Istanbul’s Bosphorus is of course the place where Europe faces Asia, a crucial waterway fought over by a succession of powers. But it is the meeting of past and present which will be most apparent to anyone who gets out on the water, whose shoreline finds modern skyscrapers sharing airspace with distinctive slender Ottoman minarets, graceful wooden mansions shivering in the shadow of apartment blocks. One of the quintessential Istanbul experiences is hearing the late afternoon call to prayer from dozens of muezzins on each continent joining in a great buzz of sound across the water.
The entry to this important channel was a prized piece of land which the Ottoman sultans graced with their most ambitious complex: Topkapi. Seeing it from the water really highlights its strategic importance, and you can also see remnants of the walls which once encircled the entire city.
Even when the fortifications of Topkapi were rendered irrelevant, Ottoman rulers still chose to stick close to the Bosphorus. The most extensive late Ottoman palace is Dolmabahce, which dominates a sizable stretch of the European shore. Further up the strait on the eastern shore, the 19th century palace of Beylerbeyi typifies the epochal contrasts which makes the Bosphorus so fascinating. Although of a decent size, it is utterly dwarfed by the soaring pylons of the Bosphorus Bridge, one of two huge suspension bridges which join the continents.
The second of those bridges keeps a more respectful distance from Rumelihisari, a splendidly preserved 15th century fortress. On a steep plot on the western shore where the Bosphorus is at its narrowest, it is one of the most stirring sights this fascinating waterway has to offer.