Grand vision: the Sultanahmet district / gototurkey.co.uk
This city of two cultures is alive with variety, and autumn is the season to see it, writes Sarah Khan

Travel essentials

Why go now?

Given its perch at the brink of two continents and its provenance as the treasured capital of two empires, Istanbul seems perpetually at a crossroads. Yet it's perfectly at ease in its myriad personalities: as a buzzing European metropolis bedecked with classical Islamic architecture. And this is the season to visit, with warm autumnal weather that won't leave avid sightseers hot under the collar.

This month Turkey's cultural capital kicks off its arts season with ArtInternational (istanbulartinternational.com; 26-28 September) bringing 80 galleries from around the world to exhibit at venues across the city, including a sculpture terrace on the pier (1) overlooking the Golden Horn. Meanwhile, the esteemed Pera Museum (2) goes "street" with an exhibition of graffiti, until 5 October (Merutiyet Caddesi 65; 00 90 212 334 99 00; peramuzesi.org.tr; TL15/£4; closed Monday). Movie and music fans are also well catered for, with the Filmekimi festival, 11-17 October (filmekimi.iksv.org) and Akbank Jazz, from 23 October-2 November (akbanksanat.com).

Touch down

Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666; turkishairlines.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh to Istanbul Ataturk, and from Gatwick to Sabiha Gokcen. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow to Ataturk, while Atlasjet (00 90 850 222 0000; atlasjet.com) flies from Luton. Pegasus Airlines (0845 084 8980; flypgs.com) flies from Gatwick and Stansted to Gokcen.

Ataturk is 19km west of the city centre. Havatas (havatas.com.tr) operates shuttle buses between Ataturk and central Taksim Square (3) every half hour from 4am to 1am for 10TL (£3).

Gokcen is 50km to its east. Havatas buses from Gokcen to Kadikoy and Taksim (3) cost 13TL (£4). Efendi Travel (efenditravel.com) offers reliable private transfers in luxury vans for a reasonable €20 from Ataturk and €50 from Gokcen to many parts of town. A taxi should cost 50TL (£14) from Ataturk and 90TL (£26) from Gokcen.

istanbul map

Click here to see a bigger image of the map

Get your bearings

The Bosphorus Strait courses through the city, dividing Istanbul's European and Asian shores. Taksim Square (3) lies at the heart of Istanbul's new city .The elegant boulevards of Nisantasi, the trendy boutiques of Beyoglu, and the waterfront cafés of Ortakoy are a world away from the majestic domes and minarets that stud the landscape of Sultanahmet, rising opposite the Golden Horn inlet. This district is home to Istanbul's most prized monuments, but things quieten down here after 7pm. The new city is where you'll find the buzziest restaurants and nightlife.

There are several tourist offices. In Taksim Square (3), you'll find one tucked inside the Hilton Hotel (00 90 212 233 05 92; 8.30am-4.45pm, closed Sundays); in Sultanahmet, head to the Hippodrome (4) between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque (00 90 212 518 18 02; daily 9am-5pm; gototurkey.co.uk).

Check in

The opulent Ciragan Palace Kempinski (5) at Ciragan Caddesi 32 (00 90 212 258 3377; kempinski.com), is set in a former sultan's palace. Doubles start at €444, room only. The Vault Karakoy (6) at Bankalar Caddesi 5 (00 90 212 244 64 34; thehousehotel.com) opened this March, reviving a former bank. Doubles from €172, B&B.

Agora Guesthouse and Hostel (7), Akbiyik Caddesi (00 90 212 458 5540; agoraguesthouse.com) has budget-friendly rooms from €80 B&B.

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True blue: the Blue Mosque is open to all

Day one

Take a view

The best vantage point is one that's been in vogue for much of the past millennium: from the top of the 1348-built Galata Tower (8), a stone spire at the heart of the cobbled Galata district, at Buyuk Hendek Caddesi (9am-8pm; 19TL/£5.40).

Take a hike

Start early in the heart of Istanbul's Old City, Sultanahmet. At the third-century Hippodrome plaza (4), heated chariot races once unfolded between the soaring obelisks. To its east lies the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (9) – known as the Blue Mosque – a 17th-century structure that's a study in Ottoman aesthetics (closed during five daily prayer times; free). Opposite, try to beat the queues at the Hagia Sophia (10) (ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr; 9am-7pm; 30TL/£8.60), an imposing sixth-century cathedral later converted into an imperial mosque. Then head north-east to the Topkapi Palace Museum (11) (topkapisarayi.gov.tr; 9am-6:45pm, closed Tuesdays; 15TL/£4.25), a sprawling complex constructed in the 15th century by Sultan Mehmed II. Meander through the ornately appointed pavilions and galleries teeming with religious relics — Moses's staff and King David's sword purportedly among them.

Lunch on the run

The focal point of the limited menu at Tarihi Sultanahmet Koftecisi (12) (00 90 212 520 05 66), opposite the Blue Mosque, is a platter of six generously sized grilled beef meatballs (11TL/£3). Save room for a helping of semolina halva (4.50TL/£1.30).

Window shopping

Get lost in the warren of lanes that make up the 15th-century Grand Bazaar (13), one of the world's largest, where stalls heave with everything from porcelain wine jugs to lush carpets and antique scrolls. If you see something you like, haggle and snap it up — odds are you won't be able to retrace your steps.

An aperitif

Return to the present day with a raki (22TL/£6.30) at the bar in the Bebek Hotel (14), Cevdet Pasa Caddesi 34 (00 90 212 358 2000; bebekhotel.com.tr), a wood-panelled institution that's admittedly seen better days. This locals-only watering hole is seemingly suspended above the waters of the Bosphorus.

Dining with the locals

For convivial dining, book a table at Karakoy Lokantasi (15), at Kemankes Caddesi 37a (00 90 212 292 4455; karakoylokantasi.com) in the rapidly evolving dockside Karakoy district. The vibrant tiles set a pretty backdrop for heaped plates of hummus with cured beef, grilled octopus, and coban kavurma (roasted meat with vegetables). Approximately 100TL (£28) for two.

Trendy Istabulites can usually be found at Munferit (16), at Yeni Carsı Caddesi 19 (00 90 212 252 50 67; munferit.com.tr), a sleek supper club serving contemporary spins on traditional meyhane (bar) mezes. Order the calamari served on a bed of black couscous, minted fava-bean purée, and grilled lamb chops with endives. Approximately 150TL (£42) for two.

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Continental drift: cruise the Bosphorus (Getty)

Day two

Sunday morning: go to mosque

There's no shortage of beautiful mosques in Istanbul, but if you're looking for something that you've never seen before, take a ferry over to the city's Asian side to visit the Sakirin Mosque (17), at Nuhkuyusu Caddesi No 2 (sakirincamii.net; avoid the five daily prayer times). Turkey's first mosque designed by a woman is a light-filled, space-age take on traditional Ottoman architecture.

Out to brunch

You could spend hours scouring the lively Bebek neighbourhood and still not find Mangerie (18), at Cevdet Pasa Caddesi 69 (00 90 212 263 5199; mangeriebebek.com). Several ruthless sets of stairs will help you work up an appetite. Your efforts are rewarded with glittering Bosphorus views, and a breakfast of fresh scrambled eggs (18TL/£5) with sucuk sausage (17TL/£5) or eggs Benedict with prosciutto (26TL/£7).

Take a ride

A boat cruise along the Bosphorus is a lovely way to soak in the European and Asian coasts simultaneously. Skip the overpriced dinner tours and buy a kumpir (baked potato stuffed with sausage, onions, olives and more) from the Ortakoy waterfront before boarding one of Ortur Deniz Turizm's hourly departures that leaves from next to the Ortakoy mosque (19), for 10TL (£3).

A walk in the park

Yildiz Park (20) in Besiktas, formerly the imperial gardens of the Ciragan Palace and a hunting ground for the sultans, is still home to historic pavilions plus a porcelain factory dating back to the Ottoman times.

Icing on the cake

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Orhan Pamuk's 2008 novel Museum of Innocence draws a vivid portrait of 1970s and 80s Istanbul. Whether or not you've read it, make sure you visit the museum (21) of the same name at Cukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgıc Cıkmazi2, Beyoglu (00 90 212 252 9738; masumiyetmuzesi.org). Open 10am-6pm daily except Monday (Thursdays to 9pm), 25TL (£7).

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