Istanbul seems to be the favourite word on everyone’s lips nowadays, everyone’s must-visit list and by far the most popular holiday destination on the planet. As far as the tourism industry is concerned, no matter what you read, what you see or what you hear, Istanbul is the bees’ knees, and by far the most interesting city to visit this year. To be honest, however, discerning and adventurous travellers have been flocking here for decades, knowing well that the city ‘where two continents meet’ is an Aladdin’s cave of magical wonders. Only here can you admire opulent Muslim Mosques and futuristic looking skyscrapers in the same block. Only in Istanbul, can you buy cutting-edge designer gear merely a few minutes after emerging from a centuries-old bazaar. This incredible city doesn’t just introduce you to Europe and Asia; it makes you feel and experience the best of both worlds.
Like a sleeping beauty waking from her slumber, Istanbul is a city on the rise; ready to take its rightful place as one of the most interesting and spellbinding holiday destinations in the world.
Istanbul Guide – The ins and outs of Istanbul
Most of the tourist activity in Istanbul is centred around Sultanahmet, the Old City Centre. Chock-full of mosques, churches, museums, bazaars and a plethora of slightly overpriced eateries, this walled centre has the ability to literally swallow most visitors for days on end. With attractions like Hagia Sophia (one of the city’s ancient architectural marvels) Topkapı Palace (the former palace of the Ottomans and home to the most important artefacts of the Islamic word), the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar however, it’s not difficult to understand why tourists have a hard time venturing away from this maze of thousand-year-old cobblestone streets.
When people do manage to emerge from Sultanahment, they usually only make it as far as Galata, the bona fide true centre of Istanbul. Taksim Square, and its pedestrian offshoot, Istiklal Street, are considered the heart and soul of Istanbul, and it is here that the city’s young shopping, dining and clubbing pulse beats. This area is plain crazy busy, every single minute of every single day, and it is here that the energy of Istanbul and its vibrant youth is most palpable. However chaotic you may think it is during the day, come back in the evening and early hours of the morning to experience Istanbul at its very best!
If you head north of Taksim Square you’ll hit New City Istanbul, the city’s flashiest business district. After one has been absorbed by the old-world wonders of the Old City, the modern skyscrapers the area is littered with may seem a bit of an eyesore, yet do keep in mind that this area is also home to some great clubs, bars and restaurants, as well as a museum dedicated to Ataturk (the country’s hero). So it still attracts a healthy local crowd of interesting locals.
The Bosphorous Strait is of course the one ‘natural attraction’ that must not be missed; most visitors chose to experience it by ferry. The body of water which separates Europe from Asia is nothing much per se, but is flanked by some quite spectacular palaces and, besides, the view of the city from this angle is nothing short of grandiose.
Istanbul is serviced by two International airports, the most used being the Ataturk International Airport in Yeşilköy, about 20kms west of the city centre. Flights abound from every corner of the globe, attesting to the fact that Istanbul is the country’s capital in everything but name. Recent plans have been released, which will see Istanbul home to the largest airport in the world. By 2016, the new hub is expected to handle an astonishing 100 million passengers a year.
Once you land in Istanbul, you have three choices. You can reach your hotel by taxi, bus, or Metro.
You’ll find metered taxis right outside the arrivals terminal and, while this is by far the most expensive option, it is a rather convenient one. Fares are standardized all day long (no extra night time fares), so ask for an expected quote to the suburb of your hotel before you hop in.
Also outside the arrivals’ terminal you’ll find the Havaş Express Airport Bus stop; hop on a bus here for a ride all the way to Taksim Square. Rides take anything between 45 minutes and infinity depending on the insane city traffic.
The recently upgraded METRO is by far the cheapest and easiest way of getting into town, mostly because the underground trams don’t need to deal with the aboveground traffic jams! Stops are numerous and, if they don’t reach the suburb you’re after, they’ll take you to the nearest bus stops where you can get a connection.
Getting out and about
Istanbul’s historic and modern centres are a pedestrian bliss, and walking is by far the best options for getting around town. The city’s public transport system is constantly being improved and between buses, trams, ferries, seabuses, trains, water taxis, donkey carts and funiculars, you’ll always find a way to reach even the remotest corners of the city. Pick up a transport guide from the Tourist Info Office of the airport arrival’s lounge, and use it to plan your days’ explorations.
Most forms of public transport are interlinked, and that’s where the ISTANBULKART comes in handy. Much like London’s Oyster Card, this contactless transport card can be bought and refilled at various kiosks, newsagents and shops near all the major transport points. You’ll need to pay a 10Lira deposit for the card, which you’ll get that back when you return the card at the end of your stay. You DO NOT need to buy multiple cards if travelling with other people! Simply swipe it twice if there are two of you and that’s fine. As convenient as this is, the Istanbulkart is only really worth it if you’re planning to stay for longer than 4-5 days. Otherwise, single-use tokens can be purchased at kiosks near Metro or bus stops. As silly as this might sound, the Istanbulkart is not yet available at the airport (??), so you’ll have to pay a single fare there and buy the card when you get into town!
To help plan your trips around Istanbul, use this comprehensive map of the city’s metro system.
Blue Mosque via Wikitravel
fssse8info via Flickr