The bridge between East and West
No other city in the world straddles two continents; nowhere else has been the capital of two empires. This vibrant metropolis of 15 million people, sprawling across the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus Strait, is unique. Founded by the Greeks, later capital of the Christian Byzantine Empire, Istanbul blossomed anew at the heart of the Moslem Ottoman Empire following its capture by the Turks in 1453.
Both empires bequeathed Istanbul a wealth of superb buildings, most concentrated in the old city centred on Sultanahmet. From the glittering gold mosaics of the Hagia Sophia to the cascading domes of the Blue Mosque, and from the cavernous depths of the Basilica Cistern to the Topkapı Palace’s mysterious harem, Istanbul simply oozes history.
Across the curving inlet of the Golden Horn from Sultanahmet are bustling Karaköy, Galata and Beyöğlu. Istanbulites and visitors alike come here in droves to shop, eat, club, visit galleries, cinemas and theatres, whilst the more adventurous catch a ferry to Asia and hip Kadıköy and Moda.
The only way is up if you begin your day in the subterranean depths of the Basilica Cistern (Alemdar Mh, Yerebatan Cd. 1/3; 00 90 212 522 1259), a 1,500-year-old building supported by 336 columns. Don’t miss the twin blocks carved into snake-haired Medusas, or the carp idling in the shallow waters.
Right across from the cistern is the greatest single building in a city full of wonders, the Hagia Sophia (Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi; 00 90 212 522 1750). It was initially a church, then a mosque and today a museum; standing beneath its 55m-high dome is a humbling experience. Easily missed are the Viking graffiti scratched on the balustrade of the south gallery, and the superb mosaic of the Virgin and child flanked by the Byzantine emperors Constantine and Justinian above the doorway as you exit the church via the Vestibule of Warriors.
Neighbouring the Hagia Sophia is the breathtaking Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mahallesi, Atmeydanı Cd. 7; 00 90 212 458 4468), famed for its glorious blue Iznik tilework interior. It is closed to non-worshippers during five daily prayers; opening times are Sat-Thurs, 8.30am-11.30am, 1pm-2.30pm, 3.30pm-4.45pm; Fri, 1.30pm-4.45pm.
A couple of minutes walk away on Divan Yolu is Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi (Alemdar Mh., Divan Yolu Caddesi, No 12; 00 90 212 520 0566), where the speciality is tasty grilled meatballs dished up with a white-bean salad and spicy tomato sauce. It’s good value and attracts as many locals as tourists.
The four courtyards and plethora of buildings and pavilions that make up the Topkapı Palace complex (Cankurtaran Mh; 00 90 212 512 0480) are a whole afternoon’s entertainment. This was the nerve centre of the Ottoman Empire. It's suitably grandiose, located on the tip of the peninsula on which the old quarter stands. Several museums, featuring treasures such as the Topkapı Dagger and a hair from the Prophet Mohammed, dot the complex, and there’s a café with great views across the Bosphorus. If the complex is busy with Turkish school children or cruise ship passengers, dodge into the intriguing and beautifully-tiled Harem section (often refreshingly empty as it’s a significant extra admission charge of TRY 35 [£5]).
Tucked away up a cobbled side street just off Sultanahmet’s main drag, Divan Yolu, is Khorasani (Ticarethane Sk 39/41; 00 90 212 519 5959). The speciality is that most Turkish of foods: kebab. Several varieties are grilled to perfection over charcoal and served up with great ovals of the thin, unleavened bread, lavas. Meze, or starters, are delicious too, with dips such as muhamara (a spicy blend of breadcrumbs, walnuts and hot pepper).
For a nightcap try the roof bar of the Arcadia Blue Hotel (00 90 212 516 96 96) on Imran Ökten Cad, Sultanahmet, which affords spectacular views over the historic, lit-up buildings of the old city, of the lights twinkling on ships in the Sea of Marmara, and across to Asia.
Take the tram to the Pazartekke stop and walk a short way to the Panorama 1453 History Museum (Merkez Efendi Mahallesi, Topkapı Kültür Parkı; 00 90 212 415 14 53). With a huge dome painted with a 360-degree panorama recreating the storming of the monumental Theodosius land walls running right behind the museum, it could be kitsch. Yet the figures and scenes are so skilfully done it is superb and really helps you ‘live’ the siege and eventual capture of the city by the Turks in 1453.
From the museum, stroll north for around a mile along the walls to the Kariye Museum (Dervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. No.8; 00 90 212 631 9241). This late-Byzantine delight, once the Church of St Saviour in Chora, is adorned with a collection of mosaics telling biblical tales in near-graphic novel style.
Take an early lunch in the lovely garden of the Asitane restaurant (Dervişali Mahallesi, Kariye Cami Sk. 6, 34200; 0212 635 7997), attached to the Kariye Hotel, right next door to the museum. It’s justly renowned for recreating flavourful Ottoman Turkish dishes; try the Mahmudiye, a rich chicken stew slow-cooked with apricots, raisins and almonds.
Walk off lunch with a half-hour stroll downhill to the wall’s end on the Golden Horn, passing the restored late-Byzantine Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, also known as the Tekfur Saray. Don’t miss the adjacent pigeon fanciers (tumblers not racers!) market if it’s a Saturday. From Ayvansaray Pier catch a ferry down this scenic waterway to the landmark Galata Bridge.
Head across the Golden Horn to the fin-de-siecle Büyük Londra Oteli for an aperitif with a view from the splendid rooftop bar. If it’s too cold up top, the ground-floor lobby bar has an authentically raffish 1920s charm, complete with caged parrot, vintage radios and potted palms. Nearby Yeni Lokanta (Tomtom Mahallesi, Kumbaracı Ykş. 66, 34433; 00 90 0212 292 2550) dishes up innovative Turkish food for sophisticated Istanbulites. As you tackle your raki-infused sea bass with cheese and rocket, listen to the gentle hubbub of your fellow diners and rest assured you’re mingling with some of the metropolis’ elite.
If you’re up to make a real night of it, walk a short way downhill into Galata for the atmospheric Nardis Jazz Club (Bereketzade Mh, Galata Kulesi Sk. 8; 00 90 212 244 5778), run by local jazz musicians and featuring occasional international acts as well as the best home-grown talent.
Given that it has been fashioned from a beautiful 19th-century Ottoman palace, it is hardly surprising that the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorous has been dubbed the 'Palace'. Rooms are elegant and have been sympathetically preserved, leisure facilities are luxurious, and the restaurant is popular with locals.
Double rooms from €378 (£322). Ciragan Caddesi, No. 28, Besiktas; 00 90 212 381 40 00
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With a stylish roof terrace, comfortable rooms, friendly staff and excellent breakfasts, Hotel Ibrahim Pasha, in the heart of Istanbul, is popular with discerning city-breakers. It's a short walk across the former chariot racing arena to the Blue Mosque.
Double rooms from €85 (£74). Terzihane Sok 7; 00 90 212 518 0395
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Büyük Londra, known in its late-Ottoman heyday as The Grand Hotel des Londres, is ideal for those seeking some serious fin de siècle atmosphere right in the heart of buzzing Beyoğlu. There are rooms to suit every budget, and it's hard to beat for location, period charm and price.
Double rooms from €50 (£44). Mesrutiyet Caddesi 53 Tepebaşı; 00 90 212 245 0670
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Forget balsamic vinegar, nar ekşisi (pomegranate syrup) is a vital ingredient of the best salad dressing going. Get it from the hole-in-the wall shops around the Spice Bazaar (Rüstem Paşa Mahallesi, Erzak Ambarı Sok. No. 92; 00 90 212 513 65 97).
Cotton peştemal (Turkish bath sarongs) make superb wraps/beach towels – try Abdulla (00 90 212 527 3684) in the Grand Bazaar.
Fortunately, most must-see historic sights stud the compact Sultanahmet district. Here the ornate pavilions of the Topkapı Palace sprawl behind the monumental Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya). Opposite rise the domes and minarets of the equally splendid Blue Mosque. The superb Süleymaniye Mosque Complex occupies a hill-top above the 4,000-plus shops of the medieval Grand Bazaar. Across the Golden Horn the conical cap of the Galata Tower marks the pulsating entertainment quarters of Karaköy, Galata and Beyoğlu; nearby the Bosphorus waterfront is home to the hip gallery, Istanbul Modern. Cheap ferry rides take visitors across to the Asian suburbs, north to the mouth of the Black Sea or up the Golden Horn to the city’s ancient land walls.
It is no longer possible to obtain a visa on arrival in Turkey. Travellers heading to Turkey must apply for an online e-visa ($20) ahead of departure at evisa.gov.tr. For more information, see: mfa.gov.tr
British Consulate: 00 90 212 334 6400, Meşrutiyet Caddesi 34, Tepebaşı, Beyoğlu. Open Mon-Fri, 8.30am-1am; 1.45pm-4.45pm
British Embassy, Ankara: 00 90 312 455 3344
Emergency services: dial 112 (ambulance); 110 (fire); 155 (police)
Main Tourist Office: 00 90 212 518 8754; goturkey.co.uk; Divan Yolu 3, Sultanahmet
Currency: Turkish Lira
Telephone code: dial 00 90, then the number, if dialling from Britain
Time difference: +2 hours summer time; +3 hours winter time
Flight time: London to Istanbul is approximately 3hr 30min
Local laws and etiquette
You are obliged to carry ID at all times, so keep your passport (or a photocopy) on you.
Never make disparaging remarks about Turkey or its founder, Atatürk.
Dress conservatively when visiting mosques, follow the dress codes posted outside each one, and avoid photographing people at prayer.
Homosexuality is legal in Turkey (over the age of 18), and Istanbul has a thriving LGBT+ scene centred on the Beyoğlu district. Many Turks are, however, very conservative and attitudes to homosexuality at best ambivalent, and the AKP government has banned the once-annual Pride march in Istanbul in recent years.
Despite increasing conservatism within the country, plenty of Turks drink alcohol, and the Beyoğlu district sometimes seems devoted to it. However, drunken behaviour is frowned upon and may land you in trouble with the police and/or irate locals.
Terry first visited continent-spanning Istanbul as an impecunious undergraduate in 1978, sparking a decades-long obsession. Today, when not leading special-interest groups around the city’s fantastic historic sites, he’ll likely be found at a rooftop bar in hedonistic Galata.