Discover a rich history and treasure trove of culture in ISTANBUL, the heart and soul of Turkey.
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Where the East meets the West, Asia meets Europe, and religions have fought for a place as the dominating belief. Much has been written about how transcontinental Istanbul is, but few can barely do justice to its magnificent heritage. Truly, there is much to uncover in this megacity that was once the heart of human civilization.
Istanbul, the largest city in Europe was originally called Byzantium before Roman emperor Constantine the Great made it the new eastern capital of the Roman Empire, calling it Constantinople. The city was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe at its peak, until Sultan Mehmed II captured it for the new Ottoman Empire. It then became a capital of Islamic culture for almost 500 years before the 1923 Turkish War of Independence moved the capital to Ankara. Nonetheless, Turkey’s most populous city, by now known as Istanbul, remains the heart and soul of the country as the economic, cultural and historical centre.
You can begin appreciating Istanbul via a spectacular and humbling heritage trail or a wonderfully scenic sightseeing trail. The former is meant for those who revel in the stories behind the city, while the latter is great for those who appreciate the breathtaking beauty of the city. However, before you start on your trail, head straight for the Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia first.
The Topkapi Palace is a complex overlooking the Bosphorus Straits consisting of 4 courtyards and buildings such as Hagia Irene - a prime example of Ottoman architecture. Previously the residence and headquarters for the Ottoman Caliphate, it is now a museum and concert hall.
Meanwhile, the iconic Hagia Sophia is a marvel of ancient architecture that shouldn’t be missed. Over 1,000 years old, it was once the world’s largest Roman Catholic cathedral, before becoming a mosque, a museum, and then recently, a mosque again. Its dome, minarets and mosaics are stunning, combining both Christian and Islamic elements; a symbol of Turkey and its history. It’s not too much to say that the Istanbul skyline would be incomplete without it.
The Historic Areas of Istanbul are a group of sites in the capital district of Fatih that were added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1985. They contain landmarks that are spread across four zones, illustrating the major phases of the city's history using its most prestigious monuments - the Sultanahmet Urban Archeological Park, the Süleymaniye quarter, the Zeyrek quarter, and the Walls of Constantinople component area. They take you on a journey through time, from Byzantium to Constantinople to present day Istanbul.
Landmarks to be visited in Fatih include the Sultanahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), the Basilica Cistern (an underground complex the city is built on) and Walls of Constantinople, the defensive stone walls that protected the city against the Arabs, Rus’ and Bulgars during Constantine’s time.
If you’re looking for sights instead of stories, begin at Taksim Square. It is the heart of modern Istanbul, and is home to the Republic Monument that commemorates the foundation of the Republic of Turkey. It is a major tourist and leisure district famed for its restaurants, shops, and hotels including the Marmara Hotel. From there, proceed to İstiklal Avenue - an elegant street 1.4km long lined with boutiques, music stores, bookstores, art galleries, cinemas, theatres, libraries, cafés, pubs, patisseries, chocolateries and restaurants, all housed in gorgeous late Ottoman era buildings.
Istanbul is home to some of the best shopping malls in Europe such as Kanyon Shopping Mall and Zorlu Center, but its best mall is arguably the Grand Bazaar. The core of the bazaar constructed in 1455, it is considered one of the earliest malls in history, and is currently one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. With over 4,000 shops in the whole complex, you can probably find literally anything here.
Meandering through the streets of Istanbul isn’t the only way to experience the city, though. There are the Istanbul International Film Festival and Tulip Festival in spring, and the Istanbul International Music, International Jazz and Chill-Out music festivals in the summer. In autumn, you might want to partake in the Istanbul International Biennial and Coffee festivals. The year ends with the International Book Fair and the International Theatre Festival.
Istanbul was the European Capital of Culture in 2010, but to many visitors and its own denizens, it will always be so no matter the year. Here, its streets are the corridors of history, a point where civilizations met to shape the world as we know it.
Make your way to Istanbul Airport, Turkey from KL International Airport (KLIA) via Malaysia Airlines or Turkish Airlines. The entire journey will take up 12 hours.