Bridging continents

Chic and colourful, Istanbul blends the best of Europe and Asia, says Pelin Turgut
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The Independent Travel

Straddling two continents, Turkey's largest city is part Europe, part Asia and dates back 3,000 years. Stretching along the shores of the Bosphorus waterway, it was capital first to Byzantium and then to the Ottoman Empire. Although the city lost its political status to Ankara in 1923, when modern Turkey was founded, it is still the heart of the nation, a manic metropolis of some 15 million people. Today, minimalist designer hotels and trendy bars vie for space next to bustling street markets and Byzantine ruins.

Accommodation runs the gamut from small family-owned hotels (called pansiyon) to five-star luxury. At the top of the chain is the Four Seasons hotel, a former prison close to the Hagia Sophia. The building is a beautiful example of Ottoman neoclassical architecture (00 90 212 638 8200; www.fourseasons.com/istanbul). Doubles cost from 445 lira (£190), excluding breakfast. In the same area, the charming boutique hotel Empress Zoe (00 90 212 518 2504; www.emzoe.com) has a lovely garden and views; doubles from 134 lira (£57) including breakfast. The rooms are small but individually furnished with antiques.

If period pizazz is what you're looking for, try the Pera Palas Hotel (00 90 212 251 4560; www.perapalas.com), built in 1892 to accommodate passengers from the Orient Express. Agatha Christie wrote part of Murder on the Orient Express while staying on the fourth floor; doubles from 164 lira (£70), including breakfast. The rooms are charming, although lacking in five-star frills. For a cheaper version of the same feel, try the bohemian Grand Hotel de Londres (00 90 212 245 0670; www.londrahotel.net) next door, where a double costs 105 lira (£45) including breakfast.

WHY?

Offering magnificent mosques, gilded night-spots, chic hotels and panoramic views, Istanbul is ideal for a city break. Until recently, many of the city's treasures were locked away or poorly exhibited. But as the city makes its mark internationally (it recently hosted the remarkable Liverpool-AC Milan Champions' League Final and will hold Turkey's first Formula 1 track race next month), edifices have been restored and museums improved. Everyone you encounter speaks some English, and the oft-praised Turkish hospitality has not been dented by the tourism.

Turks revel in dining and drinking. Restaurants don't start filling up until 9pm. Do sample the meze, Turkey's answer to Spanish tapas, which include delicacies such as savoury pastries, artichokes in olive oil and vine-leaf rolls. Turkish cooking makes abundant use of fresh vegetables and fish, so vegetarians are well catered for. Night-time is best experienced in the Fish Market, in the Beyoglu district, where meyhanes, raucous drinking dens, serve up meze until the wee hours. For more elite entertainment, walk just around the corner to the NuPera complex (Mesrutiyet Caddesi 147 Tepebasi; 00 90 212 245 60 70) which hosts a chic restaurant and a minimalist rooftop bar with panoramic sunset views.

Should the hustle get too much, idyllic retreats are within reach. For a few lira, you can take a day cruise up the Bosphorus, past Ottoman palaces and fortresses, stopping at the fishing village of Rumeli Kavagi near the Black Sea for lunch at any one of several excellent fish restaurants.

WHAT?

The best way to see the Old City is on foot and most sights are within walking distance from each other. The Sultanahmet Meydani Park is known as the Hippodrome; it was once the site of Byzantine sporting events. It's a pleasant spot to grab a cup of dark, sweet Turkish tea, called cay, and get your bearings. The park is dominated by the Hagia Sophia, the immense church built by Justinian I in AD537, and its 17th-century rival, the Suleymaniye Mosque, called the Blue Mosque because of its magnificent tiling. The Hagia Sophia opens 9.30am-4.30pm daily except Monday, admission 25 lira (£11). Admission is free to Suleymaniye, but it closes to non-Muslims during prayer times.

Up the road from the Hagia Sophia is Topkapi Palace, which was the political centre of the Ottoman Empire and home to Sultans and their families for centuries. Originally built in 1465, it is now a museum whose highlights include the harem and the treasury. Opening hours are 9am-5pm daily except Tuesdays. Admission to the palace, the treasury and the harem costs 26 lira (£11).

No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, a vaulted maze of some 4,000 shops selling everything from textiles and jewellery to carpets and leather goods, frequented by locals as much as tourists.

The Bazaar is a 20-minute walk from Sultanahmet, so you may want to take the Zeytinburnu Tram up the hill. Opening hours are from 8.30am to 7pm, closed on Sundays. Bazaar highlights include Egin Textile, which outfitted the cast of Troy in handwoven togas (00 90 212 528 2618); Abdulla Natural Products (00 90 212 522 9078), for plush terry-cloth towels and olive oil soaps, and Deli Kzn Yeri (00 90 212 511 1914; www.delikiz.com) for original gifts. Be prepared to haggle.

Food in the touristic old city can be disappointing. A great, cheap lunch stop is the Tarihi Sultanahmet Halk Koftecisi (Divanyolu Caddesi 12, Sultanahmet) famous for its meatballs, called kofte, topped off with helva, a buttery semolina dish with pine nuts. Another good option is Kanaat (Professor Sidik Onar Caddesi 7/3, Suleymaniye) in the wall surrounding the Suleymaniye Mosque, which serves up delicious vegetable dishes and soup.

To experience the second largest covered bazaar in the city, visit the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi). This 17th-century complex began as a vast pharmacy and is today filled with stalls selling dried fruits, nuts, spices, and various concoctions labelled "Turkish aphrodisiacs".

At the end of a long day, the hamam or Turkish bath, is the best place to unwind. It includes a grand, steamy hot room for soaking and massage, a warm room for washing and a cool room to relax in. At Cemberlitas Hamam, the best in town, a Turkish bath with massage costs 28 lira (£12) (00 90 212 522 7974; www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr).

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

Boncuk at Nevizade Sokak 19, Beyoglu (00 90 212 243 1219) is one of the best meyhane, a raucous eatery where locals imbibe raki, an aniseed-flavoured drink, and partake of meze with an Armenian touch. Call to reserve a table outside.

Balikci Sabahattin at Cankurtaran Sait Hasan Kuyu Sokak 1, Sultanahmet (00 90 212 458 1824). There are no menus at this popular up-market fish restaurant in the Old City; waiters help you choose from options which change daily. Try the house special, tahini ice cream.

Bambi at Siraselviler Caddesi, Taksim Square, is an ultra-cheap 24-hour stand-up joint where locals go for the best doner kebab:

sliced grilled meat served in fresh bread - an essential after late-night partying.

Hamdi at Tahmis Cad, Kalcin Sok 17, Eminonu (00 90 212 528 0390) specialises in meat, particularly of the spicy south-eastern Turkish variety, like meatballs with pistachio, pomegranate salad and eggplant kebab. Served with endless rounds of freshly baked flatbread.

Saray at Istiklal Cad 102-104, Beyoglu (00 90 212 292 3434), also at Tesvikiye Cad 105, Tesvikiye (00 90 212 296 1617), is a dessert shop notable for baklava and milky sweets, as well as other exotic, syrupy fare such as "sultan's navel" or "nightingale's nests".

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