A guide to what to do on a short break in Istanbul, including the best hotels, restaurants and attractions and how to visit the old city.
There’s never been a better time to visit this booming metropolis, standing boldly astride the Bosphorus Strait dividing Europe and Asia. With a major downturn in tourism in 2016, hoteliers have reduced their prices substantially to attract visitors in 2017. An equally major downturn in the fortunes of the Turkish lira means your pound goes much further than for many a year. Even more importantly, the city’s glorious sights are much less busy than they were, meaning the wonders of the Hagia Sophia, Topkap? Palace, Blue Mosque and the like appear even more wonderous than they did in 2016.
With a host of places to visit in the old city and, across the Golden Horn in the buzzing entertainment quarter of Beyo?lu, myriad shops, galleries, cinemas, clubs and live music venues, there’s always something to do, whatever the weather.
After a couple of days in exotic Istanbul, you’ll see why it has proven a favored location for Bond film directors, with From Russia with Love, The World is Not Enough and Skyfall all paying homage to one of the world’s great cities.
Turkish Airlines (0844 800 666; turkishairlines.com ) flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester; easyJet(0905 821 8905; easyjet.com) from Stansted; another Turkish carrierPegasus (0845 0848 980; flypgs.com) flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted. Flights take three and a half hours.
Special treat: Travellers can explore the sometimes frenetic city from a tranquil Bosphorus-front base at the A’jia Hotel (Halide Edip Ad?var Cd 27, 0216 413 9300), combining 19th-century charm with contemporary chic. With its own water-taxi service. Doubles from £140. Read the full review
Mid-range: There are boutique hotels aplenty but, in a very understated way, the Ibrahim Pasha Hotel (Terzihane Sok 7, 0212 518 0394) – just a short walk from the Blue Mosque – is perhaps the best. Doubles from £70. Read the full review
On a budget: Büyük Londra Hotel (Me?rutiyet Cd 53, 0212 245 0670), known in its late-Ottoman heyday as the Grand Hotel des Londres, is ideal for those seeking some serious fin de siècle atmosphere in the heart of buzzing Beyo?lu. Doubles from £42. Read the full review
Assuming you are staying, as the vast majority of first-timers do, in the old city, your best bet for an aperitif may well be your hotel. Many have roof bars with superb views of iconic buildings like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and panoramas over the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus. If you’re bereft of your own terrace, try the roof bars of theArcadia Blue Hotel (Imran Ökten Cad, Sultanahmet) or Nomade Hotel(Ticarethane Sok 15).
Now to dinner. Tucked away up a cobbled side street just off Sultanahmet’s main drag, Divan Yolu, is Khorasani (Ticarethane Sk 39/41; 0212 519 5959 ; khorasani restaurant.com). The speciality is that most Turkish of foods, the kebab. Here several varieties are grilled to perfection over charcoal and served up with great ovals of the thin, unleavened bread, lavas. Meze, or starters, are delicious, too, with dips like muhamara, a spicy blend of breadcrumbs, walnuts and hot pepper. Delicious kebabs from £8.
The only way is up if you begin your day in the subterranean depths of the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarn?c?; daily, £4.45), a 1,500-year-old building supported by 336 columns. Don’t miss the twin blocks carved into snake-haired Medusas, or the carp idling in the shallow waters.
Right across from the cistern is the greatest single building in a city full of wonders, the Hagia Sophia or Aya Sofya ( ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr ; £8.99, open daily). It was a church, then a mosque and is now a museum; standing beneath its 55m-high dome is a humbling experience. Look out for superb mosaics of Christ, the Virgin Mary and Byzantine emperors – and the Viking graffiti scratched on the balustrade of the south gallery. Neighbouring the Hagia Sophia is the breath-taking Sultan Ahmet (Blue) Mosque, a working mosque which makes for a great visit (voluntary donation, closed to non-worshippers during five daily prayers).
A couple of minutes walk away on Divan Yolu is Tarihi Sultanahmet Köftecisi (0212 520 0566), where the speciality is grilled meatballs dished up with a white-bean salad and spicy tomato sauce. It’s good value (mains around £6.00) and attracts as many locals as tourists.
The four courtyards and plethora of buildings and pavilions that make up the Topkap? Palace complex ( topkapisarayi.gov.tr ; £8.99, closed Tuesdays) are a whole afternoon’s entertainment. This was the nerve centre of the mighty Ottoman Turkish empire. Suitably grandiose, it’s superbly located on the tip of the peninsula on which the old city stands. Several museums, featuring such treasures as the famed Topkap? Dagger and a hair from the Prophet Mohammed, dot the complex, and there’s a café with great views across the Bosphorus.
Head across the Golden Horn to hedonistic Beyoglu and Gurme Boncuk restaurant (Asmal?mescit Sok 29; 0212 245 3170) , a lively, traditional Armenian-Turkish meyhane (tavern) where you can enjoy an all-inclusive feast (including alcoholic drinks) for £26.70. There’s cold meze, and hot starters including kalamari, followed by grilled fish. It’s a great place to try the aniseed spirit rak?, Turkey’s alcoholic drink.
Take the tram to the Pazartekke stop and walk a section of the fifth-century Land Walls of Theodosius, a fortification that kept Constantinople’s foes at bay for more than a thousand years, to the Kariye Museum ( kariye.muze.gov.tr ; £6.74, open daily). This late-Byzantine gem, once the Church of St Saviour in Chora, is adorned with a collection of mosaics, some of which tell biblical tales in near-graphic novel style.
Take an early lunch in the lovely garden of the Asitane restaurant (Kariye Camii Sok 6; 0212 635 7997; asitanerestaurant.com ; mains from £10). Attached to the Kariye Hotel, right next door to the museum, it’s justly renowned for recreating Ottoman Turkish dishes. Walk off lunch with a half-hour stroll to the wall’s end on the Golden Horn. From Ayvansaray Pier catch a ferry (£0.89) to the Galata Bridge.
Istanbul’s equivalent of an Oyster card, the Istanbulkart saves the hassle of buying tokens (jeton; £0.89) every time you travel. You save around 40p per journey after loading the card – it can be used on the tram, metro, buses, ferries, funiculars and suburban trains.
You’d be ill-advised to hire a car as accidents are frequent, signposting is poor and parking difficult.
Plenty of Turks drink alcohol. However, drunken behaviour is frowned upon and may land you in trouble with the police.
Read Terry Richardson's complete Istanbul city break guide