Istanbul is a beguiling city that excites the senses and captivates its visitors like nowhere else in the world.
At once a bustling modern city and like something out of a medieval fairy tale at the same time, Istanbul boasts a rich tapestry of sights and sounds that you just can’t experience anywhere else on the planet. Experiences like standing in Europe and gazing across the emerald blue expanse of the Bosporus and into Asia on the other side.
The air smells like incense and spice, smoke and kebab; mosques and enormous temples dominate the Istanbul skyline and the Muslim call to prayer rings out throughout the day. There are rug shops and kebab vendors on every street corner, while omnipresent Turkish evil eye pendants hang from the fronts of shops and homes, vehicles and around people’s necks.
Established around 660BC, Istanbul is one of the oldest cities in the world – and it shows. Formerly known as Constantinople and Byzantium before that, it seems that everywhere you turn in Istanbul there is another piece of history ready to be discovered.
After all, this is a city that was ruled by Alexander the Great, conquered by the Roman Empire and at the mercy of the crusades; it’s the only place in the world to have been the capital of both an Islamic and a Christian empire.
In its own way, then, Istanbul is arguably as culturally significant as either Rome or Athens.
But Istanbul is more than merely the capital city of Turkey – it’s the country’s historical heart and its biggest tourist draw. In 2012, more than 11 million foreign visitors arrived in Istanbul, making it the world’s fifth most-popular tourist destination.
With so much to see and do in Istanbul, it’s no wonder that the city attracts so many visitors. Without getting into too much detail – a blog post for another time, perhaps? – highlights include the magnificent Sultanahmet (or Blue) Mosque, the ancient Hagia Sophia temple and the city’s infamous Grand Bazaar.
The latter, one of Istanbul’s top tourist attractions, is one of the largest covered markets in the world, with more than 3,000 shops. You’ll have to haggle pretty hard to get a bargain here as, with more than 250,000 visitors to the markets every day, the sellers are extremely well practiced.
Do not engage them in a haggling war unless you do plan to buy; vendors can be very persuasive and you may find yourself checking in for your flight home with a new Turkish rug in tow.
Meanwhile, the food in Istanbul is a backpacker’s dream. Turkish shish and doner kebabs are not always gourmet (see the Istanbul pact: a travel tip for couples) but they are always cheap. And they’re best enjoyed while dining alfresco, so you can simultaneously soak in Istanbul’s vibe and admire the city’s many mosques while you eat.
With this much going for it, you can see why I consider Istanbul one of the best cities to visit in Europe and the world.