In many ways, time seems to have stood still in Istanbul, especially in the neighborhoods of the Old City. Yet, at the same time, progress in the form of transportation, technology, academics, and global engagement have set Istanbul and Turkey on a forward-moving course that makes your head spin. Still, in the contradictory spirit of this city bridging continents and cultures, many feel a reverse tug in the political and religious swing of the pendulum. One might visit Istanbul a dozen times over a lifetime, and at each visit be greeted both by a familiar scene and by an altogether unexpected paradigm.
The sprawling muddle that is Istanbul-the-city comprises nearly 260 sq. km (100 sq. miles) of layered history spread over two continents. The city of Istanbul is part of the province of Istanbul -- think New York City, inside New York State -- allowing for a bit of confusion. But seeing as how this is a city guide, we will mainly concern ourselves with the three central districts of Beyoglu, Besiktas, and Fatih, plus opportunistically throw in the highlights of the Bosphorus (both European and Asian sides).
The European and Asian sides of the city are bisected by the churning north-south artery that is the Bosphorus Straits. Strategic waterway and stuff of legends, the Bosphorus is the conduit for nations of the Black Sea into the coveted trade routes of the Mediterranean and beyond.
The European side of Istanbul is itself separated by the estuary known in English as the Golden Horn and in Turkish as the Haliç. Bordering the south of the Golden Horn is the district of Fatih, neatly cinctured by what remains of the Byzantine-era defensive walls. Fatih is entirely comprised of the Historic Peninsula (aka Old Stamboul, Old Istanbul, and Rome of the East). To the north of the Golden Horn are Beyoglu and Besiktas, a hodgepodge of ancient and modern, of historic and progressive.
So as not to confuse you with a short description of every corner of Istanbul, it's important to know that neighborhoods generally bear the name of a major landmark, such as the mosque that serves the quarter, and that neighborhood delineations are anything but clear-cut. Below is a liberal selection of areas ranging from the "must see" to "off the beaten track," but this list is by no means exhaustive.
European Side: Old Istanbul
The Historic Peninsula, home to the remnants of Classical, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman eras, sits in the modern-day district of Fatih (through 2008, this was actually two districts: Fatih and Eminönü, now merged). The neighborhoods that live within the boundaries of the ancient city walls are oriented around the famed seven hills in a nearly 22 sq. km (8 1/2 sq. miles) area. Eminönü refers to the neighborhood and transportation hub at the base of the Galata Bridge. This transport hub is where you'll find ferries to just about everywhere, a metropolitan bus and dolmus hub, the Egyptian Spice Bazaar, the Yeni Valide Camii (New Queen Mother's Mosque), and Rustem Pasa Mosque, as well as a frenetic warren of passageways and back streets that wind their way uphill through local shops to the Grand Bazaar. Just steps to the east of Eminönü's transport hub is the Sirkeci train station (final stop of the legendary Orient Express), a bustling and utilitarian hub of people with places to go. As expected, it's easy to find comparatively affordable food and lodging around this neighborhood as opposed to the more popular and adjacent neighborhood of Sultanahmet. The easternmost tip of the peninsula known as Sarayburnu or Seraglio Point (literally, palace point) is where Topkapi Palace presides over the strategic convergence of the Marmara Sea, the mouth of the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn.
At the heart of the Old City is the neighborhood of Sultanahmet, centered around the Hippodrome -- ancient racetrack, political arena, and present-day commons. Anchoring the historic center of the city are the Blue Mosque and the Ayasofya, two massive and magnificent edifices challenging each other from opposite ends of Sultanahmet Park. Bordering Sultanahmet to the southeast is the as-of-yet still characteristically residential quarter of Cankurtaran, named for the train station at Ahirkapi Gate where the commuter rail used to stop and, for all intents and purposes, absorbed under the umbrella heading of Sultanahmet.
To the southwest of Sultanahmet along the Marmara Sea and along the ancient Sea Walls is Kadirga Limani, named for the silted ancient port beneath, and now, as real estate around Sultanahmet continues to soar, a former no-go fringe neighborhood undergoing a renaissance.
To the west of Kadirga Limani is Kumkapi, destination of the daily catch by local fishermen, location of the city's fish market, and home to a dense cluster of touristy fish restaurants.
The Old City is divided by the main avenue of Divanyolu (whose name changes to Yeniçeriler Caddesi and then Ordu Caddesi as it runs westward from the Ayasofya to the Land Walls). Paving what was formerly the ceremonial entrance to the Great Palace, Divanyolu begins (or ends, if you were the emperor) at Sultanahmet Park, running westward through the neighborhoods of Çemberlitas, former site of the Forum of Constantine and close to the Nuruosmaniye entrance to the Grand Bazaar; Beyazit, built on the ruins of the Forum of Theodosius and named for the Beyazit Mosque Complex; and Laleli. North and west of Beyazit is the neighborhood of Süleymaniye, named after the mosque complex of the same name, itself bordered to the north and west by Vefa, a residential area of old Ottoman homes in various states of restoration or dilapidation.
Back at Divanyolu (now Ordu Caddesi), the road splits just as it enters Aksaray. The tramway, which follows Divanyolu, continues along the southernmost avenue (Millet Caddesi, aka Türgüt Özal Caddesi), while the northern fork becomes the major thoroughfare of Vatan Caddesi (aka Adnan Menderes Bulvari).
The district of Fatih (which before merging with Eminönü was confined to the area of the Old City between Atatürk Bulvari and the Land Walls) takes its name from the Fatih Mosque and complex, built by and for Mehmet the Conqueror immediately after the conquest. It was constructed on the site of the Havariyun, the second-most revered Byzantine church after the Ayasofya, which was the victim of earthquakes and fire. The prominence of the district in both the Byzantine and Ottoman eras can be credited with the great number of monuments that dot this now bustling working-class conglomeration of diverse and authentic (and yes, some fundamentalist) neighborhoods.
From north to south beginning at the Golden Horn are the twin quarters of Balat and Fener, Ottoman-era enclaves where Armenian, Greek, and Jewish immigrants first settled. This combined quarter is thick with the crumbling remains of monumental Byzantine palaces, synagogues, schools, and mosques and is even the home of the Eastern Orthodox Patriarchate.
Several of the defunct Byzantine defensive gates continue to exert their influence on the surrounding neighborhoods that now bear these names: Edirnekapi, which is the gateway to the Church of Saint Savior in Chora or Kariye Camii; and Ayvansaray, which sits at the base of the Old Galata Bridge near the remains of the Blachernae Palace and sections of the land walls. To the west of Adnan Menderes Bulvari is a neighborhood that has been in the news quite a bit of late. The conglomerate of mismatched, crumbling, and colorfully painted houses on and around Sulukule Caddesi earned its renown as the oldest Roma settlement in the world -- scheduled for demolition and redevelopment. Perhaps the scheduled completion in advance of 2010 is a bit ambitious, leaving a tiny window of opportunity to see a bit of cultural history.
Fatih's southeastern-most point is the busy port of Yenikapi, departure point for sea buses to Bursa, the Marmara Islands, and the southern shores of the Marmara Sea. Yenikapi is the site of the construction of one of the metro stations for the in-progress Marmaray project, made famous by the extraordinary archaeological discoveries being made there.
Following the southern Marmara Sea shoreline is the Sahil Yolu (or the coastal road); this main thoroughfare connects the Old City with the airport and suburbs. The last neighborhood of interest as the road heads out of Fatih is Yedikule (literally, seven towers), the fortress constructed by Fatih Mehmet the Conqueror incorporating the earlier Theodosian land and sea walls. Almost no one goes to this neighborhood or museum, which is why you should go. Fewer and fewer places like this can be found in Istanbul these days.
While they are not within the district boundaries laid out above, I need to mention a few additional neighborhoods in the district of Eyüp, which straddles the northern banks of the Golden Horn. West of the estuary and north of Fatih (above Fener and Balat) is the quarter of Eyüp Sultan, named for the Prophet Mohammad's warrior companion and standard-bearer, and one of the holiest figures in Islam. Tradition holds that Eyüp Sultan was slain in battle on this hill, and the site, marked by a mosque complex and tomb, is now a point of pilgrimage for Muslims. To the east of the Golden Horn (and still Eyüp) are the industrialized sections of Sütlüce and Hasköy (to name only two). Although the eastern shores of the Golden Horn are mostly occupied with shipbuilding, some venues stand out, such as the Rahmi Koç Museum and the restored Silahtaraga Power Plant, housing the SantralIstanbul galleries.
European Side: Beyoglu, Besiktas & the Bosphorus Villages of Europe
If the Old City is the jewel of empires, then the landmass on the opposite side of the Golden Horn is its crown.
The fairly unwieldy district of Beyoglu, which also straddles the centuries, is subdivided, at least colloquially, into a mosaic of characteristic quarters, with slightly more modern layers of historic, cultural, religious, and political reference than those on the other side of the Golden Horn. This triangle of Istanbul is connected to the Old City by the Galata Bridge (at Eminönü and the opposite port of Karaköy) and via the Atatürk Bridge.
At the base of the Galata Bridge on the shore opposite Eminönü is Karaköy, a functionally messy and exhilarating transport hub worth a visit for its local eateries along with a number of significant monumental Ottoman constructions. Recent additions include the Istanbul Modern, as well as the leafy tea gardens and water-pipe cafes of Tophane. Karaköy is the modern-day designation for Galata, which today more colloquially refers to the charming cobbled hill extending up from the shoreline from the fortified area between the Atatürk and Galata bridges to the Galata Tower. Istanbul's earliest (pre-classical) settlements were found in and around Galata, today a hodgepodge of steeply sloping streets radiating from the Galata Tower. Where Karaköy and Galata merge, you'll find a wealth of architectural monuments left by the European communities that thrived here during the Ottoman period.
At the summit of Galata Hill is Tünel, which also refers to the very short and very old one-stop funicular called Tünel. To make matters worse, both the upper and lower entrances of the funicular are called Tünel; thus, to avoid confusion, I refer to the area around the upper entrance as Upper Tünel and the lower as Lower Tünel or Karaköy.
Radiating around Upper Tünel (a part of Beyoglu also referred to specifically as Beyoglu) are the turn-of-the-20th-century Belle Epoque buildings -- including a high density of foreign consulates -- of 19th-century Pera. Pera recalls a bygone era of wealth, entitlement, and gaiety. Today, strolls along the previous Grand Rue de Pera have evolved into a nightly crush of humanity walking up and down the same artery now known as Istiklal Caddesi.
Lining the slopes southeast of Istiklal Caddesi is the steep-stepped quarter of Cihangir. Alternating antiques and artistic shops can be found on and around Çukurcuma. These combined neighborhoods attract artists, diplomats, expat journalists, and just plain commuters to its streets full of quirky cafes, restaurants, bars, and antiques boutiques.
If Beyoglu is the heart and soul of modern Istanbul, then Istiklal Caddesi is its lifeline. This hectic shopping street bisects the district north from Tünel to the modern, pulsating, chaotic nucleus of the city known as Taksim Square, Istanbul's equivalent to New York's Times Square. Standing at the center is a statue of Atatürk and the founding fathers of Turkey, representing on one side the War of Independence and on the other the Republic. The Atatürk Cultural Center (Atatürk Kültür Merkezi) serves as a venue for shows, opera, ballet, concerts and the Biennial; the ugly old building (instead of being torn down, as was considered) is currently undergoing restoration, with completion scheduled for sometime in 2010. The area is yet another commuter hub, city commons, business center, and open-air food court. A concentration of full-service, high-rise hotels targeting businesspeople makes the area around Taksim a perfect place for bustle and convenience. The location is also connected to a transportation network that includes the metro, a recently restored cable car/tramway along Istiklal Caddesi, a plethora of municipal buses, and a daunting network of dolmus (minibuses).
As the city's, even the country's, center, Taksim Square and the neighborhoods on its fringe are thickly dotted with nightclubs, seedy bars, and Internet cafes, attracting the indigents and pilferers of Istanbul. The pre-gentrified neighborhood of Tarlabasi, located on the opposite side of Tarlabasi Caddesi, is home to a high density of crumbling architectural gems, but it's also where you'll find Istanbul's subculture of transvestites, criminal indigents, and prostitutes, newly displaced from the now-hip neighborhood of Çukurcuma. Steer clear for now, but watch this space, as the municipality (and real estate investors) have their sights eagerly set on this neighborhood.
The city gets increasingly more elite the farther north of Taksim you go, with trendy and upscale neighborhoods belonging to the district of Sisli then sprawling out to the business districts to the north (and east of the Bosphorus villages). Immediately to the north (and inland) of Taksim Square is the commercial area of Harbiye, which sidles up to the fashionable shopping neighborhood of Nisantasi, a pleasant cross between New York's SoHo and Madison Avenue (this is technically in the district of Sisli, but never mind). Boutiques along Tesvikiye Caddesi and the smaller side streets are stocked with high-quality merchandise in elegant settings, with major names like Mudo, Emporio Armani, Vakko, and Beyman. Sandwiched between Tesvikiye, Harbiye, and the Bosphorus is Maçka, a neighborhood of business and meeting-style hotels mostly feeding into the Lutfi Kirdar Convention Center.
Besiktas-the-district refers to the Bosphorus-front real estate above Beyoglu, made popular by a long string of sultans, pasas, and empresses who constructed European-style palaces all along the historic Straits, including the Dolmabahçe, Yildiz, and Çiragan palaces. The better hotels (Les Ottomans, the Four Seasons, W, Radisson SAS) have also of late staked their claim. Like the demoted (former district absorbed by Fatih) area of Eminönü, Besiktas is a bustling port neighborhood for shopping, living, and commuting.
To the north is the uptown village with the downtown feel -- Ortaköy, which sits at the base of the Bosphorus Bridge.
The waterfront northward becomes a picturesque chain of fishing coves transformed into bourgeois residential neighborhoods teeming with cafes and fish restaurants as far north as the Black Sea mouth of the Bosphorus. These include Kuruçesme, Arnavutköy, Bebek, Rumeli Hisari, Emirgan, Istinye, Tarabya, Sariyer, and Rumeli Kavagi. You can visit these by hopping on a local bus or sightseeing from the bow of a Bosphorus ferry.
The Asian Side
The Asian side of the Bosphorus is a sprawling collection of quiet and surprisingly Europeanized residential neighborhoods with varying degrees of historical and cultural interest. Next to private vehicles, municipal buses are the primary mode of transportation, making a casual and spontaneous jaunt over to the Asian side a less than efficient prospect. However, because of the phenomenal views from the newer hotels (which also provide complimentary boat shuttle service to the European side), Asia might actually be a reasonable place to hang your hat, particularly if it's a wedding veil.
On the northernmost shore is Anadolu Kavagi, harboring the remains of a Genoese castle refortified numerous times under the Ottoman sultans.
The sleepy fishing village of Kanlica is best known for its fabled yogurt, more so than for its two major landmarks: the Iskender Pasa Mosque, built by Sinan in the 16th century and named after the then governor of Baghdad; and the Ismail Aga Coffee House, which now dishes out more yogurt than the coffee that made it famous in 1871.
Just to the south is Anadolu Hisari, the fortress built by Beyazit I as a springboard for his siege on Istanbul. It took another 56 years for his son, Mehmet (the Conqueror), to breach the Byzantine defenses.
The tiny and enchanting village of Çengelköy owes much of its popularity to the thousand-year-old oak trees whose colossal limbs enfold themselves around the waterside cafes and restaurants clustered around the boat landing.
In the 17th century, Beylerbeyi was the location of choice for summer palaces for the elite. The crown jewel was naturally Beylerbeyi Sarayi, commanding the banks above the Bosphorus Bridge.
Where many of the Bosphorus villages of Istanbul's Asian side have developed to mirror Istanbul's decidedly European lifestyle, Üsküdar, with its numerous Ottoman-era mosques, fountains, hamams, medreses, and tombs maintains a more traditional vibe.
The bustling portside center of Kadiköy is a popular choice for day-trippers drawn to the typical cobbled walkways lined with fishmongers, neighborhood lokantas, coffee shops, antiques shops, and bookstores. On Tuesdays, the neighborhood pulls out all the stops with the very well attended Sali Pazari ("Tuesday Bazaar").
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.