Guide To Istanbul: What To See

http://cdni.condenast.co.uk/646x430/g_j/istanbul_cnt_24nov09_iStock_b.jpgAGHIA SOPHIA

Ayasofya Meydani, Sultanahmet, Istanbul. If you only see one thing while you're here, make it Aghia Sophia, the Byzantine cathedral church built by the emperor Justinian in 537AD which dominates the Istanbul skyline as well as the city's architectural history. This is one of the world's great buildings, a Byzantine cathedral turned mosque, and now a museum. The building is impressive enough from the outside, but one is always unprepared for the scale and nobility of the interior. Beware of neck-ache: the imposing dome always directs your attention upwards. Open Tue-Sun, 9.30am-4.30pm (July/Aug until 7pm).

ARCHAEOLOGY MUSEUM

A tour through the history of the city, from ancient origins to the fall of Byzantium.

DIVAN LITERATURE MUSEUM

Galip Dede Cad 15, Tünel, Beyoglu, Istanbul (00 90 212 245 4141). The Divan Literature Museum, an old dervish lodge between Tünel and some discreet brothels, is used by descendants of the Mevlevi dervish order to whirl on the last Sunday of every month. It is a ceremony that combines music, spectacle and devotion.

ISTANBUL MODERN

Meclis-I Mebusan Caddesi, Antrepo no.4, Karaköy, Istanbul (00 90 212 334 7300; www.istanbulmodern.org). The city's latest architectural icon and one of the key icons of the new-mood city, this privately-funded gallery occupies a waterfront warehouse and stages revolving exhibitions of modern Turkish art. It's also a good place to eat as the minimalist café/restaurant is run by one of the city's best chefs. Closed Monday.

PERA MUSEUM

Mesrutiyet Caddesi 141, Tepebasi, Beyoglu, Istanbul (00 90 212 334 9900). The Pera opened last summer in an elegant Victorian building (formerly the Bristol Hotel) and stages a wide range of shows of modern art, including photography. Closed Monday; admission free.

RUSTEM PASHA CAMII

Hasircilar Cad 90, Tahtakale, Eminönü, Istanbul. If you think the Blue Mosque smells ever so slightly of tourists' unwashed feet, make your way along the shore of the Golden Horn, past the Spice Bazaar, to Rüstem Pasha Camii. Finding the entrance through the warren of busy alleys which keep the tour buses away is half the fun. You climb stairs to reach the portal because the mosque was constructed on top of the old hans (workshops) whose revenue once supported its upkeep. Inside is an explosion of subtle colour - virtually every inch of the walls is covered with tiles from the finest period (around 1560) of the Iznik ateliers. Contrast this with the Sokullu Mehmet Pasha Camii, Sinan's purer edifice near the Blue Mosque.

SADBERK HANIM MUSEUM

Piyasa Cad 27-29, Büyükdere, Istanbul (00 90 212 242 3813; www.sadberkhanimmuzesi.org.tr). Alternatively, the smallish Sadberk Hanim Museum is just up the Bosporus in Büyükdere. The museum houses the private collection of the Koç family and focuses on archaeology and ethnography. You can combine your visit with a fish meal in Tarabya, Sariyer or Kireçburnu. A cheap way of getting there is to take a dolmus - a shared minibus taxi - from Besiktas going up Barbaros Bulvari. Ones to Sariyer go right past the museum's door. Open Thurs-Tue, 10.30am-6pm.

SS SERGIUS AND BACCHUS

Küçük Ayasofya Caddesi in Sultanahmet, Istanbul. According to Prince Charles, the finest church in the city is SS Sergius and Bacchus, also known as Küçük Ayasofya Camii (Little St Sophia Mosque). It is best seen when you have already spent a day or two in the city, by which time you will have caught the wandering bug. The building is early, dating from 536AD, and rests on an octagonal rather than the conventional square base. It is hard to find, being just inside the Byzantine sea walls below the Blue Mosque - and then you have to find the caretaker of what now serves as a neighbourhood mosque to let you in. Sadly, the building was damaged in the August 1999 earthquake.

SULEYMANIYE MOSQUE

Sinan's 16th-century masterpiece, built for Süleyman the Magnificent (who is buried in the garden).

TOPKAPI PALACE

Sultanahmet, Istanbul (00 90 212 522 4422; www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr). The sultans' palace and treasure trove. The construction of this former Imperial Residence was ordered by Sultan Mehmet II to mark the defeat of the last of the Byzantine emperors in 1453. The current director of the Topkapi Palace has so enthused a new generation of curators that her museum has displaced the Archaeological Museum as Istanbul's best. The buildings are better kept, the gardens nicer, the signposts and visual aids more informative. What was always a remarkable complex - the Ottoman dynasty's Versailles - now provides a tour of Turkish history and culture. The Palace is stuffed with the eye-popping treasures of the empire. There are extraordinary jewels, delicate embroideries, fine porcelain, rare paintings and manuscripts, and prized objects from Mecca, among the bow of the Prophet Mohammed and some hairs from his beard. Highlights include kitchens containing the Sultans' tableware - a fabulous collection of Chinese porcelain. The famous jewelled dagger of the film Topkapi looks like a trinket out of a cereal box compared to some other items in the treasury. It is well worth taking the side tour of the Harem, the royal apartments. Keep an eye out for the new exhibition hall in what was once the guards' dormitory. You can also get a decent lunch at the Konyali restaurant - pay the extra to avoid the cafeteria - from where there is a splendid view of the Asian side of the city. Open Wed-Mon, 9am-5pm.

TURKISH AND ISLAMIC ART MUSEUM

Meydani 46, Sultanahmet, Istanbul (00 90 212 518 1805). Explore the Turkish and Islamic Art Museum, housed in the palace of Süleyman the Magnificent's grand vezir, Ibrahim Pasha, just across the square from the Blue Mosque. The museum is Istanbul's equivalent of the V&A and full of world-class objects. The special exhibition this autumn is of the Swiss architect Gaspare Fossati's plans for the 19th-century renovations of Haghia Sophia. Open Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm.

TOM TOM SOKAK PROJECT

Tom Tom Sokak, at the junction of Akarsu, Acara and Tosbağa (www.tomtomsokak.com). For the new Tom Tom Sokak Project, a whole street has been renovated to house several venues. Among them are live music joints 2/1a and Alt, the traditional restaurant Şahika Meyhane and We, a trendy spot for a quick meal. ( http://www.cntraveller.com/guides/europe/turkey/istanbul/what-to-see)

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