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Istanbul is Turkey's most populous city as well as its cultural and financial hub. Located on both sides of the Bosphorus, the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally. Istanbul's population is estimated to be between 12 and 19 million people, making it also one of the largest cities in Europe and the world.
Districts of Istanbul
Essentially the Constantinople of the Roman, Eastern Roman/Byzantine, and much of the Ottoman periods, this is where most of the famous historical sights of Istanbul are located.
Housing many of the nightlife venues of the city, this district includes Beyoğlu, Istiklal Street, and Taksim Square also its own share of sights and accommodation.
Main business district of the city with many modern shopping malls and districts such as Elmadağ, Nişantaşı, and Etiler.
European bank of the Bosphorus dotted by numerous palaces, parks, water-front mansions, and bohemian neighbourhoods, such as Beşiktaş and Ortaköy.
Banks of Golden Horn, the estuary that separates the European side into distinctive districts. Eyüp, with an Ottoman ambience, is located here.
An excellent getaway from the city, made up of an archipelago of nine car-free islands—some of them small, some of them big—with splendid wooden mansions, verdant pine gardens and nice views—both of the islands themselves, and also on the way there.
Eastern half of Istanbul, with lovely neighborhoods at the Marmara and Bosphorus coasts.
Western chunk of the European Side
Expanding the ancient Roman colony of Byzantium by the order of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, the imperial city of Constantinople was for nearly a thousand years the last remaining outpost of the Roman (later termed Eastern Roman or Byzantine) Empire. It was finally conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II on 29 May 1453, an event sometimes used to mark the end of the Middle Ages. It was the nerve centre for military campaigns that were to enlarge the Ottoman Empire dramatically. By the mid 1500s, Istanbul, with a population of almost half a million, was a major cultural, political, and commercial centre. Ottoman rule continued until it was defeated in WWI and Istanbul was occupied by the allies. When the Republic of Turkey was born in 1923 after the War of Independence, Kemal Atatürk moved its capital to the city of Ankara. However, Istanbul has continued to expand dramatically; today its population is approximately 14 million and increases at an estimated 400,000 immigrants per year. Industry has expanded even as tourism has grown.
Istanbul is divided in three by the north-south Bosphorus Strait (Istanbul Bogazi), the dividing line between Europe and Asia, the estuary of the Golden Horn (Haliç) bisecting the western part and the Sea of Marmara (Marmara Denizi) forming a boundary to the south. Most sights are concentrated in the old city on the peninsula of Sultanahmet, to the west of the Bosphorus between the Horn and the Sea. Across the Horn to the north are Galata, Beyoğlu and Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul, while Kadıköy is the major district on the comparatively less-visited Anatolian side of the city. The Black Sea forms the northern boundary of Istanbul.
Istanbul has a temperate oceanic climate which is influenced by a continental climate, with hot and humid summers and cold, wet and occasionally snowy winters.
Istanbul has a high annual average rainfall of 844mm (which is more than that of London, Dublin or Brussels, whose negative reputation Istanbul does not suffer), with late autumn and winter being the wettest, and late spring and summer being the driest. Although late spring and summer are relatively dry when compared to the other seasons, rainfall is significant during these seasons, and there is no dry season as a result.
If there is a negative reputation that Istanbul does suffer from, it is the high annual relative humidity, especially during winter and summer with the accompanying wind chill and concrete-island effect during each respective season.
Ortaköy Mosque, along the Bosphorus
Summer is generally hot with averages around 27ºC during the day and 18ºC at night. High relative humidity levels and the ‘concrete-island effect’ only make things worse. Expect temperatures of up to 35° C for the hottest days of the year. Summer is also the driest season, but it does infrequently rain. Showers tend to last for 15-30 minutes with the sun usually reappearing again on the same day. Flash floods are a common occurrence after heavy rainfalls (especially during summer), due to the city's hilly topography and inadequate sewage systems.
Winter is cold and wet, averaging 2ºC at night and 7ºC during the day. Although rarely below freezing during the day, high relative humidity levels and the wind chill makes it feel bitterly cold and very unpleasant.
Get in by plane
Most planes arrive at Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IATA: IST), 20km west of the city centre. From the airport, there are various options for getting into Istanbul: you can take a taxi (about TRY60 to Taksim. There is no night fare in Istanbul anymore - the price would be the same at midnight or midday. About the same to Sultanahmet), the express bus service run by the local airport service called "Havataş”.
Sabiha Gökçen Airport
Istanbul also has a second airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (IATA: SAW), located in the Anatolian side of the city Sabiha Gökçen International Airport.
The cheapest way to arrive from Sabiha Gökçen to the European side of Istanbul is by bus (E10 or E11 lines, from Sabiha Gökçen to Kadiköy) + ferry (from Kadiköy to many ferry stations, including some in the Sultanahmet area). Using Istanbulkart or Akbil (see below), the price is less than TRY7. That's about €2.50 in total. Every other option priced at €10 and above (TRY23 and above-by Feb 2013 rates) makes sense ONLY if you can't use this. Be aware that last ferries are between 10 and 11pm, yet the E10 continues throughout the night.
There are no mainline trains in central Istanbul. Trains to Europe via Bucharest or Sofia historically ran from Sirkeci station, but this line is disrupted by the Marmaray project and by other work in Bulgaria. There are replacement buses from Sirkeci, at the usual departure time of 10 pm, to link with the westbound train, and returning from the incoming train around 8 am (often very late). As the engineering work grinds on this link has variously been at Halkali at the city’s edge, at Cerkezkoy 115 km away, or at Kapikule on the Bulgarian border. The project has been interminably delayed and (as at 2016) no completion is in sight. Sirkeci was also the terminus for international trains to Thessaloniki and regional trains to Edirne and these too are suspended indefinitely (though a daily train runs between Halkali and Edirne). So the station has no trains, but the ticket office remains open. Also just outside is the escalator down to Sirkeci Marmaray station, for the metro across the Bosporus.
Most buses and coaches terminate at the colossal Esenler Otogar, about 10 km west of the city center, located on the European side. The station can be easily reached via the Otogar stop on the M1. Companies may also have courtesy minibuses or taxis which will allow you to easily access the center of the city.
Buses depart/arrive for all regions of Turkey as well as for international destinations including cities in Bulgaria, Greece, Republic of Macedonia and Romania. The terminal is huge and each company has a separate office. The area can be a tourist trap with people wanting to help get you to the right office -- for a fee. It is easiest if you know who you want to travel with when you arrive.
International ferries, carrying tourist groups from outside Turkey stop at Karakoy Port. The port is ideally located close to Sultanahmet and Taksim.
Cruise ships often dock close to downtown. Passengers not on tours will find taxis readily available at the port entrance, and modern streetcars a short walk away.
Istanbul's public transit system can be difficult to figure out; maps are rare and you often have to transfer, and pay another fare, to get where you are going. However, if you put some effort into it, you can avoid taxis and not walk too much.
There is an extensive bus system, including city-run and private buses, as well as one high-speed Metrobüs line; an extensive light rail system including four Metro (underground) lines, four Tramvays (aboveground), two Fünikülers (ascending/descending), two mini-lines called Teleferik, and the Marmaray (underwater) lines; and the ferries which travel the Bosphorus.
What to see in Istanbul
With its long history at the center of empires, Istanbul offers a wealth of historic and religious places to take in. The bulk of these ancient monuments, dating back to Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods, including the Hagia Sophia, Topkapı Palace, Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), and Basilica Cistern are located around Sultanahmet Square, while some others are dispersed throughout the peninsula of old city, such as Church of St Savior in Chora (Kariye Müzesi), entire inside of which is covered by mindblowing frescoes and mosaics. An impressive section of mostly intact Theodosian walls, which mark the full length of western boundary of the peninsula, is right next to this particular church.
North of the peninsula of old city, across the Golden Horn, is Galata, crowned by the Galata Tower. Istanbul Modern, with its exhibitions of contemporary Turkish art, is on the nearby waterfront of Karaköy. Another sight of religious significance close by is the Galata Whirling Dervish Hall of Sufi Mevlevi order, just north of the Tower. Further north is the Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul's prominent pedestrian street running from near Galata Tower to Taksim Square, the central square of whole city.
Heading west rather than north from the old city brings you deeper into the banks of the Golden Horn estuary. A neighbourhood perhaps well worth a visit here is Eyüp, to visit city’s holiest Islamic shrine and just to see what daily life in Ottoman Istanbul was like. On the opposite shores of the Horn, in Sütlüce is the Miniaturk, the first miniature park in the city, with models from around the former Ottoman Empire.
North of Taksim Square is New Istanbul, main business district of the city. If venturing out to this direction, don't forget to check out Military Museum, where Ottoman military music concerts (Mehter) are held every afternoon. Most of the skyscrapers of the city are located in the north of this district, around Levent and Maslak, with a totally different skyline from that of the old city. However southern reaches of the very same district has some fine neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings from the turn of the 20th century, around the neighbourhoods of Osmanbey, Kurtuluş, and Nişantaşı. Just east from here, with a little drop in elevation as you approach the shore, is the banks of Bosphorus, that is lined by pleasant neighbourhoods full of waterfront mansions (yalı) and a number of waterside palaces where you can admire what money could buy in times gone by.
Across the Bosphorus to east is Asian Side, centred around the historical districts of Kadıköy and Üsküdar, and perhaps best symbolized by Maiden’s Tower, located at about the halfway between these districts, on an islet just off the shore. Bosphorus and Marmara coasts of this half of the city is characterized by quite picturesque neighbourhoods, overlooked by Çamlıca Hill, one of the highest hills of the city which has a view of much of the rest of the city as well, with a cafe and a pleasant park on its summit.
Southeast of the city, off the southern coast of Asian Side are the Princes’ Islands, an archipelago of nine car-free islands, characterized by stunning wooden mansions and pine groves.