What is it like to visit Istanbul and cross between Europe and Asia?

East Europe

Dec 06

About Istanbul - a thriving city at night that straddles Europe and Asia

About Istanbul

A man casts a glance over his shoulder before arching back and casting his line into the water. The street chatter and rush hour traffic drown out the subtle splash but from the look on his face, you’d think he stood alone in the countryside, miles from anyone, miles from anywhere.

He’s one of many who line the Galata Bridge in Istanbul, searching for sea life in the inlet of the mighty Bosphorus, the waterway known as the Golden Horn.

Despite the size of the city ( 13 million at least at the last count,) the air feels fresh and clean, with soft wisps of salt dancing through the breeze. It’s early morning and it’s also winter, meaning that the sun, like the rest of us, is still warming up to the idea of the day ahead.

I stride across the bridge, my hands curling inside my pockets to grasp any vestige of heat, while my breath joins the mist that veils the view ahead.

And what a view it is.

About Istanbul - rich city with plenty of history

About Istanbul: Both Europe and Asia

Minarets in lavender blue, matching domes in resting chrome. A foreground of scarlet wagons selling roast sweetcorn and pretzels and damp yet golden flagstones lit by the rising sun.

I love the city of Istanbul, perched as it is across the Bosphorus that divides Europe from Asia, with diplomatic parallels to match. When designing my #ironroute tour, a rail journey to look at the “east-west” divides in Europe and the former iron curtain, Istanbul seemed like a natural fit.

Its terminal used to mark the end of the Orient Express, a near-mythical journey that swept up Agatha Christie, Jackie Kennedy, Ernest Hemingway and more from the chic streets of Paris to the chandeliers of the Pera Palace Hotel. And while Turkey’s role in the Cold War was rather low key, Istanbul is certainly a city that knows a thing or two about divisions, from geography to ideology.

About Istanbul and ideology - the Hagia Sofia

About Istanbul: East and West

When the vast empire of Rome drew a curtain between its own territories, “western Rome” took Rome as its capital, while “eastern Rome” took Istanbul (or Constantinople as it became at the time.)

While the western Roman Empire crumbled in less than 100 years, the eastern one continued for more than a thousand. This Christian stronghold switched to Islam with the invasion of the Ottomans, who themselves established an empire that spanned more than seven centuries.

It’s hard to miss the greatest symbols of these two former empires as they face one another in the grassy area of Sultanahmet. The Hagia Sofia and the “Blue Mosque” remain two of the most awe-inspiring and magnificent buildings in the world – and at the very least they deserve is a blog post of their own (watch this space.)

About Istanbul: Crossing to Asia

This morning, though, while I admire Sultanahmet’s silhouettes on the horizon, that’s not where I’m headed. I’m filing along behind the commuters to reach the Spice Market – a collection of stained glass, leather, perfume, and yes, spice – and the designated meeting point for my guide from Context Travel.*

Context employs academics in love with their cities. I took my first tour with them last year in my own city, London, to find to my surprise Roman remains and Victorian markets beneath the glistening brittle glass of the City.

This time, I’m crossing the Bosphorus to reach Asia on a public ferry that costs about two lira (about one euro.) We’ve missed the rush hour and have both the seats and space to stretch out a little, while gulls loom ominously past the railings.

About Istanbul Galata Golden Horn View


Sultanahmet Slides Away

The foam froths below and Sultanahmet slides away. I try to talk to my guide about the project I’m working on and she misunderstands me straight away.

“So you’re retracing the rail route from Istanbul to Berlin because of its 50th anniversary.”

Well, yes – and no. I will be travelling by rail, I will be travelling to Berlin but my little journalist’s heart flutters a little at this potentially missed detail. “What anniversary?”

Conversation becomes difficult. “The workers who went… In the 1960s… I thought that’s what…You know…”

More awkwardness – and I’m not quite sure whether the reticence comes from the misunderstood purpose of my visit or the event itself five decade ago.

I let a few more metres of Bosphorus glide past before trying again. Turkey, it seems, sided with Germany in World War One, the conflict that set the world stage for all the other global conflicts that followed that century.

“Turkey won all of its battles,” she says. “All of them. But it lost overall because it picked the wrong side. And that’s when the Bosphorus became international waters.”

About Istanbul - retracing history


The Bosphorus

The gulls circle past, squawking and angry.

In less than twenty minutes, we will have passed from Europe to Asia. We will have reached the other side of Istanbul. But we will have travelled through international waters.

Never underestimate the complexity of politics when a valuable resource is at stake.

And the Bosphorus is valuable. Extremely valuable. This narrow channel connects the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara in the south and from there on towards the Aegean and then the Med. In shorter terms, it provides the only international shipping access for several watchful countries. No wonder both the Christian Romans and the Islamic Ottomans fought over its vital strategic position. And, perhaps no wonder that Turkey is now a secular state.

About Istanbul - Galata Tower symbol of the battle over this piece of land

“They are planning to build their own channel now, though,” my guide continues. “It will be bigger than the Panama Canal, bigger than the Suez. The plans are in the pipeline…It will…happen.”

My mind spins a little as I listen to the plans to carve a route through inland Turkey. It sounds like a plot from a James Bond thriller rather than 21st century politics.

I still haven’t uncovered the real story behind the Turkish workers who travelled to Berlin 50 years ago, other than to read between the lines of economic and educational exclusion and conflicts over repatriation. It’s something for me to investigate on perhaps another day.

For now, though, the foam turns the international water turquoise as we come in dock, translucent jellyfish suspended in fathomless blue.

Through our words, we’ve travelled through centuries. And yet in twenty minutes, we’ve only just reached Asia.

About Istanbul - more than meets the eye


#Ironroute is an independent journey with transport sponsored by InterRail. Read more about the idea for the project here.

For other multimedia #ironroute snippets, check out this section on the blog.

Disclosure: Context Travel provided complimentary Istanbul tours although, as always, editorial control remains mine. All mine.


Istanbul at sunset

About the Author

Hi, I'm Abi, a doctor turned writer who's worked with Lonely Planet, the BBC, UNESCO and more. Let's travel more and think more. Find out more.

  • I absolutely love the way you talk about Istanbul. It brings back my memories of the Spice Market, the vendors outside, the ferry (and the jellies) … plus, it’s educational. Really fascinating. :)

    • Abi says:

      Thanks. I absolutely love Istanbul. Could write about it forever…

  • Angela says:

    Wonderful Istanbul, I’ve only been once and absolutely loved it. Great write up, Context tours are always excellent!

    • Abi says:

      Becoming a huge fan of the Context Tours. Went on a couple in Berlin as well – such a pleasure to meet intelligent, well-educated guides who are happy to answer almost any question you throw at them ;)

  • Kirsten Alana says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever longed to visit Istanbul as much as I do now. After reading this. Thank you, as always, Abi for both sating and fueling my wanderlust all at once.

    • Abi says:

      Go Kirsten, go! And then we can all enjoy your photos :)

  • Although people had already been moving north/west from Turkey to Germany in the 1950s, the two countries signed an official agreement in 1961 to allow Gästarbeiter (guest workers) : http://bit.ly/rpio45 (Spiegel English). The conversation about the status of long-time Turkish immigrants in Germany continues to be awkward in any language.

    Thanks again for your post, Abi. Your story and photos have only added to my ever growing desire to visit Istanbul. My hope is that I can convince my Turkish friends in Germany to accompany me and show me their version of Istanbul.

    • Abi says:

      That’s a fantastic article – thank you. On a side note, I chuckled when I read the comments about the border crossing between Turkey and Bulgaria. It was still the most difficult by far on my own trip between Istanbul and Berlin in 2011!

      I hope that you make it to Istanbul one day – with your Turkish German friends.

      • You’re welcome, Abi! As I mentioned it to them this past October in Frankfurt and I’m heading back “home” to Germany this coming (northern) autumn as part of this year’s RTW, I hope they’ve some time off work for a weekend in Istanbul. :)

  • Broderick Meola says:

    Hiya! Nice Artikel.thanks for share..more wait .. …

  • Maddy @ I'm Not Home says:

    Lovely sentiments on the city I happen to be in right now! How long were you in Istanbul for?

    • Abi says:

      On this occasion, just a few days. I’d been lucky enough to spend a little longer there a few years ago. Fascinating city – I love it! Hope you’re having a good time.

  • Kelly says:

    What a lovely post ! So descriptive! We loved Istanbul and going to the Asian side was a lot of fun for us! I really hope we get to go back to Istanbul again because I feel it’s a city you could explore for a very long time!

    • Abi says:

      I’d certainly love to go back as well. So much to see and so much to experience. Thank you for the comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

  • Jonathan Simmons says:

    This is a great little introduction to the city thank you for posting it! I’ve been living in Istanbul for a year now and I always find that there is so much to discover, because of its sheer size and inclusion of such a vast array of traditions.

    • Abi says:

      I love Istanbul – always good to hear from others who do too!

  • Paul says:

    Great article. I’m always fascinated by cities that exist as a crossroads between two worlds. Lots of great topics for further exploration too.

  • Kent says:

    I love this entry — you really capture the feel of Istanbul. And the history is so interesting and important. It’s kind of pathetic how little Turkey/The Ottoman Empire was covered in my high school history classes (in the US). But in retrospect the fact that the Ottoman Empire chose the wrong side in WW I is probably one of the most significant historical events in the 20th century. (I read something a while ago where some historian said that WW I has never really ended — they consider a lot of the current conflicts in the mideast a continuation of WW I because of the fact that WW I resulted in the breakup of the Ottman Empre.)

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