Easy Escapes: Istanbul

Niki Browes visits a mighty city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia

Niki Browes visits a mighty city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia

Why go? To enjoy a mega-metropolis buzzing with life and excitement. Straddling two continents, Istanbul’s streets are rich with the smell of spices and home to multiple cultures, exciting cuisines and 24-hour nightlife. Then there’s the hammams, the bazaars, the rooftop restaurants and waterfront bars…

When? Anytime if your main focus is the history, but be warned winters are almost as cold as in Britain. If sunshine’s crucial, the best time to visit is spring and autumn when days are warm and evenings mild. July and August can be oppressive, with temperatures occasionally rising beyond 35C.

On a high: have a cocktail on the new roof terrace at the Marti Istanbul hotel

You really must… pack sensible shoes. There’s a lot to see and the traffic is notoriously bad – on a Friday night it can take hours to get to dinner – so be prepared to do some walking. Start in the oldest part, Sultanahmet. Hagia Sofia (closed Monday, ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr) is a must-see even if you’re not particularly into religion. It was completed in 537 (no, I haven’t missed a 1 from the beginning) and served as an Eastern Orthodox then Catholic cathedral before being turned into a mosque in 1453. Now a museum, it’s huge, imposing, eerily beautiful and more than a bit creepy.

Next, visit the labyrinth that is the Grand Bazaar. One of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets (it was built in 1461) there are 60 streets and a staggering 5,000 shops. It sells everything from jewellery and hand-painted ceramics to embroideries, spices, antiques – and of course, carpets. If time’s short, head to the more touristy but still captivating Egyptian Bazaar in Eminönü. Your purse will be out in seconds, but remember – bartering is a must. Offer a third of what the vendor opens with then don’t go higher than two-thirds, and have lots of small notes available as they never have change…

Turkish delights: sleep in style at Marti Istanbul

Stay at: Marti Istanbul (martiistanbulhotel.com) is in the middle of the Taksin shopping, cultural and entertainment district. Designed by Zeynep Fadıllıoğlu, the first female architect to design a mosque (the Sakirin, also in Istanbul) this is chic while remaining true to its Turkish heritage. It has a boutique feel even though there are 270 rooms and the suites have a hammam-style shower cubicle so you can wash away to your heart’s content. In September double rooms cost from £148.

Dine at: Ulus 29 (group-29.com) is a must if you want to peoplewatch Istanbul’s high society (they take glamming up very seriously). Set on a hilltop in Belek, it has fabulous views over the city – go for cocktails (£9.50) then share some tasty starters (from £7). For a more low-key experience, visit Meze by Lemon Tree (mezze.com.tr) in Beyoğlu. This is a small, cosy tapas-style restaurant that’s high on flavour and low on cost with a memorable baba ganoush – vegetarian meze dishes for two cost £2.50 while seabass baked in paper with apricot and almonds is £11.

Splash at: After a hard day’s shopping and sightseeing treat yourself to a Turkish hammam. The historic, communal ones like Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami (kilicalipasahamami.com) have separate hours for men and women, or you can go to a modern hotel version where you book it like a spa appointment – a 40 minute massage and Turkish bath at Marti Istanbul (martiistanbulhotel.com/spa) costs £57. In a nutshell, this is a bit like a steam or a sauna with an attendant on hand to scrub you cleaner than you ever have been, again and again, using a coarse mitt to remove layers of dead skin. Then you’re doused in soap. Using a pillowcase-like device, you’re covered from head to toe in white frothy bubbles. Make sure you wear some knickers if you don’t want to be completely naked, and if you don’t think you’ll be comfortable with a male masseur, say so!

Crossing continents: the Bosphorus Bridge linking Europe and Asia © Paul/Brown Rex

Bring home: Rose oil – pick some up in the Egyptian Bazaar. A small bottle of the traditional Turkish blend costs £40 but is richer and denser than less expensive imitations. For more shopping tips get a copy of Luxe City Guide Istanbul (£4.99; luxecityguides.com).

Book now: Turkish Airlines (turkishairlines.com) flies direct to Atatürk International airport from five UK airports with fares from £249 return in September. In comparison with some budget airlines it feels like a quality ride with leather seats throughout, plenty of legroom and the food fresher than usual. Istanbul has a second airport on the Asian side, Sabiha Göckçen, served by easyJet (easyjet.com) and Pegasus Airlines (flypgs.com). The best way to get from the airport depends on the time you arrive and where you’re staying with a choice of bus, train or taxi – ask your hotel for advice. Visas are required, which you can get on arrival or in advance online (evisa.gov.tr).

Info: Istanbul (£13.99; Rough Guides) is a detailed guide, useful websites are timeoutistanbul.com and gototurkey.co.uk. And if I told you Daniel Craig pounded the streets of Istanbul whilst filming parts of Skyfall would you want to go a tiny bit more? In fact Bond is a fan of the city – scenes in From Russia with Love and The World is not Enough were also shot here.

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