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Turkey’s largest city is by far it’s most mesmerising. With a population of 13.5 million, its city centre is one of the most populated in the world. The ‘centre’, of course, has to be a relative term for a city split by the mighty Bosphorus – a strait that forms part of the division between the continents of Europe and Asia - with two thirds living on the European side, where the main historical and commerce areas are found. While the geography literally lends itself to the ‘East meets West’ tag, the city formerly known as Constantinople, couldn’t be more cosmopolitan.
However superficially, Istanbul resembles a city that has built enough landmarks for another thousand years. Visiting Sultanahmet (Istanbul’s Old City) first, as most first-time visitors do, you’ll be amazed at the sights such as the magnificent Hagia Sofia, a one-time Byzantine cathedral converted to a mosque in 1453 and lavishly appointed with mosaics and frescoes. Islam is also beautifully represented with the Sultan Ahmed, or Blue Mosque, dating to 1609. While the mosque is a site for worship, the grassy park adjacent is a site for family picnics.Read more
Still in Sultanahmet, Topkapi Palace, the royal residence of the Ottoman Sultans for around 400 years is a sprawling masterpiece, with pavilions, courtyards, gardens, and a lavish harem. The remarkable underground Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), on the site of a former basilica, is the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city, filtering water for the inhabitants. While the sights here are something, it wouldn’t be Istanbul without a shopping excursion to the maze-like 15th century Grand Bazaar where you can get lost haggling for Oriental lanterns, colourful tea glasses and, of course, a Turkish carpet.
But Istanbul is the heart of the country’s economy, art and culture, not just a theme park of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman monuments. It’s across the Galata Bridge, often packed with fishermen throwing rods and reels over the side, and up the steep streets of Beyoğlu that you really see the cosmopolitan nature of the city, spilling out into the narrow alleys either side of the main thoroughfare, İstiklâl Caddesi. These lanes are filled with bars, cafes, restaurants, pubs, and clubs, as well as performance spaces, art galleries, cinemas, and theatres. On any given night here, after feasting on plates of delicious Turkish meze (the traditional shared starters of any Turkish meal), you can hear superb live jazz or a traditional bağlama (long-necked lute) performance in a club, dance to pop music or Turkish folk songs with the locals at a laneway bar, or boogie at a rooftop nightclub.