What I saw

Istanbul must be the most spectacular city in the world. I was so amazed by my first visit that I had to come back with my son William, a budding historian. There’s no skyline more glorious than that of the old city, with its domes and minarets, nor any water more romantic than the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.

This is the point at which Europe kisses Asia: no other city straddles two continents. History goes deep and it’s everywhere. Who could comprehend the scale of the Emperor Constantine’s 4th-century Hagia Sophia without visiting it? Justinian created the present Hippodrome-the size of two stadia-after the Nika Riot of 532, during which 30,000 people were killed. With obelisks and a fountain, it’s a stupendous urban space, off which lies the radiant Blue Mosque.

Beneath the Hippodrome is the Basilica Cistern, capable of storing 17.44 million gallons of water, under a roof supported by columns from pagan temples. Parts of the Roman aqueduct still stand, as do the 5th-century Theodosian Walls, together with the Golden Gate: it allowed entry for imperial triumphs, but was blocked after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Where I explored 

Seek out the church of St Saviour in Chora, now a museum, to the west of the Golden Horn, for the refinement of the 14th-century mosaics and frescoes. I enjoyed strolling around the chic Maçka district, Istanbul’s Mayfair, many of whose buildings and even names reflect the influence of Belle Epoque Paris. Smart shopfronts-some belonging to international brands, some Turkish-are interspersed with long-established cafes. A boat tour of the Bosphorus is de rigeur, in order to glide past the yali, or summer houses, built on the waterfront, some painted in the traditional Ottoman oxblood red; speedboats take their owners to the business and shopping districts (a yali doesn’t come cheap).

What I ate

Turkey is a big country, with many styles of cooking; in Istanbul, these culinary streams mingle with the great river of Ottoman cuisine. I found the result to be irresistible. It’s worth splashing out. Ulus 29 is almost impossibly suave, excellent food being complemented by a hilltop view of the city. If you’re near the Grand Bazaar (Nuruosmaniye entrance), Nar specialises in Ottoman dishes. Take me back!

How I got there

Turks are rightly proud of their national carrier, Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com). It flies from London to Istanbul six times a day.

Because it’s an inexhaustible city. I would love to visit the Prince’s Islands in the Bosphorus, where the only traffic is pulled by horses. From 2004-8, work on the digging of the metro tunnel under the Bosphorus at Yenikapi was halted after the contractors came across no fewer than 32 preserved Byzantine ships. When eventually displayed, they will add yet more to the wonders of this astounding city. 

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What I bought

The shopkeepers of Istanbul are devastating salesmen. ‘Mister, let me sell you something you don’t need,’ shouted one, with beguiling honesty, in the Grand Bazaar. If you go into a carpet shop, it’s practically impossible to extricate yourself without making a purchase-and I didn’t. We are, however, delighted with the carpet (from Yurdan Carpet and Jewellery, www.yurdanstore.com), which arrived within a week, having been sent under a government scheme that provides free carriage. The Spice Market is the place for Turkish delight, the best being made with honey.

How I got around

Taxis are cheap, but it’s well worth mastering the trams. Istanbul has grown from a city of one million people to 13.5 million in just a few decades, and the infrastructure hasn’t caught up. Traffic is unpredictable and sometimes appalling. In the old city, most places are within walking distance. But be warned: Istanbul was built on seven hills. We found that a good guide was indispensable to our enjoyment of the city: ours was Hakan Kutlu (www.101-turkey.com).

Where I stayed

On my first visit, I stayed in one of the old merchants’ houses behind the Blue Mosque. Many have been converted into boutique hotels, mine, Erten Konak (www.ertenkonak.com), being completely charming. As long as you have a map to navigate the urban maze, it’s a wonderfully convenient location. When I came back, we luxuriated in the glamour of the Kempinski, created from the 19th-century Ciragan Palace. It’s not a budget experience, but every Turkish lira is worth it for the breathtaking position.

What surprised me most

I became captivated by the story of Byzantium, sacked by the 4th Crusade and transformed after 1453. Why wasn’t I taught more about it at school? But Istanbul isn’t only a wonderful ancient city, it’s also a happening place, fizzing with energy. It may be hectic, but the mood is buoyant. There’s also a highly seductive lifestyle to be enjoyed by those rich enough to partake of it. Forget about early nights you can always recoup your energies in a hammam.

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Why I’d go back

Because it’s an inexhaustible city. I would love to visit the Prince’s Islands in the Bosphorus, where the only traffic is pulled by horses. From 2004-8, work on the digging of the metro tunnel under the Bosphorus at Yenikapi was halted after the contractors came across no fewer than 32 preserved Byzantine ships. When eventually displayed, they will add yet more to the wonders of this astounding city.

  • Hakan kutlu

    I read the article. Would love to send my kind regards to mr clive aslet and to his son william. Hope to meet them once more soon. Would you be kind enough to recommend my private guiding services to those who may visit istanbul.
    Thanks a lot…