Istanbul, Turkey

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The best things to do when visiting Istanbul

Much like a football match, a visitor’s Istanbul is very much a city of two halves. Most come primarily for the ‘first half’, or the old city, which is wonderfully located on a hilly peninsula pointing across the Bosphorus to Asia. It’s studded with more compelling sights than any city has a right to – not least the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace. Yet the ‘second half’, or the vibrant entertainment quarter centred on Beyoğlu, Galata and Karaköy, with its modern art galleries, chic restaurants, bars, clubs and shops galore is just as alluring in its own inimitable way.   

Old City

Travel back in time to ancient Byzantium

The attractive late-19th century Archaeology Museum is one of the city’s finest treasures. Trace the long and eventful history of Istanbul exhibit by exhibit; marvel at the Side sarcophagus with its beautifully carved reliefs depicting Alexander the Great in battle; see the world’s earliest peace treaty, Kadesh, dating back to 1259 BC; and treasures from the ‘legendary’ city of Troy.

Insider’s tip: It’s easy to run out of steam in the labyrinthine galleries of the imposing neo-classical main building so save some energy for the Tiled Pavilion; once a royal gallery for the sultan’s court to watch wrestling matches, it’s now home to a splendid tile collection.

Bask in the splendour of a world-famous mosque

The Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) is one of the most important and imposing religious buildings in the world. Constructed in the sixth century, its massive domed basilica was to provide the blueprint for countless Ottoman-era mosques. Glittering with gold mosaics and richly endowed with porphyry columns and marble panelling, this, the ultimate Byzantine building, became Istanbul’s centre of Islamic worship after the Ottoman conquest of 1453.

Insider’s tip: Don’t forget to head up the ramp to the upper galleries to view the beautiful figurative mosaic panel depicting Mary and John the Baptist beseeching Christ on Judgement Day. The marble balustrade opposite has some intriguing Viking runic graffiti scratched into it by a Varangian guardsman.

Marvel at the beauty of Ottoman architecture

Facing the Hagia Sophia across an attractive park, the Blue Mosque is every westerner’s idea of what a mosque looks like. Built in 1609, from the outside it is all domes and half-domes, framed by six splendidly spindly minarets. The interior gleams with over 20,000 of the famous blue on white Iznik tiles from which the site’s unofficial name (it’s really the Sultanahmet Mosque) derives.

Insider’s tip: Remember that this is a holy place and receives millions of Muslim worshippers annually. Treat it as a place of sanctity rather than a ‘must-see sight’ and you will gain the respect of its congregants. Observe the dress code, speak quietly and use cameras with discretion.

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