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World > Turkey > Istanbul
City Guide Istanbul
General Information
Istanbul is due to its geographical location the centre of the Old World. This important metropolis is well known for its historic monuments and its charming natural beauty. With a number of 16 million inhabitants Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey. It is also the only city in the world that reaches over two continents because its area is divided by the “Bosporus”! The city can look back on 2500 year old, rich and eventful history. Nearly 1600 years it was used as a capital by the Roman, Byzantine and Turkish Ottoman empires. Over 120 sultans and emperors ruled from Istanbul. Even after Ankara was declared capital of Turkey, Istanbul did not loose any of its power and importance. Still today it impresses by its charming look and its vividness. The life is pulsating – parts of Turkish, Byzantine and Roman time side to side. The city is the most important centre of commerce, industry and universities. The same of course applies to pleasure and shopping possibilities. Due to the geographical and topographical position of this old town with its monuments, squares, mains streets the residential areas kept their original place despite numerous changes during the time. Today Istanbul experiences a time of architectural development and adornment which remind of the old days of the “capital”.
Istanbul has a mild, warm Mediterranean climate. During the summer months the temperatures are between 30 °C and 40 °C and in winter the average temperature never sinks below freezing. People having problems with the heat should rather go and visit Istanbul during spring or autumn. High season for a trip is from June to August.
Languages spoken in Istanbul are Turkish, Kurdish, Arabic, Armenian and Greek. In touristy areas English is understood.
The biggest part of the population is admitting themselves to Islam. Important but small minorities are the Greek orthodox Christians, the Armenian Christians and the Sephardic Jews. The city is the seat of the patriarch of Constantinople, who possesses an orthodox church in Turkey and who is accepted as the head of the whole orthodoxy. It is also the residency of the arch bishop of the Turkish orthodox community, an Armenian arch bishop and a Turkish chief rabbi. The city view is shaped by buildings of different religious groups, especially in Kuzguncuk they are very close to each other.
The currency used in Turkey is the New Turkish Lira (YTL). Notes come in denominations of 1; 5; 10; 20; 50 and 100 YTL and the coins in use are 0,05, 0,10; 0,25 and 1 YTL. Credit cards are accepted in most hotels and bigger shops. In many small shops and on markets you can only pay cash. In some shops they don’t have much change so be prepared to have some small notes with you all the time. Money can be taken from any cash machine at any time of the day. You can change money in banks or exchange offices (PTT). In touristy areas some of the shops also change money.
It is common practice tot tip 5 to 10 percent in the more expensive restaurants. Taxi drivers do not have to be tipped but it is customary to round the meter amount as a tip. There is no extra charge for more than one person or for luggage. Hotel porters will expect a tip of around 2 or 3 percent of the cost of your room.
The VAT (KDV in Turkish) varies from 1% - 18% but is usually applied as 18%. VAT payable on local purchases and on imports is regarded as "input VAT" and VAT calculated and collected on sales is considered as "output VAT". In the shops that are connected to the Global Refund System visitors can claim their VAT back. The price must be at least YTL 118 and the goods have to be brought out of the country within 3 months. When buying you get a voucher (Tax Refund Cheque) which will be stamped together with your passport or your ID at the airport. The cheque can be cashed at your return either at the Cash-Refund office or you can send it to the Global Refund. You receive a cheque to your home address or a credit note on your credit card account.
As calling from a hotel is in general very expensive it is advisable to call from a public telephone. Therefore you can use a telephone card which can be purchased at kiosks or at the post office. For calls to Turkey first dial 0090 and then 212 for Istanbul from the European side and 216 for the Asian part.
There are internet cafés in every part of the city. You can surf the internet while having a cup of tea (cay) or coffee which you have to pay separately. During the day the clientele are students, in the evening you find more adults over there. Outside of Istanbul you are likely to share a slow broadband connection or only dialup. Expect to pay 2.00 YTL for 30 – 60 minutes depending on location and bandwidth.
Emergency numbers
Fire 110 Police 155 PTT(postal service) Information 161 Ambulance 112 Air Ambulance (0212) 220 40 54
Opening times
State Offices: 8.30 am - 12.30 am, 1.30 pm - 5.30 pm (closed on Sat and Sun) Banks: 8.30 am – 12 am, 1.30 pm – 5 pm (closed on Sat and Sun) Shops: 9.30 am – 7 pm (closed on Sun) Grand Bazaar: 8 am – 7 pm (closed on Sun) Department Stores: Daily 10 am – 10 pm During the summer months the official offices and some other offices are closed during noon. The times are fixed by the municipality.
Public Holidays
The arrival of a public holiday in Istanbul is very obvious from the sea of red flags in the whole city. Public establishments, schools, shops, offices, museums and banks are closed on that day and sometimes even half of the day before. • Ramazan Bayrami: at the end of the fasting month Ramazan • Kurban Bayrami: follows two and a half months on Ramazan
In Turkey the rate of theft is lower than in other touristy countries as thievery does not get along with the belief of the Muslims and is traditionally penalised very hard. But of course there are exceptions, especially in the cities. Pickpockets work especially in crowed areas for example on the markets and bazaars but also on the beach you have to be careful. Don’t take more cash than really necessary and keep valuable things in the hotel safe. It is also very common that people get bamboozled so first compare the prices before buying. And you have to bargain! Don’t believe that the pieces sold are real. Also taxi drivers like to shortchange people.
Haghia Sophia
Haghia Sophia, known as Aya Sofya means ‘Church of Divine Wisdom’, and is considered to be the world’s finest example of Byzantine architecture and the fourth biggest cupola building in the world. Consecrated in 537AD, its vast dome rises to 56m (183ft), designed to appear suspended in space and thus representative of heaven. For 916 years it was used as a church. After the conquest of the city by the Ottomans it was converted into a mosque and later used as a museum. The cupola that is supported by half cupolas in the west and east gives an overwhelming impression to the interior of the building. The massive mosaic décor of Haghia Sophia was covered with plaster after the reconstruction. The “mihrab”, the calligraphy-adorned portal pointing towards Mecca, stands in the “apse” which housed the altar during the mosque’s Orthodox incarnation. The “minber”, the platform used to address the crowd during prayer, is on top of the stairway to the right of the “mihrab”. The bronze sweating pillar at the north side of the building is a pillar where you can put your finger to collect water that is said to have healing powers. The museum contains a Byzantine mosaic gallery and a church. Be prepared, queues are often very long! Opening times: Tue – Sun 9.30 am – 4.30 pm
Topkapi Palace
Towering from the high ground at the tip of the Old City, hidden behind 12 m high walls, Topkapi Palace was built as a summer residence and the seat of the government. The palace was home to harem, state administration and military personnel from the 15th to the 19th century. It offers unparalleled insight into the wealth, excess, cruelty and artistic vitality of the Ottoman Empire by presenting armoury, silk ceremonial robes, Chinese ceramics and a collection of manuscripts. The prison-like harem, which once housed up to 300 concubines, is only open to guided tours and requires a separate ticket. The palace is divided into a series of courts surrounded by palace walls. Opening times: Winter: Wed – Mo 9 am – 5.30 pm, summer: Wed – Mo 9 am – 7 pm
Kapali Carsisi (Grand Bazaar)
The oldest and biggest enclosed bazaar in the world, also known as the Grand Bazaar, is one of the most enticing and mesmerizing attractions in Istanbul. With over 4000 shops, several banks, mosques, police stations, storehouses and restaurants this enormous covered bazaar could be a city in itself. Built during the reign of Mehmet the Conqueror in 1461 it contained the slave market and was the centre of trading during the Ottoman period. The ornate ceiling and labyrinth like layout reminds of the past but these days the bazaar is used to sell mainly tourist-friendly goods such as carpets, gold, leather and ceramics. Bargaining over a cup of tea is important and should not be underestimated. Opening times: Mo – Sat 9 am – 7 pm
Misir Carsisi (Egyptian or Spi
Built in the 17th century as an extension to Yeni Camii (New Mosque), The L shaped market was financed by money paid as duty on Egyptian goods. Originally selling spices and oils from the Orient the market is now also offering dried fruits, caviar, Turkish delight and a wide choice of souvenirs. The surrounding streets are full of commercial activities by traders and a selection of cheeses and olives. Opening times: Mo – Sat 8 am – 7 pm
Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque
The Blue Mosque was built during the reign of Sultan Ahmet Camii (1603 – 1617) as an Islamic answer to Haghia Sophia. With its tiers of magnificent domes and six graceful minarets it is one of the most striking structures of Istanbul as well as a symbol and centre of religious demonstrations. The interior is decorated with splendid blue Iznik tiles and blue lights shine through the more than 250 windows and leaves a stunning impression. The design is dominated by a vast central dome looking heavenwards, a latticework-covered Imperial Lodge and the “mihrab” that contains a piece of sacred black stone from Mecca. At the back of the mosque is a carpet Museum with Usak, Bergama and konya samples that date between the 16th and 19th century. Opening times: Daily 24 hours, apart from some prayer times Carpet Museum: Tue – sat 9 am - 4 pm
Yerebatan Sarayi (Basilica Cis
Yerabatan Saray is the biggest Basilica Cistern of the old Byzantine time. The Cistern was used as a reservoir for water for the Great Palace and thought to date back to AD 532. This huge atmospheric building lies directly opposite the Haghia Sophia und is also called “Sunken Palace”. A staircase leads to the subsurface Cistern where water is still today. The subsurface is carried by 336 pillars which are already keep the building standing for 1400 years. During summer months the location is often used for classical concerts. Opening times: Daily 9 am – 5 pm
Suleymaniye Mosque
The Suleymaniye Mosque is even grander and more peaceful than the Blue Mosque and one of the most impressive sacral buildings of Istanbul designed by Mimar Sinan and given in order by sultan Suleynan. The mosque is located on the Golden Horn and shapes the silhouette of Istanbul. The style of the building is similar to Haghia Sophia: the main hall is roofed by a huge cupola and the 53 m high dome and slim minarets are an excellent example of symmetry and elegance. The interior is very simple and mainly impresses by its might. The building contains the tombs of Sinan, Sultan Suleyman II and Ahmet II. Opening times: Daily 9.30 am – 4.30 pm (closed to non-Muslims during prayer)
Galata Kulesi (Galata Tower)
The in 1348 built Galata Tower used to be the main bastion of the fortification of Constantinople. With its 662 m of height the tower is visible from most parts of the city. On the top there are a restaurant and a night club which can be reached by lift. If you take the stairs top the look-out gallery you can have a fantastic view over the Old Town with its amazing monuments and buildings as well as Prince’s Island. Opening hours: Daily 9 am – 7 pm
Taksim Square and Istiklal Cad
The Taksim Square is the heart of Istanbul’s European side where you can find the Monument of Independence in the south-west corner, where the busy Istiklal Caddesi starts and goes through the Beyoglu area. The boulevard is packed with shops, markets, cinemas and restaurants and a lot of people, especially at night. In this area you can see that Beyoglu used to be the centre of an Art Nouveau Bell Époche and later the hang out for bohemian artists and intellectuals. The highlights contain the imressive Galatasaray Lisesi (High School), Cicek Pasaj (Flower Passage) and numerous art galleries. Opening time: Most shops are open until 9 pm, later on Fr - Sat
Yildiz Park
The park of the stars is the most beautiful and the biggest park in Istanbul. It is very popular amongst the locals as it is a welcome relief from the noisy city. Initially the park was built for Sultan Abdul Hamit around the Ciragan Palace where sultans hunted and strolled for centuries. Now it is a common place for couples and families. There are several pavilions in the park, amongst them the Malta Kosk and the Cadir kosk which used to be part of the palace. The park also hosts the Yildiz Palace Museum, the Imperial Porcelain Factory and the City Museum. The park is free for pedestrians; taxis have to pay a fee. Opening hours: Daily: until sunset
Cekmece Lakes
The Büyük Cekmece and Kücük Cekmece lake area is about an hour away from Istanbul. The two lakes are connected to each other and operate as an amazing water source. During the summer months families from the city come to spend their vacation but the region is also ideal for fishing.
Emirgan Woods
This park which is facing the Bosporus is ideal for enjoying the nature and the historic atmosphere. There are three wooden kiosks from the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Pink, Yellow and White Kiosk, which were built as presents to the Sultan. Today they serve as restaurants and cafés. The site is also very well known for the annual Tulip festival where you can experience the beauty of various flowers.
Gülhane Park
Gülhane Park is the oldest park of the city and a favourite place for excursions. It lies between Topkapi Palace and Saravburnu and spreads over a wide area full of rare trees and bushes. There are panoramic terraces overlooking Saravburnu and a wide open space in which an excursion route leads your way. Benches are scattered everywhere so that you can sit and relax the nice atmosphere. The park is also very popular for picnicking and frequently used for open-air concerts.
Saint-Antoine Church
The church is located in Beyolgu between Galatsaray and Tunel. The original building dates back to 1725 and was replaced in 1912 by a neo-gothic house with red bricks. The church can be entered through a courtyard. It is lead by two Italian priests and the most important church of the catholic community in Istanbul. Services are on Sundays at 10 am in English, Saturdays at 7 pm in Italian and Tuesdays at 11 am in Turkish.
French Ludwig’s Church
The chapel of the former French Embassy in Beyoglu is located in a green garden area with a nice view on the Bosporus. It is the oldest Latin church built in 1581. Services are Sundays at 11 am.
St. Peter and Paulus Church
This church was built in 1400 by the Dominicans and the Geuneans. It is one of the three Latin churches in Galata. Today the church is used by the community of Malta. Srevices are daily at 7.30 am, and Sundays at 11 am in Italian.
St. Esprit Church
The Frech Cathedral is located in the Notre Dame de Sion School and is well-known for its big organ. Services are daily at 6 pm, Sundays at 9 am and 11.15 am in French and Sundays at 10 am in English.
Behind the Blue Mosque lie the remains of this ancient Roman circus which defies the cities turbulent history. Built by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in AD 200, the Hippodrome was the site of chariot races and public executions. The arena was over 400 meters long and 120 meters wide and could host 100.000 visitors. The northernmost column is the Egyptian Obelisk which was erected by Tutmosis III 1504-1450 B.C. before the temple of Karnak at Heliopolis. It was brought to Constantinople in the 4th century by Emperor Theodosius I. Further south there is the Serpentine Column which was originally placed at the Oracle of Delphi. The southernmost column is the Column of Constantine.
Discovering Istanbul
Istanbul, the city that never sleeps, presents its 2000 year old past what is of course not easy to be consumed in a couple of days. The Sultanahmet quarter is the oldest part of the city where most of the remnants of Byzantine Constantinople are located and therefore the place where most of the tourists start their trip trough the city. Here the Haghia Sophia, the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque stand full of dignity and impressive power and wait to be discovered. The city centre which is divided into an Old Town and a New Town by the Golden Horn, lies on the European side of Istanbul. Here, northwest of Sultanahmet lies the area of Beyazit with the famous Grand Bazaar where no wishes stay unsatisfied. North of Sultanahmet you reach to Eminönü from which you come to the Galata Tower by crossing the Galata Bridge. From there you can make your way to Beyoglu and Taksim which used to be the designated residence area for foreigners such as Italians, Greeks and Levantine traders. The Tunel leads to Istiklal Caddesi, a pedestrian walk to Taksim Square which is considered to be the heart of modern Istanbul and with it the centre of its nightlife. Due to its mix of religions there are churches, mosques and synagogues all over the city. Most of them thrown impressively and present one of the styles of old times. Although Istanbul is loaded with buildings and people there are also some green oases where you can rest from the hectic city life and where locals go to picnic and have a time-out. The biggest and most popular is the Yildiz Park which used to be used by sultans for a stroll.
Princes Islands
During Byzantine times the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara was a place for outlaws. The name probably comes from the princes that were banished over there. Later the islands could be reached more easily by steam boats which led to the fact that upper class families from Istanbul built summer residences. Nowadays the islands became a popular place for relaxing for the stressed city people. From the 9 islands, 4 are populated. They are car free and full of Mediterranean vegetation which can be discovered by foot, bike or carriage. The most famous island is called Büyükada where the George Monastery “Ava Yorgi” from the 10th century is located. On Heybeli is a Greek Orthodox monastery “Ava Triada”, on Kmah lives an Armenian community and Burgaz is mainly populated by Greeks.
Beykoz Woods
This small forest area is sited on the Asian side of the city and is famous for its water sources and its spacious tea gardens. The woods and forests around Beykoz are beautiful in every season. Especially, in spring and summer the foliage is so thick that the sky is barely visible from the bottom.
Belgrade Forest
This forest is located north of the city parallel to the foot of the Istranca Mountains. The rainfall in the forest is very high and therefore it was used by the Romans to regulate the flow of water by channelling it from the forest to the city since the Byzantine time. The best underground water sources of Istanbul; Hünkar, Kestane and Circir, are located in this area. The forest is very popular for picnicking, hiking and jogging.