From the city’s ancient archaeological origins to the legacy of the Ottoman empire, Istanbul is a place of culture, diversity, and rich history. A visit to the Turkish city will yield incredible views, stunning art, and distinct European and Asian influences. If you’re planning to visit this storied hub, look no further — we’ve compiled a guide to help you prep for your next adventure.
- Located in: Turkey
- Region: Marmara
- Area: 594 mi² (1,539 km²)
- Formerly known as: Byzantium and Constantinople
- Population: 15 million (2018)
- Official Language: Turkish
- Currency: Turkish Lira (₺)
- Airport: Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW)
- Time Zone: Eastern European Summer Time (UTC +3)
- Drive on the: Right
WHERE IN THE WORLD
Although Turkey spans an incredible distance, straddling both Europe and Asia with its nearly 303,000-square-mile (783,000-square-kilometer) sprawl, the country’s largest city is tucked neatly away on the its westernmost edge. Because of its strategic location on the Bosporus strait (which links Europe and Asia) and its position between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul is a popular city — and one of the world’s most populous. The metropolis’s historic and commercial center is located on its European side (Avrupa Yakası), while many of its residents live on its Asian side (Anadolu Yakası), which was founded first.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a city with a historical and cultural legacy as rich as Istanbul’s. And although many are acquainted with the opulent tales of Byzantium and Constantinople, the area’s origins stretch back much further. When archaeologists uncovered Neolithic artifacts in Istanbul’s peninsula in the early 2000s, the discovery offered a gateway into the city’s ancient past. Researchers found that modern-day Istanbul had been settled in the sixth millennium B.C. and had played a vital role in the Neolithic Revolution, during which early humans migrated into Europe from the East.
Following many millennia of early settlements, the area was occupied by Greek settlers in 660 B.C. They called their “new” community “Byzantium,” unaware of how quickly the site would burgeon into a city of strategic, economic, and cultural importance. In 330 A.D., the city was reinvented as Constantinople, which remained an imperial capital for the next 160 years, despite frequent turnover in ruling powers (which included the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires). Istanbul’s fortuitous location — on the Silk Road, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, and at the confluence of major rail routes — has made it a popular location for merchants, traders, business people, and immigrants over many centuries.
Istanbul also has a fascinating religious history. Used to further the Christian religion during the rule of the Roman and Byzantine empires, the city changed drastically upon the arrival of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 A.D., which marked the beginning of Turkey’s transition to an Islamic country. In recent years, unrest has rattled Istanbul due to perceived attacks against Turkey’s secular laws by religiously motivated leaders (in particular, Prime Minister Erdogan, a devout Muslim).
HOW TO GET THERE
To describe Istanbul as a hub would be an understatement. Because of its prime location on various trade routes and its positioning between two major continents, Istanbul is fairly easy to access. Visitors can fly into its main international airport (Istanbul Atatürk Airport) from major cities in Europe and the United States.
If taking to the skies isn’t your thing, consider making the journey to Istanbul via boat. Many popular cruise lines dock at Karaköy, a longstanding port area in the city’s Beyoğlu district. From here, visitors can easily catch a tram to Istanbul’s old quarters.
For train enthusiasts, the journey from western Europe to Istanbul is arduous (to say the least), but — in the spirit of adventure — it’s well worth the multi-day trip. Though there is no direct line (the famed Orient Express now terminates in Venice, Italy), adventurers can plan their route through a number of helpful websites.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Travel within Istanbul’s borders is cheap, (relatively) quick, and easy, though often crowded during peak hours. Visitors can choose between the T1 tram, which links Istanbul’s ancient quarter of Sultanahmet with the districts of Galata, Beyoğlu, and Kabataş. In addition, the M1 Metro fills in any gaps in the tram’s coverage, with routes to Atatürk Airport, Yenikapı, Üsküdar, and the Asian side of the city.
For those with a yen toward the historical, the 19th-century funicular connecting Beyoğlu and Karaköy will likely be a draw, as will the cherry-red tram that takes travelers up and down famed Istiklal Caddesi.
WHAT TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Before your departure, pack a European-style adapter so you’ll be able to use your electronics in the city. Turkey’s electrical sockets run at 220 volts, so be sure to leave small electronics (like blow dryers and hair straighteners) without converters at home — the change in voltage will fry them!
Seasoned travelers will probably be prepared for the post-arrival crush that will greet them as they step outside of the airport: people offering taxi services, vendors offering to change money, etc. If you can, arrange your transport ahead of time by coordinating with your hotel or by looking up the route to your accommodation on either the metro or the city’s Havataş shuttle.
While it’s always a good idea to travel with some local currency (in this case, the Turkish lira), the arrival terminal of Atatürk Airport is well equipped with ATMs, so don’t worry about withdrawing large amounts of cash prior to departure.
If you decide to forgo public transportation, be sure to download the Bitaksi app on your phone, which will help you order taxis, much like Uber or Lyft. You can even link your credit card so you don’t have to worry about scrounging for small bills or change.
Because Istanbul is such a global city, you’ll likely stumble across English-speaking Turks and English-accommodating businesses. But make no mistake — you’re in Turkey! Ease the language barrier by downloading a Turkish-English translation app, and make the effort to learn a few key phrases before you arrive.
If you plan on visiting a mosque while in Istanbul (and you should), be mindful of what you wear. Both women and men should cover their shoulders, arms, and legs while in a place of worship, and women will likely be asked to cover their heads as well. Subsequently, it’s a good idea to explore with a shawl or a scarf that you can drape over yourself should you decide to duck into a nearby mosque to admire the mosaics or get a sense of the atmosphere.
Additionally, when exploring Istanbul, always carry tissues. You never know where and when you’ll need to find a bathroom — and it’s not uncommon that you’ll be using a squat toilet. Although these take a bit of… practice, you’ll master the squat in no time. Also remember to carry a few coins with you, as most public bathrooms (marked “bey” for men and “bayan” for women) charge a small fee for use.
Know that most people you encounter will be friendly, helpful, and inquisitive. Don’t be surprised if those you interact with ask you personal questions; you can always politely decline to answer, but if you have the time, do accept friendly strangers’ offers of tea — it’s a sign of Turkish hospitality.
WHEN TO VISIT
Although your own schedule might be more flexible during the summer months, June, July, and August reflect Istanbul’s peak tourist season and measure in as its hottest three months (temperatures peak in the mid-80s Fahrenheit). You’ll have to battle large crowds and high accommodation rates, so a visit during the spring (March to May) or fall (September to November) is a better bet. If you choose to travel during those times, you’ll experience fewer crowds, lower temperatures, and decreased prices. For a budget trip to Istanbul, book between December and February, which are, admittedly, the coldest and rainiest months, but they offer a unique, moodier experience overall.
Did we miss anything? If you’ve traveled Istanbul and have some tips for our community, let us know in the comments below!
Header image by Daniel Burka