A Convergence of Continents and Cultures
"Istanbul was Constantinople, Now it's Istanbul not Constantinople " The Four Lads back in 1953 penned this catchy, historically accurate ditty. Istanbul, as the song advises, was originally named Constantinople after the Emperor Constantine The Great. Here, East meets West and Europe meets Asia – right in the middle of the Bosphorus – the world's narrowest strait where the Golden Horn estuary is found. The Greeks gave the city its first name, Byzantium, in 660 AD before being overtaken by Persians, then by the Romans, and followed by the Ottoman Turks.
Istanbul fascinates with its harmonious blend of religions and cultures. Women wearing traditional hijab walk next to girls in mini-skirts. Restaurants serve everything from halal to traditional Turkish bourekas. The political climate is moderate, the weather, temperate. Istanbul is at once – frenetic, exciting, romantic and sacred.
The historic center, the European peninsula, is built around seven hills each topped with mosques and surrounded by ancient city walls. The Topkapi Palace, one of the largest, was home to all the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years. Containing the most holy relics of the Muslim world such as the Prophet Muhammed's cloak and sword, today, this very visited tourist attraction is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Istanbul is home to hundreds of impressive sites, including the spectacular Hagia Sofia. Now a museum, the structure was formerly a mosque, which was formerly an orthodox basilica. Its Byzantine dome, marbles, gilt relics and mosaics comprise one of the greatest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture. This was the largest cathedral for 1,000 years until the completion of the cathedral in Seville, Spain. Even Justinian, who oversaw the completion of the Hagia Sophia, proclaimed, "I have outdone thee!"
Stroll through the labyrinth of streets and the Kapah Carsi (Grand Bazaar), considered the world's oldest shopping mall. With an estimated 4,400 shops lined along covered walkways, there's enough here to keep you lost for the better part of your day. The shops are well organized – silver over here, carpets over there. Prepare to spend a little more for your purchase just to have the experience of one of Istanbul's most characteristic tourist spots.
Experiencing a genuine hamam (Turkish bath) is an essential part of any trip to Istanbul. There's at least one historical hamam in each neighborhood, some are more touristy (and clean) than others. Some are co-ed, and most offer a scrubbing and a massage.
From bustling Taksim Square to quaint Galata you'll find restaurants, taverns and nightclubs serving up the flavors of the Old Ottoman Empire with influences from Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans. Speaking of which, the best way to see Istanbul and the rest of Turkey is with our Balkan Flexipass,which also provides you with flexible travel throughout Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Serbia-Montenegro and Romania.
Istanbul continues to be a city that creates its own history at the intersection where both continents meet. Come greet Turkey and introduce yourself.
Contributed by: Jean, Business Development; “The only way of catching a train I ever discovered is to miss the train before.” G.K. Chesterton