Istanbul: city guide. The Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, vibrant bazaars and an exotic clash of cultures

Istanbul Topkapi Palace
Istanbul Topkapi Palace
Why go

Straddling the Bosphorus Strait like a proud, bejewelled sultan, Istanbul has the unique position of having a toe in two continents, Asia and Europe. As one of the world’s greatest cities, this 2,500-year-old metropolis boasts a fascinating history stemming from the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, a legendary nightlife and a vibrant arts scene, all played out to the atmospheric call to prayer which echoes through the city five times a day.

It’s home to an abundance of world-famous landmarks including the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the awesome Hagia Sophia, the largest enclosed space for more than a millennia. Shopping fiends can haggle in one of the many bazaars, or hop on a cruise over to the Asia side and marvel at the exotic skyline of domes and minarets from a rooftop bar. A heady mash-up of two continents and two cultures, Istanbul is magical destination for a long weekend.

What to do

Istanbul Colourful lights in the Grand Bazaar flickr DougMost visitors head straight to Sultanahmet in the Old City and the golden triangle of sights; the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace, all of which are within walking distance of each other.

But to experience the real Istanbul, its best to just get pleasurably lost in the city’s narrow lanes and stumble across curious bazaars flogging rainbow-coloured chicks or witness fortune-telling rabbits performing from an old man’s suitcase in Sultanahmet.

The interior of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.
The interior of the Hagia Sophia

Sample some of Istanbul’s unstoppable nightlife in the livelier districts of Taksim and Beyoğlu, witness the mesmerising whirling dervishes, or share a fragrant apple tea and some friendly haggling with the gold-toothed stall holders in the 15th-century market place, the Grand Bazaar.

Where to stay
The historic Pera Palace hotel
The historic Pera Palace hotel was originally opened in 1892

For luxury and elegance, the historic Pera Palace Jumeirah is one of the city’s most iconic hotels. Originally opened in 1892, a painstaking renovation has been completed and the 115 rooms are beautifully appointed. The resplendent hotel is located in the heart of the vibrant Beyoglu district.

Ciragan Palace Kempinski and Bosphorus
Top-end luxury at the Çırağan Palace Kempinski

The eccentric Çırağan Palace Kempinski is built in a Sultan’s Palace, while the uber-luxe Raffles Istanbul, which opened in September 2014, is a modern alternative to the gilded, Middle Eastern decor of other five-star pads.

Over on the Asian side is A’jia, a stylish boutique hotel with contemporary interiors inside a centuries-old mansion on the edge of the Bosphorus Strait.

Where to eat

Turkey is the birthplace of the humble kebab and there’s certainly no shortage of excellent examples to be found on every street corner. Try Kenan Usta Ocakbasi in Beyoğlu which is famed for its smoky, chargrilled meats and colourful meze. Istanbul also has some excellent seafood pulled fresh from the Sea of Marmara.

Giritli, a charming bistro set in an old wooden house with fairylights in the garden offers a fixed menu of hot and cold mezes and platters of freshly grilled fish and includes all drinks, and is the perfect opportunity to sample raki, the local firewater.

Turkish deserts
Sweet delicacies at the Hafiz Mustafa

The Turkish are renowned for having a sweet tooth, sated only by sugary Turkish delight and the gooey, honey-filled pastry known as baklava. For the real deal follow the locals to Hafiz Mustafa, a lively tea salon in Sultanahmet which has been fuelling Istanbulites’ sugar cravings for nigh on 150 years.

Getting around

The old town and Sultanahmet are easiest to navigate on foot, but if you’re heading further afield then opt for the tram system which snakes through the city, or head down to the numerous ferries which line the waterfront.

When to go

Spring and autumn are perfect. Summers are hot and sticky but you’ll be guaranteed sunshine. Winters bring rain and often snow so just pack accordingly.

Don’t miss
Istanbul Topkapi Palace flickr Henrik Berger Jørgensen
Topkapi Palace: one of the major residences of the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years

The Harem in Topkapi Palace. These exquisitely tiled rooms, known as the golden cage, with domed ceilings, hidden alcoves and secret passageways, were once the women’s quarters, where the sultan’s many wives and concubines would reside.

Three things we like
Istanbul Basilica cistern
The underground Basilica Cistern featured in the James Bond film From Russia With Love
  1. Getting lost in the Grand Bazaar, a heady, scent-filled maze of 5,000 shops and stalls. Bring home authentic (and some not quite so authentic) souvenirs.
  1. Escaping the heat in the cool depths of the Basilica Cistern. This atmospheric subterranean cistern, built in 532 to service the Great Palace, features in the James Bond film From Russia With Love.
  1. Making time for tea. Nibble on tiny squares of honey-soaked baklava served with ornate silver teapots of sweetened mint tea or, for real caffeine fiends, a thick Turkish coffee.
    Something we don’t like

    The rug sellers and their hard sell. If you’re tempted to bring home a traditional Turkish rug be prepared for a lengthy and rather pressured bartering process and do your research first.

    High50 insider tips
    Istanbul minarets_Flickr-EverExplore_620
    Istanbul at sunset
    • Potter around the dusty curiosity shops in the Cucurcuma district. You may pick up a priceless relic or two.
    • Hop on a commuter ferry from the waterfront for a cheap cruise across the Bosphorus Strait to the Asian side of the city.
    • Snack of a bag of hot chestnuts or a warm, doughy simit for a couple of lira from a street cart.
    • While the top sights like Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque are easy to find and explore, it’s well worth booking a guided tour where you’ll not only get the lowdown on the city’s long and complicated history, but you’ll jump the lengthy queues too.
    • Don’t leave without having a traditional Turkish hammam. Get soaped, scrubbed and buffed to perfection in one of the city’s ornate Turkish baths.
    Need to know
    • The flight time is around three hours and 40 minutes.
    • Istanbul is served by two airports: Ataturk, which is 22 km (14 miles) from the city centre (tram, bus, Metro and taxi), and Sabiha Gokcen, 44 km (27 miles) away.
    • British nationals need a visa to visit Turkey. You can buy it when you land for £20 cash, or online before you go from Turkey’s official e-Visa (don’t purchase it from unauthorised sites). Purchasing on arrival can mean delays to boarding your flight or entering Turkey, and is being phased out.
    • Two-pin European plugs are standard.
    • The timezone is GMT+2 (+3 in the summer).
    • The currency is the Turkish Lira (TL).
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