Constantinople, as Istanbul used to be known, was the centre of the Byzantine Empire - an empire which lasted over a thousand years. Later, as Istanbul, the city was capital of the Ottoman Empire for almost 500 years. The city of Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and is, without a doubt, one of the world's truly great cities.
Superbly situated either side of the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe from Asia, Istanbul is the only city in the world that is split between two continents. Its old quarter, which has an incredible skyline of domes and minarets, is filled with narrow cobbled streets lined with quaint old wooden houses. To the south, the blue waters of the Sea of Marmara glitter invitingly. North, across the graceful curve of the Golden Horn, flicker the bright lights of the pulsating entertainment quarter of Beyoglu.
Today Istanbul is a booming mega-city, with a population exceeding 15 million, a vibrant stock exchange and a rising skyline which, in the business districts beyond Beyoglu, is beginning to look a lot like Manhattan. However, thanks to the historic buildings and grand mosques, it is hard to forget that Istanbul is an ancient city, founded by the Greeks in the seventh century BC. In the fourth century AD it became Constantinople, capital of a Byzantine Christian world which kept the warriors of Islam from Western Europe for several centuries, before finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The relics of these two mighty powers stud the old quarter, from the mighty Byzantine Church of the Holy Wisdom, through to the splendid pavilions of the fulcrum of the Ottoman Empire, the Topkapi Palace.
Istanbul is a truly fascinating mixture of Europe and Asia, of modern and ancient, which has created a unique urban composition. A stroll around Sultanahmet inside the city walls, among mosques, museums and through the Great Bazaar is an enlightening way to get to grips with both the history of the city and daily Turkish life.
Waterways play a central role in the life of the city and the Bosporus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara are always full of traffic. It is said that if you've never tried a Turkish bath then you've never really been clean. Visiting a Turkish bath is a unique experience - during your visit you will move through several hot rooms and finally arrive at a massage table for an intense rub down. One baths of particular note in Istanbul is the Çemberlitas Hamam. Situated near the Bazaar, it is the oldest hamam in town, thought to have been built by the master architect Sinan.
The Great Bazaar
One of the many highlights of Istanbul is the Great Bazaar. Never quiet, the bazaar attracts tourists and locals - and there are far too many of both during rush hour. The best way to experience it is to arrive early in the morning and enjoy a cup of tea in one of the cafés, watching as the bazaar comes to life. There are thousands of stalls, selling virtually everything: carpets, gold, cloth, spices. The bazaar is a world of its own and it is incredibly easy to get lost in the busy, bustling alleyways - but the sights you see as you try to find your way out will be unforgettable; getting lost here is part of the fun and a real part of the experience of visiting the Great Bazaar.