Istanbul is Turkey’s most populous city, is a massive tourist destination, and is the center of Turkish culture, economy, and history. While Istanbul is not Turkey’s capital, the city is still incredibly important culturally and politically. The city is bisected by the Bosphorus Strait, which links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara which ultimately feeds into the Mediterranean. The city is also unique in that the Bosphorus divides the city between Europe and Asia. Many of the historic sites, financial institutions, and cultural areas can be found on the European side, however, over a third of the population of the city lives on the Asian side of the city.
The city was founded as Byzantium in 660 BC, however, the city became prominent in 330 AD when Roman Emperor Constantine made the city the capital of his Empire and named it Constantinople. The city would later share prominence with Rome, and Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, thus effectively splitting the Empire between east and west. The Western Roman Empire would fall in 476, and the Eastern Roman Empire and Constantinople would remain unscathed for centuries. The city did begin to decline during the Middle Ages and the Fourth Crusade brought nearly 60 years of Catholic occupation after 1204. The Byzantines managed to regain Constantinople, however, two centuries later the Ottoman Turks would lay siege to the city for eight weeks, culminating in the official end of the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, nearly a millennium after the western half had fallen.
Sultan Mehmed II, who had taken the city, encouraged the resettling of those who had fled the city during the siege, and also brought in Turks from Asian Anatolia. The Sultan worked to quickly fix many of the parts of the city that had fallen into disrepair, and populations began to flourish after having been on the decline since the Fourth Crusade. The city as Constantinople had been the center of gravity of the Eastern Orthodox Church, however, Mehmed quickly transformed the city into the center of Islamic culture. Istanbul became both the capital of the Ottoman Empire and the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. After the First World War, the Ottoman Empire would fall, and the Republic of Turkey was established, thus ending the Caliphate, and transferring the capital to Ankara.
Today, the city is home to amazing ancient architecture that has survived centuries. The Hagia Sophia is of particular importance, having been at one time an extremely important Orthodox Church and then turned into a prominent mosque after the Turkish conquest of the city. The site has symbolism from both faiths, however, its official purpose is now secular, as decreed by the Turkish government. The Blue Mosque is also an extremely popular tourist destination, and unlike the Hagia Sophia, is still a functioning mosque. These destinations are also close to the Topkapi Palace, and a stones throw away from the popular shopping district on Istiklal Street. Istiklal Street also leads to many side street cafes and bars, and eventually Taksim Square, which was the site of many protests in 2013 over the government’s attempts to bulldoze the nearby Gezi Park. A trip to the Grand Bazaar is also highly recommended, with its spice markets that remind tourists that Istanbul was once a prominent part of the Silk Road.
As far as food is concerned, tourists can find doner kebab on every street practically. Simit is a bagel-like foodstuff that is, naturally, consumed at breakfast, and on the waterfront, fish sandwiches are prepared fresh for a few Turkish Lira. One of the more fattening, but extremely delicious Turkish preparations is the Iskender kebab, which is doner kabab meat, served over pieces of pita bread, and covered in tomato sauce and butter. Visitors should also consider the stuffed mussels served on the street, especially after a late night out in the city.