Lay of the Land: Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait, a body of water that runs south from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and serves as the official border between Europe (on the western shore) and Asia (on the east). An estuary called the Golden Horn runs perpendicular to the Bosphorus, dividing the European side in two; old Constantinople was first built south of it, in the district today called Sultanahmet, and while the city grew over the centuries, it remained mostly in that area. Today, the Golden Horn still serves as the partition between Istanbul's historic, and often more conservative, neighborhoods and the more European, increasingly modern areas: Beyoğlu; Beşiktaş; the "Bosphorus villages" of Kuruçeşme, Ortaköy, and Bebek; and the skyscrapered business districts of Maslak and Levent. Beyond that, the Western Districts, which comprise Fatih, Eyüp, and other outlying areas, are less touristed but include sites with rich historical and cultural significance.
Beyoğlu's Taksim is the contemporary center of the city, and the long pedestrian mall İstiklal Caddesi is its beating heart, running from the bohemian neighborhoods of Galata, Asmalımescit, and Tünel to the giant hub that is Taksim Square. From here, the neighborhoods of Çukurcuma and Cihangir are within walking distance, while chichi Nişantaşı is a short cab ride away.
Istanbul's Asian (or Anatolian) shore is mostly residential and there is a lot less sightseeing here, except for the atmospheric centers of Üsküdar and Kadıköy, or the Princes' Islands.
WHEN TO GO
Istanbul is at its glimmering best in the sunny summer months. In fact, summer is so reliable that by the end of May restaurateurs are confidently wheeling out perishable furniture onto terraces and decks, safe in the knowledge that rain is very unlikely until the end of September. (This is an unhappy thing for Istanbullus, whose faucets often run dry in hot weather, although hotel guests should have no such problem.) July and August do get quite hot and humid, however, and during these months Istanbul has a tendency to quiet down, with many residents heading down to the coast or up to the Black Sea. That said, the city's trove of summer-only venues, especially nightclubs by the Bosphorus and great restaurant terraces, more than compensate.
Winter brings long, chilly, often rainy spells and high chances of disruptive snow in January and February, while September/October and April/May are reliably balmy and pleasant. Note, however, that many outdoor-oriented bars and restaurants close up shop completely in the fall.
Also, know that during Ramadan (usually in October or November), many Istanbullus obey the daylong fast that ends at sunset. Most hotels and restaurants stay open for the nonobservant, but visitors should be respectful and refrain from drinking, eating, and smoking in a flagrant way.
HOW TO GET THERE
Istanbul's main airport, Istanbul Atatürk Airport, is modern and easy to navigate. Delta flies nonstop from New York and Turkish Airlines from New York and Chicago; most other U.S. and European airlines will get you there with a stopover in Western Europe (90-212-465-5555; www.ataturkairport.com/eng). The airport lies about 15 miles west of the center of town, and one of the metered taxis from directly outside the building will take you in for between $20 and $30. There is also a tram connection to Sultanahmet (a fine option if you don't have heavy baggage), as well as the Havaş bus that runs to Taksim Square (www.havas.com.tr).
Istanbul's other airport, Sabiha Gökçen, is used mainly by charter flights and low-cost airlines such as EasyJet; it lies on the Asian side, about a $45 cab ride to Taksim Square; there is also a Havaş shuttle to Levent, north of Taksim (90-216-585-5000; www.sgairport.com).
The city is also served by two train stations: Sirkeci on the European shore is where the Orient Express terminates, as do trains from Thessaloniki and Bucharest; Haydarpaşa is on the Asian side. However, trains in and out of the city are painfully slow (www.tcdd.gov.tr).
Heavy traffic, day and night, is Istanbul's main scourge; if the distance from A to B is walkable, then your own two feet are advised. Taxis are relatively cheap and always a good option—but make sure the meter's running and that the driver gives you change in new lira (see below).
The best way to traverse any body of water is by ferry: There are fast and slow ones that go up the Bosphorus to Üsküdar, Bostancı, and Kadıköy on the Anatolian shore; to the Princes' Islands; and even across the Marmara Sea to Yalova. Ferries depart from the main ports at Beşiktaş, Kabataş, Eminönü, and Yenikapı (www.ido.com.tr).
There's a short subway service for five stops between Taksim and Levent that connects directly to three of the city's largest shopping malls (Cevahir, Kanyon, and MetroCity). There's also an underground funicular train to help with the steep hill at Tünel—worth riding in itself, as the tunnel dates back to the 1870s, as does the adorable old tram that trundles the length of İstiklal Caddesi.
Istanbul's crowning glory of public transport is the blissfully air-conditioned and reliably frequent tram that runs from Zeytinburnu through the Old City to Kabataş in Beyoğlu;, for the most part unhindered by traffic. All bus, tram, and funicular information can be found at www.iett.gov.tr.
Istanbul is by and large as safe as any major European city, but one frequently reported annoyance involves taxi transactions. Most drivers do not speak English, and some of the less scrupulous take advantage of tourists' confusion by not switching on their meters and asking for an overpriced flat rate (which is not permitted), taking passengers the long route to their destination (consult a map if possible), or, most commonly, trying to pass off old lira as new or otherwise shortchanging customers.
Another scam that frequently befalls single male visitors, and which could prove to be a lot more costly, involves being "befriended" by a local who suggests an evening at a nearby haunt. The club will invariably be salacious and full of very thirsty, scantily clad young ladies, which might all be good fun until the extortionate check arrives for several hundred dollars at the end of the night.View Turkey Factsheet