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Istanbul, the mighty city on the Bosphorus, is the symbol of both East and West, of Christianity and Islam, and of Europe and Asia. Istanbul once was the proud capital of the (Christian) Byzantine Empire, before it was seized by the Ottomans and became the capital of the (Islamic) Ottoman Empire. This rich, fascinating and turbulent history can still be felt in Turkey's largest city, to the very present day.
The Hagia Sophia (which means Holy Wisdom) was built in the sixth century, commissioned by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. When Constantinople (as Istanbul was formerly called) was occupied by the Ottomans, their leader, Mehmed the Conqueror, was so impressed by the building that he did not have it taken down but simply turned it into a mosque. Following the foundation of the Turkish Republic (and the separation between church and state), the Hagia Sophia was converted into a museum. The church is fitted with wonderful mosaics and the 30-meter-diameter dome is impressive. The original dome collapsed twenty years after its construction, which the architects had to pay for with their lives.
The Ottomans still wanted to leave their own (Islamic) mark on the city, and therefore constructed the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). The mosque's glazed tiles are not just blue by the way, but also green and reddish brown. The mosque was commissioned by Sultan Ahmed I, who also had a ramp installed so that he could enter on his horse and only had to dismount it at the Royal Box.
The Topkapı Palace was the sultans' summer residence. It was not just a palace, but an entire community of government officials, military personnel and an extensive harem. In total, about three thousand people lived and worked here. The palace has no less than four courtyards. The rear courtyard houses a café with magnificent views of the Bosphorus. Right near the Topkapı Palace lies the Archeological Museum.
Istanbul's Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarşi) is one of the city's other attractions. The large covered market was constructed right after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. Back then it was used as a slave market and it was also the terminus of the Silk Road. These days anything is sold here, whereby each section of the market has its own specialty. The Egyptian Bazaar is also worth a visit. Originally it was only a bazaar for spices from the Orient, but these days various food items are sold: In addition to herbs and spices you'll find nuts, and fresh and dried fruit. Next to the bazaar there is a colorful flower market.
On the city's European side, on the north side of the Golden Horn, lies the Galata Tower. You can take the elevator up to enjoy the views. There is also a restaurant on the top floor.
The Hippodrome dates back to the Roman era. Not much of it is left, except for the Serpent Column in front of the Temple of Apollo. There is also the Egyptian Obelisk that was stolen from the Temple of Karnak by Emperor Theodosius I. Underneath the Hippodrome lies a large cistern. The Romans built beautiful halls, even for water storage. This complex is therefore called The Sunken Palace or Basilica Cistern.
Taksim Square (Taksim Meydani) is considered the heart of modern Istanbul. Southwest of the square lies the Republic Monument and this is where the Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's main shopping street, begins. This almost two-kilometer-long boulevard is a pedestrian area and besides shops you'll find restaurants, cafés, fairs and cinemas. It is busy here day and night.
A boat trip on the Bosphorus is a nice way the see Istanbul from the water. The boats navigate along both the European and Asian river banks, where you can for example see the summer residences (yalis) of the Ottoman Empire's elite.
In the Sea of Marmara, just southeast of Istanbul, lie the nine Prince Islands. The islands were once a place of exile for members of the Royal Family who posed a threat to the throne. They lived comfortably, but also isolated. Leon Trotsky also spent some time here, after he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929. The largest island is Büyükada. The island not only has beautiful sandy beaches, but you can also visit a monastery here.
Across the Sea of Marmara lies Termal, which has been famous since Roman times because of its hot springs. Besides a modern spa there is also a traditional Turkish hammam. The best way to get to Termal is by taking the ferry from Istanbul.
In the last few years they built many parking garages in Istanbul and it was about time. We recommend leaving your rental car in one of those garages or at your hotel and using public transportation to the center as it is practically impossible to find parking space in the city center. Also keep in mind that traffic in Istanbul is busy and chaotic.
Atatürk International Airport is Istanbul's main international airport. It is located approximately 20 kilometers southwest of the city center, on the European side of Istanbul. You can reach the airport by rental car from the city center via the E5 freeway, or via the O1 and O2 freeways. The route to the airport is clearly signposted.
There is a second airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, on the city's Asian side. This airport is located along the connecting road between two freeways: The so-called TEM Highway (E80) and the E5, which both lead to Istanbul.