Lay of the Land
“If western travelers embroider Istanbul with illusions, fantasies about the East, there is in the end no harm done to Istanbul…”~Orhan Pamuk
In my travels, I’ve found that some of the world’s most unique and intriguing destinations are located on a crossroads or along borders. Places with a history of touching or overlapping cultures tend to be especially complex and rich—think Croatia or the Alsace region of France. But the most exotic and fascinating example of a city at a crossroads is Istanbul. For centuries described as a heady meeting between East and West, Istanbul has served as the capital of three of the greatest empires in Western history and is on the legendary gateway between Europe and Asia. These days, the city is also on the thrilling edge of age-old tradition and high-tech modernity. In some ways, it’s the best of both worlds. On one hand, Istanbul is an impressive example of secular Islam, and on the other, it’s a modern Western metropolis, urged on by the drive to join the EU.
Like Rome and Paris (but without as many tourist traps), you can turn almost any corner and be faced with a stunning landscape of the past. Turn another corner and you’re back in the lively present. Istanbul might be old—it was founded as Constantinople in 660 B.C.—but it has the youthful energy of a teenager, which may be why it’s often described as a city full of minarets and miniskirts. One minute you’ll hear the poetic call of the muezzin to prayer, and the next, lounge music from one of the city’s many terrace bars.
It’s not easy to navigate your way through this sprawling city with its difficult-to-pronounce streets and multiple neighborhoods. The key: never go anywhere without the address of where you’re headed written down, as well as a business card from your hotel. Keep in mind, however, that the main neighborhoods like Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu are on the European side of the city, so you’ll probably rarely venture to the Asian side.
The oldest part of the city is known as the Golden Horn. This area, which curves outwards into the Bosphorus Strait, includes the neighborhoods of Sultanahmet and Eminönü, which are home to many of the most visited sites. Sultanahmet, near the shore of the Sea of Marmara, is the most picturesque part of Istanbul’s Old City and the most popular with tourists, for obvious reasons—it’s home to the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Hippodrome. The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market are a short walk, in Eminönü.
Beyoğlu, across the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet includes the areas of Karaköy, Galata, Tünel and Taksim. Compared with the Old City, it’s a fairly modern district that’s extremely busy with locals (from diplomats to artists) and is home to many of Istanbul’s most trendy cafés, restaurants and bars as well as top business hotels. The heart of this area—think Times Square meets Greenwich Village—is Taksim Square and the bustling promenade Istiklal Caddesi, which is lined with chain stores and myriad restaurants and bars. Nişantaşi, the Beverly Hills of Istanbul, is the city’s most prestigious shopping area, with fashion shops, chic boutiques and small designer restaurants and hotels.
Farther along the Bosphorus is Beşiktaş, a neighborhood that stretches along the wide river. Once prime real estate for the sultans, it’s the site of several five-star hotels, including the Ciragan Palace Kempinski, in addition to the Dolmabahce Palace and the Istanbul Modern art museum. For the sake of easy navigation, this guide categorizes the areas of Ortaköy and Bebek, two Bosphorus villages outside central Istanbul, along with Beşiktaş together – for any hotels, restaurants, sights or shops along the Bosphorus, search under that filter.
A word of advice: Do not underestimate the amount of time it takes to get through the Istanbul airport. It is enormous and there are multiple security checkpoints along the way. Even with expediting service, which we provide for members, it is an undertaking. This is a place where it is advisable to arrive a good three hours before departure, two if you expedite. Indagare highly recommends the expediting service (members can contact our bookings department for details), which not only zips travelers through security and immigration, but provides an escorted golf cart to ferry clients through the vast, crowded airport. If traveling with young kids, it is a lifesaver. Expediting service on arrival can also help you skip the visa line (US citizens must buy theirs before they can pass through immigration). The other delay to expect is that on the roads. Traffic is hideous. Think bumper-to-bumper gridlock, and plan accordingly.
Staff Quotable: “Istanbul falls in its own category when it comes to European cities; its jaw-dropping cityscape, Bosphorus that divides the city, bustling markets and the recurring call to prayer from the city’s mosques combine for a intoxicating sensory experience that is completely unique. Whether one rents a boat, embarks on a sidecar tour or spends the days antique hunting, Istanbul is a treat to discover.” ~Emma Pierce, Associate Editor