Mosques, minarets, mosaics and mezze make the ancient city of Istanbul one of Europe’s most alluring destinations – the ultimate east-meets-west experience on the Bosphorus
The only city in the world to stand on two continents, Istanbul is a modern metropolis that is as chic as Paris, as cool as Marrakech and as hot as New York. Possibly the most unexpected of all European destinations, it now plays host to many world-class restaurants, stylish bars and beautiful boutique hotels. Add to this eye-popping Ottoman architecture, elaborate mosques and a heady mix of contemporary art museums and energetic film and fashion scenes, and you have a city that fuses east and west like no other.
What to do
Jump on-board one of the city’s water-buses for a short trip across the Bosphorus. Most depart from Eminönü, near the Galata Bridge. Once on the boat, sit down with a cup of strong tea and marvel at the hundreds of fishermen lining the Golden Horn’s riverbanks and bridges.
At the fairy tale Grand Bazaar you can stock up on exotic spices, leather goods, carpets and souvenirs. Beware: it is almost impossible not to get lost in the maze of busy streets and shopping alleys.
Take some time to explore Sultanahmet, a sightseeing heaven with mosques and palaces on every corner. Start with the breathtaking Haghia Sofia: an important church during the centuries of Byzantine rule, it is now a museum housing incredible ancient mosaics. Just across the street, past a peaceful park filled with fountains, is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii). Its elegant minarets and ornate domes are Islamic architecture at its most beautiful and majestic. Bordered by colonnades, a huge rectangular courtyard offers a magnificent view of the facade.
Stroll through the park behind Haghia Sofia to reach Topkapi Palace, once the lavish home of Ottoman sultans, now a sprawling array of museums. Wonder at the beautiful tiles and furniture of the Harem, the sultan’s private quarters, dazzling jewels in the Imperial Treasury and the ancient artefacts contained in the Archaeological Museum. The ornate gardens have wonderful views over the Bosphorus.
Take the tram north to Kabatas, from where you can catch the small funicular to Taksim Square. Join the crowds in this bustling shopping district and stroll down Istiklal Caddesi, looking up to take in the beautiful 19th-century townhouses and art nouveau apartment blocks.
Where to stay
Ayasofya Konaklari, situated behind Topkapi Palace, is the city’s original boutique hotel. The rooms are decorated with original Ottoman furniture and very comfy. Request one of the suites with a miniature Turkish hammam for a truly authentic experience. Hotel Empress Zoe may be small, but it’s a gem. Check out the garden, set among the ruins of a 15th-century hammam. On the eastern side of the city, Sumahan is a design hotel located in a former raki (a popular Turkish liqueur) factory. It has beautiful waterside views of the Atatürk Bridge and the Bosphorus, minimalist rooms with huge windows and a great restaurant serving modern Turkish cuisine.
Where to eat and drink
With its welcoming lounges and huge outdoor terraces overlooking the Sea of Marmara, Develi Samatya (00 90 212 529 0833; www.develikebap.com) serves over 30 types of kebab – go for the fistikli variety (minced suckling lamb with pistachios). For fresh seafood, head to Balikçi Sabahattin (00 90 212 458 1824; 1 Seyit Hasan Koyu Sokak) where typical Turkish fish dishes are served on tables that line the cobbled street.
You’ll find many excellent restaurants located in the downtown district of Beyoglu. Sample tasty manti (tiny ravioli served with herbs, tomato sauce and yoghurt) and pide (Turkish pizza) at Gani Gani (00 90 212 244 8401), tuck into huge plates of meze at Doga Balik (00 90 212 293 9143), or enjoy a vegetarian feast of home-made stew and fresh bread at Zencefil (00 90 212 244 4082) on Kurabiye Sokak.
Istanbul has a booming bar scene: try 5 Kat (00 90 212 293 3774; 7 Soganci Sokak), a plush hangout with a gorgeous roof terrace, or the glamorous Cezayir (00 90 212 245 9980; www.cezayir-istanbul.com), housed in a fabulous 19th-century building in Galatasaray.
Time running out?
Pop into Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir sweet shop on Istiklal Caddesi. Established in 1777, it sells delicious Turkish delights, halva and baklava, which all come in beautiful boxes.
Visit the Galata Tower (a fascinating Byzantine-Genoese building) and take the lift to the top for panoramic views of the city.
Currency is the Turkish lira. Istanbul is two hours ahead of GMT and a three-hour 50-minute flight from London.
Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; www.thy.com) has regular flights from Heathrow direct to Istanbul. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) has regular flights to Istanbul from Gatwick and London Luton.
Istanbul Tourist Office: offices at Sultanahmet Platz and Taksim Meydani (00 90 212 518 8754).
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.