We will start our metaphorical journey in Istanbul, home to three of the greatest empires to have ever existed. Created in the early 4th century by the Roman Emperor Constantine, Istanbul (or Constantinople, as it was initially designated) was to be the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire. Over the centuries, the Roman Empire fragmented into the western, Roman Catholic half — based in Rome — and the eastern, Orthodox half at Constantinople, known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were able to fend off the growing Muslim powers from the Middle East until 1453, when the relatively nascent Ottoman Empire made significant strides into Eastern Europe and conquered the ancient city. The Ottomans’ increasingly decadent lifestyle and control finally crumbled at the end of the First World War, as the nation of Turkey was established.
In addition to this broad history, Istanbul is also notable for being at the mouth of the Black Sea and as such has been the central hub of travellers from the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and Central Asia. This clash of civilisations means that it has become the only city in the world to officially straddle two different continents, with each side reflecting their different cultures. This makes Istanbul one of the most cosmopolitan and socially developed metropolises on the planet. The Hagia Sophia, based in the historical centre of the city, reflects this cultural integration quite spectacularly. Built in 537 CE, it housed the main church of the Byzantine Orthodox faith up until the Ottoman conquest, when it was converted to the central mosque of the city. It was even a Roman Catholic church for a few decades in the 13th century, when the western half of the Roman Empire decided to raid and conquer the eastern half. Today, it is a museum dedicated to the history of the building and, by extension, the complex cultural interaction of the city. Surrounding the Hagia Sophia are multiple historically significant sites, such as the Blue Mosque (see featured photo) and Topkapi Palace.
Crossing the Galata Bridge (off which the locals fish) from the Historic Peninsula, you enter the modern, social heart of the city. From one of the oldest subterranean urban rail lines, second only to London, you can travel up from the shore to Taksim Square, site of the infamous riots in 2013. From Taksim you can take a stroll down the boutique-filled Istiklal Caddesi (or Independence Avenue), discover the side streets that lead to the spectacular views of the Galata Tower, or grab a bite to eat at the ubër-hipster neighbourhood, Asmeli Miscet. The latter especially is an incredibly beautiful and bustling area, whose rampant and infectious energy have to be experienced in person. For the more restless traveller, the ferry across the Bosphorus River to the Asian side is only a few Metro stops away from the main square. Do make sure to look out for the old train station on the riverbank as it used to be one of the ends — along with Paris — of the famous cross-continental Orient Express.
Must-see sites in Istanbul: Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, Blue/Sultanahmet Mosque, Basilica Cistern, Grand Bazaar, the old Constantine Walls