Destinations

Istanbul: The Ancient Turkish City That Spans Two Continents

By
Jenna Scatena
|
Freelance Writer
May 11, 2021
|
7 min read

One city, two continents

view of Istanbul from the water.

For nearly three millennia, Istanbul has captivated the world with its enchanting charm, intersection of cultures, and beautiful surroundings. One of Istanbul's most distinguishing qualities is its geography: It's a city where two continents collide—the European and Asian continents—which have made it a city that's been perpetually conquered. Remnants of former empires lay strewn around the city in the form of stone ruins, marble fountains, and historic sites. 

The famed Bosphorus Strait slices down its center, linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean by way of the Sea of Marmara. It was the capital of both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, and today strolling this sprawling, modern megalopolis is like walking through a history book that spans thousands of years. 

Three main bridges and a network of swift ferries link the two sides together, making it easy to explore them both. The European side is famous for its architecture, ruins, and history, while the Asian side offers sea views and charming neighborhoods that illustrate the local day-to-day life that keeps this city buzzing 24 hours a day. 

Culture in a cup

Since their introduction to Istanbul in Ottoman times, coffee and tea have long played a major role in Turkish culture. Coffeehouses flourished across the city in the 16th century after two tradesmen from Damascus opened the first one. 

Now you're never far from a cafe in Istanbul, as the city is chock-full of them—from trendy cafes to humble hole-in-the-walls. Traditionally, Turkish coffee is prepared by steeping finely ground coffee beans in a cezve, a small copper pot with a long handle, and served, unfiltered, in a demitasse (a small cup). The resulting beverage is a rich and smooth (but bitter!) potent brew. There is even a long tradition of reading one's fortune in the coffee grounds at the bottom of the cup, known as tasseography. 

Despite its rich history and devoted coffee drinkers, Turkey's national drink switched over to tea after the modern Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, to promote Turkish tea plantations and spur economic growth.

The islands within a city

looking towards the Princes Islands, Istanbul.

Just when you think you've oriented to this sprawling city, Istanbul reveals another surprise. Not only does it span two continents and 2,000 square miles (yes, 2,000), but it also has its very own archipelago. 

Known as the Princes' Islands, this cluster of nine car-free islands sits seven miles off the mainland in the Sea of Marmara. Meandering footpaths make for ideal scenic walking tours, with views of the sea, colorful, historic homes, and small harbors where fishermen haul in fresh catches. 

The largest island, Büyükada, has trails that wind through a nature park filled with a pine forest and panoramic viewpoints. Many historical figures once had homes on the island, including Leon Trotsky, and these historic buildings are worth the trip alone. The Aya Yorgi Church is a lavish Greek Orthodox church founded in 963. It’s bejeweled with gold accents and historic antiques and sits at the island’s summit in the middle of a pine forest, with views extending all the way back to Istanbul proper.

The underground reservoirs that watered the city  

During the Byzantine and Roman eras, underground cisterns were constructed to help see the city's limited water supply through the hot and dry summers. Up to 100 of them still exist beneath the city's sidewalks, and a handful of them are open to visitors. 

The Basilica Cistern is the largest surviving cistern, built in 536 by Emperor Justinian, and today draws visitors as one of the most-visited attractions in all of Istanbul for its cavernous space with vaulted ceilings and 336 columns made from salvaged temple ruins. A raised wooden platform hovering above the water directs visitors around the space that's literally immersed in history. 

Land of 125,000 cats 

cats gathered around fisherman in Istanbul.

It's impossible to visit Istanbul without noticing one of the city's main residents: cats. They're napping on empty chairs in cafes, parading around shops, dining on scraps that butchers leave for them on the sidewalks, watching you from apartment window sills—the Hagia Sophia even has an Instagram account for its late resident cat, Gli. 

Some estimates claim there are around 125,000 cats in Istanbul, and it's part of the culture to collectively care for these furry residents. Where did they come from and why are they here? No one really knows, but it’s often cited that cats are celebrated in Islam and so should be cared for. The acclaimed documentary Kedi paints a portrait of the relationship between people and cats in Istanbul.

A bathing ritual fit for a sultan

After mosques and palaces, one of Istanbul's most prominent features is its hammams, or Turkish bathhouses. Most of Istanbul's hammams were built during the Ottoman Empire, constructed by masons in the image of a mosque, with a domed roof, tiles, and marble. 

Hammams are where people take part in a communal bathing ritual for purification, cleansing, and relaxation, with an attendant usually guiding visitors to a large göbek taşı, a marble slab that is heated through conduits beneath the floor, placed in the center of a steamy chamber. 

Istanbul's hammams date back to the 8th century, and since then their relevance and popularity in Turkish culture hasn't waned. Today it's estimated that there are more than 200 hammams with 60 still in use, ranging from discreet neighborhood hammams to palatial hammams fit for a sultan. 

Houses of worship

looking up at the ceiling of the Hagia Sofia.

Istanbul’s human history stretches back at least 3,000 years and over that time it’s been captured, conquered, and transformed by many, from the Greeks to the Romans to the Ottoman Turks. Perhaps nowhere is the city’s resulting confluence of cultures reflected more than in the architecture of its places of worship. 

In Sultanahmet, Istanbul's old city, the Hagia Sophia is the prime example of this. The iconic building has seen incarnations as the largest Christian church in the Eastern Roman Empire, a museum, and a mosque. As of 2020, it’s back to a mosque again. 

There are other examples too: In the historic Fener district, the Church of St. George has served as the seat of Eastern Orthodox patriarch since 1453, guiding some 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Other structures reflect Roman Catholic cathedrals, Armenian Orthodox churches, and Jewish synagogues—all with centuries of history.  

Meze and meyhanes 

When it comes to culinary specialties, Turkey is known around the world for its savory kebabs and sweet, pillowy Turkish delights, but there's another tradition not to miss: meyhanes. 

Meyhanes are traditional Turkish taverns that are the center of culinary culture in Istanbul. You'll find groups of families and friends camped out at the tables for hours, often late into the evening, ordering a constant flow of mezes, or small plates, like sauteed carrots with garlic yogurt and roasted eggplant salad

Typically, these mezes are paired with raki, a high-proof Turkish aperitif that has a ritual all its own. Raki is served with a bucket of ice at the table. Patrons mix the drink themselves by placing one or two cubes in a highball glass, adding an ounce or so of the anise-flavored spirit, then topping it off with a generous pour of cold water. When the water mixes with the raki, it turns from clear to cloudy, making it feel like a chemistry experiment. Next is the cheers—şerefe!—and sipping slowly. 

Pasta, Turkish-style  

bowl of manti, Turkish pasta.

Here's a surprising fact: after Italy, Turkey is the second-largest exporter of pasta in the world—though perhaps it makes some sense, given that for centuries Istanbul was the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire. Annually, Turkey exports approximately 1.2 million tons of pasta products to 150 countries, thanks to its durum wheat production and dozens of domestic pasta producers. 

Pasta has its own place in traditional Turkish cuisine, too. Mantı is a Turkish dish that some people refer to as Turkish ravioli. Pasta dumplings are stuffed with lamb or ground beef and topped with caramelized tomato sauce, brown butter, and garlic yogurt. It's a staple in almost any Turkish home and it's sold everywhere in Istanbul from the grocery store to cafes to restaurants that specialize exclusively in mantı, called a mantıcısı. 

Try this recipe to make it from scratch at home. 

An inventive home delivery system 

From carpets to decorative teapots, Turkish culture is full of crafty innovations. But one little-known custom is as nifty as it is charming: the window basket. For generations, Turkish elders have tied baskets to a rope, lowering them from their apartment windows to receive their groceries or other small deliveries. 

Most of Istanbul's old apartment buildings don't have elevators, so this allows elders on the upper floors to avoid the hassle of navigating many flights of stairs (though plenty of younger residents take advantage of the convenience, too). Here's how it works: Someone calls in an order to their neighborhood bakkal (convenience store), butchery, and or baker—or simply neighbors with a home-baked gift—and lowers the basket to the sidewalk. That person fills the basket and then hoists it back up through their window.

Istanbul on screen 

golden light over Istanbul.

Maybe it's the golden light, the captivating history, or the romantic atmosphere, but Istanbul has been a favorite city of cinematographers for decades. 

The 1963 Bond film From Russia with Love, which features scenes filmed in the Basilica Cistern, Hagia Sophia, and at the Sirkeci railway station, remains a classic. One of the original heist films often credited as inspiration for modern action films, the 1964 caper Topkapi, was also filmed around the city, as was the 2012 action-thriller Taken 2

To check out the oeuvre of classics films from Turkish filmmakers, look for Kış Uykusu (Winter Sleep) from filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014, and Berkun Oya's new Netflix drama, Bir Başkadır (Ethos).

Only have a few hours in the city? Read our layover guide to Istanbul.
Last Updated 
May 11, 2021
Istanbul: The Ancient Turkish City That Spans Two Continents
Jenna Scatena
Freelance Writer

Jenna Scatena is an award-winning travel writer and editor. Her stories have appeared in AFAR, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, American Way, BBC Travel, Delta Sky, Jetsetter, San Francisco Chronicle, O the Oprah magazine, Vogue, SELF, Mr Porter, Via, C: California Style, and Marie Claire, among others. Previously she served as the travel editor at Sunset and San Francisco magazines.

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