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Straddling both Europe and Asia, Istanbul is one of the world's great metropolises. Founded around 1000 BC, the colony of Byzantium grew into the Byzantine Empire's great capital of Constantinople and later the heart of the Ottoman empire. The city (officially renamed Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic) is liberally scattered with glorious remnants of its long and illustrious history, and the sightseeing here will impress even the most monument-weary visitor.

As well as the big four (AyaSofya, Topkapı Palace, Blue Mosque, and Grand Bazaar), the old city district of Sultanahmet, there is a dazzling array of other things to do throughout the further reaches of the city.

  1. Basilica Cistern -The city's most unexpectedly romantic attraction, the Basilica Cistern, offers an insight into the complicated system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul from Thrace. Constructed in the sixth century and then forgotten for centuries, the cistern that once stored the water has been fitted with lights and music. Fish flitter around the bases of the 336 columns that support the ceiling. Don't miss the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one column, proof that Byzantine builders saw Roman relics as little more than reusable rubble.
  2. AyaSofya(Hagia Sophia) - this famous church-turned-mosque-turned museum is a masterpiece. The best of the glittering mosaics lurk in the galleries upstairs. Newly opened are the tombs of several early Ottoman sultans and their slaughtered sons – before primogeniture new sultans immediately had all potential rivals killed. Before the end of the year, the city's finest carpets will go on display in the soup kitchen added after the church was turned into a mosque.
  3. Topkapi Palace - If there is one absolute must-see in Istanbul, it has to be the Topkapi Palace, home to generations of sultans and their wives, who were closeted in the famous harem. A collection of lush green courtyards and delicate kiosks, the Topkapi boasts a treasury to put the crown jewels in the shade, as well as views to die for over the Sea of Marmara, Bosphorus and Golden Horn. The secretive harem – really just the family quarters – is a warren of lushly-tiled rooms wrapped round a gem of a Turkish bath.
  4. AyasofyaHürrem Sultan Hamam - There are several magnificent steamy Ottoman bathhouses to choose from in the city, including the Çemberlitaş, Cağaloğlu, Galatasaray and Sülemaniye baths, but in 2011 for the first time it's also possible for visitors to try out the spectacular 16th-century AyasofyaHürrem Sultan Hamam right in Sultanahmet Square and designed for Suleiman the Magnificent's scheming wife Roxelana. Think acres of marble, the sound of running water echoing around stupendous domes, and a massage fit for a sultan. You'll come out almost purring.
  5. Blue Mosque - Facing AyaSofya across a small park and mirroring its domed silhouette, the early 17th-century Blue Mosque is one of only a handful of mosques in the world to boast six minarets. Is it really blue? Well, not noticeably, although all the walls are papered with fine İzniktiles. To view it as the architect, SedefkarMehmed Aga, originally intended, enter via what looks like the side entrance from the Hippodrome. Afterwards, pop your head into a building the size of a small mosque on the corner of the complex. This houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, the man who gave his name to both the mosque and the neighbourhood.
  6. Istanbul Archaeology Museums- Walk to Istanbul's three-in-one equivalent of the British Museum. If time is tight, go straight to the large porticoed building housing the glorious sarcophagus of Alexander, which depicts scenes from the life of Alexander the Great in vivid 3D. Kids will love the model Trojan Horse in the children's section. Then pop into the lovely Tiled Pavilion, one of the city's oldest Ottoman structures, beautifully restored to show off its finest ceramics. Finally, catch a glimpse of a peace treaty from 1269 BC preserved in the part of the museum nearest to the gate.
  7. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum - Housed in what was originally the palace of Ibrahim Pasha, a favourite grand vizier of Suleiman the Magnificent, and overlooking the Hippodrome where Byzantine lovers of chariot racing once brought the same passion to their sport as modern Turks do to football, this museum houses a magnificent collection of gigantic carpets from all over the country. Its basement features reconstructions of everything from a fully-fitted nomad tent to a grand interior from a 19th-century Bursa mansion. Don't leave without trying a thick black Turkish coffee in the pretty cafe in the grounds.
  8. Süleymaniye Mosque - Unmissable as you stand on the busy Galatabridge and look up at the city's historic skyline is the mosque designed by the great Ottoman architect Sinan for Suleiman the Magnificent. Newly restored to its original splendour, it is generally regarded as the finest of the 42 surviving mosques he designed for Istanbul. Unusually, it retains much of the original complex of social service buildings that came attached to it, including several madrasahs, a hospital, a library and a hamam. Locals come here to eat kurufasuliye, the Turkish take on baked beans, in a street once haunted by opium addicts.
  9. Chora Church - It's a bit of a schlep to get there but the restored Chora Church in the old city walls offers a stunning glimpse of late Byzantine splendour, its walls and ceilings adorned with glittering mosaics and breath-taking frescoes. Like AyaSofya, it has made the journey from Byzantine church to Ottoman mosque and then to modern museum, and now stands in a neighbourhood of restored Ottoman wooden houses, prettily painted in pastel colours. Before you go back to your hotel, take a look at the nearby walls that ringed old Constantinople and date back to the fifth century.
  10. Galata Tower - Watery Istanbul is a city that cries out to be viewed from on high, and you can get a bird's-eye view of everything from the balcony at the top of the Galata Tower in Beyoğlu, the modern part of old Istanbul that, in pre-Republican days, was home to the city's foreign residents. Built in 1348, the tower once formed part of a sub-city belonging to the Genoese that stretched right down to the Bosphorus. In a footnote to aviation history, it was from this tower that Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia in 1638, thus inaugurating the first ever-intercontinental flight.
  11. Vintage shopping in Çukurcuma - The winding streets of Çukurcuma, in the European Quarter – particularly FaikPaşa and ÇukurcumaCaddesi – are also known as yabancıköy (foreigner village), because they are beloved of fashionable foreigners. (Çukurcuma is also the home of The Museum of Innocence, based on Nobel prize-winnerOrhanPamuk’s 2008 novel.) Bijou stores and antiques shops sell everything from old postcards to antique glasses.
  1. Naif, Istanbul- With tables and chairs spilling out on to the street and a Mediterranean vibe, Naif is a cosy, whitewashed restaurant brightened with colorful ceramics and flowers. The food is light-touch, mainly organic and great for sharing, from tabbouleh with pomegranate sauce to keskek – wheat cooked with lamb and chickpeas in spicy sauce (about £4). • +90 212 251 5335, naifistanbul.com
  2. KaraköyGüllüoğlu- This sweetshop and cafe close to Karaköy pier is constantly filled with every imaginable Istanbulite from every walk of life, here to eat chocolate, chestnut, hazelnut or orange baklava, traditional flan or Turkish delight. The square baklava with pistachios, made with 30 layers of pastry, is particularly recommended. • karakoygulluoglu.com
  3. Dai Pera, Meze at Dai Pera - Owner-chef ArzuGurdamar calls the fare at his eclectic, chic hole-in-the- wall cafe evyemekleri – home cooking. It’s like a Turkish Ottolenghi: fresh, top-class ingredients prepared to a daily-changing menu, including smoked meats, cheeses, pies and stuffed vines. For a treat, order pit-roasted lamb and rice with onions, nuts, diced liver and currants. • +90 212 252 8099, YeniÇarşıCaddesi 54.
  4. Journey - This informal two-floor cafe is peppered with interesting books and creative folk conducting their working life at its coffee tables. It’s a perfect brunch spot in the heart of EuropeanisedCihangir, offering comfort food such as homemade pastas, pizzas and meatballs. Come for breakfast and choose from pancakes, brioche, granolas, eggs and toasties. • journeycihangir.com
  5. Ferahfeza- Ferahfezacolonises the vast top floor of a modern block in Karaköy, which enjoys views of the Galata Tower out the back and of the Sultanahmet district at the front. It’s an upmarket Mediterranean seafood restaurant, but also an excellent place for a civilised cocktail, best enjoyed from the small, Galata-facing terrace. • +90 212 243 5154, KemankeşCaddesi 31.
  6. Gaspar - Münferit’s little sister livens up a quiet backstreet in Karaköy. Its moody, dark interiors, created by layered panels of wood, are the work of Istanbul design studio Autoban. Two floors of a lounge bar-cum-restaurant-cum-club have been carved out of a handsome neo-classical building, which was once a printing press. House music predominates. • +90 212 293 6660, NecatibeyCaddesi, ArapoğlanSokak 6.
  7. Münferit- The modern take on the meyhane – the traditional Turkish tavern, scene of wild, raki-fuelled dancing and music – has caught on in recent years. Münferit is the most famous, though it’s equally renowned for its meze. It comes into its exuberant own after dinner, when the music ramps up (though you can still order black couscous with calamari). • +90 212 252 5067, YeniÇarşıCaddesi 19.
  8. The Reina Club - There are countless clubs and bars along the Bosphorus. Among the glitziest – and worth a drink for the skyline views, even if the showy side of Istanbul is not your bag – is this celebrity haunt, with several bars, restaurants and dance floors.• +90 212 259 5919, MuallimNaciCaddesi 44, reina.com.tr

Airports & Airport Transport - Istanbul has two airports, the major Atatürk International Airport (IST) near Yeşilyurt 23 km (14 miles) west of the city center, reachable by Metro (map); and SabihaGökçen Airport (SAW in Pendik/Kurtköy) 30 km (19 miles) east of the Asian shore of the Bosphorus.The two airports are 55 km (34 miles) distant, or about 70 km (44 miles) by highway.

Cable Car - Cable cars (teleferik) lift passengers from Eyüp on the Golden Horn to the hill from which French novelist Pierre Loti used to survey Istanbul. Another cable car can take you across the valley between Elmadağ and Teşvikiye in Beyoğlu.

Ferryboats - Traditional white ŞehirHatları ferryboats, and smaller ferries by TurYol, DenturAvrasya and other companies, serve shorter water routes, and are the most enjoyable way to get around Istanbul. Daily touristic Bosphorus ferries run frequently from the Eminönü ferry docks, from Kabataş docks, and from Kadıköy and Üsküdar up the Bosphorus.

Intercity Buses

Istanbul has three intercity bus terminals:

—The major Istanbul International Bus Terminal (BüyükOtogar) at Esenler on the western side of the Bosphorus, serving the entire country as well as Greece, Bulgaria, the Balkans, Europe and some Middle East destinations.

—The EmniyetGarajı near Aksaray Square and the YenikapıMarmaray and Metro stations, serves the Balkans.

—The Harem Otogar on the eastern shore of the Bosphorus between Üsküdar and Kadıköy, serves Anatolian Turkey and the Middle East.

Metro - Three lines of Istanbul's Metro system are in operation:

—M1, Airport—Aksaray: The most useful for foreign visitors is the light-rail line connecting Atatürk Airport and Aksaray Square via Istanbul's mammoth BüyükOtogar(main intercity bus terminal), at which you can board a bus to any part of Turkey or to virtually any country within 1000 miles (1600 km) of Istanbul. Change from the Metro to the tram at Zeytinburnu to reach Old Istanbul and Sultanahmet Square.

—M2, Yenikapı—Hacıosman: A standard-gauge Metro line goes north from Yenikapı near the fast ferry terminal, past Aksaray, over the Golden Horn to Şişhane (Tünel Square) and Taksim Square, then to the northern commercial and financial districts and nearly to Tarabya on the Bosphorus.

—M4, Kadıköy—Kartal: Speed from the ferry docks in Kadıköy, on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, to Kartal, 25 km (16 miles) to the southeast along the Sea of Marmara shore, then take a bus to SabihaGökçen Airport or the Pendik YHT high-speed train station.

Sea Bus Catamaran Ferries - Passenger catamarans zoom around the city at rush hour, and out to the Princes Islands several times daily. There are even Sea of Marmara routes to Yalova and Bandırma on the sea's southern shore

Taxi - Thousands of yellow taxis powered by clean-burning liquefied natural gas, parade in Istanbul's streets. You'll find them useful and not overly expensive, though the incidence of unpleasantness can be high.

  1. Hagia Sophia, Address: SultanahmetMh., AyasofyaMeydanı, 34122 Fatih. Website: http://www.ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr/
  2. ChoraChurch,Address: Derviş Ali Mh., KariyeCami Sk. No:8, 34087 Fatih. Phone: +90 212 631 92 41; Website: http://kariye.muze.gov.tr/
  3. Istanbul Archaeology Museums; Address: CankurtaranMh., 34122 Fatih. Website: http://www.istanbularkeoloji.gov.tr/
  4. Istanbul Modern Art Museum; Address: KılıçaliPaşa, Meclis-iMebusan Cad., 34433 Beyoğlu; Phone: +90 212 334 73 00; Website: http://www.istanbulmodern.org/
  5. Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum; Address: SultanahmetMh., MeydanıSok. No:46, 34122 Fatih; Phone: +90 212 518 18 05; Website: http://www.istanbul.gov.tr/Default.aspx?pid=305

Top attractions

  1. Yedikule Fortress; Address: Yedikule, 34107 Fatih.
  2. Anadoluhisarı; Address: AnadoluHisarıMh., 34810 Beykoz; Phone: +90 212 263 53 05
  3. Rumelihisari; Address: RumeliHisarı, Yahya Kemal Cad., 34470 Sarıyer/İstanbul, Turkey
  4. Walls of Constantinople; Address: Istambul, Turkey
  5. Spice Bazaar; Address: RüstemPaşa, 34116 Fatih; Phone: +90 212 513 65 97; Website: http://www.misircarsisi.org/
  6. Miniatürk - Address: Sütlüce, İmrahor Cd. No:7, 34445 Sütlüce - Beyoğlu/Beyoğlu/İstanbul, TurkeyPhone: +90 212 222 28 82; Website: http://www.miniaturk.com.tr/
  7. Grand Bazaar- Address: BeyazıtMh., 34126 Fatih; Phone: +90 212 519 12 48; Website: http://www.kapalicarsi.org.tr/

Mosque/Churches

  1. New Mosque - Address: RüstemPaşaMh., Eminönü, 34116 Fatih; Website: http://www.fatihmuftulugu.gov.tr/mekan.aspx?mekid=15
  2. Eyüp Sultan Mosque - Address: MerkezMh., Kalenderhane Cd. No:1, 34050 Eyüp/İstanbul, Turkey; Phone: +90 212 417 70 40
  3. Bayezid II Mosque - Address: BeyazıtMh., Ordu Cad., 34126 Fatih; Website: http://www.istanbulmuftulugu.gov.tr/tarihi-camilerimiz/1046-beyazit-camii.html
  4. Süleymaniye Mosque - Address: SüleymaniyeMah., Prof. Sıddık Sami Onar cad. No:1, 34116 Fatih/İstanbul, Turkey; Website: http://www.fatihmuftulugu.gov.tr/
  5. George's Cathedral - Address: Yavuz Sultan Selim, 34083 Fatih; Phone: +90 536 506 85 94; Website: http://www.megarevma.net/patrikhane.htm
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