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Why go now?
The vast city where Europe extends a tentative hand to Asia is easier to reach than ever thanks to new budget flights. Get there before the crowds arrive for Istanbul's year in the sun as European capital of culture 2010.
The main carrier is Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; turkishairlines. com), which flies from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester to Istanbul's main airport, Ataturk, and – starting this week – from Stansted to the secondary airport, Sabiha Gokcen. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Ataturk, while easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Luton and Gatwick to Sabiha Gokcen. Pegasus (0845 084 8980; flypgs. com) flies from Stansted to Sabiha Gokcen. On arrival in Turkey, Britons must pay £10 (in cash) for a "visa", ie a stamp slapped in your passport.
From Ataturk airport, 20km west of the city centre, a train/tram combo gets you swiftly and cheaply into town. At the airport follow signs for the Hafif Metro; buy a 1.50 lire (YTL1.50/65p) token and take the train to Zeytinburnu station, about halfway to the centre. Transfer to the tram (different token, at the same price) which heads first to Sultanahmet (1), and Sirkeci railway station (2), then crosses to the newer parts of town.
Sabiha Gokcen is about 50km east of the centre, across the Bosphorus on the Asian side. An airport bus (00 90 212 518 03 54; istanbulairportshuttle. com), runs to and from central hotels for €7-€10, depending on the number of passengers.
Get your bearings
Istanbul is essentially a maritime city. The mighty Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea to the world, bisects not just the city but the continents of Europe and Asia. Almost everything of interest is concentrated on the European side – notably in Sultanahmet, with the bulky, beautiful Aya Sofia (3) and Blue Mosque (4), and the expansive complex containing Topkapi Palace (5). "Old Istanbul" is separated from the newer area to the north by the broad inlet of the Golden Horn. It is crossed by Galata Bridge (6), which leads north to Galata Tower (7) and the hub of the new city, Taksim Square (8).
Sultanahmet and the adjoining areas of Sirkeci and Eminonu have plenty of hotels. At the Orient Express (9) at 34 Hüdavendigar Caddesi(00 90 212 520 7161; orientexpresshotel.com) I paid €156 a night (including an 11 per cent cash discount) for a large room, with breakfast. It is a comfortable place with a superb roof terrace. Among the many budget options in "tourist valley", between the Aya Sofia (3) and the water, is the reliable Side Hotel (10) at 20 Utangac Sokak (00 90 212 458 5870; sidehotel.com), which has double rooms without baths or breakfast for as little as €35.
To escape the crowds, and enjoy an Asian aspect to your trip, try the A'jia Hotel (11), across the Bosphorus in the suburb of Kanlica (00 90 216 413 9300). Readers of The Independent can enjoy the Ottoman exterior, a design interior and views across to Asia on a great deal: two nights in a waterfront deluxe room costs €389, with breakfast an extra €15 per person; book through Mr & Mrs Smith: independent.co.uk/ mrandmrssmith.
Take a view
Valide Han (12) is a vast 17th-century caravanserai (trading complex) buried in the middle of the busy commercial district, and an enthralling place: a warren of warehouses and workshops, compressed around a courtyard where once merchants' camels were stabled. Soon after you wander through the gateway, a "guide" is likely to appear from the shadows and invite you to step through a passageway on to the roof, revealing a spectacular 360-degree view of the city. Tip YTL5 (£2.20) for a brief visit.
Just south from here, the Grand Bazaar (13) now comprises a vast, rambling and entertaining tourist attraction rather than somewhere to find bargains, and is probably more rewarding as a place to sip tea amid a retail frenzy rather than to flex your bargaining skills for carpets or gold; you will be no match for the local traders. The market opens 8.30am-7pm daily except Sunday.
A less overwhelming experience can be had at the Spice Bazaar (14), also known as the Egyptian Bazaar. It is an L-shaped complex lined with stalls and exuberant vendors. Colourful and aromatic spices are on sale, along with a million varieties of lokum (Turkish Delight).
Lunch on the run
Inside the Spice Market's northern entrance, a staircase leads up to Pandeli (15) (00 90 212 527 3346) – started a century ago by a Greek entrepreneur. It opens lunchtimes only (and not at all on Sundays) for good-but-pricey fare in spectacular surroundings, with a dazzling array of tilework. Try to get a seat by one of the windows looking down into the market. At the other end of the price spectrum, the Spice Market, Tahtakale Kokorec (16) at 2 Sabuncuhan Caddesi (00 90 212 519 7847) is a cheap and cheerful kebab shop, with an upstairs salon where you can relax above the madding retail crowd.
Take a hike
Start a long afternoon walk where the Orient Express train finished its trans-European journey: Sirkeci station (2), whose bleak mid-20th-century exterior conceals some fine original flourishes, and a small but fascinating museum devoted to the pioneers of the "Ottomanische Eisenbahnen" that connected Istanbul to the rest of Europe. It opens 9am-12.30pm and 1-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday, admission free.
Cross the Golden Horn on Galata Bridge (6), busy with trams and traffic day and night, offering sublime views and good fishing (the restaurants on the lower level sometimes fry the catches of the anglers above). It leads to the Galata quarter, which for a couple of centuries from the mid-13th century was a colony of Genoa.
The Camondo Stairs (17) are a much later addition: an art nouveau stairway built by a local banker. Climb them, and you are close to the Galata Tower (7), which began life as a lighthouse 1,500 years ago but was replaced by the Genoese in 1348 with this 62m-high stone tower. Between 9am and 8pm daily you can pay YTL10 (£4.50) for the lift (and a short staircase) to the top, for fine views across the city.
From Galata Tower, continue north to the start of Istiklal Caddesi, the pedestrianised main thoroughfare for the city, lined with handsome mansions. It ends at Taksim Square (8), where you can board a vintage tram for the ride back to the start of the street.
On the curve of the Golden Horn as it joins the Bosphorus, you can find plenty of waterside cafes (18) to sit and sip as the sun casts its last rays on Asia. Or aim for one of the rooftop terraces, such as the Imbat Restaurant atop the Orient Express Hotel (9): a beer costs just YTL5 (£2.20) and the food is excellent if you want to linger.
Dining with the locals
While Turkey's relatively low cost of living means that dining out is generally good value, finding an innovative venue in the Sultanahmet area has always been tricky. But the recent opening of Khorasani (19) at 39 Ticarethane Sokak (a lane off the main drag of Divan Yolu; 00 90 212 519 5959; khorasanirestaurant.com) offers a sophisticated Anatolian alternative to the tired, touristy offerings. It is also vegetarian-friendly. The YTL18 (£8) mezze makes an excellent starter for two, while grilled dishes (such as hashas kebab, a kebab with opium poppy seeds) are prepared on a large range near the entrance. Finish with künefe: like honey-soaked Shredded Wheat with melted cheese.
Sunday morning: go to the mosque
Creations of two of the world's leading religions confront each other at opposite ends of Sultanahmet Square, with some impressive monuments between them.
Start at Aya Sofia (3), the Byzantine Emperor Justinian's sixth-century celebration of Christianity. A millennium later, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, it became a mosque (and four minarets were attached). After the Turkish Republic was proclaimed, it was turned in to a museum in 1935. The mosaics are the main attraction; renovations that have been continuing on and off for five years the main detraction. It opens 9am-5pm daily except Monday, admission YTL15 (£6.50).
A millennium after Justinian built the Aya Sofia, Sultan Ahmet trumped it with the mosque named for him, but which is better known as the Blue Mosque because of the ornate tile work on the interior. Non-Muslims are welcome to visit (via the right-hand courtyard) for free outside prayer times; while these vary, you can turn up with a good chance of getting in at 9am-12.15pm, 1.15-4.30pm and 5.40-6.30pm; on Fridays, the only space is 11.45am-2.30pm.
Out to Brunch
After such spiritual sustenance, repair to the Pudding Shop (20) at 18 Divan Yolu (00 90 212 522 2970; puddingshop.com; 7am-11pm daily) for sweet or savoury nutrition washed down with ayran – the slightly salty yoghurt drink popular with locals. While the Lale Restaurant (as it is officially known) seems unremarkable now, it was a cardinal point on the hippie trail to Kathmandu.
Take a ride...
... to Asia. One reason for the Pudding Shop's (20) success was that it was within easy walking distance from the Eminonu ferry quay (21), whence boats shuttle constantly to several ports on the Asian side of the Bosphorus (flat fare YTL1.50/65p). Choose Kadikoy if you want to see the Selimiye Barracks where Florence Nightingale was based (though if you want to see her museum, you have to visit from Monday to Friday at 11am, having sent a fax in advance to 00 90 216 310 7929); or Haydarapasa if you prefer to visit the majestic railway station that takes travellers deeper into the Orient.
Back in Europe, take a walk in the park to the Topkapi Palace (5), built by Mehmet II in 1459 to mark the ascendance of the Ottoman Empire. Its fine pavilions reflect the dominance of the sultans over Europe and the Middle East until the 19th century. Open 9am-5pm daily except Tuesday, admission YTL15 (£6.50). Once inside you must buy a separate ticket (price YTL12/£5) to visit the Harem – the highlight of a visit thanks to the sense of tranquillity and delicate feminine architecture.
The icing on the cake
The Basilica Cistern (22) is a well-hidden treasure: the entrance to this magnificent subterranean temple looks like a municipal WC. But the YTL10 (£4.50) admission fee is amply rewarded when you descend to a chamber built 1,500 years ago by the Emperor Justinian – a water tank fed by aqueducts far from the city, whose ceiling is supported by more than 300 marble columns. To understand the scale of the project, imagine an underground football pitch. It opens 9am-5.30pm daily.