What to see and do in Istanbul
Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia) is the mightiest silhouette in a city of dramatic skyline shapes. Built in 532 AD by Emperor Justinian, it served as the cathedral of Constantinople until 1453, when it was converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror (Fatih Sultan Mehmet). In 1935, Turkey's great secularizer, Ataturk, made Aya Sofya a museum. The dome was the world's largest until the dome of St. Peter's was built in Rome. Aya Sofya is located in Sultanahmet and very near to the Topkapi Palace. Open: Tues.- Sun., 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
With its stained-glass windows, blue tiles and six (instead of the usual four) minarets, Sultanahmet Camii or the "Blue Mosque" is one of the world's most graceful buildings. Built by Mehmet Aga in 1609, it's still a working mosque, so you must remove your shoes and leave them at the entrance. There's also a Carpet and Kilim Museum inside. Open daily, 9-5.
The famous Grand Bazaar, also known as the Covered Bazaar, is a labyrinth of more than 4,000 shops, trinket stands and cafes. Built in the 1450s, it's full of fine carpets and gold jewelry plus plenty of pure junk. If you don't look Turkish, be ready for the shouts: "Hello, hello, my friend, let me help you spend your money!" It has many historical doors opening to various locations. One of the main entrances is in Çemberlitaş. Open: April-Oct., Mon.-Sat. 8:30 a.m.-7 p.m.; Nov.-March, Mon.-Sat. 8:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.
My wife and I liked the Egyptian Bazaar or "Spice Bazaar" better because instead of the stuff noted above, you get to squeeze past colorful bins of herbs, nuts, soaps, fruit and a million mysterious spices. Most stands will let you take a taste. Open: Mon.-Sat. 8 a.m.-7 p.m.
Topkapi Palace is huge and confusing but probably Istanbul's most visited attraction. Spreading out over a point of land in Old Istanbul, various sultans and their harems called the palace home until the mid-19th century. Open: Wed.-Mon. 9 a.m.-5 p.m.
Built by the famous architect Sinan in 1584, Cemberlitas Hamam (where my wife and I took our Turkish baths) has been in business as a traditional public bath ever since. There are separate sections for men and women; from what I've been told, the men's accommodations are slightly more luxurious. Admission: $9 for bath alone, $18 with massage. Open: 6 a.m.-midnight ( www.cemberlitashamami.com.tr).
WHERE TO STAY
One of those hotels where a splurge for a night or more feels worth it, the Çiragan Palace has a spectacular location and very good service. Comprising an actual 19th-century Ottoman palace plus a newer wing, it overlooks a garden and picturesque pool right on the Bosporus. Double rooms start at $200 (www.ciraganpalace.com).
The urbane little Hotel Nomade is tucked away on a quiet street in Istanbul's old city. Owned by two sisters, and snazzed up by a French designer, the hotel has rooms that are small but chic. And it's hard to beat breakfast or drinks on its rooftop terrace, which has views of Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus. Single rooms $72; double rooms $90 (www.hotelnomade.com).
WHERE TO EAT
Amedros is a charming spot for Ottoman food that comes with an extra bonus. Whenever someone orders the house special, Testi Kebabi (a stew of lamb and vegetables), you get a show. The sealed clay stew pot is dramatically cracked open right at your table. Soon the next table orders the stuff, too, and so on. Entrees start at $9 (Hoca Rüstem Sokak 7, Sultanahmet).
Pandeli Restaurant, in its odd perch just above the entrance of the Egyptian Spice Market, is famous for fish, and sea bass in particular. The bass in parchment that we ate was topped with a tomato slice and superbly light. The tiled walls are lovely to look at, and there's a good view from most windows. The restaurant is only open for lunch, from noon to 4 p.m., Mon.-Sat. (Misir Çarsisi 1, Eminönü).
Rumeli Cafe is a pocket-sized bistro owned by the Nomade Hotel with, among other pluses, a toasty fireplace and a cozy interior. On the menu are very reasonably priced traditional Turkish dishes and the service is informal and friendly. Entrees start at $7 (Ticarethane Sokak 8, off Divan Yolu, Sultanahmet).
For general information on Istanbul, these are some of the better sources: www.Istanbul.com is the official city website with the basics on hotels, restaurants, events, nightlife, museums, logistics, etc. Another site with fewer fancy graphics but with a bit more detail in places (plus capsule reviews of most of the major attractions) is www.americanairlines.wcities.com (search for Istanbul). The official site of the Turkish Ministry of Tourism is at www.tourismturkey.org. The site offers regional information for the entire country, tourism statistics, facts for visitors and a variety of other useful tips.
* By Peter Mandel- StarTribune.com