All Your Questions About Istanbul Answered

By Ashley Friedman

Exploring two continents in one of the world's oldest cities

All Your Questions About Istanbul Answered

Seated among the hills on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is the world's only city to occupy two continents: Asia and Europe. Remnants of the Ottoman empire mingle with contemporary architecture, while dramatic natural wonders and tranquil vistas await visitors on both sides of the city.

Q. What does Istanbul mean?

A. The name "Istanbul" is derived from a Greek phrase "stan poli," which means "in the city," or "to the city." Previously known as "Byzantium", "Constantinople" and "Tsarigrad", "Istanbul" did not officially become the name of the city until 1930, when the Turkish Postal Service Law officially requested that all foreigners refer to it that way going forward.

Q. Where is Istanbul located?

A. Istanbul is in northwestern Turkey in the country's Marmara region. It's seated on the harbor known as The Golden Horn, on either side of the Bosphorus Strait, the waterway that separates Europe from Asia. The city's placement on two continents mean the two sides have vastly different histories and architecture.

Q. Who renamed the Byzantine capital Istanbul?

A. Initially, the Greeks referred to the Byzantine capital city as "Byzantion", while during the same period, Romans called it "Byzantium". It was later called Constantinople, after the Roman Emperor Constantine who moved the seat of power to the city from Rome. Although the city was referred to as both Constantinople and Istanbul by the Byzantines, the name was not officially changed until Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic of Turkey's first president, renamed the city Istanbul in the 1920s. The name was not officially mandated to the rest of the world until 1930.

Q. What is the population of Istanbul?

A. Istanbul's population is approximately 14.5 million people.

Q. What is there to do in Istanbul?

A. Istanbul is an ancient city with many preserved ruins, palaces, cultural artifacts and architectural points of interest. Topkapi Palace is one of the city's most prominent museums, and was formerly the primary residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans during the 15th century. The palace's location on a hillside overlooking the Bosphorus Strait makes it ideal for sightseers interested in both the history of the city and the natural beauty of the region.

  • Topkapi Palace was built between 1466 and 1478 by Sultan Mehmet II the Conqueror. In 1924 the palace was converted to a museum that was open to the public. 

Hagia Sophia is one of the most significant monuments for both the Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Chosen as a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1985, Hagia Sophia was built by Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century and remained the center of Orthodox Christianity until the Ottoman conquest in 1453, when it became a mosque. The mosque was converted into a museum by Ataturk in 1935, and continues to be one of the most culturally rich monuments to history and early civilization in existence.

  • The Hagia Sophia was built as a church, then converted to a mosque and currently is a museum. The only existing dome larger than Hagia Sophia's is at the Parthenon in Rome.   

The Sultan Ahmed Mosque, more popularly known at The Blue Mosque, was built between 1609 and 1616 during Ahmed I's rule. Known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on the interior walls, it currently functions as a mosque, but also holds a madrasa and a hospice. Non-Muslim visitors need to use a special entrance to access the mosque, and it is closed during the five daily prayers.

  • The Blue Mosque was built to face the Hagia Sophia, and was somewhat inspired by its design. Women must wear a head covering when entering the mosque; these are available at the entry door. Each pier of the mosque is lined with over 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles.  

Another popular destination is the Grand Bazaar. It is one of the oldest covered markets in the world and a great spot to get a taste of the old city. While it is heavily trafficked by tourists, it's worth a visit. Plan to drink cups of tea as you stroll through the lanes, comparing prices and examining wares.

  • At the Grand Bazaar, bargaining and haggling is expected and encouraged. Shopkeepers will likely offer visitors tea because negotiations, especially on pricier items, can take hours.This place is enormous; you might not get to it all in one day, so if you're really planning to shop it might be wise to plan more than one visit. 

Q. What is the Bosphorus in Istanbul?

A. The Bosphorus is a narrow waterway that runs through the city, bisecting European Turkey from Asian Turkey. It connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It is a historically significant waterway, given that it separates the two continents, Europe and Asia, and allows passage to the seas. It continues to be a busy, highly trafficked waterway today, with tankers, ships, local fishing boats and ferries traveling it daily.

Q. What is the currency in Istanbul?

A. The currency in Istanbul is the Turkish lira, although some businesses, hotels and restaurants accept the Euro and in some cases, U.S. dollars, as well.

Q. How long is the flight from London to Istanbul?

A. As with any international trip by plane, weather conditions can affect flight time. Typically, a flight from London to Istanbul takes 3.5 hours.

Q. How long is the flight from Dubai to Istanbul?

A. The flight time on a direct flight from Dubai to Istanbul is about five hours, although again, weather conditions can cause variance in in-flight times.

Q. What is there to do in Istanbul's Asian side?

A. The Bosphorus splits Istanbul between Europe and Asia, and tourists visiting the Asian side will find it a cleaner, quieter, less-frenetic place. Green spaces abound, and travelers can spend time visiting a variety of noteworthy sites, or simply relaxing in the abundant tea gardens and sunny hillsides. Visit the arts colony of Kuzguncuk to see a true melting pot of ethnicities – churches, mosques and a synagogue share space among boutiques, cafes and charming houses. Walk along the Bosphorus to a waterfront restaurant selling fresh, briny fish caught locally, or head a few blocks inland for a less touristy – and less pricey – dish. Stop by Beylerbeyi Palace, a building from the imperial Ottoman era that features indoor fountains, crystal chandeliers and marble carvings. The palace is said to have hosted none other than Ataturk as its last overnight guest.

  • Beylerbeyi Palace was constructed as a summer residence for the Ottoman sultan. The design was conceived as a blend of western and eastern architecture and decorative art styles.
  • Kuzguncuk is a small community that was once home to many Jews who had fled expulsion from Spain in the 15th century, as well as Armenians, Greeks and Christians. After riots in 1955 and a push for Turkish nationalism, diversity in the area decreased drastically.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Social Sciences. She has experience writing copy for the websites of creative professionals, and regularly contributes to several blogs covering popular culture, travel, food, and social action.