turkish lira
- Istanbul is spread over 1539 square kilometers.
- Population – 15 million as of 2017
- Time Zone – TRT Turkish Time
- ISD Code – +90
- Most people of Istanbul speak Turkish. Other languages: Kurdish, Arabic, Circassian, Armenian, and Judezmo.
- 7 million tourists visited Istanbul in 2017
- There are 3 airports – European side: Ataturk Airport, Istanbul Airport. Asian side: Sabiha Gokcen Airport.
- Extensive public transport system – buses, subways, boats, funiculars, trams, and taxis.
Istanbul Travel – Top 8 Reasons To Visit Istanbul
1. Two Continents – Istanbul straddles two continents, with the Bosporus Strait separating them. The European side has most of the tourist attractions like the Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, and The Blue Mosque. The Asian side is more relaxed. There are ferries and bridges across the Bosporus. Even the underground metro now connects the two parts.
2. Ottoman Era Architecture – See the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire in the many historical buildings of Istanbul, like the Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace, Faith Mosque, Eyüp Sultan Mosque, Grand Bazaar, and the Sultanahmet Mosque. You will see Islamic influence in the arches, domes, minarets, and intricate lace-like carvings.
3. History and Power – Istanbul has been the capital of four powerful empires: Byzantine, Roman, Ottoman, and Latin. Each of them has left behind their own mark on the city. Go on a historical journey to discover the past.
4. Bazaar Magic – The city has some of the finest old markets anywhere in the world. You cannot leave Istanbul without visiting one of its colorful bazaars. Almost every locality in the city has a weekly bazaar. The Grand Bazaar is famous for its size (over 4000 shops) and architecture. Visit the Spice Bazaar for the huge variety of spices and dry goods.
5. The Hammam Experience – Hammam, the famous Turkish communal bath, combines Roman thermal and Turkish steam bathing. In Istanbul, you will find hammams both in the bigger hotels and stand-alone ones. Some of the individual hammams are centuries old and offer an authentic experience.
6. Turkish Food – Turkish cuisine is a medley of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern flavors. Even the street food is very good and famous. Try the kebap or a doner as you go. Casual eateries called ‘lokantas’ will serve you food by the portion. Cold and hot mezze (an assortment of small plates of food) are available in sit-down restaurants. Meat is very popular in the country, but you will find plenty of seafood options too in Istanbul. Turkish cuisine also offers a variety of vegetarian foods. Do not forget to try the delicious Turkish sweetmeats. Read our detailed guide on Istanbul street food here.
7. Cruising – A great way to see the city of Istanbul is to take a cruise on the Strait of Bosporus. This 32 kilometer stretch of water connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Cruises offer great views of the Dolmabahçe Palace, Ciragan Palace, the First Bosporus Bridge, and other attractions.
8. Istanbul Nightlife – Istanbul also has a happening nightlife scene. On the Eastern side, beside the Bosporus, you will find many pubs, bars, and clubs where you can party. The Beyoğlu district is famous for its rooftop bars and underground clubs. The party scene is hot here during the weekends.
How To Visit Istanbul On A Budget
A trip to Istanbul is almost as expensive as any other European destination. However, the flight, accommodation, food, and sightseeing can be managed to save money. Here are some tips to enjoy this Eurasian city to the max.
- Turkish Airlines is the national carrier and flies into Atatürk airport on the European side. However, many budget airline carriers like Pegasus and Onur Air fly into the Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side. You will spend just a fraction of the difference in flight price on the cab fare to the European side.
- There are many premium hotels. But you will also find many cheap accommodation options too, and some of them are also very good. Pick one close to the tourist attractions to save travel time and cost. Design hotels are another budget option. The rooms have bare minimum amenities but are far cheaper than fancy hotels.
- Take public transport as much as possible. Get an IstanbulKart card at the airport itself. You will save almost 50% on each ticket when you pay with this card. You can use it for trams, buses, subway or metro and funicular. The card can be topped up at any metro station or IstanbulKart kiosks.
- Make a note of all the famous attractions that do not charge entry fees. The Blue Mosque is open to all. Remember, this is a functional mosque, so visitor entry is barred at five specific times a day, during the daily prayers. The Hippodrome of Constantinople and the Grand Bazaar are some of the other free for all sights.
- Istanbul is a city where you can eat to your heart’s content at very low prices. Breakfast is called ‘kahvalti’. Fill yourself up if you have a long day of walking or sightseeing. Döner kebap and other variations of meat wrapped in bread are good for on-the-go and cheap. Visit the many cafeterias for traditional home-cooked Turkish meals.
Istanbul can easily be called ‘City of Mosques’ as there is a mosque in almost every corner of the city. There are 3113 mosques in the city.
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Best Time To Visit Istanbul
Spring – This is a great time of the year to visit Istanbul. The days begin to get warmer from April and the nights are pleasant. There are fewer rainy spells than in the winter. This is a good time to sit on the terrace and rooftop cafés in the sun. Nature is blooming in Istanbul. You can enjoy the famed Turkish tulips in all their glory.
Summer – The summer season is from the end of June to the middle of September. The temperature in Istanbul ranges from the middle to high 30s in August. It can be hot and humid. Many locals will go to the countryside and beaches, so the city will be relatively empty. However, many of the shops, cafes, and restaurants will also be closed. You will enjoy the Bosporus cruise.
Fall – Middle of September to the middle of November is the fall season in Istanbul. The weather is temperamental. There can be pouring rain one day and hot and dry weather the next. Dress in layers and carry an umbrella to make the most of this season.
Winter – Istanbul winters sometimes have snow even though the city is cut in half by a strait and bordered by the sea. The winters are chilly with a lot of rain showers. The room rent though is lower. You can also see gorgeous end-of-the-year decorations and a locals-only experience of Istanbul.
Istanbul Travel – The Best Neighborhoods
Galata – It is located at the top of a hill in the Beyoğlu district. The area was originally populated by immigrants from Italy, Armenia, Greece, and Jews. Later during the economic boom period in Turkey, the Galata neighborhood became the hipster artsy section of the city. You will find some gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings, cool shops, and an interesting vibe here. The Galata Tower overlooks the area.
Karaköy – This was an important port neighborhood in the past. Karaköy has become popular again only recently around 2012 onwards. It is now a happening neighborhood full of trendy cafes, restaurants, and shops. The Ottoman Bank Building houses ‘Salt Galata’, where you can see the finest local art. Also visit the House Hotel, which symbolizes Turkish glamor. You will be spoilt for choice with the many ‘lokantas’ or traditional taverns.
Kadiköy – Head over to the Asian side of Istanbul and step into the Kadiköy area. The vibe is calmer and more laidback than the European side. There are many restaurants and bars. This neighborhood really comes alive on weekends and evenings when almost every rooftop becomes a party scene. The sweet shops and markets in Kadiköy are also worth a visit.