Istanbul is the largest city in Europe and the fifteenth-largest city in the world, by population. Its position, straddling Europe and Eurasia across the Bosporus Strait, gives this city its rich and unique culture and history.
The city’s strategic position between the East and West was a big drawcard for conquering armies throughout the ages and has been occupied by the Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and finally, the Ottomans, who decided to stay. There are physical reminders of these empires scattered all over the city, mostly in the form of religious sanctuaries. A unique feature of Istanbul is its position as the final stage of the famed ‘Silk Road’ linking Europe to Asia. Some merchants loved the vibrancy of the city so much that they decided to stay, adding to the bright and embracing multi-cultural atmosphere of the impressive capital of Turkey.
Filled to the brim with bustling markets, towering historical buildings, and unique cultural and culinary influences from Europe and Asia, this colourful city is a must-visit on any adventurous travellers bucket-list.
The climate of Istanbul can be described as transitional Mediterranean with reasonably cold winters and sizzling summers.
Wet season: September to February
Autumn and winter are the rainy seasons in this area of Turkey. Its proximity to the Balkan Peninsula brings frigid weather conditions and snow during winter, and the prevailing clouds and foggy conditions contribute to the lack of sunshine during these months. Temperatures during this time of year average 14°C during the day and drop to 8.5°C overnight.
Dry season: March to August
The rains begin to decrease, and the clouds clear up from April, meaning that you can look forward to warmer temperatures and more sunshine throughout this period, as well as an increase in humidity. Temperatures reach anywhere between 17°C and 29°C during the day and can drop overnight to 5°C in March and 20°C in August.
For a real taste of history, visit the vast number of churches and palaces spread throughout the city. The largest concentration of these historic buildings can be found in Sultanahmet Square on the European side of the city. The most well-known attractions in this area include:
Hagia Sophia - a feat of Greek engineering, this massive 30m high domed basilica was the largest enclosed space in the world for over 1000 years! Originally designed as a church, it was looted in 1203, converted to a mosque by the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century and eventually became a museum in 1935. Mosaics from the Ottoman occupation remain throughout the structure and make the overall experience of this landmark even more impressive.
Sultanahmet Mosque (The Blue Mosque) - Still a working mosque, and closed during prayer times, this structure is open to the public to visit for free throughout the day. It is an Ottoman-era place of worship, constructed between 1609 and 1616 for Sultan Ahmed I. The most impressive aspects of this massive building are its sweeping architecture and the six slender minarets soaring into the sky and dominates Istanbul’s iconic skyline. It gets its name from the hand-painted blue tiles which adorn the inside walls, and the blue lights that flood the mosque’s five main domes, six minarets, and eight secondary domes at night. The layout and structure of the mosque bring to mind the Sultan’s palace from Disney’s “Aladdin”.
Topkapı Palace - This was the imperial haven of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries; this lavish palace is extravagantly decorated. It consists of four courts, each increasing in grandeur as you make your way through the structure. You can view a Harem, the State Treasury, a weapons display, Prophet Mohammed’s belongings, the Imperial Treasury, and both Christian and Islamic relics, rugs, and porcelain. The views across the Bosphorus from the fourth court are absolutely spectacular!
Basilica Cistern - This underground cistern was constructed in 532 to provide water to the city in the event of a siege. It is said that over 7000 slaves were involved in the construction, and was used as a water filtration system for the Great Palace of Constantinople, and continued to provide water to Topkapı Palace after the Ottoman Empire was established in 1453 and into more modern times. These days, the cistern holds very little water to be able to provide access to tourists. The wooden walkway winding between the pillars, soft lighting, and piped music, as well as the massive fish swimming under your feet, add to the eerie atmosphere. Remember to take a coin with you to throw into the water and make a wish.
Hippodrome - This was the centre of the Roman and Byzantine Constantinople occupations. Unfortunately, the structure no longer stands; however, the obelisks and sculptures collected since the 4th century remain. Have a look at the neo-Byzantine fountain, called the ‘German Fountain’, in the square leading to the Hippodrome, which was a gift from German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Ottoman Sultan. The four bronze horses in the facade of St. Marco’s in Venice were looted from the top of the Emperor’s Box in the Hippodrome in 1204.
Great Palace Mosaics Museum - This museum holds the mosaics from the pavement of the Great Palace of Constantinople, constructed during the Byzantine-era, which stretched from Sultanahmet Square, past the Hippodrome and out to the coast of the Sea of Marmara.
Soğukçeşme Street - The car-free, cobbled street, located behind the Hagia Sophia, is lined with renovated and completely rebuilt traditional wooden houses, typical of the Ottoman era, leaning against the walls of Topkapı Palace grounds and Gülhane Park. This beautiful downward sloped street gives you a real idea of what the typical streetscape of Istanbul was like before concrete took over.
Gülhane Park - Separated from Topkapı Palace by a vast wall, this massive park was once used as the hunting grounds for royals. It is now a public park, blanketed in gorgeous, vibrant flowers, and large, reaching trees which provide some much-needed shade in the height of summer. Take a stroll through the park and have a look at one of the oldest surviving Roman-era artefacts, the ‘Column of the Goths’. It is a Corinthian-style marble pillar said to have been erected in honour of the victory over the Goths of either Claudius II Gothicus or Constantine the Great between 268 and 337. Another beautiful artefact is the ruins of a Byzantine-era monastery.
Hamams - A trip to Istanbul would be incomplete without a visit to one of the Hamams that dot the Old City. A Hamam is a historical bath-house, traditionally separated into male and female baths, where the public can relax and enjoy a good scrub, a massage, and a cup of tea. More recently, mixed-gender baths have become common, so families and mixed-gender couples can now enjoy this experience together and make a day of it.
Grand Bazaar - Estimated to contain over 4400 shops lining covered walkways, and said to be the oldest shopping mall in the world, the bazaar covers several blocks and is renowned for its labyrinth of side streets that can keep you occupied for the better part of a day. All of the shops are organised around the wares that they sell - you’ll find all the shoe shops clustered together, the shops selling rugs at the other end of the mall, and so on. Some of the areas of the bazaar have become a bit touristy, and the wares for sale can be overpriced, but if you take the time to explore all it has to offer, you’re sure to find everything you’re looking for and more.
Food - The restaurants around Sultanahmet Square are entirely geared towards tourists and tend to be very overpriced. For an authentic Turkish meal experience, head into a small Lokanta lining the streets, where the locals like to eat. Kebap, pide, shish, mezes, stews and soups are most often on the menu and are delicious! In a lot of cases, you will find restaurants where the cuisines of the East and the West mix to create a phenomenal culinary journey.
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