Destination of the Day: Istanbul

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Istanbul is a city of two extremely lopsided halves. Picture-postcard Istanbul is all on the European side, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque (still blue) and the Topkapi Museum, which has probably the most amazing single room of exhibits anywhere in the world, the sword of David, the staff of Moses, the beard of Muhammad and the skull of John the Baptist all in the same place.

But don’t be distracted, there is much more to do. As well as the European city (6m people) there is a burgeoning Asian city (9m people) of Istanbul on the other side of the Bosphorous

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Uskudar Chrysopolis, the “city of gold” in In Athenian antiquity) is a city in its own right, full of life and tradition. You can go to the endpoint at Fehnerbahce (the only major soccer club is on the Asian shore, unlike Galatasaray and Bezitkas) to walk the gardens and look back at Europe.

Dominating the main square is the magnificent Iskele Camii, which was built sometime around 1557 by Sinan as a tribute to Mihrimah, daughter of Suleyman the Magnificent.

If you make it to Yeni Valide Camii you will find a peaceful courtyard to sit in with cats for company.

As the evening light fades the buzz of Bagdat Street matches anything back on the European side of the Bosphorous (time it right and you can have a drink in Baggot Street and Bagdat Street in the same day).

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Istanbul is about water, the Bosphorous which leads to the Black Sea, the Golden Horn, the world’s largest natural harbour, and the mouth of two rivers. The Bosphorous divides Europe from Asia. The Golden Horn divides the European side in two, and the long bridge where the salt water meets the fresh water is line with anglers, day and night.

The centre of Istanbul is Eminonu quay, a tram ride from the tourist attractions where the throngs gather to cram the ferries bound every 15 minutes for the magical, mysterious Asian shores.

The ferries are coloured vividly with scarlet lifebuoys, and belch black smoke as they chug away from our continent. The 20-minute crossing to Uskudar costs about 50 cents. It can be a breezy pleasure, enhanced with strong tea in tiny tulip glasses.

The skyline shines in every direction, billowing mosques, brandishing their towers like medieval bayonets, the silent Galata Tower, a relic of Genoese-colonial times; Topkapi lurking behind its veil of vegetation, the extravagant mansions and palaces that line the shoreline, and in the distance, the gatepost castles of the Bosphorous which reminded everyone that Constantinople was unstormable.

The sunshine dances on the choppy surface of the Bosphorus. The mysterious Kiz Kulesi, a fairytale lighthouse on a rocky outcrop, sits near the shore. In the distance you can see the Princes’ Islands, a taste of holiday resort Turkey, a three euro boat ride from the city, like lumps of granite peering out in the Sea of Marmara.

They are an enticing sight, sun resorts from the south east magically towed to lie within easy reach of the metropolis.

Then before you have taken it all in, the engines go quiet. Welcome to Asia.

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Most tourists stay in the nest of hotels around Taksim Square, an eclectic area, which mixes legitimate bars like the delightful Biz Jazz Bar (it has GREAT live music and a bubbling atmosphere) with more sordid girly bars where unsuspecting clients are charged Eu25 a beer and subjected to a drip-pricing technique to part with money than they an afford.

Most of the dodgier places are clearly marked with danger signs, such as Tayland 85 but CE&SA bar has a legitimate air about it until you arrive.

Istanbul is not just a city of 2,000 mosques, 157 churches and 18 synagogues, but also home to some of the hottest nightlife in Europe.

The hottest places are within easy reach of each other. Su Ada has the edge on the private yacht scene as it is offshore. It is vying to be trendiest night spot in Istanbul with Sortie (formerly Laila), and Reina (still, as its name suggests, reigning champion, but expect to pay Eu100 for a round of drinks).

The restaurant with the best view in town is Hamdi, serving inexpensive local produce made with the best local ingredients in the best location since 1970. Mustafa Bey’s family has built the place up and it is now a 500-seat business over three floors.

The food is VERY specialist – minced meat pizza, yoghurt starters, and no one else serves pistachio kebab. Don’t miss it.

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There is lots to see and a short time to do it, so Guide Yirdiray Kirmizi quickly identifies the pace I like and we have 25 stops on a city tour to beat all city tours – five mosques, three churches, four parks, four viewpoints, three museums and other attractions all flash by at speed.

We pay homage, in rapid fire succession, to the reliquary (Patriarchate at Fener), the beautiful (St Giorgio), the aesthetic (St Savior in Chora), the spiritual (Church of Panagia of Blechernae, leafy green and out of the way, a real treasure), the boring (Tekfur Palace), the over-rated (spice market) and the sublime (the huge underwater cisterns near Hagia Sophia).

Istanbul’s hidden treasure takes thirty minutes by ferry. The sultan’s resort island of Büyükada offers a taste of the resorts you find around Izmir, a mere three euro boat ride from the city.

Was it not for the city on the horizon. It could be a distant Mediterranean red-tile hideaway. Hiring a bike (Eu7.50) enables one to escape to a more distant beach. A citybreak with its own private island

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Eoghan Corry flew to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines, who direct from Dublin ten times a week. The best prices from Turkish airlines are with your local travel agent.

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