A little bit of history
Istanbul wasn’t super high on my list of places to visit. But, I was lucky enough to meet and have dinner a few months ago, with the super lovely Angie Ibarra, an experienced travel blogger, https://travelmoments.net During a great night with maybe too much wine I asked her, up to that point where was the favourite place she had visited. Her immediate answer was Istanbul. Since then, loads of people have told me the same thing, you have to go.
I’m a total history nerd, (I’m not even sorry) and Istanbul has oodles of it. Dating back nearly 3000 years, the city has been seat to the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Istanbul is unique in that it is split between two continents (half the city sits in Asia, the other in Europe, and the two halves are separated by the river Bosphorus). Being in such a sweet spot, Istanbul has been a meeting point of countless cultures. The city has trading links with Egypt and China going back two millennia and is still a major trading hub. Sites such as the Topkapi Palace, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sophia, and Blue Mosque are within walking distance of each other. The first two could easily take a day each, if you wanted to take your time.
This prime location has also meant it has changed hands various times. The Roman emperor Constantine when he converted to Christianity set up the city as his “new Rome”, and you can still see examples of Roman architecture and engineering throughout the city. Istanbul then became centre of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and seat of the new Byzantine empire.
The 15th century saw the rise of the Ottoman empire. Ahead of it’s time in relation to architecture, medicine and the arts, Istanbul continued to be a thriving multicultural metropolis.
I was really impressed by the modern Istanbul, but given political tensions in the area there was a heavy security presence in popular areas. When out shopping in one of the modern shopping areas near Taksim Square (think Oxford Street in London), I was a bit alarmed when I saw police unloading riot shields (being from Belfast, this usually doesn’t bode well). However I was pleasantly surprised, when the demonstration that started was a large, pretty energetic and good natured Feminist rally. Turkey is a secular state, but the country is still mainly Muslim and quite traditional.
Depending on how much time you have, try to visit different neighbourhoods like Galata, or take the ferry across the Bosphorus to Kadikoy. Each has a different personality and great places to shop and eat.
Istanbul is still a cultural melting pot and draws in people from outside. I met people from Azerbaijan, Morocco and Armenia who for various reasons have decided to live there. By my second day I kept seeing guys with hairbands and surgical dressings taped to the back of their heads. Totally perplexed as to the reason, the penny finally dropped. Apparently Istanbul is the place to go for guys wanting hair transplants at a fraction of the price they’d pay in Europe.
The city has a good cheap public transport network, and it’s worth investing in the IstanbulKart (a multi use card that can be topped up in various location). You’ll see astonishing places, and meet great people. In the interests of good travel karma if you have credit left, and aren’t planning on returning very soon, be nice and pass it on to a local or fellow traveller, same goes for your museum card. Give Istanbul a try, you’ll love it.