Travel: A weekend in two continents: Istanbul on pounds 250

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The Independent Culture
It's Friday, you're at Charing Cross; is pounds 250 enough for a weekend in Constantinople? Plenty, says Selina Malhotra.

Down payment

Catch the Connex SouthCentral train to Gatwick North, pounds 15 return (timetable 0345 484950). Azerbaijan Airlines (0171-493 2281) has a flight at 8.25pm on Friday (arrives 1.55am local time), returning on Tuesday at 7.50pm, for pounds 154 including tax. Your visa to Turkey, payable on arrival, is a further pounds 10. This leaves pounds 71 to spend in Turkey's largest city.

Instant briefing

The Turkish Tourist Board in London (0171-629 7771) offers a labyrinth of touch-tone options. For tourist brochures call 0891 887755 (a premium- rate number) and leave your details. A better bet, though, is to seek information and advice once you're in Istanbul. Ministry of Tourism offices in the city are located in the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet Square, the Old City, and a kiosk in Taksim Square, the New City (9am to 5pm).

Arriving at Istanbul in the early hours of the morning has its disadvantages - the first being that the airport bus will not be running. A taxi should cost you about pounds 7 and take around 20 minutes to get into town.

Rest assured

Impecunious Independent writers nominate the Mavi Guest House (00 90 212 516 5878), round the corner from Topkapi Palace, and the Aladdin Guest House, just south of the Blue Mosque (00 90 212 516 2330), where you will pay about pounds 10 a night including breakfast.

Must see

Istanbul is a place whose startling location transcends any individual sight. It sprawls across the continental divide (Europe-Asia) of the Bosphorus, a waterway bustling with commuter ferries, cruisers and local fishing boats. From any point on the European side a trip to an opposite wharf on the Asian bank will take about 10 minutes and will cost a few pence, a bargain for a stretch of relative silence and new perspectives of an astonishing city.

Istanbul's prime sights are, fortunately, located within walking distance from each other around Sultanahmet Square (all of them are open over the weekend from 9.30am to 4.30pm). Here you'll see the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia (closed Monday) - which over the centuries has metamorphosed from cathedral to mosque and is currently a museum - and Topkapi Palace (closed Tuesday), a sprawl of Ottoman regality built in 1493 by Constantinople's first sultan, where a highlight for many is the Harem.

If you want to dip into real Turkish life, try a bit of hot steam and a cold plunge - Turkish baths are single-sexed and will cost about pounds 6 (including massage). Cagaloglu Hamami is 200m from the Hagia Sophia and once boasted the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II and Florence Nightingale.

Must buy

Must eat

Must drink

Night moves

If the belly dancing laid on by the larger hotels and restaurants fails to appeal, head for Sultanahmet where you'll find a wide choice of jazz and cafe bars.

A popular and inexpensive choice is Rumeli Cafe which has live music on weekends and a discount at happy hour (6-9pm).