Mosques of staggering beauty, fantastic bazaars, shuttered palaces and fabulous museum exhibits attest to Istanbul's wealth of culture and art from its many centuries at the centre of the mighty Byzantine and Ottoman empires. Add a crowded, energetic and fast-changing layer of contemporary Turkish life and you have one of the world's best destinations. Bold and beautiful, seductive and worn, sitting spectacularly on the Bosphorus between Europe and Asia, Istanbul provides entertainment and ageless style.
Istanbul has such seductive monuments and street life that its museums are overlooked. The Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts (www.istanbul.gov.tr) in a vizier's palace has sumptuous calligraphy, illustrated Korans, antique carpets and inlaid daggers. Sadberk Hanim Museum (www.sadberkhanimmuzesi.org.tr) is a private collection of Byzantine silver, Islamic art and Ottoman-era porcelain. Galata Dervishes House (www.galatamevlevihanesimuzesi.gov.tr) has exhibits devoted to the Sufi sect. On Sunday afternoons, concerts of Sufi music are accompanied by the spinning dances of the Whirling Dervishes.
Hamdi Restaurant (www.hamdi.com.tr) packs in tourists and locals alike thanks to its specialty: skewered kebabs accompanied by bean salad, hummus or stuffed vegetables. More upmarket Balikci Sabahattin (www.balikcisabahattin.com) has great mezze (Turkey's answer to tapas) and fish dishes. For a splurge, Mikla (www.miklarestaurant.com) offers a tasting menu of contemporary Turkish cuisine from on-trend chef Mehmet Gurs. Don't miss neighbourhood coffeehouses for Turkish delight (lokum) and honeyed pastries accompanied by thick, strong coffee.
Every Istanbul neighbourhood has its own street market selling pistachios, spices, fresh fish and snacks, mixed with knick-knacks and antiques. Check out Horhor Market in Aksaray for antiques, the Sunday crafts and jewellery market in Ortakoy, and pedestrianism Arasta Bazaar (www.arastabazaar.com), a street full of leather, ceramics and carpets. Then head to Istanbul Handicrafts Market near the Blue Mosque, dedicated to preserving Ottoman crafts such as hand-painted silk, porcelain reproductions and calligraphy.
Do the obvious for a reason: Istanbul's top three sights are flabbergasting. Topkapi Palace (www.topkapisarayi.gov.tr) was the power seat of the sultans and their pleasure palace of exquisite pavilions, harem quarters and mirrored pools. Opposite is the vast Sultan Ahmed Mosque (www.sultanahmetcami.org), known as the Blue Mosque for its tiles and stained glass. Nearby Hagia Sophia (www.ayasofyamuzesi.gov.tr) , part church and part mosque, has a gloomy solemnity and sumptuous Byzantine mosaics.
Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus (fourseasons.com/bosphorus/) occupies an old Ottoman palace with mesmerising views over the endlessly passing water traffic on the Bosphorus, and minarets on the horizon across the water. It's a tranquil retreat from the city tumult, with a marble hammam, great mezze bar and gorgeous swimming pool. Guestrooms are large and luxurious, with beautifully appointed bathrooms. Breakfast on the marble terrace overlooking Istanbul's watery setting will have you lingering half the morning.
Make sure you get steamed, pummelled, splashed and scrubbed in an historic Turkish bathhouse such as the splendid Cemberlitas Hamami (www.cemberlitashamami.com) or upmarket Cagaloglu Hamami (www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr): a living part of Turkish culture which will leave you feeling like a sultan.
The writer was a guest of Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus (fourseasons.com/bosphorus/) and Silversea (silversea.com).