There are the extraordinary things about Istanbul that hit you straight away - the historical richness of the emporers, kings, religious leaders and empire builders of its ancient past, whether Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Christian or Muslim. With its ancient palaces, monuments and mosques added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, it’s clearly a history buff’s paradise.

It’s amazing
geographical position spanning the edge of two continents, on the beautiful Golden Horn natural harbour is also pretty special. But there’s something else: Shiera and I said to ourselves, this city knows how to live. The citizens here hit the streets, eat out alfresco, dance and party. We knew there was probably a cool side to Istanbul but didn’t realise the scale or vibrancy of the trendy, lively lifestyle here.

It is very
much a city of contrast: the surroundings are thousands of years old and women pass by in burkas by day, yet you can club with women in minis at night. There is incredible high fashion from all over the world, yet there are toothless people selling at the old bazaars and markets who don’t speak a word of English.

You can easily choose how to mix these two sides of the city. Although there is an overall touristy flavour to the cultural attractions they are fascinating in themselves - and all clustered together in one area, sometimes only blocks apart.

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The Sultanahmet district is the heart of the ancient, old Istanbul with buildings created by architects who lived thousands of years apart. The whole neighbourhood is like a timeline come to life! From a distance the beautiful, slender minaret towers that flank this exquisite mosque seem to dominate the horizon. When you approach closely you notice how the tiered domes seem to rise and rise up the exterior.

This was the first cultural place we visited and I wanted the kids to be stimulated. No danger of them nodding off on the drive there! We were practically cattle prodded awake as the Istanbul populace angrily hooted and cursed our driver’s appalling driving, even by chaotic local standards! We drove through old streets with a driver who seemed to completely zone out from reality when on the road. He crawled along, straddled two lanes and just seemed to be on his own, private road. He also doesn’t speak a word of English, making things even more Fawlty Towers. Definitely time for some sacred silence on arrival…

After crossing a massive interior courtyard we approached the North door (the west door is reserved for Muslims). At the entrance gate all the women are covered. This was our first experience of seeing a lot of observant Muslim people: the religious side of the city was showing its face to us for the first time. Out of respect Sheira had to make sure that her shoulders and legs were covered. We took our shoes off, put them in a plastic bag and walked bare feet (there are little slip ons if you want).

The scale inside is massive, with giant marble columns, pointed arches and domes creating a sense of height and grandeur that is still awe inspiring today. It is all open plan and the huge amount of stained glass windows floods the mosque with a warm, yellow light. This makes the beautiful tiling - blue/green ‘faience’ - and mother-of -pearl inlay in the doors glow. There is so much fine painted tracery and artistic embellishment that I can see why some people study this mosque for years. I am sure that there is a lot of coded spiritual meaning behind the geometry and angles of light (maybe I have been reading too much Dan Brown!)… Until the 19th century this used to be the starting point for the pilgrimage to Mecca.

I loved being in this space and, although a one-off tourist, seeing the people who come here every day for their rendezvous with the divine. The women were quite small, stocky and Eastern European looking with big bulky headscarves and overcoats. The men wore white robes - one held the hand of an older woman entirely wrapped in fabric. All of a sudden we got that really otherworldly vibe that I love when traveling. The Blue Mosque was more an impressive experience for me than an emotional one - the space is so huge and almost impersonal to my eyes that there was nothing religious about it. But it is an extraordinary building.

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The Mosque of Sultan Ahmet was designed by architect, Sedefkâr Mehmet Aga and built 1606-1616.

Concierge & Guide: Maher Barrage | Istanbul | +90 (541) 241 7174 |
THE BLUE MOSQUE | Sultanahmet İstanbul, Turkey , Istanbul | +90 212 518 1330 |
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You can literally leave the Blue Mosque and simply walk across the HIPPODROME to the far older companion masterpiece, rebuilt in its current form by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus. The treasures of Istanbul are very compact this way! This Hippodrome area was originally built by the Roman, Septimus Severus (which sounds straight out of Monty Python’s Life of Brian) as a great public space - and was once even used for chariot races, but there is nothing much left of it now except the architectural works of art built on it subsequently.

The Hagio Sofia, (named after the ex-prostitute empress whom the bishops hated) was originally a Byzantine cathedral commissioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine in 325AD - which is mindblowing enough. But its turbulent history also makes it the perfect symbol of how many cultures have sought to conquer this city as their own. It has been destroyed by fire, rebuilt in marble from all over the empire, looted by crusaders and converted into a mosque after the Turkish invasion.

You can see where mosaics were plastered over and beautiful, pre-1400s Christian iconograghy defaced. It’s quite bizarre to see firsthand the human need to constantly impose our own will and way of life over what came before. The mosaics that remain are dazzling, some of them in shimmering gold –made by laying gold leaf over glass and under paste.

There is a ‘sweating column’ that absorbs water from a water cistern below. We visited the nearby BASILICA WATER CISTERN superstructure of ancient columns under vaults – perfect for continuing water supply when under siege (which seems to have been a major migraine for the good people of Istanbul over the centuries. Now it’s we tourists that are pouring in!)

There is a theory that subsequent conquerors turned the original Roman Medusa sculptures upside on their heads as a show of strength - and an insult to the defeated army.

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HAGIA SOPHIA | 2 Yerebatan Cd , Istanbul | Tel: + 90 535 643 5493 |
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Approaching the ceremonial gate of this palace on the shore is like being in a fictional fairytale with a slightly Oriental twist - and armed military guards. This gorgeous example of Ottoman flamboyance was royal ground zero for a long time. The palace was home to all the Ottoman sultans until the reign of Abdul Mecid I (1839-1860) who was more taken with the new, European looking waterfront Dolmabahçe Palace.

It was
built by the ultimate A-type personality who captured the city for the Turks in 1453, Mehmet the Conqueror. You could run an empire from here - it has its own imperial treasury, library, mosque and mint. Of course, it isn’t all work no play when you’re a military leader; there is a harem wing where the women lived, complete with eunuchs - who wouldn’t be fascinated to visit that? We’re in!

Apart from the guy selling oranges and pomegranates outside, nothing else is simple here - you could get lost for a week in the maze of interior courtyards, pavilions, hundreds of chambers, halls and original 15th century kitchens within the invasion-proof perimeter walls.

I told our guide, Maher that we needed to spend one quality hour here or the kids would get bored, or possibly overwhelmed. There is so much eye candy to take in… The picture of a sultan’s existence starts to come back to life. You see a treasure trove of their ornate, ceremonial side: the jewelry, Islamic calligraphic manuscripts and embellished kaftans. Their silk jackets were quilted and embroidered in gold with paisleys graphics, leaves and big thorny blossoms - cut very tight in the arm then flaring out after the waist. The Ottoman upper class seemed to be strutting peacocks, but of course they had their more macho side too, shown by the fierce looking weapons, shields and armour on display.

With names like ‘Suleiman the Magnificent’ and priceless private carriages on display you have really entered another dimension… On an architectural level the palace is a must too, with all its painted landscapes on the wall panels, gilt edged plasterwork and complex inlaid Moorish style patterns on the marble floor.

Out on the
sultan’s terrace, with beautiful views across to the other coastline, you half expect to see courtiers in turbans and robes as opposed to tourists in jeans and baggy T-shirts, who are now coming to visit from all kinds of places, like Indonesia and China. This is a fantastic blast of Ottoman Culture all under many different, complex roofs!

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THE TOPKAPI PALACE MUSEUM | Soguk cesme sk, 7, 34400 Istanbul, Turkey, Istanbul | +90 212 512 0480 |
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We were lucky to avoid the gigantic queues because our guide had pre- arranged for a very gracious specialist, Huseyin Akkaya to take us through the palace - another reason to have private guides when traveling. They open up precious hours in the day by cutting corners.

Noah loved the guard at the entrance with his shiny helmet and hand behind his back holding a dagger; I suppose that teenage boys think that weapons are pretty cool. The European look of the palace is quite a culture shock - I’d call it ‘French Rococco on acid’ - because the Ottomans pushed the envelope even further and probably spent way more money. It was built on a former bay that was infilled and is now a vast complex of marble gates, pavilions, gardens, wings and halls.

The modern eye, used to beige boxes, can almost not take in the crystal chandeliers, candelabra and balustrades of the magnificent great staterooms - or explosion of clouds, flowers and columns painted on the dome of the Great Hall. Even the gates where the sultan left his boat and entered the palace from the River Bosphorous is elaborately beautiful. If you want to see royal pull-out-all-the-stops style then this is the perfect companion piece to the more Ottoman style Topkapi Palace here in Istanbul and Versailles in France.

The palace may be fascinating to outsiders, but it has an emotional side for the people here too. When the Turkish Republic was founded Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, ‘the supreme leader’ lived, governed and died here - so the clocks are all set at 9.05 am, the time of his death. His reforms changed the culture forever: they included equal rights for women, separating religion from government and banning the fez and the veil. It is fascinating to see his comparatively humble living quarters - as well as the other ‘real life’ human element of a royal environment, like where the sultans kept their mistresses, wives, children and mothers.

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THE DOLMABAHCE PALACE | Dolmabahce Palace Address. Dolmabahçe Road. Dolmabahçe , Istanbul | Tel: + 90 212 258 55 44 | View web site
PRIVATE DOLMABAHCE GUIDE | Huseyin Akkaya Tel:, Istanbul | + 90 212 236 9000/ 0505 212 71 62 |
THE AQUADUCT OF VALENS The Ataturk Bulvari highway passes under its arches.| Istanbul |
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We were really fascinated to visit the underground cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), which was right next to the Hippodrome, and Hagia Sofia. This is one of the largest covered cisterns of the era of Istanbul. It was constructed during the reign of Constantine in 306-337, and later restored in 565 by Justinian.

It is unbelievable
to be 141m in length and be underground. Each of the 336 columns is 8m tall and designed in either Corinthian or Doric. Really interesting to see at the far end of the Cistern, are 2 heads of Medusa which have been placed upside down or sideways. The Madusa heads are taken from an ancient pagan site and the position in which they were placed suggests that the people who put them there, were Christians and did not want to remind God from pagan period.

The water that collects in the Cistern is rain water.

Thankfully in the late ’80s, the municipality of Istanbul cleaned and restored it thoroughly and built a wooden walkway between the columns.

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UNDERGROUND CISTERN ( Yerebatan Sarnici) | Toplu Tasima Araclarina Uzaklik , Istanbul | Tel: + 90 212 522 1259 |
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Of course a good Turkish itinerary will be attraction-based because the city is a living museum, like Paris, but I also strongly recommend strolling though interesting neighbourhoods and just seeing where the streets take you. This is an opportunity to see the mix of the old and new in the life of the streets, beyond the palace gates and tourist queues.

TAKSIM is the heart of the new, modern Turkey and has many layers. The 19th century square of the same name is famous for its political monuments, Atatürk Cultural Center and big parades, concerts and New Year’s Eve parties. Pedestrian streets always have a different atmosphere and this one, ISTIKLAL, never closes. It’s where young Istanbul goes to browse in bookshops, see movies or socialise in bars.

Cumhuriyet Caddesi
(Republic Avenue) leads to the posher neighbourhoods further north like Elmadag and Sisli. Around the square, where we saw a protest and slowly inched away, some streets have more of a throwback flavour. We saw very folksy, older, peasant style women in long floral dresses and scarves with brightly coloured flowers. They sat on their haunches in shopfront doors by mounds of flour and hanging cooking implements. The streets also have a diverse mix of young, old, conservative and secular people milling in and out of the pastry shops and restaurants. (See WHERE to SHOP)

ORTAKOY is another, artier neighbourhood where the bohemian and beautiful people hang out on the European Bosphorus shore, near the unusual Baroque Ortaköy Mosque - although this being Istanbul there is also a church and a synagogue in the neighbourhood! There are trendy bistros and boutiques here and, if you love river views, plenty of coffeehouses and tea terraces to spend an afternoon by the water…

There are a lot of shops with sweets and icecreams when you’re hungry, but Sheira couldn’t be expected to eat Turkish Delight on the streets forever or we’d have to roll her home! So she grabbed a snack at a great little takeaway place called ERZURUM KUMPITR. You pick your baked potato then customise the fillings - Shiera’s was corn, peas and carrot. Certain parts were too touristy but we enjoyed passing through and would have found ‘our’ hidden café if we were able to linger.

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ERZURUM KUMPITR | No 12 Ortakoy , Istanbul | Tel: +90 (0534) 521 2125 |
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I was curious to see the riverbanks of the city from the mighty, beautiful Bosphorous Strait, and sail alongside its magnificent buildings, beyond the area we had covered by foot and car.

Guests at Les Ottomans can charter their boat to go scenic cruising but it costs 700 Euros for a couple of hours, so our trusty VIP concierge, Maher Barrage pulled yet another rabbit out of the hat and found us a boatman for about 350 Euros.

We boarded the boat at the Four Seasons and headed all the way North West up the Bhosphorous, away from where it widens into the Marmara Sea. As we passed the Dolmabahci Palace we could see the elaborate gates at the riverfront practically beckoning us into wonderland. Heading north we ventured into unknown territory… The Bosphorous is a busy river so the boats tend to be big and sturdy. They say it is too dangerous to swim in it but people do; we could see them jumping in from the promenades.

The shoreline and river is full of life, with beautiful little sailboats docked into little café terraces in leafy spots, creating really picturesque scenes. One eatery with bright yellow umbrellas and tug boats was at the foot of the battement walls of a gorgeous, small castle tower, Anadoluhisari. The European side seems to have the more sought after wooden holidays homes and some incredible 19th century mansions - apparently it is a lot cheaper on the Asian side.

Istanbul’s cosmopolitan lifestyle was really on show. We saw lots of restaurants along the way mingled in with the residences and private boats bobbing just outside. It is a shock to see the occasional modern wing on a hotel or ordinary 60s or 70s apartment blocks amongst the old aristocratic mansions and villas; certain parts have become developed.

But when you do sail past a gem you get a close up of the old eaves and rooftops, or gorgeous wooden bay windows jutting right out on the water. We passed some pretty amazing architecture, like the dazzlingly white marble and sandstone BEYLERBEYI Winter Palace which is ornate but compact, with terraced grounds and a beautifully shaped roof on the stone gazebo shaped wing by the water’s edge.

We made it all the way north to the suspension bridge, FAITH SULTAN MEHMET passing the most foreboding, fortress style stone castle with walls and ramparts coming all the way down to the riverbank. It was built by Mehmet II to prevent the Byzantines from communicating with their Northern allies. When the Turks invaded, they built enough castles to completely cut the Byzantine civilisation off from the North and the Bosphorus was brought to a standstill. Not so today! As we headed back south to familiar territory we passed under the massive, 8-lane highway bridge, Boğaziçi Köprüsü. After hugging the European coastline on the way, we traveled along the Asian side coming back, past the municipality of Üsküdar where a lot of students and workers live and commute to the European side every day.

It was fun
to see spots we knew, like the restaurant Reina with its theatre curtains out on the water and our own hotel, Les Ottomans which looked so inviting from a distance, the summery old timber architecture and club 29’s welcoming tables out in the sun creating a relaxing oasis.

After many boat trips I have honed the perfect length to about 2 hours - enough time to really go beyond your square mile and get a sense of a place from another angle; not long enough to get stuck too far into a journey if it’s not to your taste.

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There is an amazing private yacht that you see on the Bosphorous called THE SAVARONA, It is considered hallowed ground because the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk slept and held cabinet meetings inside in the stateroom, adding to the boat’s mythical power for the people here. A wealthy Turkish businessman Kahraman Sadikoglu put $30 million into restoring it and it really adds atmosphere to the river; it’s like an old steamer out of an Agatha Christie film… You can charter it for $350,000 a week and cruise up the Bosphorous for as long as you like!

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I have included a small paragraph about my morning run here in Istanbul. The reason being I have little to say about the run. These runs in Istanbul were probably my hardest anywhere in Europe.

The constant traffic makes running really difficult to navigate, and I found the footpaths really irregular and quite dangerous with fear of twisting an ankle. The footpaths are quaint, and centuries old but also in some parts in either repair state or total disrepair !

In principle what sounds like a good idea running along the Bosphorous from Hotel Les Ottoman as far as the Ciragan Palace Hotel (a 45 minute round trip run), did not live up to expectations. Yes, running past historical Ortakoy is a reason to pinch oneself, but also the urge of self-preservation of not being run over or stumbling over irregular pavements made the run just too difficult.

It could have been so much easier if I took the path of least resistance and went to Les Ottomans insane fully equipped gym, but how boring when a live throbbing city awaits just beyond the hotel gates!

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