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Mystery, minarets and meze in the Turkish metropolis
It's hard not to talk about Istanbul in superlatives. The modern city, now the eighth-largest in the world, pulls off the feat of straddling two continents and two cultures (Europe and Asia), along with the history of three great empires (Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman).
Even its architecture is staggering. In Sultanahmet Park alone, each ancient structure outdoes the next. Take the sixth-century Hagia Sophia (www.ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr): it was the largest Christian church in the world for a millennia, then a mosque and now a museum, and its 15-storey dome is nothing short of awe inspiring. Across the way, the Blue Mosque (bluemosque.co) has a stepped-dome design that was deemed un-buildable in 1609 and not four, but six minarets that are a hallmark of the city's skyline. And the elaborately decorated Topkapi Palace (www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr), the height of Ottoman skill, was once home to the sultan's 5000-person retinue – including, of course, his harem.
Right next door is the often-overlooked Istanbul Archaeological Museums (Alemdar Caddesi Osman Hamdi, Sultanahmet; www.istanbularkeoloji.gov.tr). It chronicles the life of the city with artifacts dating back to 6000 BCE. Where else would you see a treaty signed by a local Hittite King and Egyptian pharaoh Ramses?
While the city's identity is rooted in 2500 years of history, that's not to say that Istanbul is stuck in the past. Smartphone-toting twentysomethings stroll past cafés and boutiques on pedestrian Istiklal Caddesi street in Beyoğlu, or hit the chic boutiques in the SoHo-ish district of Nisantasi.
Art lovers head to the Tophane district, where galleries like Depo, Non and Daire attest to a hip young arts scene. Over in Karaköy, in a converted warehouse, the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art (Antrepo No.4, Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Liman Işletmeleri Sahası, Karaköy; istanbulmodern.org) focusses on works by contemporary Turkish artists.
A bazaar encounter
You don't need to settle for a tacky T-shirt here: there are plenty of souvenir options among local crafts and even shopping is an age-old pursuit in this town. The Grand Bazaar (Beyazit district; grandbazaaristanbul.org) was probably the world's first shopping mall and it's still going strong after 500 years. There are 5000 shops here brimming with carpets, ceramics, copper, scarves and jewellery. Be sure to scout around until you find a store with good-quality pieces: there is plenty of tourist dross here as well.
Turkey's carpets are stunning and deeply tied to tribal heritage. If you plan to buy one, read up first because the options (wool, silk, cotton, types of knots) can be dizzying. Avoid "antique" rugs which cost much more and may not even be legit. The Ministry of Tourism runs a fixed-priced carpet shop at Dösim Hali Kalim (opposite Topkapi Entrance, Haseki Sultan Hamam, Sultanahmet Park), or try the Istanbul Handicrafts Center (32 & 54 Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, Cağaloğlu; istanbulhandicraftcenter.com).
The coral red and cobalt blue of Iznik tiles were the height of Ottoman craft from the 15th to 17th centuries. Made exclusively in the town of the same name, this delicate technique was only recently revived. Pieces are available at the Iznik Foundation (Kuruçesme Öksüz Çocuk Sok. 14, Besiktas; iznik.com).
Looking for something lighter and less breakable? White copper is a classic material for tea pots and those wide serving platters that double as tray tables. For the best prices and selection, head to Çadircilar Caddesi street, near the Grand Bazaar.
Or for the lightest souvenirs of all, try the colourful and fragrant Egyptian Spice Market (Eminönü district) to stock up on Turkish apple tea and a panoply of spices and sweets. Watch where the locals go (usually shops with less flashy storefronts), and head there.
A sultan's feast
It may not be the first thing you think of, but food here begs exploring as much as the winding streets of Sultanahmet district. Hot chefs from the UK, US and Japan are infusing progressive kitchens with a new twist. At Mikla (Marmara Pera Hotel, 15 Meşrutiyet Caddesi, Beyoğlu district; miklarestaurant.com), Swedish-born Mehmet Gürs is drawing raves for his new Anatolian cuisine. Bonus: the meal comes with unbeatable rooftop views.
If you're looking for something a little more old school, try Asitane (6 Kariye Cami Sokak, Edirnekapi district; asitanerestaurant.com), which serves Ottoman dishes based on recipes from Topkapi Palace.
For a home-cooked meal, head to a traditional lokanta (family-run eatery) like Ciya Sofrasi (43 Guneslibahce Sokak, Kadiköy district) which serves excellent slow-simmered stews and casseroles.
Local flavours can come cheap, too, thanks to the city's healthy "fast food." Köşebaşı Ocakbaşı (5 Bronz Sok, Nisantasi district; kosebasi.com.tr) has some of the best kebaps and mezes (appetizers) in town in a simple, stylish setting. Or head to the waterside for a sandwich at Tarihi Eminönü Balikçisi (Galata Bridge, Bakirköy district; eminonubalikekmek.com), a boat-cum-food stand that grills fresh fish quay-side.
As for the best stand-a-spoon-in-it Turkish coffee? Locals swear by unassuming Mandabatmaz (1/A Olivia Gecidi, Beyoğlu district), which receives fresh beans daily.
For more on travel to the city, check out english.Istanbul.com.
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