For the better part of two millennia, Istanbul, Turkey, has been one of the greatest cities in the world, and it remains one of the most vibrant and magical places in Europe and the Middle East. It is not the capital of Turkey—that honor was bestowed on Ankara in the 1920s—but Istanbul is the country's largest city, its main commercial, historical and cultural center and the heart of its tourism industry.

Istanbul's centuries of empire have left an extraordinary collection of palaces, churches, mosques, architectural styles and markets from every period of history. Its unique position as a city that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, has given Istanbul an unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere.

Alongside all the life and color of the Middle East, Istanbul has a high standard of living with many of the accoutrements of a European capital, such as luxurious shopping malls and upscale international restaurants.

But Istanbul's charm is that despite its great history, it has not become a static museum-city like its historic rival, Venice. Istanbul is very much a living city, and although its traffic jams, air pollution and high-rise buildings lack the grace of its venerable landmarks, they're proof that Istanbul remains the hub of Turkey, a vital metropolis that's made up of more than ancient palaces and smoky bazaars.

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