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Istanbul - A City of Two Continents

Technically Istanbul is in two continents, spreading over from Europe to Asia at their boundaries. It lies on the banks of the Bosphorus Strait, which separates the city’s European section and its Asia section.

This is the largest city in Turkey with a population of around 11.5 million also making it one of the most populous cities in the world.

Historically also known as Byzantium and Constantinople, the city served as the Roman Empire's capital between 330-395AD.

The city has also been nicknamed "The City on Seven Hills" because the historic peninsula, the oldest part of the city, was built on seven hills (just like Rome), each of which bears a historic mosque.

Embracing modern life, Istanbul now has as many offices for designer fashion labels, trendy bars and expensive restaurants as it has old grand Ottoman mosques (and there are many).

The city and region has undergone so many changes over the eons but still manages to maintain it's reputation as a world class city.

Top 10 things to do in Istanbul

Hagia Sophia

This magnificent building is a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque, now a museum in Istanbul. It's name roughly translates to Church of the Holy Wisdom.

It is famously known for its massive domed roof and was the largest cathedral in the world for almost a thousand years until the completion of the Seville Cathedral in 1520.

The building you now see is the third incarnation. The original Hagia Sophia was built on this site in the fourth century by Constantine the Great. After it's total destruction, a second was built by his son Constantius and the emperor Theodosius the Great. This too was destroyed, burned down during the Nika riots of 532.

The current building was converted into a museum in 1935.

The interior is beautifully designed with the walls having the most fantastic paintings and mosaics on them.

Outside there are three mausoleums, the baptistery and the excavated ruins of the second building.

Topkapi Palace

The palace was the official and primary residence in the city of the Ottoman Sultans for 400 years of their 600-year reign, from 1465 to 1856, being used for state occasions and royal entertainments.

At the height of its existence as a royal residence, the palace was home to as many as 4,000 people.

Topkapı Palace is a major tourist attraction today, containing the most holy relics of the Muslim world such as the prophet Muhammed's cloak and sword.

It's well advised to get an audio tour or a walking guided tour of the site if you're looking to get the most information possible. There are just too many buildings, courtyards and gardens to cover in one trip.

From time to time the palace also hosts exclusive exhibitions, currently showing “Ten Thousand Years of Iran's Civilization, Two Thousand Years of Common Heritage".

Open daily, except Tuesdays, from 9am till 5pm. You will need to buy a separate ticket if you want to visit The Harem building.

Blue Mosque

Historically known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque the mosque is popularly known as the Blue Mosque for the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.

The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616 by Sultan Ahmed I who was only 19 when he commissioned it. His tomb lies within the mosque.

The Blue Mosque has a very distinctive profile against the Istanbul skyline and it's unique six minarets (most mosques only have four) can be seen from miles away.

When approaching the building, the cascading effect of the domed roofs flowing down from the great central one is quite amazing.

Once inside you will appreciate why it is popularly called the Blue Mosque with over 20,000 blue tiles covering the high ceiling.

During summer there is a historical narrative and a light show event held here around 9pm.

Dolmabahçe Palace

The palace served as the main administrative centre of the Ottoman Empire from 1856 to 1922 and is located in the European side of the city.

The palace was built by Sultan Abdülmecid I, between 1843 and 1856, at a cost of five million Ottoman gold pounds, the equivalent of 35 tonnes of gold!

The design contains eclectic elements from the Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles, blended with traditional Ottoman architecture to create a unique style. It is the largest palace in Turkey covering an area of 45,000m².

The world's largest Bohemian crystal chandelier is in the centre hall. The chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria, has 750 lamps and weighs 4.5 tonnes. Certainly not very eco-friendly!

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Republic of Turkey has his room here preserved in the museum. When he died here at 9:05 a.m. on November 10, 1938, all the clocks in the palace were stopped and set to 9:05, however, now only the clock in his room shows that time.

Suleymaniye Mosque

This large imperial mosque is located on the second Hill of Istanbul and was built on the order of Sultan Suleiman I in 1550.

The Süleymaniye has seen it's fair share of disasters over the years. It was ravaged by a fire in 1660 and was restored by Sultan Mehmed IV. Part of the dome collapsed again during the earthquake of 1766. Subsequent repairs damaged what was left of the original decoration of Sinan.

During World War I the courtyard was used as a weapons depot and when some of the ammunition ignited the mosque suffered another fire where it was left damaged until being restored in 1956.

Compared with the other mosques in Istanbul, the interior here is subtly decorated, using a larger amount of windows to bring more light into the central domed area.

In the garden behind the main mosque there are two further mausoleums and just outside the mosque walls to the north is the tomb of architect Sinan.

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Grand Bazaar

The bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with more than 58 covered streets and over 1,200 shops and can attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily.

Opened in 1461, it is well known for its jewelry, pottery, spice, and carpet shops.

The Grand Bazaar has four main gates situated at the ends of its two major streets which intersect near the southwestern corner of the bazaar. It's only a 15 min walk from the Blue Mosque.

If you're looking for a busy place to get some good haggling practice in, you need to be here.

Open Monday to Saturday 9am - 7pm. Closed Sundays and bank holidays.

Yıldız Park

Once part of the imperial garden of Yıldız Palace, this walled park was reserved only for palace dwellers during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II.

The gardens are filled with plants, trees and flowers, collected from every part of the world dating from the Ottoman era.

It's a popular place for locals to chill out and at weekends is a busy picnic spot.

The park is separated into two sections, the outer section is open to the public and comprises the Şale, Çadır and Malta pavilions and the still-operating Yıldız porcelain factory.

The park grounds give some great panoramic views of the Bosphorus.

Sunken Palace (Basilica Cistern)

This is the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city built in the 6th century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I.

This cathedral-sized cistern is an underground chamber approximately 143m by 65m - about 9,800m².

The enlarged cistern provided water for the Great Palace of Constantinople and other buildings on the First Hill, and continued to provide water to the Topkapi Palace after the Ottoman conquest in 1453 and into modern times.

Due to it unique design it was used as a location for the 1963 James Bond film From Russia with Love.

Galata Tower

This medieval stone tower is located in the Galata district of Istanbul, just to the north of the Golden Horn and is one of the city's most striking landmarks.

The tower was built in 1348  and it stands 66.9m tall with an observation deck at the top.

There is a restaurant and café on its upper floors which commands a magnificent view of Istanbul and the Bosphorus

Also located on the upper floors is a nightclub which hosts a Turkish show. There are two operating elevators that carry visitors from the lower level to the upper levels.

According to the Seyahatname of Ottoman historian and traveler Evliya Çelebi, in circa 1630-1632, Hezarfen Ahmet Çelebi flew as an early aviator using artificial wings for gliding from this tower over the Bosporus to the slopes of Üsküdar on the Anatolian side, nearly six kilometres away.

Evliyâ Çelebi also tells of Hezarfen's brother, Lagari Hasan Çelebi, performing the first flight with a rocket in a conical cage filled with gunpowder in 1633.

Entrance to the tower costs 10 TL.

Cevahir Mall

Opened in 2005, this modern indoor shopping mall and entertainment centre is located in the Şişli district and is the largest shopping centre in Europe at a staggering 420,000m².

The mall took eight years and US$250 million to build and contains 343 shops. many of which are international designer brands, 34 fast food restaurants and 14 exclusive restaurants.

As well as all the shops, the mall has a 12 screen cinema, including a private theatre and cinema just for kids, a ten-pin bowling alley and a small roller coaster.

The building's 2,500m² glass roof carries the biggest clock in the world, with 3m high digits.

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