The only city in the world that can lay claim to straddling two continents, Istanbul—once known as Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Empire—has for centuries been a bustling metropolis with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia. Istanbul embraces this enviable position with both a certain chaos and inventiveness, ever evolving as one of the world’s most cosmopolitan crossroads. It’s often said that Istanbul is the meeting point of East and West, but visitors to this city built over the former capital of two great empires are likely to be just as impressed by the juxtaposition of old and new. Office towers creep up behind historic palaces, women in chic designer outfits pass others wearing long skirts and head coverings, peddlers’ pushcarts vie with battered old Fiats and shiny BMWs for dominance of the noisy, narrow streets, and the Grand Bazaar competes with modern shopping malls. At dawn, when the muezzin's call to prayer resounds from ancient minarets, there are inevitably a few hearty revelers still making their way home from nightclubs and bars. Most visitors to this sprawling city of more than 14 million will first set foot in the relatively compact Old City, where the legacy of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires can be seen in monumental works of architecture like the brilliant Aya Sofya and the beautifully proportioned mosques built by the great architect Sinan. Though it would be easy to spend days, if not weeks, exploring the wealth of attractions in the historical peninsula, visitors should make sure also to venture elsewhere in order to experience the vibrancy of contemporary Istanbul. With a lively nightlife propelled by its young population and an exciting arts scene that’s increasingly on the international radar—thanks in part to its stint as the European Capital of Culture in 2010—Istanbul is truly a city that never sleeps. It’s also a place where visitors will feel welcome: Istanbul may be on the Bosphorus, but at heart it’s a Mediterranean city, whose friendly inhabitants are effusively social and eager to share what they love most about it.
This city is a food lover's town and restaurants abound, from humble kebab joints to fancy fish venues, with a variety of excellent options in between. Owing to its location on the Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, Istanbul is famous for its seafood. A classic Istanbul meal, usually eaten at one of the city's rollicking meyhanes (literally "drinking places"), starts off with a wide selection of tapas-style cold appetizers called mezes, then a hot starter or two, and then moves on to a main course of grilled fish, all of it accompanied by the anise-flavored spirit rakı, Turkey's national drink. The waiter will generally bring a tray over to your table to show off the day’s mezes and you simply point to what you’d like. Note that the portions you get are often larger than the samples shown on the tray, so don’t over-order; you can always select a second—or third—round later. When it comes to the main course, fish can be expensive, so check prices and ask what's in season before ordering. In Istanbul, fall and winter are the best seasons for seafood.
Although Istanbul's dining scene, though diverse, was once mostly limited to Turkish cooking, a new generation of chefs is successfully fusing local dishes with more international flavors. Some are trained in the United States and Europe and bring home the contemporary culinary techniques they've learned abroad, and the result is a kind of nouvelle Turkish cuisine. Interest in little-known specialty foods and regional dishes from around Turkey is also taking hold, as chefs increasingly look at home, rather than abroad, for inspiration. Over the past few years, a handful of restaurants have opened where the chef-owner defines the vision and personality of the venue—though this may be old hat in Europe or North America, it represents an exciting new trend in Istanbul.
Istanbullus take their eating seriously, holding establishments to a very high standard; they expect their food to be fresh and well-prepared at even the most basic of eateries, and are likely to feel that few places can hold a candle to "Mom’s cooking." That said, at restaurants catering to a trendier, more upscale crowd, style sometimes seems to pass for substance, and consistency can be elusive; the fanciest venues may not necessarily offer the best food.
Sultanahmet might have most of the city's major sights and many hotels, but sadly, these places cater mostly to tourists and are the ones most likely to let their standards slip. Save for a few standouts, the area is sorely lacking in good dining options, and you'll have much better luck if you head across the Golden Horn, where the lively Beyoğlu district has everything from holes in the wall serving delicious home cooking to some of Istanbul's sleekest restaurants, while Karaköy and Galata also have an increasing range of dining options. Or head to some of the small, charming neighborhoods along the Bosphorus, which are famous for their fish restaurants; while these establishments tend to be more upscale and expensive, there are some affordable options as well.
Since Istanbullus love to go out, reservations are essential at most of the city's better restaurants. In summer, many establishments move their dining areas outdoors, and reservations become even more important if you want to snag a coveted outside table. For the most part, dining is casual, although locals enjoy dressing smartly when they're out. You may feel terribly underdressed if you show up in a restaurant dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, even in summer.
Despite Islamic proscriptions against alcohol, beer, wine, and the local spirit rakı are widely available, and at more upscale venues you can also find cocktails. Because of high taxes, however, alcoholic drinks—particularly anything imported—tend to be considerably more expensive than in North America or Europe. The national lager Efes is the most widely available beer; venues may carry two or three other domestic and international labels, but don’t expect a wide selection. Yeni Rakı, a state-run monopoly until not long ago, has remained the most popular rakı brand despite a recent proliferation of new companies producing the spirit. Wine consumption in Turkey has traditionally lagged far behind that of beer and rakı, but that’s been slowly changing in recent years as the quality of local wines has started to improve. The local wine industry is still in its fledgling stages compared to other parts of the world, but there are some very drinkable domestic wines on the market, most priced at only a fraction of what you’d pay for an imported label. Turkish wines are made from foreign grapes as well as indigenous varietals, of which the most noteworthy are the reds Öküzgözü, Boğazkere, and Kalecik Karası and the whites Emir and Narince.
During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, restaurants that cater primarily to tourists, and most venues in cosmopolitan parts of Istanbul such as Beyoğlu, continue to operate normally. In more traditional neighborhoods some restaurants close altogether or change their hours of operation. In recent years, it has become increasingly popular to go to restaurants for iftar—the evening meal that breaks the daily fast—instead of having it in the home, as was traditionally done.
With the number of visitors to Turkey increasing every year, Istanbul's hoteliers are busy keeping up with the growing demand. New lodgings, from five-star hotels to smaller boutique inns, are opening all the time, while older establishments are busy renovating and expanding. This means there are plenty more options than there were in the past, but because Istanbul is such a popular destination, it's not the travel bargain it used to be. It's also worth noting that hotels in Turkey tend to quote their rates in euros, which makes what might look like a good deal something less than that when paying in U.S. dollars. Most lodgings, save four- and five-star hotels, include a full Turkish breakfast with the room rate.
The majority of visitors to Istanbul stay in the Sultanahmet area, where they are conveniently in walking distance to most of the city’s major sights, including Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and the bazaars. Sultanahmet has a good selection of hotels, smaller family-run guesthouses, and some charmingly stylish inns, many of which are decorated in typical Turkish style, with traditional touches like kilim carpets or old-fashioned furnishings. The rooms here generally tend to be on the small side, and bathrooms often only have showers, but what's lacking in space tends to be more than made up for in character and atmosphere. The downside of staying in Sultanahmet is that at the height of the season, the area is overrun not only with tourists but touts who will approach you at every turn. On the upside, stiff competition in the area means that Sultanahmet usually has the best deals in town; some hotels even offer a 5% to 10% discount for payment in cash, or a complimentary airport transfer if you stay three or more nights.
For a wider range of hotel options in somewhat less tourist-oriented neighborhoods, head to the Golden Horn. The Beyoğlu district, only a 15- or 20-minute tram ride or cab ride from the sights of Sultanahmet, has recently emerged as an attractive alternative to the Old City. Entrepreneurs have caught on to the tourism potential of the historic area and are restoring elegant, century-old buildings and giving them new life as hotels. Staying near Taksim Square or in one of Beyoğlu’s trendy sub-neighborhoods—such as Şişhane/Tünel, Cihangir, or Galata—puts you closer to Istanbul's best restaurants and nightlife spots and also gives you a chance to stroll through the area’s lively backstreets.
For the most luxurious, indulgent accommodations, stay in one of the large, modern, high-end hotels that are mostly clustered in the upscale neighborhood of Nişantaşı and along the coveted strip of the Bosphorus between Beşiktaş and Ortaköy. You’ll pay considerably more to stay in these digs but the perks can include incredible waterfront views, swimming pools and top-notch fitness facilities, and sophisticated dining options. Wherever you stay, you may notice that hoteliers are starting to embrace traditional Turkish styles and motifs; one new trend is to design hotel bathrooms like hammams. Though the setup may be less familiar than a traditional shower or bath, these bathrooms can be quite luxurious, with marble-lined tubs and heated floors.
Istanbul's nightlife still revolves, in many ways, around its meyhanes, the tavern-like restaurants where long nights are spent nibbling on mezes and sipping the anise-flavored spirit rakı. The atmosphere at these places—mostly found in the lively Beyoğlu area—is jovial, friendly, and worth experiencing. But there are lots of other options, too, again mostly in Beyoğlu, which has everything from grungy American-style dive bars to sophisticated lounges, performance spaces that host world-class live acts, and dance clubs. In recent years, the trend in the neighborhood has been literally upward, with the opening of rooftop bars that offer stunning views and fresh breezes.
As Istanbul's reputation as a hip city continues to grow, the quality of the live acts that come to town has risen, too. Established and up-and-coming performers now frequently include Istanbul on their European tours, and the city has become a good place to catch a show for far less than what you might pay in Paris, London, or New York. Note that many live-performance venues close for part or all of the summer, when school is out and the city’s elite departs for vacation.
To experience Istanbul’s most high-end nightlife, head to the neighborhoods along the Bosphorus, where chic (and pricey) nightclubs play host to Istanbul's rich and famous and those who want to rub shoulders with them. The vibrant dance club scene here, as well as at a few places in Beyoğlu, is not for the faint of heart. Things typically get rolling at around midnight and go until 4 or 5 in the morning. The city’s most upscale clubs tend to be expensive—admission fees can be steep on summer weekends—and there are no guarantees you'll get past the doorman, whose job it is to make sure only Istanbul's best dressed get in.
Sultanahmet isn’t known for its nightlife, but in summer, the strip of tourist-oriented restaurants and dive bars at the end of Akbıyık Sokak close to the Aya Sofya can be quite lively, with a young crowd that fills the sidewalk tables.
Istanbul has been a shopper's town for, well, centuries—the sprawling Grand Bazaar, open since 1461, could easily be called the world's oldest shopping mall—but this is not to say that the city is stuck in the past. Along with its colorful bazaars and outdoor markets, Istanbul also has a wide range of modern shopping options, from the enormous new malls that seem to be sprouting up everywhere to small independent boutiques. Either way, it's almost impossible to leave Istanbul without buying something and some say you haven't truly experienced the city until you take a whirl through the Grand Bazaar or Spice Bazaar. Whether you're looking for trinkets and souvenirs, kilims and carpets, brass and silverware, jewelry, leather goods, old books, prints, and maps, or furnishings and clothes (Turkish textiles are among the best in the world), you can find them in this city. Shopping in Istanbul also provides a snapshot of the city's contrasts and contradictions: eastern Turkey migrants haggle with tourists and sell their wares on the streets while wealthy shoppers browse the designer goods found in plush, upscale Western-style department stores.
İstiklal Caddesi is a pedestrian-only boulevard with everything from global brands like Levi's and big-name Turkish companies like Mavi to small bookshops and old-school shoe stores—though, sadly, increasingly high rent prices mean there are fewer and fewer independent local stores located on İstiklal these days. Down the hill from İstiklal, Çukurcuma Caddesi is home to a miscellany of antique dealers carrying everything from small, Ottoman-era knickknacks to enormous antique marble tubs. Meanwhile, the character-filled Galata and Karaköy neighborhoods are becoming the places to find independent boutiques and intriguing shops selling clothing, jewelry, housewares, and objets d’art created by up-and-coming local designers.
The high-fashion district is the upscale Nişantaşı neighborhood, 1 km (½ mile) north of İstiklal Caddesi. This is where you'll find the boutiques of established Turkish fashion designers, such as Özlem Süer, Arzu Kaprol, and Atıl Kutoğlu, as well as the flagship stores of high-end international brands like Chanel, Prada, and Louis Vuitton—though because of high import taxes and unfavorable exchange rates, these labels are usually considerably more expensive in Turkey than they are in the United States.
Istanbul is also a good place to buy jewelry, as Turkey has a long tradition of jewelry making, and many jewelers are skilled at working with both gold and silver. While local brands often tend to copy European designs in their collections, recently there has been a trend towards creating beautiful pieces with a local flavor, using traditional motifs or taking Ottoman-era charms and setting them in silver or gold. The jewelry sold in the Grand Bazaar and in high-end boutiques in Nişantaşı tends to be fairly classic and high quality; if you’re looking for something a bit more unusual or easier on the wallet, try the smaller-scale boutiques in Beyoğlu or Galata.
Spring and early summer are a lively time for the performing arts in Istanbul. The Istanbul Music Festival, held every June, attracts renowned classical music artists from around the world. Shows take place throughout the city, including in historic buildings such as Aya Irini (in the forecourt of Topkapı Palace) and Rumeli Hisarı. The Istanbul Jazz Festival occurs every July and has grown to include much more than just jazz; recent headliners have included Herbie Hancock, Paul Simon, Morrissey, and Erykah Badu. The Istanbul Theater Festival takes place in even-numbered years in May, and attracts major stage talent from across the globe. The fall months are a busy time for the visual arts. The Istanbul Biennial runs for one to two months starting in mid-September in odd-numbered years, featuring well-known and emerging contemporary artists from Turkey and abroad. Inaugurated in 2012, the Istanbul Design Biennial focuses on experimental design, with its second edition slated to begin in October 2014.
For upcoming events, reviews, and other information about what to do in Istanbul, pick up a copy of the monthly Time Out Istanbul or the bimonthlyGuide, both of which are English-language publications with listings of restaurants, bars, and events, as well as features about Istanbul. The English-language Hürriyet Daily News and Today's Zaman are also good resources for listings and for keeping abreast of what's happening in Istanbul and in Turkish politics.