A tale of two continents

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 August, 2011, 12:00am


One minute you are in Asia, the next you are in Europe. If you're in Istanbul, that is. The Turkish capital spans two continents and is one of the world's few trans-continental cities.

To travel between the continents, you can take a bus, a tram or a ferry. Or else, you can just walk across the bridges over the Bosphorus Strait while you inhale the salty sea air as you cross the Europe-Asia boundary.

Turkey's largest city, Istanbul is rich in history. It was once known as Byzantium during the Byzantine period, and later as Constantinople. Historical monuments are all over the city, alongside modern buildings. They are so conspicuous, you might not even realise you're looking at one.

On your way to lunch, for instance, you might pass under arches built in the fourth century.

This predominantly Muslim city has more than 2,500 mosques, including the Sultan Ahmed Mosque. Also known as the Blue Mosque, it has earned its name because of its striking bluish interior decoration. For more than 400 years, it has attracted devout Muslims from near and far. Worshippers continue to offer prayers there under the gaze of curious tourists.

When you visit a mosque, make sure to wear knee-length trousers and shirts that cover your shoulders. You should also take off your shoes before stepping into the sanctuary.

Facing the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, another historic building that draws scores of visitors. Now a museum, the Hagia Sophia was the most extravagant church in Byzantine times.

Muslim Turks converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque when they captured the city in 1453. After the founding of the Republic of Turkey in the early 20th century, the building was turned into a museum and some of its earlier decorations, like mosaics, were restored.

There's even history underground; the Basilica Cistern, or 'Sunken Palace', lies in the depths of Istanbul.

The underground cathedral-sized chamber, which is more than 2,000 years old, served as a location for the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love. A forest of 336 columns supports its ceiling. Two columns feature base blocks brought in from a Roman building, which show the visage of the Greek goddess Medusa, one facing right and another upside down.

The Topkapi Palace is also a definite choice on any visitor's itinerary. The opulent palace served as the residence of Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years. Visitors must use plastic covers on their shoes and are not allowed to touch anything. The palace, which has some of the world's largest chandeliers, offers insights into the extravagant lifestyle of the sultans.

Nearby, the 500-year-old Grand Bazaar awaits with handicrafts, fine rugs and Turkish delight. The bazaar is a maze of more than 20streets, where it is easy to lose your way. It is home to more than 5,000 shops.

In the city centre, Istiklal Avenue mixes modern designer stores and high-end boutiques with a touch of history. A 19th-century tram trundles along the avenue, which also boasts the world's second-oldest subway station.

In Istanbul, you can step not only from one continent to another, but also back and forth in time.



Hong Kong permanent residents need not get a visa to enter Turkey.

Health and safety

Muslims fast from dawn to sunset during the month of Ramadan. As the holy month is based on the Islamic calendar, it is at a different time each year. Be respectful and don't eat or drink on the streets. Food from street vendors is not recommended. You should drink only bottled water instead of tap water.


The official currency of Turkey is the lira. US dollars and euros are also accepted in most places. At current rates, 1TL (Turkish lira) is worth HK$4.3, with US$1 worth about 1.78TL. Liras can be bought at the airport and in some hotels.

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