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10 Great Reasons to Fall in Love with Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge tourist favorite globally, but Americans are just beginning to discover its riches.

Istanbul is a huge metropolis where, for a Westerner, nonstop juxtapositions and contradictions crop up everywhere you look. Istanbul is openhearted and pushy, macho and seductive, stunning and verbose. It runs on high octane and vast beauty. Admiring an ancient mosque on the horizon, your gaze is interrupted by a delivery guy hurtling down impossibly narrow and crowded streets on a scooter, intent on delivering Subway sandwiches or McDonalds hamburgers. Just an average Istanbul evening.

With a population estimated from 13.5 to 15 million or more (New York City has 8 million), Istanbul forms the center of the  second-largest metropolitan area in Europe  and ranks among the  world's largest cities  by population. The city, much like Turkey overall, is highly commercial and institutionally secular. Yet, in a country where 99% of the population identifies as Muslim, it can also radiate faith and observance. Many women, especially in the Old City, go "covered" in accord with their religion—but being covered can mean anything from wearing a designer scarf, a sheer tunic and leggings, to a full burka. Meanwhile, in the New City—which, ironically, refers to the more Westernized part of Istanbul, merely 400 years old—hip young people wear every clothing brand and custom style imaginable.  

When we started to plan our trip to Turkey, friends routinely burst out with, “I love Istanbul!” along with a flood of suggestions for what to see and do. Yet, of the more than 30 million who visit Turkey every year, relatively few come from the US. The 10-hour flight from New York likely plays a role here. Another obstacle is that particular American syndrome of not having, or not taking vacations.   

But still, as we explored and talked to people, we realized that, like most Americans, we really didn’t know much about why Istanbul inspires such enthusiasm. We learned. Visiting Turkey isn't cheap [i] and it definitely takes some planning. [ii] But if you like to travel and experience a very different culture while still feeling welcomed and at home, Istanbul (and Turkey as a whole) is your place.

Here are 10 reasons we found the city so compelling, and we think you will, too.

1. Location, location, location: Water and views and warmth. 

Istanbul is unique among the world’s cities in straddling two continents. The historic Bosporus Strait, which connects the  Sea of Marmara  and the  Black Sea , separates its more-touristed European side from its Asian side, where the vast majority of its residents live. An inlet of the Bosporus know as the Golden Horn further separates the two halves of the European side—the Old City, which contains most of the city’s historical sites, and the bustling New City, home to the bulk of Istanbul’s business and cultural life.

The city’s steep hills, topped with impressive mosques, make it a place of unforgettable views across its magnificent waterways, which are constantly busy with crisscrossing boats and ships of all kinds. Istanbul’s architects seem to have used every opportunity to showcase these views. Rooftop restaurants abound, [iii] and hotel rooms and apartments open onto terraces and balconies. Sometimes it seems that the whole country is oriented around giving as many people as possible a great view. (A Turkish saying goes “An apartment without a terrace is like a man without a belly.”)

We were lucky, for part of our time in Istanbul, to score a seventh-floor room in the New City with a fantastic view of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Suleymaniye Mosque, and the beautiful Bosporus, all at once. [iv] And no, the room didn’t cost an arm and a leg. Such things are possible in Istanbul.

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