Istanbul in Turkey's northwest is on the Straits of Bosphorus, the world's narrowest strait used for international navigation. It connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and is straddled by Istanbul, which has over 13 million inhabitants. Istanbul extends on the European and Asian sides of the Bosphorus, making it the world's only metropolis situated on two continents.
Istanbul is a romantic city. Its skyline is sprinkled with domes and minarets. While Ankara is Turkey's official capital, Istanbul is the cultural and economic heart and good-time epicentre. For many centuries it was capital of the civilised world and Turks love the well-worn but glorious city for its place in history and folklore.
Istanbul was probably inhabited as early as 3000BC and its history is crammed with important people and events. The Trojan War, King Midas, Alexander the Great, St Paul, Emperors Justinian and Constantine, crusaders, Ottomans, sultans and concubines and the revolutionist statesman and first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
He changed Turkey's cultural picture almost overnight, encouraging the arts and beautiful examples of every genre can be enjoyed today.
The city comes to life at dawn when millions of people are called to prayer, and once that's done, the city bursts with the business of a new day and visitors set about exploring.
As in most ancient cities, the Old City is a wonderful place to start to discover the delights of Istanbul. Topkapi Palace is next to Saint Sophia, which is next to the Blue Mosque on the Hippodrome, next to the Sunken Cistern which is a few steps from the Archaeology Museum complex. It's all worth a couple of days to absorb the full atmosphere.
Saint Sophia (known as Ayasofya) is the world's finest and most famous example of Byzantine architecture. It was built as a Constantinian church by Emperor Justinian I between AD532 and 537. It served as a church for nine centuries and when Constantinople was taken by the Ottomans in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II added four minarets, a fountain and mausoleum. He converted it into a mosque and it served as one for five centuries. Other Ottoman additions are huge wooden shields emblazoned with gilded calligraphy of Koran verses and a niche indicating the direction of Mecca.
Its marble lined walls have many colours and designs and Byzantine mosaics decorate walls and vaults. The dome is 56 metres above the ground and is 33 metres in diameter. The church is open to the public every day except Monday.
Another of the city's outstanding attractions is the imperial Mosque of Sultan Ahmet I, known as the Blue Mosque because of its interior Ynik tiles. The masterpiece was built between 1603-17 on the site of the Great Palace of Byzantium. It has six minarets, a cascade of domes, massive pillars and an ablutions fountain. Visitors are welcome, but only between the five daily prayer times.
Istanbul's number one attraction is Topkapi Palace Museum. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror took Istanbul in 1453 and immediately ordered construction of a new palace for the new Ottoman capital, but ended up with a number of buildings that became the palace later known as Topkapi.
It was home to all Ottoman sultans for four centuries and underwent constant evolution with buildings disappearing, being destroyed by fire or earthquakes or demolitions for new buildings.
When Sultan Abdulmecid abandoned Topkapi for a new palace on the Bosphorus, it fell into disrepair. It was extensively renovated and transformed into a museum when Atatürk's Republic was established. It is so large, only some sections are open to the public every day except Tuesday.
The tradition of the hamam Turkish bath was passed from the Romans to the Byzantines and on to the Turks. They are cleansing, refreshing, relaxing and sociable. Islam's emphasis on personal cleanliness resulted in the construction of hundreds of baths throughout Istanbul. Modern homes have their own facilities these days, but grand public facilities are thriving.
The Grand Bazaar Kapalþ Çarþ began as two wooden warehouses in the 15th century during Mehmet the Conqueror's reign. They were rebuilt in stone and have since become the core of today's bazaar. It covers 30 hectares and more than 60 streets, housing 4400 shops, mosques, banks, police stations, restaurants and workshops.
Three main areas consist mostly of jewellery outlets, carpets and textiles. It's very touristy but the back streets and caravanserais still serve locals as they have for centuries. Make sure you keep your possessions safe pick-pocketing and pocket slashing are rife.
If you are in the market for a Turkish carpet, The Punto of Istanbul is at the heart of the bazaar in a 17th century caravanserai and has been there for five generations. It offers a wide selection of fine antique and new rugs and prospective buyers are offered mint or apple tea as they hear more about the history of rug making and choose one to take home.