Ah, Istanbul. The city has featured in hundreds of novels, poems, songs and movies – there’s majestic beauty and diversity here. Even in a short walk, one is likely to encounter anything from historical artifacts to ultramodern shopping malls. The dynamism of the city is fed by a rich history that brings antiquity to the present day, blending cultures and traditions. Every corner of Istanbul has its own unique stories and, in this 24-hour city with more than 16 million inhabitants, life never stops.
If Istanbul is the heart of Turkey, then the Bosphorus Strait is the heartbeat of Istanbul. And while the Bosphorus is a familiar sight to both residents and visitors, its beauty remains eternally breathtaking.
How the Bosphorus got its name
Bosphorus is a combination of the Greek words ‘bous’, which is cow, and ‘poros, which means a road or a passage. In other words, ‘Cow Pass’.
According to the most circulated tale, the origin of the phrase is this: Zeus, known for his flirtatiousness, falls in love with Io, the daughter of a river god, Inahos. Zeus’s wife, Hera, discovers his affair and attempts to interrupt the couple during one of their secret meetings. To escape Hera, Zeus transforms himself into a cloud and Io into a cow, but Hera is not deceived. She sends a persistent and annoying fly to plague Io. Io, now a cow, begins fleeing from the fly and part of her route included crossing the strait now known as the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, and separates the Asian and European continents. The 30-kilometer-long waterway falls between the line connecting the Anatolian Lighthouse to the Rumeli Lighthouse in the north, and the line connecting the Ahırkapı Lighthouse to the İnciburnu Lighthouse in the south. For Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia and Ukraine, the Bosphorus is the only outlet from the Black Sea: If the Black Sea were a house, the Bosphorus would be its door.
The strategic importance of the Bosphorus is reflected in Istanbul’s heritage. As a Greek city-state in the 7th-century BC, what is now Istanbul also served as a capital for the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The 600-year-old Anatolian Fortress, on the Asian side of the Strait, was erected by Beyazit I to block supplies coming from Byzantium via the Black Sea. About 50 years later, magnificent Topkapı Palace was built to overlook the Bosphorus. In 1853, the Ortaköy Mosque, designed by Nikogos Baylan, rose along the Bosphorus and remains one of Turkey’s most important works of baroque architecture. And these are just a few of the treasures on the Bosphorus.
There’s also Beylerbeyi Palace, Rumeli Fortress, Dolmabahçe Palace, Küçüksu Pavilion, Çırağan Palace, Beylerbeyi Mosque and, of course, the incomparable Hagia Sophia, which offers one of the most iconic views in history.
The Ottoman-era mansions along the Bosphorus shore are considered the exemplars of that period’s architecture. Approximately 360 mansions on both sides of the Bosphorus have survived from the past to the present – symbols of history as well as visions of tranquility.
Combination of East and West
The Indian poet Tagore considered Europe a machine and Asia, the spirit.
Although the Bosphorus separates Asia and Europe, it also unites west and east in a manner that is completely unique to Istanbul. Intersecting in some ways, blending in others, east and west genuinely meet here and this cultural diversity is amply demonstrated along the Bosphorus. From street musicians to cuisine, the traditional coexists with the contemporary.
What you may see: a saxophonist playing jazz tunes, a wind ensemble with classical compositions, or musicians playing traditional instruments such as the baglama or santoor.
What you may eat: an Italian meal at a posh restaurant with a Bosphorus view, a kokorech (tripe) sandwich from a low-key café or stuffed mussels from a street vendor.
From Üsküdar’s Çengelköy to Anadolu’s Kavağı, a stroll on the Anatolian side delivers the same diversity. Kuzguncuk’s stately historical homes, Çengelköy’s rustic cafes and the forest backdrop of Kavağı.
On the European side, begin from Karaköy and follow the coastal road to the vibrant neighborhoods of Beşiktaş, Ortaköy, Arnavutköy, Bebek and Sarıyer, with a break in the serene Emirgan Grove. If you feel overwhelmed by the crowd, head towards İstinye, Yeniköy, where time flows more slowly.
The Bosphorus also features some of the most picturesque bridges in the world: the popular Galata Bridge, with restaurants and fishermen; and the First, Second and Third Bosphorus Bridges, some brightly lit at night and all offering magnificent views from above and below.
Walking, driving or even bicycling – all are fine ways to see the coast. But don’t forget the ferries!
The Bosphorus is not just for show: it is a multifunctional seaway that carries people, cargo, cars, animals and more along its waters. Istanbul residents commute via the many Bosphorus ferries – a more pleasant route than the crowded roads – while tourists can take advantage of boat tours along the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus also transports flora and fauna. The ecosystems of the Marmara and the Black Sea meet in the Strait with four different currents – a rare phenomenon outside of the oceans. There are more than 130 species in the Bosphorus, including dolphins!
A quote from Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk describes perfectly what the Bosphorus means to Istanbul: “I sometimes think life can’t be that messed up. After all, one can finally take a walk down the Bosphorus.”
Stories knock at your door!
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