Travel diary: A weekend in Istanbul
Where east meets west
There's a reason Istanbul is called the Paris of the East - the city pulses with an irresistible energy and spirit of romance. Sultanahmet Square is a case in point - home to the famed Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, its incredible architecture provides a unique backdrop to stands selling fresh pomegranate juice, glass display cabinets piled high with baklava and people watching opportunities a-plenty.
The legendary mosques are magical - bedecked in intricate tiles inside and out, their surfaces glitter beguilingly. Visit early to beat the crowds - the light won't be as lovely but at least you won't be rubbing shoulders with bus loads of tourists.
If mosques and minarets are the first things that come to mind when you think of Istanbul, allow me to add a second: cats. Underfoot at cafes, on every street corner and even inside some hotel entrances, these feline friends are inescapable. Also on every street corner: shops selling delectable arrays of baklava, Turkish delight and other tempting national treats sweetened with honey, spices and walnuts or pistachios. My tip? Indulge in a selection and take them to one of the nearby parks to enjoy.
Hot pretzels stands like the one below also remain fixed in my memory, consider them Istanbul's alternative to crepes suzette.
Cross the Galata Bridge to move from the old town to the trendy Beyoglu district - called the New City, it's where to experience Istanbul's burgeoning rooftop bar scene.
From the very early morning until late at night the Galata bridge teems with fishermen - the Bosphorus is famed for its fresh seafood and restaurants line the space below the bridge.
The road takes me to the broad Istaklal street where I spot another symbol of the city - the historic red trams that traverse its streets.
At the Grand Bazaar or on street corners, don't be afraid to bargain - the real price is usually two or three times lower than the one you'll be told. Don't worry about sounding cheap - salesmen love the process of bargaining itself, not the result.
Istanbul is developing very quickly and the skyline is dominated by skyscrapers and construction as much as minarets.
Another reminder of Paris - roasted chestnuts from street stalls that taste, somewhat strangely, like baked potato.
Istanbul is unique in that half of it lies in Europe; the other half, in Asia. Crossing between the two continents via ferry is a must.
The Asian part of Istanbul is built up with the houses and villas of its wealthy residents and doesn't provide much for the tourist to see. After taking a few snaps of a local mosque, I was on my way back to the European side.
Topkapi Palace is another of Istanbul's must-sees. Made famous by its historical harem, where thousands of concubines lived as prisoners of the resident sultan, it's a bewitchingly beautiful building to visit.
I leave with the sense that Istanbul is one incredible city, with its mix of Eastern and European styles, sublime food and the interesting tension between ancient Christian and modern Muslim influences.
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