The view of the skyline and New York city's hotels from the East River.

Cities Divided By water

Many of the world’s great cities are situated on oceans or riverbanks. In historical times, access to water offered clear advantages for resources and defense. Some cities have expanded across their waterways over the centuries; this act has often shaped internal and external city perceptions. Paris, Istanbul and New York are three such cities affected by the channels of water that divide them.

Water as containment

New York City’s identity is largely formed by Manhattan’s watery borders. The island will never become larger, so its sense of place simply intensifies with time. Every iconic vision of New York — Central Park, Wall Street, Times Square, Fifth Avenue or Greenwich Village — is contained within the boundaries of Manhattan. The “outer boroughs” (Queens, The Bronx, Staten Island and Brooklyn) didn’t become part of New York City until 1898; even now, residents of those boroughs still call Manhattan “the city.” The elegant Bentley Hotel is located right on the East River, with a view of the 59th Street Bridge.

Istanbul, with a far longer history, similarly concentrates its identity in the water-bounded spot of its original founding: the European side of the Bosphorus. While the city has grown in all directions, its most important historic features are contained in the section that was once Byzantium. The Grand Bazaar, Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Taksim Square are so absorbing that many Istanbul visitors only board the ferry to get a good photo vantage point. Istanbul’s Golden Horn Sultanahmet Hotel provides an immersion in the European side’s ancient glamour, with easy access to ferry landing points.

Waterways define identity

Paris is defined by its waterways. Over time, even though the “left bank” and “right bank” were part of the same city, they developed different cultural identities. Until recently, the right bank was associated with grandeur, authority and establishment wealth. The Champs-Élysées, the Louvre, the Bastille, the Palais Royal, tony nightlife and historic glory rub shoulders here. The left bank has held onto its identity as the creative heart of the city. The Sorbonne students, the artists and intellectuals who gathered in Montparnasse cafes, and the crowded backstreets of the Latin Quarter: these places convey a deeper consciousness and a more affordable human scale. The Hotel Pont Royal, located just a block from the Seine, puts you in the heart of left bank’s cultural riches.

Istanbul’s Asian side is home to residents who feel strong generational roots in its quieter, less-crowded neighborhoods. The leafy parks along the waterside and the more peaceful pace of life allow traditions to linger. At the same time, Marmara University students and the youthful culture in the Kadikoy district give the Asian side of Istanbul a sense of connection to the larger world.

Iconic crossings

In all three cities, the bridges and ferries that cross the water express the iconic city glamour. There is a fast subway line underneath the Bosphorus, but few people use it for travel. Watch the seagulls wheel in the blue mist over the heads of fishermen, or buy toast and tea aboard the well-worn ferry. These experiences are an integral part of experiencing Istanbul.

In New York, various bridges and trains offer rapid access to Manhattan, but the iconic crossings are made on the Brooklyn Bridge and the Staten Island Ferry. Thousands of pedestrians and cyclists make their way across the Brooklyn Bridge each day just for the experience, while many more ride the free Staten Island Ferry.

Paris has 37 bridges crossing the Seine, but a handful at the city’s center (Pont Alexandre III, Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts) have won the hearts of visitors and locals. Almost every view of Paris includes one of the central bridges.

With the help of Hipmunk, flights — and fascinating international destinations — are easy to find. Travel makes the world more accessible; pick three port cities in the world, and see how their identities are shaped by their waterways.

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