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Armchair Travel: Istanbul

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Enraptured by the Byzantine and the Ottoman, the Bosporus and the bazaars, Dorothy Veitch invites you on a day tour of Sultanahmet.

1 The Bosporus

Located on both sides of the Bosporus, the narrow strait between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, Istanbul is the only city in the world which is situated on two continents; it bridges Asia and Europe both physically and culturally. Hop on a Bosporus boat cruise to get your first glimpse of its awesome Byzantine and Ottoman landmarks.

2. Sultanahmet

Istanbul was the Byzantine capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, (consecrated by Constantine the Great, hence its former name: Constantinople), until the Ottomans captured it in 1453. With its long history at the centre of empires, it offers a wealth of sites to take in. To view the most fabled of these ancient monuments head to Sultanahmet on the city’s European side.

3 The Hippodrome

Start at the Hippodrome, the centre of Byzantine life for 1,000 years and of Ottoman life for another 400 years after that. The Roman emperors loved nothing more than an afternoon at the chariot races, and this rectangular arena was their venue of choice. In its heyday, it was decorated with obelisks and statues, some of which remain today. Recently re-landscaped, the Hippodrome remains one of the city’s most popular meeting places and promenades.

4 Sultan Ahmed Mosque

Next stop, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque) complex. Built from 1609 to 1616, during the rule of Ahmed I, the courtyard is the biggest of all of the Ottoman mosques and there are six minarets. The interior is equally grand: The blue tiles that give the building its unofficial name number in the tens of thousands, there are 260 windows and the central prayer space is huge.

5 Topkapi Palace

Majestic Topkapi Palace, a short walk from the Blue Mosque, showcases the untold wealth of the Ottoman rulers who lived here between 1453 and 1839. Highlights include the six-level harem and the treasury (home to the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond). The palace’s interiors dazzle with their hand-painted Iznik tiles, stained glass windows, and mother-of-pearl and tortoise-shell inlays.

6 The Hagia Sophia

Built in 537 by the emperor Justinian to showcase the might of his reconquered Empire, the Hagia Sophia is one of Istanbul’s best-known Byzantine landmarks. It reigned supreme as the greatest church in Christendom until 1453, when Sultan Mehmed II converted it into a mosque. It has been a museum since 1935. Thanks to its weighty dome and towering minarets, Lonely Planet lists the Hagia Sophia as one of the 10 most beautiful buildings in the world.

7 Basilica Cistern

Basilica Cistern, the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath the city, once held 80,000 cubic metres of water, pumped and delivered through a 20-kilometre web of aqueducts. Constructed in 532, using columns and plinths from ruined buildings, it’s as grand in design as it is in scale. Two columns in the north-western corner are supported by Medusa heads, and the central column is shaped like a teardrop.

8 The Grand Bazaar

A visit to the Grand Bazaar rounds off a bewitching day in Sultanahmet. Constructed in 1461, it boasts 5,000 shops, and is one of the largest covered markets in the world. Beckoning sellers peddle exquisite textiles, pottery, rugs, jewellery, lanterns and other Turkish delights. Bartering is an absolute must.

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