Istanbul is a city of contrasts, which everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It is an enchanting blend of Eastern and Western culture, a vibrant, modern city, with a unique identity. Its rich past coexists with modern life. Although no longer the capital of Turkey , Istanbul still remains the country's cultural and business centre.
It is set in a stunning location, surrounded by water: the narrow strait of the Bosphorus and the serene sea of Marmara separate Europe from Asia. As Byzantium, Constantinople and finally, Istanbul , it has been the capital of three Empires, each leaving their mark in the form of palaces, castles, mosques, churches and monuments. The legacy of its rich past can be seen on every turn of the modern city.
The Bosphorus divides the city into the European and Asian sides, linked by two magnificent bridges. Most visitors to the city, staying for a few days, will rarely visit the Asian side, except for as part of a Bosphorus tour, on a boat which zigzags from side to side.
The European side, however, is also divided in two by the Golden Horn or Haliç, which divides the historic part of Istanbul (Sultanahmet and Laleli areas) from the modern city. It is crossed by a number of bridges, the most famous of which is the Galata Bridge. Most visitors on short city breaks stay in the old town as the vast majority of the sites which they will be visiting are in this area: Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia) museum, Topkapi Sarayi (Palace) and the Grand Bazaar (Kapali Carsi) are all within a 30 minute walk of each other. It is easy to get around on foot. In terms of accommodation, there are now a number of boutique hotels in the area of Sultanahmet, many of which are restored Ottoman wooden mansions. These are ideal for those who really want to savor the authentic atmosphere of the Old Town.
Although it is convenient, the disadvantage of staying in the Old Town, is that, since it is not a residential area, you don't really benefit from the ambience of the modern city of Istanbul , with its excellent restaurants, lively bars, and cosmopolitan feel.
Some of Istanbul 's finest vistas are to be seen from the Bosphorus. If you have time it is well worth spending at least half a day viewing the sights and savoring the atmosphere. You can take a boat tour from the quay of Eminonu with a TDI ferry, a good value public ferry service which leaves two or three times a day and does the full round trip as far as Anadolu Kavağı, the nearest village to the Black Sea on the Asian side. As you head towards the Black Sea you will pass the Dolmabahçe Palace, Beylerbeyi Palace and the 15th century fortresses built by Mehmet II, Rumeli Hisari and Anadolu Hisari. Also look out for the stunning wooden Ottoman mansions, many of which have been renovated and form some of the city's most desirable residences.
The Princes Islands
Those who are staying for a little longer in Istanbul , should really set aside a day to visit these charming islands in the sea of Marmara, just off the coast of Istanbul . The picturesque scenery of wooded hills, charming beaches and authentic Ottoman mansions, combined with the tranquil atmosphere, make for a pleasant contrast to the city itself. Easily reached by ferry or hydrofoil, Büyük Ada, or "Big Island" is the most popular: no cars are allowed but you can take a trip in a horse and carriage to visit the Monastery of St. George.