Istanbul, Turkey: Full of eastern promise, perfect for a weekend mini break

Sarah Freeman visits the wonders of Istanbul, only four short hours from our shores and immortal in its beauty.

It seems to me that while other cities may be mortal, this one will remain as long as there are men on earth,’ said French antiquarian Pierre Gilles, of Istanbul, five centuries ago.

In only four short hours from the UK, you can find yourself wonderfully lost in this bi-continental city’s exotic bazaars. Or, in my case, feeling the sea spray aboard a ferry crossing the Bosphorus strait , Istanbul’s raison d’être. It’s one of the best ways to marvel at the city’s greatest hits: Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque’s six minarets and Aya Sofya, in all their panoramic glory.

When Turkey’s largest mosque was unveiled this spring, it chose to roll out its 17,000sq m hand-knotted carpet on Istanbul’s eastern shores, rather than on the European one.

Visitors are now waking up to what Istanbulites have known all along – that the city’s less-harried Asian side and gateway to Anatolia is full of eastern promise. You can still get your fill of opulent palaces and time-warped coffeehouses, but with added seaside strolls and fewer tourist throngs.

It also boasts its own airport, Sabiha Gökçen, although there’s something rather magical about making a watery arrival at night along the inky Bosphorus.

Return flights with Turkish Airlines, from £177, www.turkishairlines.com

What to do

Make a pilgrimage to neo-Baroque Beylerbeyi Palace and its gorgeous terraced gardens. Then hop on on a sehir hatları (public ferry) to the Princes’ Islands, formerly a weekend haunt for Ottoman aristocracy, which you can explore on a horse-drawn carriage.

Drink up the sunset and chai tea at Büyük Çamlıca, the city’s loftiest viewpoint (best reached by taxi from Üsküdar). And don’t miss Kadıköy-Moda’s state-owned opera house, Süreyya. The neighbourhood’s nostalgic tram stops right outside its Art Deco entrance.

Where to eat

Head to Moda pier and feast on midye dolma (lemon-doused mussels), Istanbul’s street food par excellence. Or head indoors to one of the city’s best lokantas, such as Çiya Sofrasi, run by culinary anthropologist, Musa Dagdeviren. For mod-Anatolian fare, try Rita Moda on sair Nefi Street. Still have room for dessert? Join the queue for pistachio ice cream at Ali Usta

Where to stay

Waterside Sumahan Hotel, beside the Bosphorus Sea, Cengelkoy, Istanbul, Turkey. (Photo by: Mel Longhurst/VW Pics/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The Bosphorus’s irrepressible beauty is celebrated at Sumahan on the Water (from £215 a night), a former Ottoman-era distillery that manufactured Turkey’s favourite anise-flavoured tipple, raki. Its rooms’ hammam-like Turkish bathtubs and real fires are a godsend in winter; summer is about watching the procession of steamers and tugs from its manicured lawn.

It keeps good waterside company with the 12-room Bosphorus Palace Hotel (from £144 a night), located one mile downstream.