Buzzing megalopolis sits on two continents, two-hour drive from Bulgarian border
Reasons to visit Istanbul in the autumn are many, and range from the milder and sunnier climate of the Bosporus to the hope of encountering fewer tourists at the city's famous historical sites, while the nostalgic aroma of roasted chestnuts wafts around the corners of old neighbourhoods such as Galata and Beyoğlu.
The crowded streets, however, are one more reason that justifies making the trip to Turkey's largest city. Home to an estimated 15 million citizens, though the actual number is probably higher, Istanbul has stayed true to its millennia-old role as a melting pot of people of diverse stock, ethnicity, religion and way of life, becoming one of the most cosmopolitain cities in the world. A whirlpool of faces, cultures and languages, Istanbul cannot be compared to any other big city in Europe. It is the New York of the eastern hemisphere.
Swimming in the waters of Kabataş, one of the busiest ferry stops on the Bosporus
Turks make up the majority of Istanbul's inhabitants, but even this group is far from homogenous. With only about 28 percent of the population being native to the megalopolis, Istanbul has swelled with internal migrants attracted by its booming economy, daring infrastructure projects, top class universities and the promise of prosperity. Growing at a rate of more than 3 percent annually, Istanbul is now home to Turks from all corners of the country, with the most numerous communities coming from Sivas and Kastamonu.
A party at Pera Palas Hotel. Built in 1892, it was at the final stop of Orient Express and had guests like Agatha Christie
The result is a variety of local traditions thrown together and sometimes lost in the multi-cultural vortex of Istanbul. Walking the streets or taking public transport you are confronted with the sight of women dressed in everything from colourful hijabs, to miniskirts, to the omnipresent blue jeans. Men favour suits, or stone-washed jeans made by some up and coming local menswear brand.
Turkey is also the home of Kurds, Assyrians, Arabs, Bosniaks, Tatars, Laz and many other nationalities, and all of them are present in Istanbul. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, there has been a visible presence of Syrian refugees in the city. Black and Asiatic faces are also discernible in the dense human mix of Istanbul, migrants from Asia and Africa who have sought a better future in the megalopolis or are using it as a stopover on their journey further into Europe.
Street vendors are the most charming part of Istanbul's shopping experience
Istanbul, the modern reincarnation of ancient and medieval Constantinople, is also the home of Greeks, Armenians, Jews, and Bulgarians. The latter tried in vain to conquer Constantinople in the Middle Ages and settled en masse in the 18-19th centuries, when the city was the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In Bulgarian, the name of Istanbul is still Tsarigrad, or City of the Kings.
Historical turbulence and political changes in the 19-20th centuries have diminished the population of these groups in Istanbul.
Today they are only a tiny presence in the fabric of the city, but their faces and voices, businesses, homes and graveyards, churches and synagogues are still there, forming an important and visible part of the heritage in neighbourhoods such as Galata and its surroundings.
Fishing at the bridge over the Golden Horn is a favourite past time of many citizens of Istanbul
Westerners have been a part of the human conundrum of the megalopolis since the time of the Byzantine Empire. They came here as traders and businessmen, diplomats and tutors, and some of them stayed.
The diversity of inhabitants has resulted in a diversity of cultures, behaviours, religions and cuisines. In the central areas of European Istanbul mosques, churches, and synagogues rub walls in the contested and limited space. The air is thick with the scent of the typical kebabs and stuffed vegetables from the simple restaurants serving the ordinary people, while a range of fine dining restaurants vie for Michelin stars with their reworking of Ottoman cuisine. Shopping opportunities are everywhere, from the touristy lanes of the Grand Bazaar and the more genuine experience of the Misir Bazaar, to the flashy shopping malls and Istiklal Caddesi, the city's oldest and most refined (nowadays somewhat over-refined) shopping street.
Despite the bustle and modernisation, there are times when you can still feel the hüzün, or melancholy, of Istanbul, so beloved by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk
Trying to catch your breath in overpopulated Istanbul can make you think that somehow the world has managed to cram itself into a nutshell, and you are right at the centre of the pandemonium, but to lose yourself among the noise and jostle of thousands of people is one of Istanbul's greatest pleasures.