Istanbul is Turkey’s largest and most famous city. With one part in Asia and one part in Europe, it is a big industrial city that keeps growing at a high rate. Today, over 10 million people live in Istanbul. Most visitors to Turkey land at the international airport in Istanbul where they begin their journey. The city has an incredible atmosphere where one can find whatever they are looking for. A visitor to Istanbul should plan to stay at least three days.
The history of Istanbul can be traced thousands of years back. Named Byzantium in 657 B.C., Constantinople in 330 A.D., and finally Istanbul in 1453, both the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empire chose the city to be their capital.
Most of the Istanbul’s historical sites, from the Byzantium and Ottoman era, are located in and around the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul.
Topkapi Palace, at the center of the Ottoman Empire between the 15th and l9th centuries, was the residence of the Ottoman sultans and their court. The opulent setting now exhibits imperial costumes worn by the sultans and their families, the famous jewels of the treasury, collections of crystal, silver, and Chinese porcelain, among other things. One of the highlights of a visit to Topkapi is the Harem, the secluded quarters of the wives, concubines, and children of the sultan.
Hagia Sofia, the Church of Divine Wisdom, was originally constructed by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine in 347 A.D. The church was destroyed in a rebellion in 532 and rebuilt by the Emperor Justinian on an even more magnificent scale in 537. The greatest church in Christendom was converted into a mosque after Mehmet II took the city and supporting buttresses were soon added, notably by the famous Turkish architect Sinan, in 1571. Upon Ataturk’s orders, Hagia Sofia was converted into a museum in 1935.
The Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet Mosque) derives it name from the beautiful blue Iznik tiles that were used to decorate the interior. Sultan Ahmet I commissioned one of Sinan’s apprentices to build the mosque, which is one of the best examples of late classical Ottoman architecture.
Other popular sites in Istanbul include the Hippodrome, the scene of chariot races and other public games as well as many revolts during the time of the Romans, Byzantines, and Ottomans; the Basilica Cistern, an enormous underground gallery which collected the palaces’ main water supply; the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinth of streets and passages housing more than 4,000 shops; the Egyptian (Spice) Market, named after the numerous spice shops; Dolmabahce Palace, built from marble in the 19th century in the “European style”, partly European, partly Oriental.
Istanbul has a wonderfully rich collection of museums including Chora Church, or Church of the Holy Saviour, which displays examples of Byzantine mosaics and frescos, with many dedicated to Christ and the Virgin Mary; the Archaeology Museum, which has a fine collection of classical remains from Anatolia and the Levant; the Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, which gives the visitor a good image of the Ottoman way of life; and the Sadberk Hanim Museum, which has a great collection of Ottoman era artifacts.
Other Things to See & Do
The famous Turkish cuisine can be tasted at a wide variety of restaurants throughout Istanbul. The Kumkapi District, with many seafood restaurants that serve fresh fish from the local market, is especially lively at night.
The Pera District, once the center of diplomacy where most foreigners lived and embassies were situated, is a great place to stroll and see the more modern Turkish life. Some may know of the Pera Palas, made famous in an Agatha Christie novel.
A ferry ride on the Bosphorus, which gives you a different view of the city from the straits, is a worthwhile adventure.
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