ISTANBUL - NEIGHBORHOODS
Also referred to as the Old City, Sultanahmet is a peninsula sandwiched between the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, and is where you'll find most of Istanbul's highlights. This area holds a significant place in history as it was once the city of Constantinople, the center of the Roman Empire. Walking Sultanahmet's winding streets will take you past many mosques and palaces that date back to those times.
At the peninsula's eastern edge, where the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn meet, sitting at the top of a hill and overlooking the waters below is Topkapi Palace. Next door is the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which houses artifacts showing off Istanbul's significant history, from the Mesopotamians to the Ottomans to Alexander the Great. From the Topkapi Palace you can see the minarets and domes rising from the Blue Mosque. Nearby is the must-see Hagia Sophia, a place with outstanding architecture and a long history. Also close by is the Hippodrome that once seated 100,000 spectators to watch chariot races in the Byzantine era.
Sirkeci is between Sultanahmet and Eminönü, very near Galata Bridge and the Golden Horn. The neighborhood consists mostly of a combination of small shops, hans (larger workshops), offices intermingled with boutique hotels, traditional Turkish restaurants, Turkish and foreign language bookstores, and tourist offices. Just steps to the east of Eminönü's transport hub is the Sirkeci train station (final stop of the legendary Orient Express). The Ottoman sultan built Istanbul's European railroad terminus, Istanbul Gar on the Golden Horn right beneath the walls of Topkapı Palace, and soon the elegant sleeping and dining cars of the Orient Express were disgorging their distinguished passengers into the hubbub of cosmopolitan Constantinople. Sirkeci's hotels offer the advantages of being only a 10 or 12 minute walk (or a short tram ride) from Sultanahmet, an even shorter walk to the Eminönü ferry docks, Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar and the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn. In the Byzantine period, the area was known in Greek as Phosphòrion.
Northwest of the Sultanahmet is the Grand Bazaar, the oldest indoor shopping center in the world, offering an overwhelming number of shops, cafés and mosques, and zealous vendors with beautiful Turkish carpets, glazed tiles and pottery, copper and brassware, apparel made of leather, cotton and wool, meerschaum pipes, alabaster bookends and ashtrays, and all sorts of other things. A dozen restaurants in the bazaar allow you to have lunch in the midst of your shopping. Downhill, the smaller-in-scale Egyptian Bazaar sells local spices and nuts. Divan Yolu is the main avenue through historic Old Istanbul, starting at Sultanahmet Square and the Hippodrome and heading westward past shops and restaurants, past Ottoman sultans' tombs, mosques and medreses, past Byzantine forums and monuments such as Çemberlitaş (the Burnt Column) to Beyazıt Square, the Grand Bazaar and Istanbul University. A 30 minute stroll along Divan Yolu from Sultanahmet Square to Beyazıt Square is an enjoyable history lesson and you end up at the Grand Bazaar!
Beyoglu - Taksim
Beyoğlu is the district on the north bank of the Golden Horn, from Karaköy (Galata) and the Galata Bridge to Taksim Square. In the 1800's this was the newer, more European section of Istanbul (Constantinople). Embassies were built here, foreign merchants lived and worked here, and they shopped at the posh boutiques along the Grande Rue de Péra, now called İstiklal Caddesi. This was also one of the neighborhoods favored by the sultan's Jewish subjects and still has a few beautiful small synagogues. Today Beyoğlu is enjoying a cultural and architectural revival. The huge embassies are now consulates, the shops are posh again, and İstiklal Caddesi (the Grande Rue) is a popular pedestrian mall filled with strollers day and night. The pedestrian avenue and its side streets boast lots of nightlife: chic cafés, bistros, restaurants and music clubs. This hectic shopping street bisects the district north from Tünel to the modern, pulsating, chaotic nucleus of the city known as Taksim Square, Istanbul's equivalent to New York's Times Square. A concentration of full service, high rise hotels targeting businesspeople makes the area around Taksim a perfect place for bustle and convenience. The location is also connected to a transportation network that includes the metro, a recently restored cable car/tramway along Istiklal Caddesi, a plethora of municipal buses, and a daunting network of dolmus (minibuses).
Located on the European shore of the Bosphorus, North of Dolmabahçe Palace, one and a half miles northeast of Taksim Square, is Beşiktaş. Beşiktaş includes a number of important sites along the European side of the Bosphorus, from Dolmabahçe Palace in the south to Bebek in the north. Beşiktaş' historic center is Çarşı, which adjoins the small Abbasağa Park. This coast was very attractive to the Ottoman rulers, who built hunting lodges and then great palaces in the area, and the Beşiktaş district contains some of the most important and attractive Ottoman buildings. The waterfront northward becomes a picturesque chain of fishing coves transformed into bourgeois residential neighborhoods teeming with cafes and fish restaurants as far north as the Black Sea mouth of the Bosphorus. You can visit these by hopping on a local bus or sightseeing from the bow of a Bosphorus ferry. It is bordered on the north by Sarıyer and Şişli, on the west by Kağıthane and Şişli, on the south by Beyoğlu, and on the east by the Bosphorus.
The city gets increasingly more elite the farther north of Taksim you go, with trendy and upscale neighborhoods belonging to the district of Sisli then sprawling out to the business districts to the north (and east of the Bosphorus villages). This is where you'll find everyday life of the business population, the streets are filled with banks, businesses, and shopping malls. In fact Europe's largest and the world's second largest (urban-area) shopping mall, Cevahir İstanbul, is situated here. It's more modern and tidy than other parts of the city. It's well served by transportation routes and subway. Although not by the sea, it's located at the exit from the Bosphorus Bridge that links Asia to Europe. It is bordered by Beşiktaş to the east, Sarıyer to the north, Eyüp and Kağıthane to the west, and Beyoğlu to the south.