Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and is among the 15 largest urban areas in the world. It is located on the Bosporus Strait and covers the entire area of the Golden Horn, a natural harbor. Because of its size, Istanbul extends into both Europe and Asia. The city is the world’s only metropolis to be on more than one continent. The city of Istanbul is important to geography because it has a long history that spans the rise and fall of the world’s most famous empires. Due to its participation in these empires, Istanbul has also undergone various name changes.
Though Istanbul may have been inhabited as early as 3000 BCE, it was not a city until Greek colonists arrived in the area in the seventh century BCE. These colonists were led by King Byzas and settled there because of the strategic location along the Bosporus Strait. King Byzas named the city Byzantium after himself.
The Roman Empire (330–395)
Byzantium became a part of the Roman Empire in the 300s. During this time, the Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, undertook the rebuilding of the entire city. His goal was to make it stand out and give the city monuments similar to those found in Rome. In 330, Constantine declared the city as the capital of the entire Roman Empire and renamed it Constantinople. It grew and prospered as a result.
The Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire (395–1204 and 1261–1453)
After the death of the emperor Theodosius I in 395, however, enormous upheaval took place in the empire as his sons permanently divided it. Following the division, Constantinople became the capital of the Byzantine Empire in the 400s. As part of the Byzantine Empire, the city became distinctly Greek, as opposed to its former identity in the Roman Empire. Because Constantinople was at the center of two continents, it became a center of commerce, culture, and diplomacy and grew considerably. In 532, though, the antigovernment Nika Revolt broke out among the city’s population and destroyed it. Afterward, many of its most outstanding monuments, one of which was the Hagia Sophia, were constructed during the city’s rebuilding, and Constantinople became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Latin Empire (1204–1261)
Although Constantinople significantly prospered during decades following its becoming a part of the Byzantine Empire, the factors leading to its success also made it a target for conquering. For hundreds of years, troops from all over the Middle East attacked the city. For a time it was even controlled by members of the Fourth Crusade after the city was desecrated in 1204. Subsequently, Constantinople became the center of the Catholic Latin Empire.
As competition persisted between the Catholic Latin Empire and the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire, Constantinople was caught in the middle and began to significantly decay. It went financially bankrupt, the population declined, and it became vulnerable to further attacks as defense posts around the city crumbled. In 1261, in the midst of this turmoil, the Empire of Nicaea recaptured Constantinople, and it was returned to the Byzantine Empire. Around the same time, the Ottoman Turks began conquering the cities surrounding Constantinople, effectively cutting it off from many of its neighboring cities.
The Ottoman Empire (1453–1922)
After being considerably weakened, Constantinople was officially conquered by the Ottomans, led by Sultan Mehmed II on May 29, 1453, after a 53-day siege. During the siege, the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, died while defending his city. Almost immediately, Constantinople was declared to be the capital of the Ottoman Empire and its name was changed to Istanbul. Upon taking control of the city, Sultan Mehmed sought to rejuvenate Istanbul. He created the Grand Bazaar (one of the largest covered marketplaces in the world) and brought back fleeing Catholic and Greek Orthodox residents. In addition to these residents, he brought in Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families to establish a mixed populace. Sultan Mehmed also began the building of architectural monuments, schools, hospitals, public baths, and grand imperial mosques. From 1520 to 1566, Suleiman the Magnificent controlled the Ottoman Empire, and there were many artistic and architectural achievements that made the city a major cultural, political, and commercial center. By the mid-1500s, its population had grown to almost 1 million inhabitants. The Ottoman Empire ruled Istanbul until it was defeated and occupied by the Allies in World War I.
The Republic of Turkey (1923–Present)
Following World War I, the Turkish War of Independence took place, and Istanbul became a part of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Istanbul was not the capital city of the new republic, and during the early years of its formation, Istanbul was overlooked; investment went into the new, centrally located capital, Ankara. In the 1940s and 1950s, though, Istanbul reemerged. New public squares, boulevards, and avenues were constructed—and many of the city’s historic buildings were demolished. In the 1970s, Istanbul’s population rapidly increased, causing the city to expand into the nearby villages and forests, eventually creating a major world metropolis.
Istanbul’s many historical areas were added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1985. In addition, because of its status as a world rising power, its history, and its importance to culture in both Europe and the world, Istanbul was designated the European Capital of Culture for 2010 by the European Union.
A Turkish classic that has also become a bit of a national dish in Germany, döner kebap comes in many forms including dürüm (döner wrapped in lavaş bread) and iskender kebap (döner on a bed of pide bread with yogurt, tomato sauce, and butter).
One of Istanbul’s most iconic tourist snacks, balık ekmek is a sandwich containing grilled fish, onions, and salad. It’s common to see floating fish restaurants docked to the shore, and you mustn’t miss the opportunity to be served on one of those!
Layers of flaky pastry are complemented by finely chopped nuts or pistachios and held together by syrupy goodness. This dessert originates from the Ottoman Empire, and can now be found on virtually every street corner in Turkey. Order one for dessert in a restaurant or grab one on the go. No matter which way you eat it, it still tastes scrumptious. It’s a classic, and definitely one of the foods you must try in Turkey. Baklava is sweet and unique, and should be eaten fresh!
Often wrongfully referred to as a ‘Turkish pizza’, lahmacun has nothing to do with the Italian classic. A thin and crispy round of dough is topped with minced seasoned meat, which is complimented with a squeeze of lemon and parsley before it’s rolled up and ready to eat. Cheap and available on any street corner, it’s the perfect light lunch or snack while touring.
Mantı might remind you of ravioli at first sight, but the traditional Turkish dish is completely unique in taste and texture. Small handmade dumplings filled with minced meat are boiled and then served with yogurt and a sauce made with oil, paprika, mint, and garlic. Manti takes a lot of time to prepare, but once you’ve tasted a bite, you’ll see that the hard work pays off.
Rest assured, you probably won’t leave Turkey without being served Mezze, which is a small selection of dishes commonly served with drinks or before a meal like tapas. Turkish Mezze often consists of yogurt with herbs, hummus, rice-stuffed vine leaves (dolmas), meatballs (kofte), eggplant salad, white cheese and of course, delicious, warm pide. Could there be a better way to start a meal?
Sultanahmet is home to the city’s most important attractions like Ayasofya, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, and the Blue Mosque. No first-time visit to Istanbul can be complete without visiting all these places. But if you have more time, then it would be best to spread them out over two days. Here’s a quick rundown of what you a can find there:
Ayasofya: The most iconic site in Istanbul and once considered the greatest church in Christendom.
Sultanahmet: One of the most striking mosques in Istanbul.
Basilica Cistern: The largest surviving Byzantine cistern in Istanbul.
At Meydani: The former location of the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Ibrahim Paşa Palace: Museum featuring an impressive collection of calligraphy and rugs.
Topkapı Palace: The court of the Ottoman Empire from the 15th to the 19th centuries.
İstanbul Archaeology Museums: Museum of the Ancient Orient, Tiled Pavilion, Archaeological Museum.
Shop at the Grand and Egyptian Spice Bazaars
The Grand and Egyptian Spice Bazaars are Istanbul’s most popular bazaars. One of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world with over 3,000 shops, you can buy all sorts of things at the Grand Bazaar like leather goods, jewelry, carpets, clothing, furniture, ceramics, and souvenirs. Considerably smaller than the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar is home to around a hundred shops selling dried fruits, nuts, spices, tea, Turkish Delight, and other goodies. Both are walking distance from Sultanahmet Square.
Walk Across Galata Bridge and Explore Beyoğlu and Dolmabahce Palace
Home to the iconic Galata Tower and Dolmabahce Palace as well as the city’s most fashionable boulevard in Istiklal Caddesi, the neighborhoods across Galata Bridge provide an interesting mix of old and new that’s different in feel to the time-honored charm of Sultanahmet. If you enjoy shopping, good food, and perhaps a taste of İstanbul’s nightlife, then this is where you need to be. Here’s a quick rundown of what you a can find there:
Galata Bridge: Bridge connecting the north and south of European Istanbul.
Galata Tower: Former watchtower offering great views of the city.
İstiklal Caddesi: The heart of Beyoğlu and Istanbul’s most famous street.
Dolmabahçe Palace: The biggest palace in Turkey.
Take a Cruise on the Bosphorus
Going on a scenic all-day cruise of the Bosphorus is one of İstanbul’s greatest pleasures. Şehir Hatları is Istanbul’s official ferry company and offers three Bosphorus Cruises — Full, Short, and Moonlight (Evening). The Short Cruise takes you on a two-hour loop while the Full and Moonlight Cruises last for six hours and take you all the way to Anadolu Kavağı, which is the last dock before the Black Sea. It’s a charming seaside town where you can have a delicious seafood lunch or dinner by the water.
Explore Chora Museum
Originally built as a Byzantine church, later converted to a mosque and now serving as a secular museum, the Chora Museum is definitely deserving of a visit. There, you’ll find a series of beautiful mosaics and frescoes that many consider some of the best surviving examples of Byzantine art in the world.