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Majestic link betwen east and west

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Once it was a distant, exotic destination, a city bridging two continents at the terminus of the Orient Express. Now Istanbul is close enough for a weekend break, just four hours away by Easyjet. The writer jams his schedule with unmissable things to do in one of the great historic cities of the world.

Continental drift

It ranks alongside the Staten Island and Sydney Harbour ferries as one of the
wonder city trips on water. Istanbul's commuter ferries ply across the
Bosporus from Asia to Europe in 20 minutes, for about 75p. East to west
(Kadikoy to Eminonu) gives the best view of the old city, crammed with
blockbusters from 2,500 years of history on seven hills. The ferry heads for
the old city,Sultanahmet, dominated by the Topkapi Palace, the vast dome of
the Aya Sophia, and the fabulous Blue Mosque with its six minarets shimmering
on the hill. Often the ferry will pause, to let some great rusty freighter roll
down the sea lanes from Russia to the Mediterranean. This is the perfect
entry to the city from Sabiha Gokcen Airport, which EasyJet uses. (Take the
bus outside the terminal to Kadikoy.)

Old city stay

Forget cloned international hotels in old Istanbul. Find a place that has
fledged from the tangle of ancient streets, full of twisty corridors, rooftop bars
and balconies facing the glorious floodlit Blue Mosque at night, and the endless
parade of ships gliding past on the water below. Our favorite independent
boutique hotel is the Empress Zoë, fashioned from old townhouses in the
historic Sultanahmet.
The lobby is a sunken vault, lined with ancient stone. We climbed tight spiral
staircases to our room, hanging with local textiles, in the hotel’s deliciously
cool core. We took breakfast - pastries, fruit, dates, yoghurt, cheese and
olives - in a quiet corner an enclosed garden, by a burbling fountain, under
the ivy-clad ruins of a Turkish bath house. Double room: 110 euros, with a
discount for cash.
0090 212 518 25 04.

Vast vision

Aya Sofya is one of the world's A list, tingle-factor buildings, a direct link back
through the city's tide of history, to when the Emperor Constantine saw the
city as the replacement for Rome. It glitters with superlatives. This was the
world’s largest cathedral from its opening in 537 until they built Seville
cathedral in 1520. It remains the fourth biggest. It was a Christian cathedral
for 900 years until the Turks took the city (then Constantinople) in 1453. It
was a mosque for the next 500 years, until deconsecration in 1935.
Inside this vast square building, columns and piers rise over massive
Byzantine mosaics, up to a glorious architecture illusion. The dome seems to
float weightlessly on a circuit of 40 arched windows, which flood the colourful
interior with light.

Wonderful wander

This is a huge city, but you can take in its old heart in a lazy meandering day.
on foot, with help from ancient and modern public transport. First take the
new tram up to the Roman Valens Aqueduct. Saunter on to the 500 year old
Grand Bazaar, the model for Turkish bazaars everywhere, with over 3000
shops in 60 lanes. Grab a fish sandwich on the waterfront, cross the Golden
Horn on the Galata Bridge and ride the Tünel, the world's second-oldest
subway after London's Underground, up to the smart new Beyoglu shopping
district. Then back over the bridge for the city’s ultimate pampering
experience, a Turkish bath in the ancient Cagaloglu Hamami. Then relax in a Seraglio Point tea garden
under the Topkapi Palace, as the evening ferries zing across the Bosporus.

Dine in Style

Turkish waiters on “entice-you-in” duty are some of the most persuasive in
the business, and the choice of small, family restaurants they offer is cosmic.
Kumkapi, below the old city, and Nevizade Sokak in Beyoglu, are awash with
fish restaurants. but you may not even need a main course. Choosing mezes
(like tapas, only bigger) -– such as sigara böregi (feta and herbs in “cigars” of
leaf-thin pastry), grilled aubergine with garlic yogurt, and vine leaves stuffed
with pine nuts, rice and raisins - from the cabinet is a Turkish institution.
Degüstasyon in Beyoglu (00 90 212 2920667) has a huge choice. In Komsu
(Nisantasi shopping district, 00 90 212 224 9666) they are modernising the
old staple of lamb kebab with sogan kebabs (lamb with pomegranate sauce)
and komsu kebab (with pastrami and cheese).

Royal retreat

Day trips from Istanbul ‘s flat-out commotion range from the day long coach
journey to Troy (around five hours), to the quick flit to the city’s nearby car-
free retreat, the Princes' Islands. The ferry takes 45 - 60 minutes from Sirkeci,
in the old city, to this string of nine islands just off the Asian coast. They take
their name from the troublesome royals exiled here by sultans down the
centuries. Istanbul's rich followed, building the elegant clapboard mansions you
can see today among the pine groves.
Büyükada and Heybeliada, the biggest and most easily visited, have
restaurants and cafes, and a carbon-free 19th Century way of travel- a tour
in a horse-drawn phaeton. They hire bicycles, too. Or walk to Büyükada’s
working peak-top Greek monastery, dine in the monastery's simple restaurant
and enjoy the view.

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