City Life: East meets West
Straddling Europe and Asia, Istanbul is the historic crossroads between East and West, a city of minarets and palaces looking resolutely to the future.
Climbing the hills around the Golden Horn and overlooking the beautiful Bosphorus, Istanbul cradles the wonders of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, from the breathtaking Topkapi Palace where sultans and their harems redefined the word 'decadence', to the looming Hagia Sophia - part cathedral, part mosque and totally breathtaking. Today, the indulgent lifestyle once enjoyed only behind closed palace doors is available on every gilded street. Istanbul has some of the coolest bars and clubs - whichever continent you're standing in - as well as fashion-forward shops and delicious cuisine fit for a sultan himself.
Driving is a bad idea; the twisting streets are clogged with traffic and it's very difficult to navigate - stick to taxis. There are also express buses between Taksim and Atatürk airport.
Istanbul Atatürk (www.ataturkairport.com) is the main international hub, a 30-minute cab ride from the city centre (without traffic). The journey costs about £25 - try to avoid flights that arrive or depart around rush hour. From the UK, there are regular scheduled flights from London and Manchester to Atatürk. EasyJet flies from Luton daily to Sabiha Gökçen airport (www.sgairport.com), 30 miles from the city centre. Remember to bring a £10 note for your Turkish visa on arrival at the airport.
Istanbul has a modern and efficient metro and tram system. The network goes as far as Atatürk airport, and is as fast as a taxi in heavy traffic.
Country for Turkey: 90. Istanbul: (0)212 or (0)216.
The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macauley; Istanbul (Memories and the City) by Orhan Pamuk; Strolling Through Istanbul by John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd.
Do go / Don't Go
Istanbul is hot and humid in the summer, while winter may even see heavy snowfalls. Spring and autumn definitely see the city at its best, with fine weather and milder temperatures.
Turkish cuisine has a noble heritage, developed over centuries and honed to please the Ottoman sultans; you may have to re-evaluate your opinion of kebabs. The most traditional of Istanbul's eateries are the taverna-style meyhane, where you can sample tapas-like meze - best moistened with a mouthful or two of Turkey's fearsomely strong raki; try to get Tekirdag rather than the more ubiquitous Yeni Raki, and remember to water it down as you would Pernod or ouzo. The city also has a burgeoning restaurant scene with excellent fresh fish, and Asian, Armenian and Mediterranean fusion menus, and there's plenty to tempt the sweet-toothed, from pistachio-packed baklava and kadavif pastries to lokum (Turkish delight) - ideal with a smooth, super-strong Turkish coffee.
Yellow taksis are relatively inexpensive but have the infuriating tendency to refuse to take you somewhere if they can't face the traffic. During the day, the meter displays gündüz (day rate). From midnight to 6am, the gece (night rate) is in effect, adding 50 per cent to the cost (if the meter is not on, get out and take another taxi). Don't expect your driver to know where he's going; ask your hotel to write down the address.
A tip is expected in restaurants, and 10 per cent is standard. If a service charge is included, an additional sum is still expected. Taxi drivers, however, do not expect to be tipped.
Turkish Lira (TL). US dollars and Euros are also commonly used.
Women should pack a long skirt and shawl and men long trousers if you plan on visiting Istanbul's many mosques (some mosques, such as the Blue Mosque, hand you sheets to wrap around yourself before you enter if you are inappropriately dressed). It gets a bit chilly by the water at night and many restaurants and water taxis have shawls/blankets/wraps; ask for one if you are cold.
Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) was the great cathedral of Byzantium for over 1,000 years, and was the greatest mosque in the Ottoman Empire for five centuries. Now a museum, it's still one of the world's most fabulous buildings. Look out for the dips in the floor on either side of the doorway, worn in by guards' feet over the ages. Next-door is the Topkapi Palace with its opulent harem, and across the park is the Blue Mosque. For contemporary culture, visit Istanbul Modern, an art space symbolising Istanbul's desire to be taken seriously as a progressive, creative hub (www.istanbulmodern.org).
The Grand Bazaar is a warren of hundreds of shops selling carpets, jewellery, touristy junk and textiles. It's a good place to pick up caviar and gold. Brush up on your bargaining/haggling skills before you go and carry a Turkish newspaper under your arm (make sure it's visible!) to deter aggressive salesmen. If you can't hack the haggling, head straight to Kurtoğlu (0212 519 4003), where Hasan Selamet sells beautiful patchwork-style kilims made from old and new textiles (have an apple tea on the house while you're deciding which rug to buy). Also in the Grand Bazaar, Abdulla Natural Products (0212 522 9078), next-door to Fes Café, sells traditional soaps, silk shawls, wool textiles and cotton hammam-style towels. The Beyoğlu area is the Soho of Istanbul, characterised by steep narrow streets lined with bric-a-brac, vintage and retro shops. ; Faik Pasa Yokusu is one of the best roads for rummaging. For designer threads and boutique shopping, head to Teşvikiye Caddesi and Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi, about a mile north of Taksim Square. The Kanyon centre (www.kanyon.com.tr) in Levent even has a branch of Harvey Nichols.
There are several panoramic bars and restaurants on the top floors of the city's modern high-rise buildings: Mikla (0212 251 4646), 360 (0212 251 1042) and NuTeras (0212 245 6070) are three notables.
Opposite the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque with its soaring minarets and intricate stonework is one of the city's main landmarks. Remember to dress modestly or wrap yourself in one of the sheets provided. If you're feeling confident, go to General Yazgan Street and challenge the locals to a game of backgammon - you won't stand a chance.
April Silver screenings on the Golden Horn for the Istanbul International Film Festival. May The F1 circus comes to town for the Turkish Grand Prix (www.formula1.com). June/July The International Istanbul Music Festival is the city's most prestigious cultural event featuring ballet, opera and classical music concerts. Events are often staged in the city's historic landmarks, including the Topkapi palace (www.iksv.org). July Istanbul's jazz festival attracts acts from Robert Plant and Robin Gibb to Norah Jones. November Istanbul literally comes to a standstill on the 10th of the month for a minute's silence to commemorate the death of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. For more details of upcoming events in the city, go to www.istanbul.com.