Istanbul: Then and Now
Exploring the best of what Turkey’s largest metropolis has to offer visitors, from the past and the present.
Known as the bridge between the East and the West, Istanbul ranks as one of the world’s most populous cities. Abounding with varied shopping options, opulent hotel accommodations, exotic culinary delights, architectural brilliance and more, it is both an ancient city and an ultramodern metropolis. Join us as we explore the best that Istanbul has to offer, both old and new.
An ancient shopping mecca
Strategically positioned on the Silk Road — ancient trade routes linking Europe and the Middle East — Istanbul solidified its reputation as a global retail hub way back in the 700s. Commercial trade across land and water boosted the city’s economy when it was known by the name Constantinople.
In 1460, the foundation of the incomparable Grand Bazaar was laid. This domed labyrinth included 60 narrow streets, five mosques, a school, a stream, seven fountains and more — all spread across 30,700 square meters. Jewelry, precious fabrics, antiques and even weapons filled every nook with colorful wares peddled to shoppers by respectable craftsmen.
Surviving fires and earthquakes, the Grand Bazaar continues to host hundreds of thousands of bargaining visitors today. Shoppers wind their way through over 4,000 shops, many of which still highlight artistic items made by hand.
Contemporary retail times
Istanbul straddles the Bosporus Strait, which creates a border between Europe and Asia and connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara. The position of this brilliant blue waterway raised the city’s commercial significance historically — and still does today — but it was not until the late 1980s that shopping malls and retail spaces arose across the city.
The cultural experience of the Grand Bazaar is joined by many modern retail malls and districts, including:
Visitors looking for an upscale, sophisticated shopping experience are sure to find it in the district of Nişantaşi. World-renowned luxury stores, such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Christian Louboutin and more, line the streets in this dignified neighborhood. For visitors weary of shopping the same labels, Atölye Mariposa delights with vintage finds and custom clothing. This well-known center of culture and art also boasts cafés and restaurants serving unparalleled gourmet cuisine.
Shopping at Istinye Park gives the impression of strolling the streets in the sun-drenched outdoors without the threat of weather. A mix of outdoor and glass-roofed sections create a unique 242,000-square-meter shopping experience with 291 retail stores. A central park, sports and leisure club, children’s entertainment center, and 12 movie theaters round out the whole experience of this fashion district.
Annual Istanbul Shopping Fest
Traveling to Istanbul in June offers visitors the opportunity to participate in the annual Istanbul Shopping Fest: 40 days and 40 nights of shop discounts and tax-free buying. Add in concerts, fashions shows, competitions and raffles, and this yearly event promises to give guests a colorful taste of Istanbul amid a celebratory atmosphere.
Through the 16th century, traffic in Istanbul moved on foot. The mid-19th century saw goods and passengers carried by water transport, including kayıks, peremes, sandals and other rowing boats. The introduction of paddle steamers came with the city’s expansion and technological improvements. Through modern times, travelers have used the narrow waterway of the strait to get from place to place.
The 19th century also gave birth to the Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue) tramway. Carrying passengers from Taksim Square in the city’s heart to Tünel Square (home of the 19th-century underground train system), these cars rattled along this Europeanized section of the sultan’s property. Today, trams still carry passengers up and down this pedestrian-only street.
For historians, the Rahmi M. Koç Museum is well worth a visit. A member of Turkey’s wealthiest dynasty and retired chairman of the Koç Group, Rahmi Koç founded the museum in 1991 to showcase road, rail, marine and aviation transportation.
With the hustle and bustle of city life, diverse modern transportation methods get locals and visitors where they need to be. Two airports currently serve the city, with a third opening later this year.
Three metro lines, a commuter rail running under the waters of the Bosporus, two historic trains, city buses as well as cable cars and an underground cable car (Füniküer) give Istanbul’s residents and guests plenty of options for getting around. The historic two-station underground train, Tünel, still transports passengers from Karaköy to Tünel Square.
Ferry boats and catamarans also offer visitors an enjoyable way to bypass the crowds in the streets. Even with the soon-to-be three suspension bridges spanning the strait, private boats and sea-taxis offer a convenient commute. And, Uber offers both car and boat taxi service in Istanbul.
Istanbul’s historic hotels
A major connection point between continents, Istanbul has long attracted world travelers from across Europe, Asia and the Middle East — making hospitality a deep-seated part of this city’s charm. Historic hotels, ranging from an Ottoman palace to a renovated prison, give modern visitors a nostalgic taste of days gone by:
The Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Bosporus provides a boutique hotel experience in a converted 19th-century Ottoman palace. A glance out the window offers relaxing views of the Bosporus Strait and surrounding mountaintops.
For breathtaking views of the strait’s blue waters from an infinity pool, travelers can choose the five-star Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul. Guests may also be treated like a sultan with a traditional bath experience in a restored twin hamam (Ottoman bathhouse).
The Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet turns a neoclassic prison into a one-of-a-kind luxury escape with a stunning courtyard in the center of Istanbul’s Old Town. A five-minute walk from this luxe hotel lands guests at the Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace.
Contemporary luxury accommodations
For visitors looking for contemporary flare, Istanbul’s modern hotels pamper guests with time-honored Turkish hospitality joined with state-of-the-art amenities.
Within walking distance of the Istanbul Convention Center and the Osmanbey metro station, the Sofa Hotel treats guests to five-star luxury right in the city center. Travelers can relax in the minimalist-chic rooms of this boutique hotel or stroll to the nearby designer shops of Nişantaşi.
Sumahan on the Water raises contemporary architecture amid historic Istanbul with a lobby overlooking the city’s domes and minarets. Guests can enjoy panoramic views of the Bosporus Strait from a split-level suite with garden access, or an up-close look thanks to a complimentary boat service.
Travelers might never guess the TomTom Suites once housed French nuns. Modern luxury and comfort pair with historic views of Old Town in this small upscale hotel tucked away in an alley. Guests can expect to be treated to fresh fruit and flowers daily.
Turkish fare throughout history
Meyhanes began as seaside taverns serving alcohol to merchants, and raki (the famous Turkish alcohol) was the only drink of choice until wine was introduced to the country in the 19th century. Traditional dishes, including vegetables, meats and fish, served guests a hearty meal in an informal and social atmosphere. No modern-day visit to Istanbul is full without a meyhane experience.
Street vendors pushing carts of Turkish fare through the city have also been a part of Istanbul since early times. Market stalls and modest storefronts served family delicacies in the Grand Bazaar and along populated streets. Prepared by experienced ustas (the masters) and their families, the offerings of each cart varied by area. Frugal diners and those in search of fast food keep this tradition alive today.
Several restaurants give nod to the humble beginnings of Turkish fare. Historic buildings or on-point traditional decor expose patrons to the country’s historical context even more.
A short jaunt from the ferry on Istanbul’s Asian side, this diner prepares seasonal Cretan-Turkish meze (small plates of food) as well as fresh seafood.
In historic Balat, the Iştay family serves square-shaped köfte (grilled meatballs) in a small restaurant with a maritime feel. The worn exterior of Köfteci Arnavut should not deter guests from entering the immaculately maintained interior to try this restaurant’s classic Turkish fare.
Three terraces and rooftop dining make for a unique Turkish dining experience at Nor Lokantasi. The menu uses fresh, seasonal ingredients to concoct traditional dishes honoring centuries-old Ottoman recipes. Plus, traditional Turkish accents create an authentic atmosphere.
For more modern tastes
A representation of Istanbul’s mix of Eastern and Western influences, Banyan serves healthy Asian fusion “food to satisfy the soul.” Overlooking the Bosporus Strait, guests are submerged in Istanbul culture whether dining inside or out.
Pioneer of Istanbul’s contemporary restaurant scene Mehmet Gürs opened the sleek, urban Mikla. With a roof terrace bar ideal for coffee after dinner and offering views of the Hagia Sophia, Mikla serves a perfectly blended Turkish-Scandinavian menu.
Six- and seven-course menus offer seasonal Mediterranean cuisine to please the taste buds of Nicole’s choosiest patrons. A modern terrace overlooks the Prince Islands and Old Town for a touch of history in this contemporary setting.
Coffee holds a special place in Turkish culture, with UNESCO listing it as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” of this country. Served in tiny cups, this cultural treat requires partakers to stop, rest and interact with those around them.
How Turkish coffee is different
Special preparation and brewing of Turkish coffee and the communal tradition of this drink set it apart from other coffees. Turkish coffee beans are a myth; the method of preparing the coffee defines it as Turkish. Freshly roasted beans are ground or pounded into a fine powder. The coffee powder, cold water and sugar combine in a pot prior to simmering and then brew slowly. An intense flavor and the desired level of foam indicate when the drink is ready to be sipped.
In Istanbul, coffee symbolizes hospitality and friendship. Due to its social implications, Turkish coffee is primarily consumed in coffee houses among friends. It also plays a role in marital engagement and holiday traditions. And, superstition teaches that the grounds left in a cup tell of the drinker’s future.
When winter arises, Turkish kitchens use ground orchid root to make a coffee alternative called salep. A favorite both during the Ottoman Empire and now, this drink takes 40 minutes to prepare from the pure salep powder. The traditional recipe calls for one tablespoon of ground orchid root plus two tablespoons each of sugar and milk.
Where to find a traditional Turkish coffee experience
While coffee shops appear all around Istanbul, finding an authentic cup of Turkish coffee may be a challenge for guests. However, the tradition remains alive and well when travelers know where to look:
Kronotrop Coffee Bar and Roasters
First on the coffee scene in Istanbul, Kronotrop Coffee Bar and Roasters serves up unparalleled coffee — including a Turkish coffee perfected by Turgay Yıldızlı, World Cerve/Ibrik (coffee) champion.
Pierre Loti Cafe
A cable car carries guests up a picturesque hill to this café, where spectacular views over the Golden Horn greet patrons as they sip the perfect cup.
Delight in a cup of authentic Turkish coffee and purchase some for a gift at Mandabatmaz. Meaning “the buffalo will not sink,” the name proves appropriate once patrons witness the thick foam on this Turkish coffee.
Visitors may also immerse themselves in the Turkish coffee experience at the annual Istanbul Coffee Festival, held each September to celebrate specialty coffee culture by bringing coffee professionals, creators and consumers together. Exhibitors range from global coffee producers to farm unions to coffee shops.
Famous historic buildings and districts
Castles, palaces, mosques, churches and more tell the tale of the city’s history. The rule of different empires and the interaction of Christianity and Islam shape Istanbul’s buildings, quite literally.
The Grand Bazaar, the oldest and largest market, hosts more than 250,000 people daily. Topkapi Palace tells tales of harems, circumcisions, the lives of Ottoman sultans, and the rule of the Ottoman Empire. The 1348 watchtower, Genoese, gives visitors an expansive view of Istanbul, the Golden Horn and the Bosporus Strait. And the Underground Basilica Cistern boasts proud columns and images of Medusa’s head upside down.
Istanbul’s defined historical areas include:
—Sultanahmet Archaeological Park
—Süleymaniye Conservation Area
—Zeyrek Conservation Area
—Land Wall Conservation Area
Each area shares the stories of different periods and unique characteristics of Istanbul’s past. Monuments, ruins and historical buildings unveil clues to the cultural, social and artistic influences of their times.
Istanbul’s undisputed architectural gems
An easy one-stop visit, the architectural prowess of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque stand directly opposite one another in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet area. These two structures tell tales of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul; the power struggles of men; and the intersection of religions.
One step inside the cavernous rooms of the Hagia Sophia fills visitors with its sense of grandeur. After existing as a Catholic cathedral for over 1,000 years following its creation in 360 A.D., this architectural masterpiece was declared a mosque by Sultan Mehmed in 1453. The shift in purpose of the Hagia Sophia changed the culture of the city as well.
Built later, in 1616, the Blue Mosque stands as one of the largest and most ancient mosques in the country. Representative of Ottoman architecture, this building’s design was modeled after its neighbor across the street. This fully practicing mosque invites guests to come inside (with a few requirements) to admire the blue tile mosaic dome, 260 windows and six minarets.