ANCIENT CITY

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Istanbul

Known in previous incarnations as Byzantium and Constantinople, the ancient city of Istanbul has over the past few decades grown a healthy cosmopolitan skin. Turkey had an economic good time in the 1980s that led in turn to resurgence in national tourism, and before you could say 'Masallah', the thoroughfares of Istanbul were crowded with new restaurants, hotels, cafes and cultural institutions. The feel-good optimism was dashed by a devastating earthquake in 1999 but the city has since recovered some if its equanimity.

In the Sultanahmet district in the heart of the old city you can stroll around Ottoman mosques or pretend you're a sultan about to embark on renovations in the Topkapi Sarayi, whilst in the bistros of Beyoglu you can track down your Turkish delight, or alternatively just cruise across the Bosphorus.

Area: 98 sq mi (254 sq km)
Population: 18 million
Country: Turkey
Time Zone: GMT/UTC+2 (+3 in summer)
Telephone area code: 212 - European Istanbul; 216 - Asian Istanbul

Orientation

The Bosphorus, the strait flowing between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea, creates a natural north-south divide in Istanbul - European Istanbul comprises the bulk of the city to the west, while Asian Istanbul is to the east. European Istanbul is itself divided by the Golden Horn into the Old City to the south, and Beyoglu and other modern districts to the north.

The Old City is where you'll find all the main sights, such as Topkapi Sarayi (Topkapi Palace), Sultan Ahmet Camii (Blue Mosque), Aya Sofya (Santa Sophia), the Atmeydani (Hippodrome) and the old city walls. The 21st-century version of Istanbul is a short walk north across the Galata Bridge, and is exemplified by bustling Taksim Square, the eye of the city's commercial storm. Buses, trams and the developing Metro system, not to mention footpower, will get you around the two main parts of the city - ferries can run you between them and across the Bosphorus to Asian Istanbul, although there's little of interest for tourists in this suburban area.

The ever-growing tourist trade means there's plentiful accommodation in Istanbul, although you'll need to book ahead for the better places during peak months and over the main public holidays. There are clusters of budget places in the Sultanahmet district of the Old City, and plenty of cheap hotels in the Aksaray and Laleli districts a few kilometres to the west. If you want to spend a bit more, look around Taksim Square or head for the luxury hotels of the Tepebasi district. For cheap, ready-made Turkish food, try one of the ubiquitous hazir yemek small restaurants. Istanbul now has more upwardly mobile eateries than ever before, with chic new cafe-restaurants catering to many tastes.

 

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