Istanbul, bridging worlds
This is a city famous for bridging Europe and Asia but it bridges history and culture as well as geography. Since the days of Byzantium through to the Ottoman Empire and now modern-day secular
Turkey, Istanbul's fusion of cultures has left it with a rich heritage of palaces, mosques, museums and even a Roman Basilica. Whether you appreciate this by sipping tea on a Bosphorous cruise, diving into the museums and palaces, or enjoying the everyday life on display in the city's public parks, Istanbul ingratiates itself to residents and visitors alike.
Istanbul has a massive range of accommodation options but one favourite is the Hotel Garden House Istanbul in Sultanahmet (www.gardenhouseistanbul.com; 00 90 212 517 9111 12), based in a traditional 19th-century Ottoman house and within walking distance of the old quarter. Enjoy breakfast in the quiet garden while contemplating your day ahead. Deluxe rooms cost from €159 (Dh802) per night, including taxes. Remember to bring comfortable shoes to navigate through the cobblestones of Sultanahmet.
Built for a sultan and ideally suited for anyone seeking the royal treatment, the Kempinski Cirigan Palace (www.kempinski.com/en/Istanbul; 00 90 212 326 4646), augments the waterfront Bosphorous site with all the features - restaurants, pool, spa and Turkish bath - you would expect of a top hotel. Park view rooms in the 1980s-era wing of the hotel cost from €689 (Dh3,400) per night, including breakfast and taxes.
Istanbul is split into two by the Bosphorous, with the centre of the European part of the city also separated by the Golden Horn, but this is offset by one of the world's best public transport networks, comprising buses, taxis, ferries, light rail and, on the European side, a fairly new metro system.
Head to Sultanahmet in the historic centre of Istanbul, where the main attraction is Topkapi Palace, home to Ottoman sultans for over 400 years. The palace, comprising lavishly decorated buildings separated by courtyards and gardens, is now home to the Topkapi Palace Museum (www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr; entry 20 Turish lira [Dh41]). Highlights include the real gold used in the architecture, the spectacular view of the Bosphorus, the harem (an extra 15 lira [Dh31] entry fee applies) and the 86-carat "Spoonmaker's Diamond". Nearby is Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya). Built as a church in 537 then converted into a mosque after Ottoman occupation in 1453, it is now a Unesco World Heritage-listed museum famous for its mosaics. Directly opposite is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii), adjoining the site of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Non-Muslims can visit outside of prayer times; modest attire is required.
Also in Sultanahmet are the Grand Bazaar, the spice markets and the Basilica Cistern. The latter, built in the sixth century and featuring 300 columns, is known in Turkish as the "sunken palace" and probably best known from the 1963 James Bond film, From Russia with Love. Stop by the Sultanahmet Köftecisi (www.sultanahmetkoftesi.com) for traditional Turkish meatballs.
For a more European experience, walk from Taks¿m through Beyoglu along Istiklal Caddesi or ride along the old tram line. Along the way to Galata Tower (www.galatatower.net) stop for a bite at Saray (the palace of dessert restaurants), admire the amazing Armenian and Catholic churches and look through the tomes on sale at the Robinson Crusoe bookshop. Even the Galata Tower restaurant's toilets have an amazing view of the Bosphorus.
On the weekend, head to Ortaköy, on the European side of the Bosphorous north of downtown, for the markets lining the cobblestoned streets, all set against the backdrop of the restored Ottoman houses. You'll find locals in the back streets of Beyoglu, drawn by the plethora of entertainment and food venues along Istiklal Caddesi at Nevizade (behind the famous Flower Market, Çicek Pasaji) and French Street (behind the Galatasaray High School). Most live music venues in Istanbul are cover bands, but Peyote in Nevizade has home-grown alternative bands with new music.