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.
A comfortable bed
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.
Find your feet
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.
Meet the locals
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.
Book a table
Konyali restaurant in the Topkapi Palace (www.konyalilokantasi.com/english/esaray.htm) provides traditional Turkish meals with uninterrupted Bosphorus views and is the perfect place after wandering through the palace's pavilions and gardens. Try the lamb tandir. Mains cost from 35 lira (Dh72).
For a contemporary meal, try Zencefil on Kurabiye Street in Beyoglu, a restaurant mostly known for its vegetarian food but which also features some chicken and fish dishes. The simple cafe decor allows the focus to be on delivering signature dishes such as ayran asi (cold soup with corn, chickpea and yogurt), beans with tarragon, and eggplant with goat's cheese. Meals cost from 30 lira (Dh61).
The premier shopping precinct in Istanbul and a tourist destination in its own right is the famous Grand Bazaar (Kapali Çarsi; www.kapalicarsi.org.tr), featuring 4,000 shops amid 58 covered streets. It has been supplying Istanbul residents since 1461 and shopping sprees here have been known to last for days. Be prepared to haggle.
For more modern shopping precincts, try Bagdad Caddesi from Maltepe to Kadiköy in the Asian side of Istanbul. This tree-lined high street has everything from boutique designer shopping to department stores in malls.
What to avoid
Like many European cities, Istanbul has a reputation for pickpockets. Be wary and keep all belongings close at all times. Despite Byron's example, swimming in the Bosphorus is not advisable because of strong currents. If you do want to swim, take a ferry from Bostanci (on the Asian side) or Kabatas (on the European side) to beaches on Princes' Islands.
For many Turks, a ferry trip across the Bosphorus is a daily commute. Enjoy a cruise along the Bosphorus to the Black Sea to observe the fortresses and palaces on both sides, as well as the forests that exist further along the Bosphorus. And you can't go to Turkey without having a Turkish bath (hammam), certain to leave you clean and energised. The 300-year-old Cagaloglu Hamam (www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr) near Sultanahmet is accessible to non-Turkish visitors while not being too touristy.