A stroll in the city of sultans

The magic of Istanbul is best discovered on foot, writes Ben Groundwater.

THERE'S a moment in Istanbul when the realisation hits. You've looked at maps, you've seen where the attractions are, you've plotted ways to get between them. But it's only when you stand in the small space between two of the city's drawcards - the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia - that you understand how close everything is.

Some cities were made for walking. Istanbul is one of them. You could roll out a carpet between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, and most of the city's other attractions are similarly close. There's a palace a few hundred metres away; ancient baths just up the road and the Spice Bazaar down the hill.

Given the insane state of the traffic most days, walking around Istanbul makes sense. Here's a tour of the city's highlights on foot:

Stop 1: Topkapi Palace

Begin your walking tour at the jewel in Istanbul's crown, the former residence of the Ottoman Sultans, which is now a major drawcard for tourists. It's best to get here first thing in the morning, as it will be chockers by the middle of the day.

The palace grounds are nice enough to stroll around, with shady lawns and ancient buildings. But most visitors come for the museums, which house collections of precious jewels, antique weapons and Ottoman clothing. The Harem, too, is worth the extra admission cost, with its intricately designed rooms that once housed the sultan's concubines. Lucky concubines - it's the best spot in the palace.

Stop 2: Hagia Sophia

If you can walk out of Topkapi and miss the Hagia Sophia, you've probably stepped into the river. The two attractions share a wall and when you throw in a couple of towering minarets, it's impossible to overlook. This imposing structure began its life in the 6th century as a basilica but was later converted into a mosque by the Ottomans.

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For a long time the largest enclosed space in the world, it's still a formidable building, best viewed from the interior balcony running around the top of the mosque up near the 30-metre-wide dome. Hagia Sophia is worth visiting for the mosaics alone but don't forget to stick your thumb in the "Weeping Hole" on the ground level, which is supposed to bring good luck. Or a sore thumb.

Stop 3: Blue Mosque

Walk out the exit at Hagia Sophia and what do you see? Minarets, domes ... Yep, it's the Sultan Ahmed - or Blue - Mosque, Istanbul's most famous landmark. On the outside the 400-year-old mosque is a shocking shade of not-blue - it's the tiles on the inside that give it its popular name. Non-worshippers are allowed inside the mosque, just remember to wear clothing that covers your shoulders and knees and take your shoes off before entering. It's well worth the effort, with 20,000 handmade tiles and 200 stained-glass windows. The courtyard outside the mosque is similarly picturesque, although roasting hot in the middle of the day.

Stop 4: Cemberlitas Hamam

Just 100 metres up Divanyolu Street (the one with the tram line running along it) is Cemberlitas Hamam, a traditional Turkish bathhouse that Istanbul residents have been sweating it out in since 1584. It's a change of pace from all the sightseeing: here, your only job is to lie under the domed roof on hot marble until an attendant decides it's your time to shine.

He (or she, depending on your gender) will achieve this lustre by scrubbing you down with hot soapy water, drenching you with buckets filled from ancient taps and then rubbing your skin and muscles with generous Turkish fury. A few minutes in the shower to wash off the sweat and soap and you're ready to go shopping.

Stop 5: Grand Bazaar

Turn right out of the hamam, take your first left and you've arrived: shopper's delight. Istanbul's Grand Bazaar is a winding, sparkling, chiming maze of shops and stalls that sell everything from tacky souvenirs and rip-off handbags to beautifully made carpets and expensive pashmina shawls. Shopaholics will want to spend days there - the not-so-browsing-inclined will be trapped in a private hell with no way out.

All purchases are made with the traditional haggle, so it pays to be in the right frame of mind (that is, ready to argue and ready to walk away). And don't worry, you will be making purchases. Getting away from the Grand Bazaar's 4400 shops without being tempted by at least one item would take a Herculean effort of willpower.

Stop 6: Galata Bridge

Follow your nose down the hill to the north and you'll eventually come to the riverbank and the Galata Brige, which is a riot of activity throughout the day. On top of the bridge hundreds of fisherman dangle lines into the water from the sides, while cars and pedestrians race past behind them.

Down at water level the bridge is lined with restaurants selling the very fish the men above are chasing. However, don't be tempted.

Stroll across the bridge to the Galata side, take a sharp left at the bank and you've found the world's greatest fish sandwiches. Street salesmen barbecue fillets over the coals before adding a spice rub, onions and herbs and slapping it all on a crusty roll. Perfection.

Stop 7: Galata Tower

While you're on the Galata side of the bridge it makes sense to trek 10 minutes up the hill to Galata Tower for a panoramic view of Istanbul. It's easy enough to find, as the 67-metre-high tower dominates the city skyline and the queue of tourists out the front is a dead giveaway on ground level.

Once you've enjoyed the view, there's a small open-air teahouse at the base of the tower that's perfect for resting tired legs and enjoying one of the real treats of Istanbul life: a cup of piping hot Turkish tea.

Stop 8: Spice Bazaar

Time now to head down the hill and back across Galata Bridge to the Misir Carsisi, or Spice Bazaar, just behind the riverbank in Eminonu. The bazaar is the city's second-largest covered shopping complex after the Grand Bazaar and has a similarly dazzling array of produce in an equally bustling environment.

Rather than carpets and lamps, here it's all about edible goods - spices, obviously, and also herbs, sweets and dried fruits. Oh, and tacky souvenirs. Many stalls give out free tastings of Turkish delight, meaning you could well depart weighing a few more kilos than when you arrived.

Stop 9: Gulhane Park

Tired? From the Spice Bazaar, follow the tram tracks east until you spot a large clearing on your left - that's Gulhane Park, which was once part of the outer grounds of Topkapi Palace. It's now a place for the general public to play, relax and, in the case of the park's more secluded areas, have a sneaky cuddle in.

While the grassy areas are perfect for resting weary feet, the hill on the east side sports a teahouse with beautiful views over the Bosphorus River. The tea is good and the seats are comfortable - what more could you ask for?

Stop 10: The Golden Horn

As the sun is setting, head down the hill on the east side of Gulhane Park to Kennedy Caddesi, the main road that follows the banks of the Bosphorus, wrapping around the Golden Horn.

Following it to the right, you'll come across stacks of boulders that have been warmed by the sun during the day, and which now host one of the more bizarre slices of Istanbul life.

Hundreds of men gather at this spot each evening - some dangle fishing rods into the water, others strip down to their Speedos so they can work hard on their tans on the warm rocks.

Others still take their lives into their own hands, diving into the roiling, choppy current of the Bosphorus and riding its natural flow around the Golden Horn. It's a bizarre sight and a 100 per cent local experience in an area that can sometimes feel as if it's been designed with tourists in mind.

It's also a great way to end a walking tour - lying back on a hot rock under the setting sun, watching Istanbul life go by.

The writer travelled as a guest of Singapore Airlines.

Trip notes

Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Istanbul, with "early bird" return economy airfares available if booked before November 30, from $1749. 13 10 11, singaporeair.com.

Staying there

The Hotel Sultan's Inn is centrally located in Sultanahmet and has double rooms from about $49 a night, expedia.com.au.

See + Do

Topkapi Palace is open 9am-5pm every day except Tuesdays. Entry is $10, with $10 extra to enter the harem, topkapipalace.com.

Hagia Sophia is open 9am-7pm every day except Mondays. Entry is $10.50, hagiasophia.com.

The Blue Mosque is open 9am-9pm daily, although it's closed to visitors during prayer times. Entry is free.

A "traditional style" scrub at Cemberlitas Hamam costs about $35. The bathhouse is open 6am-midnight daily, cemberlitashamami.com.

The Grand Bazaar is open daily, times vary from shop to shop.

Galata Tower is open daily and an elevator to the top costs $10, galatatower.net.

The Spice Bazaar's opening times vary from shop to shop but it is open daily.

Gulhane Park is free to enter and a cup of tea at the cafe costs about $1.

More information

english.istanbul.com.

Three other Istanbul attractions

1 Uskudar A short ferry ride across the Bosphorus lies a different world. Uskudar is part of the Asian side of Istanbul and has far more of a Middle Eastern feel to it than its European sister city. Well worth an afternoon of exploration.

2 Istanbul Modern The city's contemporary art gallery sits on the banks of the Bosphorus and houses works by Turkish and international artists. It also has a swanky restaurant and best of all on a hot day, the gallery is air-conditioned. See istanbulmodern.org.

3 Besiktas Sydney has the North Shore, Istanbul has Besiktas. This is a different side to the city — quiet streets are lined with small teahouses, where men play backgammon and shoot the breeze. It's a pleasant change from the tourist-filled Sultanahmet.

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