For its sheer volume of sights, Istanbul gives London, Paris or Rome a run for their money, let alone its wealth of open-air cafés and restaurants, shops, bars and clubs, which populate the several smaller neighbourhoods.
Athough Istanbul is a fairly large city, the two areas where visitors are most likely to spend their time – Beyoğlu and Sultanahmet – are easily explored on foot. However, buses are useful for heading up the Bosphorus coast, while trip to the Asia shore are best undertaken by ferry or sea bus.
See 'Getting around Istanbul' for more information
The topography is confusing for newcomers, involving three land masses, two on the European side of the Bosphorus – divided by the Golden Horn – and one on the Asian shore.
There's no uptown or downtown, inner circle or any other convenient way to read the city. Its street patterns are irregular; generations of development without urban planning have created a city almost devoid of straight lines and right angles. Buildings crowd sightlines, every now and again opening up to expose a view that takes you completely by surprise. In such a set-up there's no such thing as a wrong turn, only alternative routes.
Sultanahmet & the Baazar Quarter
This is the historic heart of Istanbul and most of the sights in and around Sultanahmet and the Grand Bazaar could properly be described as unmissable (Topkapı Palace, Yerebatan Sarnıcı, Süleymaniye Mosque) – either because they're really famous or simply because you couldn't avoid them if you tried. This is the ancient walled capital of the Byzantines and the Ottomans. If this is your first time in Istanbul, this is where you're going to be spending the greater part of your waking hours (and your sleeping hours, too, because most hotels are here). The area occupies the highest part of a fat thumb of land enclosed by the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. Its spine is Divan Yolu, the main drag and tram route. With stops beside the main mosques and bazaars, the tram is the best way to get around this side of town.
Eminönü & the Golden Horn
If Sultanahmet is the Istanbul of postcards, Eminönü is the Istanbul of ferry schedules. The commercial hub of the old city and a port since Ancient Greek times, its bustling waterfront leads back to a maze of alleys, mosques (New Mosque, Rüstem Paşa Mosque), and the Egyptian Bazaar.
The Western Districts
Beyond the Bazaar Quarter are the Western Districts, an ancient, melancholy collection of conservative neighbourhoods such as Fatih, Fener, Balat and, further afield, Eyüp. Few visitors make it out here, but the area is rich in atmosphere and there are several worthwhile monuments, notably the Byzantine Church of St Saviour in Chora and the city walls.
Beyoğlu & beyond
The Golden Horn bisects European Istanbul, but the two parts are linked by a number of bridges including, most prominently, the Galata and, further west, the Atatürk. North of the Golden Horn is the 'modern' city, developed largely in the 19th century.
Ground zero is Beyoğlu, the place to play after sightseeing. Beyoğlu subdivides into several smaller neighbourhoods (including, from south to north, Galata, Tünel, Asmalımescit and Galatasaray), all linked by Istiklal Caddesi, a long, pedestrian boulevard whose narrow off-shoots are filled with shops, cafés, bars, clubs and restaurants. Central to Galata's history, and easily its most distinctive landmark north of the Golden Horn, is the conical-capped is the Galata Tower.
At its north end, Istiklal Caddesi empties into Taksim Square – large and charmless, it's recommended only as a place to pick up a taxi. North of Taksim are the newer districts of Harbiye, şişli, Nişantaşı and Teşvikiye, where middle-class Istanbullus shop, eat and socialise. Further north still (reachable by metro), Etiler and Levent are where the real money's at; go clubbing here and your bank manager will know about it.
The Bosphorus Villages
The string of neighbourhoods down by the water are sometimes referred to as the 'Bosphorus villages'. Ortaköy, Arnavutköy and Bebek are picturesque clusters of attractive wooden villas, folksy shops and markets, open-air cafés and restaurants. There's not much in the way of major sights (apart from the Istanbul Modern, the city's long-awaited contemporary art museum), but these neighbourhoods are definitely worth a wander. They are linked by bus services or, better still, you can travel here by ferry.
The Asian Shore
Ferry is also the best way to go to get over to the Asian Shore's two main neighbourhoods, Kadıköy and Üsküdar. There is no significant change in character here. Instead, the Asian Shore is a vast dormitory for Istanbullus who commute to jobs on the west side of the water. Real estate is cheaper, and it's less crowded than urban European Istanbul. The character of the Asian Shore is heavily shaped by large numbers of immigrants from the Turkish provinces.
See all venues in Istanbul