The definitive autumn guide by Carole Cadwalladr and Anna Sutton
Yet step away from the old imperial city and you'd be forgiven for thinking you're the only tourist in town. Somehow Istanbul, the capital of two of the greatest empires the world has known, seems to have fallen off the map. In this city, where the accretion of history is visible on every street corner, where people still bathe in 16th-century baths and shop in the medieval covered bazaar, where churches have minarets tacked on the sides, and women wear headscarves or Prada or sometimes both, you'll see fewer visitors than on a day-trip to Longleat.
It is, in any case, a city with a hole in it: a great watery void, that must be crossed, and recrossed by bridge, or by boat; that can be glimpsed from restaurant terraces or hotel windows, or suddenly, surprisingly, when rounding the corner of a street.
But where are the tourists? In the past ten years, Istanbul has re-invented itself. Bars, clubs, boutique hotels have mushroomed from nowhere; vibrant, modern adjuncts to the domes of Constantinople and the relics of Byzantium. But then the city, clinging precariously to the edge of Europe, straddling the continental divide, is a geopolitical conundrum that has yet to be solved. Sit on your hotel roof terrace, take another sip of your drink, listen to the call to prayer echoing from a minaret compete against the sound of drum-and-bass coming from a bar, and you'll start to understand why.
It was geography that determined the location of the city of Byzantium, and religion that underpinned its importance as Constantinople, but its engine, its beating heart, is, and always has been, trade.
Step inside the Grand Bazaar and you'll come to understand how the Emperor Justinian funded the soaring dome of the Haghia Sophia. Wander its 66 streets and 4,500 shops and you'll realise Suleyman's magnificence stemmed not just from the construction of his mosques and palaces, but his ability to raise the necessary taxes from his merchants.
It is commerce that has made the city what it is today. And the Grand Bazaar, with its carpets, kilims, gold jewellery, Beckham T-shirts, rip-off handbags, leather jackets, painted plates, evil eyes and hundreds upon hundreds of hawkers, touts and smooth-tongued salesmen, is its secular cathedral. Shop, or don't-shop, but stand amazed in any case by a vast, domed, arcaded building that has been standing, in part, since 1461, skilfully adapting itself to cater for every passing fad of every passing age.
Set out from the Nuruosmaniye Gate, stopping to peer into the adjacent 18th-century mosque of the same name, built in a style that is the Islamic counterpart to European Baroque. Straight ahead is the Kalpakcilar Basi Caddesi, the bazaar's main drag, atmospherically lit by apertures in the roof and twinkling lights from the stalls and shops on either side. Come on a weekday morning to escape the worst of the crowds. Istanbulis flood in on Saturdays to look at the gold - 100 tonnes a year is sold here, mostly to locals - and, even at other times, you'll find Western tourists are outnumbered by shoppers from neighbouring countries, particularly the former Soviet Union. This won't stop salesmen from assailing you from every doorway, however; if you're determined not to buy, smile and don't look at the goods. Even for a second. They're trained to hunt out your hidden desires.
Around the corner on Feraceciler Sokak is Sark Kahvesi, a charming vaulted café decorated with old Istanbul photos and frequented by old Istanbul men. Inside, birds swoop around the skylights and games of tavla go on for ever. Drink tea while you watch the shoppers sweep past. Two minutes away, off Fesciler Caddesi - Fez Street - is another peaceful retreat: Havuzlu Lokanta, a cavernous restaurant that is widely held to be the best in the bazaar.
From here, you'll have to backtrack along Zenneciler Sokak to fight your way into the oldest part of the bazaar, the Ic Bedesten, a great stone lock-up built in the 15th century for the most precious wares; silver and antiques are still sold beneath its great vaulted brick roof.
Goods are still concentrated around specific areas: Bodrum Hani for leather; Aga Sokak for gold and silver; and Yaglikcilar Sokak for fabrics. But, arguably, the best of the bazaar is located in the streets outside. Wander downhill through the back alleys towards the Golden Horn and explore the numerous hidden hans - medieval courtyards where you can still watch silver being cast or "Levi's" logos being stitched on to pairs of stonewashed jeans.
Grand Bazaar, (Kapali Carsi), Beyazit. Open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm.
Beyoglu on foot
Galata Mevlevihane, Galip Dede Caddesi. Open 9.30am-4pm, closed Tuesday. 80p.
Tramride to the
The Bosphorus by
Ferries for the Bosphorus cruise leave year-round from pier 5, Eminonu. £3.
The palace is not a single building but a series of graceful interconnecting courtyards. As you proceed through the complex you move from more public sections, such as the Divan in the second court where the imperial councillors sat in session, to the private pavilions of the Sultan in the fourth and final courtyard.
The highlight of the palace is, theoretically, the harem or private quarters where the sultan's mother ruled over nearly a thousand slave girls, who would be groomed to become the Sultan's concubines. It's a warren of more than 300 rooms including luxurious hamams and exquisitely decorated chambers. But come early, or don't come at all. It's only possible to visit it on a guided tour, and when the number of visitors mounts up you'll find yourself in a mob, shunted around just a very small number of the rooms at break-neck speed.
Go instead to the imperial kitchens in the second courtyard, to be dazzled by the display of hundreds of priceless Chinese and Japanese porcelain platters - only a small selection of the 10,700 pieces that have survived to this day. Or visit the beautifully tiled Pavilion of the Sacred Relics in the third courtyard, home to some of Islam's holiest relics. These include one of the Prophet's teeth, fragments of his beard and, most precious of all, his Holy Mantle, which is kept in a gold coffer placed on a silver throne behind glass walls.
More relaxing than any of these, however, is the fourth and final courtyard. Here you can lounge pasha-like amid its pavilions, outdoor pools, shaded colonnades and scented rose garden and take in one of the best views of the city. Stop for a snack at the Konyali cafe and restaurant. The food isn't quite as inspiring as the setting, but the view from the terrace towards the Bosphorus and the Asian shore on the far side is undeniably magnificent.
Topkapi Palace, Sogukcesme Sokak, Open 9am-5pm, closed Tues. Main complex £5, further £4 each for the harem and treasury.
Sultanahmet Square . Open 9am-4.30pm, closed Mon,
Yerebatan Caddesi 13 Open 9am-5.30pm.
The Blue Mosque
Sultanahmet Square . Open 9am-5pm. Free.
Entrance off the first courtyard of the Topkapi Palace . Open 9.30am-4pm, closed Mon. £2.
Turkish cuisine is among the best in the Mediterranean, drawing on a range of traditions - from elaborate meat stews created in the Sultans' palaces to simple peasant fare based on staples such as aubergines, tomatoes and beans. Our selection focuses on Turkish restaurants in areas you are likely to be staying in or to visit as a tourist - namely Sultanahmet, Beyoglu and Ortakoy (a 20-minute, £5-£7 taxi ride from Sultanahmet, or a 10-minute, £2 ride from Beyoglu).
Five top tables
Kabatas Kultur Merkezi, Ciragan Caddesi 124 Open noon-3pm and 7pm-11pm. £20.
Utangac Sokak 6 . Open noon-11.30pm. £16.
Cinaralti Cafe and Restaurant, Iskele Meydani 44-46, Ortakoy . Open noon-2pm. £10.
Imroz Lokantasi, Nevizade Sokak 24 . Open noon-12am. £7.
On the hoof
Beyoglu Konak 2, Tunel Meydani 519 . Open 7am-10pm. £1.50 for a pide. KaVe, Tunel Gecidi 10, Beyoglu Open 8am-2am. £11 for Sunday brunch.
Istanbul does have an opera house and a couple of concert halls, but they showcase alien art forms with no local tradition. Far more intriguing - and strangely mesmerising - is to watch a performance by members of the Mevlevi sect, the "Whirling Dervishes", accompanied by the melancholic sounds of Sufi music. The Galata Mevlevihane (see Beyoglu on foot above) has a performance on the last Sunday of each month. Buy tickets from the museum kiosk on Galip Dede Caddesi.
The Festival of Sufi Music and Ritual runs until October 30, and is hosting performances inside the 19th-century Sirkeci train station (Mon, Weds, Fri 8.30pm; £6.50). On October 10, there is also a free concert of sufi music at 7pm in Hocapasa Mosque, Sirkeci. Buy tickets for both from the Harem music shop on Divanyolu Caddesi, just behind the Sultanahmet tram stop.
The whirling dervish ceremony, or Sema, was never intended to be a performance art, however. The rhythmic motion is supposed to be a means by which men can come to experience the divine, a purely spiritual act, and there are still places in Istanbul where the ceremony is performed in a mosque wholly for religious purposes. Fatih Tekke, in the ultra-conservative quarter called Fatih, for example, has services at around 8pm every Monday. Women must dress modestly, and cameras are strictly forbidden. This is not a tourist attraction, and it would be sensible to join the group that leaves from Les Arts Turcs gallery, on Incili Cavus Sokak, close to the Yerebatan cistern, at around 7pm (the time varies with sunset). This is a foundation that was set up to raise awareness of Turkish culture; it charges £17 for transport and the services of a guide. (0212 520 77 43, www.lesartsturcs.com.)
Until November 16, the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts is hosting the 8th International Istanbul Biennial, featuring 85 artists from 42 countries at some of the most atmospheric locations in the city (including the Yerebatan cistern and an Ottoman customs warehouse on the banks of the Bosphorus), with a programme of exhibitions, installations, video screenings, concerts and much more . Istanbul's Hotels Fairs Lists (0212 520 77 43 - 0212 511 75 56)
Perhaps the greatest way of experiencing Turkish culture, however, and certainly the most intensely pleasurable, is to be stripped bare, laid upon a marble slab and pummelled all over. Baths, or hamams, still play a key part in Istanbul's daily life, and every neighbourhood boasts its own. If it's your first visit, you may feel more comfortable at one of the baths in the city centre, used to dealing with tourists.
Cemberlitas Hamami, Vezirhani Caddesi 8 , just by the tram stop of the same name in the Grand Bazaar area, is one of the most spectacular, dating from 1584 and designed by the architect of the nearby Suleymaniye mosque, the great Sinan. There are separate sections for men and women and it's open daily from 6am to midnight. Entrance costs £6, or with a massage £10, including soap, shampoo, towel and locker.
Bars & clubs
To mix with Istanbul's young sophisticates, you'll have to head to Beyoglu or one of the villages on the Bosphorus such as Ortakoy (see Eating out above). Babylon on Seyhbender Sokak 3, near the Pera Palas, is the best live music venue in town, hosting jazz singers, world music gigs and club nights. It's only open when there's an event (usually Weds-Sat), so check first. Dulcinea, on Meselik Sokak off Istiklal Caddesi , draws a fashionable crowd to its multi-function café, lounge and arts space and hosts concerts, installations, DJs, and various special events. Closed Sunday.
Alternatively wander up Istiklal Caddesi and join the parade of people hopping from one bar to the next. (Try the Turku Café Bar on Imam Adnan Sokak, for traditional live fasil music, or, opposite, the rather more sedate Kaktus with yellow walls and dark wood interior, both open until 2am.) Around the junction where Nevizade Sokak (see Eating out) meets Balo Sokak, you'll find any number of late, loud bars, some with live music, both traditional and modern, and crowds spilling out on to the street.
Ciragan Palace Hotel Kempinski, Ciragan Caddesi 32, Besiktas , Ciragan Palace Hotel ). Double rooms with sea view cost £260; book in the UK through.
Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul, Tevkifhane Sokak 1 , Four Seasons Hotel).
Hotel Pera Palas, Mesrutiyet Caddesi 98/100 Pera Palas Hotel ).
The Turkish Tourist Office in London offers an information service on 020 7355 4207, and operates a 60p-a-minute brochure line, 09001 887755. Useful websites include.
In Istanbul itself, there are tourist information booths dotted around, most usefully in Sultanahmet Square where you can pick up various maps and leaflets - open daily 9am-5pm. The monthly Time Out magazine (£1.70) has a semi-literate English-language insert, useful for listings and details of new restaurants.
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Les Arts Turcs Tours :Incili
Cavus Sok.No:37/3 Alemdar Mah.Behind of Underground
Cistern(Yerebatan Sarayi arkasi) Sultanahmet Istanbul/TURKEY