can come as a shock. Most visitors head for the old city in and around
, where though you're still technically in Europe, there are immediate differences: back streets teem with traders pushing handcarts, stevedores carrying burdens twice their size, and omnipresent shoeshine boys. Men still monopolize the public bars and teahouses, while many women cover their heads, averting their gaze. Yet this is merely one aspect of modern Istanbul; only a couple of kilometres to the north you'll find the former European quarter of
, with its trendy bars and cutting-edge dance clubs, while north again are the pavement cafes and restaurants of
and the swish Bosphorus suburbs of ArnavutkA¶y, Bebek and Etiler. These days the city has a social and cultural diversity to match any of its Western counterparts.
Istanbul is the only city in the world to have played capital to consecutive Christian and Islamic empires, and retains features of both, often in congested proximity.
, as the city was formerly known, was an important trading centre, but only gained real power in the fourth century AD, when Constantine chose it as the new capital of the
. Later, as
, the city became increasingly dissociated from Rome, adopting the Greek language and Christianity and becoming, effectively, the capital of an independent empire. In 1203 the city was sacked by the Crusaders, and when the Byzantines, led by Michael VIII Palaeologus, regained control in 1261, many of the major buildings had fallen into disrepair, with the empire itself greatly diminished in size. As the Byzantines declined, the
prospered, and in 1453 the city was captured by Mehmet the Conqueror, who shortly after began rebuilding works. In the following century, the victory was reinforced by the great military achievements of Selim the Grim and by the reign of SEleyman the Magnificent, whose conquests helped fund the greatest of all Ottoman architects, Mimar Sinan. By the nineteenth century, however, the glory days of Ottoman domination were firmly over. Defeat in World War I was followed by the
War of Independence
, after which AtatErk created a new capital in Ankara - although Istanbul retained its importance as a centre of trade and commerce. In
, the population of the city has reached twelve million, a fifth of the country's total, and is still on the rise, adding further to the cacophony and congestion.
The city is divided in two by the
, which runs between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, dividing Europe from Asia. At right angles to it, the inlet of the
cuts the European side in two. The old centre of Sultanahmet, occupying the tip of the peninsula south of the Golden Horn, is home to the city's main sightseeing attractions: the cathedral of
, and as such many people find that they spend all their time here. Annoying hustlers mean first impressions can be negative - but thankfully omnipresent tourist police have done much to clear out the worst, and will respond quickly to any problems you may have. Further west near the explorable
, which contains the city's finest surviving Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. Across the Golden Horn to the north, the
offers superb panoramic views over the city.