Where to Visit in Istanbul
Istanbul, formerly known as Constantinople, is the largest city in Turkey, serving as the country’s economic, cultural and historic hub. The city straddles the Bosporus strait, lying in both Europe and Asia, and has a population of over 15 million residents, comprising 19% of the population of Turkey. Istanbul is the most populous European city, and the world’s 15th-largest city.
The city was founded as Byzantium in the 7th century BCE by Greek settlers from Megara. In 330 CE, the Roman emperor Constantine the Great made it his imperial capital, renaming it first as New Rome and then as Constantinople (Constantinopolis) after himself. The city grew in size and influence, eventually becoming a beacon of the Silk Road and one of the most important cities in history.
The city served as an imperial capital for almost 1600 years: during the Roman/Byzantine (330–1204), Latin (1204–1261), late Byzantine (1261–1453), and Ottoman (1453–1922) empires. The city played a key role in the advancement of Christianity during Roman/Byzantine times, hosting four of the first seven ecumenical councils before its transformation to an Islamic stronghold following the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE—especially after becoming the seat of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1517. In 1923, after the Turkish War of Independence, Ankara replaced the city as the capital of the newly formed Republic of Turkey. In 1930, the city’s name was officially changed to Istanbul, the Turkish rendering, the appellation Greek speakers used since the 11th century to colloquially refer to the city.
Over 13.4 million foreign visitors came to Istanbul in 2018, eight years after it was named a European Capital of Culture, making it the world’s eighth most visited city. Istanbul is home to several UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and hosts the headquarters of numerous Turkish companies, accounting for more than thirty percent of the country’s economy.
The first known name of the city is Byzantium, the name given to it at its foundation by Megarian colonists around 657 BCE. Megarian colonists claimed a direct line back to the founders of the city, Byzas, the son of the god Poseidon and the nymph Ceroëssa. Modern excavations have raised the possibility that the name Byzantium might reflect the sites of native Thracian settlements that preceded the fully-fledged town. Constantinople comes from the Latin name Constantinus, after Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who refounded the city in 324 CE. Constantinople remained the most common name for the city in the West until the 1930s, when Turkish authorities began to press for the use of “Istanbul” in foreign languages. Ḳosṭanṭīnīye and İstanbul were the names used alternatively by the Ottomans during their rule.
The name İstanbul is commonly held to derive from the Medieval Greek phrase “εἰς τὴν Πόλιν”, which means “to the city” and is how Constantinople was referred to by the local Greeks. This reflected its status as the only major city in the vicinity. The importance of Constantinople in the Ottoman world was also reflected by its nickname Der Saadet meaning the ‘Gate to Prosperity’ in Ottoman Turkish. An alternative view is that the name evolved directly from the name Constantinople, with the first and third syllables dropped. Some Ottoman sources of the 17th century, such as Evliya Çelebi, describe it as the common Turkish name of the time; between the late 17th and late 18th centuries, it was also in official use. The first use of the word Islambol on coinage was in 1730 during the reign of Sultan Mahmud I. In modern Turkish, the name is written as İstanbul, with a dotted İ, as the Turkish alphabet distinguishes between a dotted and dotless I. In English the stress is on the first or last syllable, but in Turkish it is on the second syllable. A person from the city is an İstanbullu; Istanbulite is used in English.
Neolithic artifacts, uncovered by archeologists at the beginning of the 21st century, indicate that Istanbul’s historic peninsula was settled as far back as the 6th millennium BCE. That early settlement, important in the spread of the Neolithic Revolution from the Near East to Europe, lasted for almost a millennium before being inundated by rising water levels. The first human settlement on the Asian side, the Fikirtepe mound, is from the Copper Age period, with artifacts dating from 5500 to 3500 BCE, On the European side, near the point of the peninsula (Sarayburnu), there was a Thracian settlement during the early 1st millennium BCE. Modern authors have linked it to the Thracian toponym Lygos, mentioned by Pliny the Elder as an earlier name for the site of Byzantium.
The history of the city proper begins around 660 BCE, when Greek settlers from Megara established Byzantium on the European side of the Bosporus. The settlers built an acropolis adjacent to the Golden Horn on the site of the early Thracian settlements, fueling the nascent city’s economy. The city experienced a brief period of Persian rule at the turn of the 5th century BCE, but the Greeks recaptured it during the Greco-Persian Wars. Byzantium then continued as part of the Athenian League and its successor, the Second Athenian League, before gaining independence in 355 BCE. Long allied with the Romans, Byzantium officially became a part of the Roman Empire in 73 CE. Byzantium’s decision to side with the Roman usurper Pescennius Niger against Emperor Septimius Severus cost it dearly; by the time it surrendered at the end of 195 CE, two years of siege had left the city devastated.Five years later, Severus began to rebuild Byzantium, and the city regained—and, by some accounts, surpassed—its previous prosperity.
Istanbul is located in north-western Turkey and straddles the strait Bosporus, which provides the only passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Sea of Marmara. Historically, the city has been ideally situated for trade and defense: The confluence of the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, and the Golden Horn provide both ideal defense against enemy attack and a natural toll-gate. Several picturesque islands—Büyükada, Heybeliada, Burgazada, Kınalıada, and five smaller islands—are part of the city. Istanbul’s shoreline has grown beyond its natural limits. Large sections of Caddebostan sit on areas of landfill, increasing the total area of the city to 5,343 square kilometers (2,063 sq mi).
Despite the myth that seven hills make up the city, there are, in fact, more than 50 hills within the city limits. Istanbul’s tallest hill, Aydos, is 537 meters (1,762 ft) high.
The nearby North Anatolian Fault is responsible for much earthquake activity, although it doesn’t physically pass through the city itself, and a quake of at least magnitude 7 is more likely than not before 2030 and very likely in the 21st century. The fault caused the earthquakes in 1766 and 1894. The threat of major earthquakes plays a large role in the city’s infrastructure development, with over 500,000 vulnerable buildings demolished and replaced since 2012. The city has repeatedly upgraded its building codes, most recently in 2018, requiring retrofits for older buildings and higher engineering standards for new construction.
The Fatih district, which was named after Sultan Mehmed II, corresponds to what was, until the Ottoman conquest in 1453, the whole of the city of Constantinople (today is the capital district and called the historic peninsula of Istanbul) on the southern shore of the Golden Horn, across the medieval Genoese citadel of Galata on the northern shore. The Genoese fortifications in Galata were largely demolished in the 19th century, leaving only the Galata Tower, to make way for the northward expansion of the city. Galata (Karaköy) is today a quarter within the Beyoğlu (Pera) district, which forms Istanbul’s commercial and entertainment center and includes İstiklal Avenue and Taksim Square.
Dolmabahçe Palace, the seat of government during the late Ottoman period, is in the Beşiktaş district on the European shore of the Bosporus strait, to the north of Beyoğlu. The former village of Ortaköy is within Beşiktaş and gives its name to the Ortaköy Mosque on the Bosporus, near the Bosphorus Bridge. Lining both the European and Asian shores of the Bosporus are the historic yalıs, luxurious chalet mansions built by Ottoman aristocrats and elites as summer homes. Inland, north of Taksim Square is the Istanbul Central Business District, a set of corridors lined with office buildings, residential towers, shopping centers, and university campuses, and over 2,000,000 m2 (22,000,000 sq ft) of class-A office space in total. Maslak, Levent, and Bomonti are important nodes within the CBD.
The Atatürk Airport corridor is another such edge city-style business, residential and shopping corridor with over 900,000 m2 (9,700,000 sq ft) of class-A office space.
During the Ottoman period, Üsküdar (then Scutari) and Kadıköy were outside the scope of the urban area, serving as tranquil outposts with seaside yalıs and gardens. But in the second half of the 20th century, the Asian side experienced major urban growth; the late development of this part of the city led to better infrastructure and tidier urban planning when compared with most other residential areas in the city. Much of the Asian side of the Bosporus functions as a suburb of the economic and commercial centers in European Istanbul, accounting for a third of the city’s population but only a quarter of its employment. However, Kozyatağı–Ataşehir, Altunizade, Kavacık and Ümraniye, all together having around 1.4 million sqm of class-A office space) are now important “edge cities”, i.e. corridors and nodes of business and shopping centers and of tall residential buildings.
Istanbul does not have a primary urban park, but it has several green areas. Gülhane Park and Yıldız Park were originally included within the grounds of two of Istanbul’s palaces — Topkapı Palace and Yıldız Palace—but they were repurposed as public parks in the early decades of the Turkish Republic. Another park, Fethi Paşa Korusu, is on a hillside adjacent to the Bosphorus Bridge in Anatolia, opposite Yıldız Palace in Europe. Along the European side, and close to the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, is Emirgan Park, which was known as the Kyparades (Cypress Forest) during the Byzantine period. In the Ottoman period, it was first granted to Nişancı Feridun Ahmed Bey in the 16th century, before being granted by Sultan Murad IV to the Safavid Emir Gûne Han in the 17th century, hence the name Emirgan. The 47-hectare (120-acre) park was later owned by Khedive Ismail Pasha of Ottoman Egypt and Sudan in the 19th century. Emirgan Park is known for its diversity of plants and an annual tulip festival is held there since 2005. The AKP government’s decision to replace Taksim Gezi Park with a replica of the Ottoman era Taksim Military Barracks (which was transformed into the Taksim Stadium in 1921, before being demolished in 1940 for building Gezi Park) sparked a series of nationwide protests in 2013 covering a wide range of issues. Popular during the summer among Istanbulites is Belgrad Forest, spreading across 5,500 hectares (14,000 acres) at the northern edge of the city. The forest originally supplied water to the city and remnants of reservoirs used during Byzantine and Ottoman times survive.
Istanbul was historically known as a cultural hub, but its cultural scene stagnated after the Turkish Republic shifted its focus toward Ankara. The new national government established programs that served to orient Turks toward musical traditions, especially those originating in Europe, but musical institutions and visits by foreign classical artists were primarily centered in the new capital.
Much of Turkey’s cultural scene had its roots in Istanbul, and by the 1980s and 1990s Istanbul reemerged globally as a city whose cultural significance is not solely based on its past glory.
By the end of the 19th century, Istanbul had established itself as a regional artistic center, with Turkish, European, and Middle Eastern artists flocking to the city. Despite efforts to make Ankara Turkey’s cultural heart, Istanbul had the country’s primary institution of art until the 1970s. When additional universities and art journals were founded in Istanbul during the 1980s, artists formerly based in Ankara moved in.
Beyoğlu has been transformed into the artistic center of the city, with young artists and older Turkish artists formerly residing abroad finding footing there. Modern art museums, including İstanbul State Art and Sculpture Museum, National Palaces Painting Museum, İstanbul Modern, the Pera Museum, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Arter and SantralIstanbul, opened in the 2000s to complement the exhibition spaces and auction houses that have already contributed to the cosmopolitan nature of the city. These museums have yet to attain the popularity of older museums on the historic peninsula, including the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, which ushered in the era of modern museums in Turkey, and the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum.
The first film screening in Turkey was at Yıldız Palace in 1896, a year after the technology publicly debuted in Paris. Movie theaters rapidly cropped up in Beyoğlu, with the greatest concentration of theaters being along the street now known as İstiklal Avenue. Istanbul also became the heart of Turkey’s nascent film industry, although Turkish films were not consistently developed until the 1950s. Since then, Istanbul has been the most popular location to film Turkish dramas and comedies. The Turkish film industry ramped up in the second half of the century, and with Uzak (2002) and My Father and My Son (2005), both filmed in Istanbul, the nation’s movies began to see substantial international success. Istanbul and its picturesque skyline have also served as a backdrop for several foreign films, including From Russia with Love (1963), Topkapi (1964), The World Is Not Enough (1999), and Mission Istaanbul (2008).
Coinciding with this cultural reemergence was the establishment of the Istanbul Festival, which began showcasing a variety of art from Turkey and around the world in 1973. From this flagship festival came the International Istanbul Film Festival and the Istanbul Jazz Festival in the early 1980s. With its focus now solely on music and dance, the Istanbul Festival has been known as the Istanbul International Music Festival since 1994. The most prominent of the festivals that evolved from the original Istanbul Festival is the Istanbul Biennial, held every two years since 1987. Its early incarnations were aimed at showcasing Turkish visual art, and it has since opened to international artists and risen in prestige to join the elite biennales, alongside the Venice Biennale and the São Paulo Art Biennial.