04/08/2014 12:50 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Istanbul City Guide

There aren't many cities in the world where you can hop from one continent to the other in half an hour, but Istanbul has never been an ordinary city. Dating back a thousand years, as historic Byzantium and Constantinople, it was the cross-roads of the world, where Europe meets Asia.

But today, as well as ancient mosques and palaces, there's ultra-hip bars, luxury boutique hotels, and you're as likely to shop for chic designer jewellery in the former European City of Culture as to haggle over bargains in the bazaar. And while there's enough to keep you occupied for longer, it's close enough for a stylish weekend city break.

Choose a hotel in the old quarter of Sultanahmet, within walking distance of many of the major sites, or the old embassy quarter of Pera, now called Beyoglu, which has some of Istanbul's best night-life.

Celebrity favourite the Pera Palace Hotel – a favourite with Jackie O – has reopened after a £20 million facelift. Some of the suites are still named after the hotel's most famous guests, while there's a spa with its own traditional Turkish steam bath or hamam. Rooms cost from around £150 per night.

Or try the quirky Lush Hotel in Beyoglu, with just 35 rooms, a top floor spa and brasserie with live music on Friday nights, all decorated in a mish-mash of Ottoman, post-modern and pop art styles. The shops and bars of Istiklal Caddesi are on the doorstop, and there's L'Occitane products in the bathroom. Prices start from around £85 – book through for a complimentary upgrade, subject to availability.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

For something in the historic heart of the city, try Hotel Ibrahim Pasha in Sultanahmet for some sleekly updated Ottoman style. There's just 24 rooms and a fabulous roof terrace, looking out over the spires and minarets of the city, including a great view of the beautiful Blue Mosque. Rooms cost from around £85, book through through

Starter for 10: Istanbul

Set aside an hour or two to experience a traditional Turkish hamam – although novices should head to a tourist-friendly baths, you'll still get a taste of the authentic treatment. The majority have separate sections for men and women, or different opening times, and you'll be expected to strip off completely, or at least to bikini bottoms, so it's not for the shy.

Once you're in, you'll be scrubbed, soaped and washed to within an inch of your life – and men get an additional pummelling from the wiry bath attendants – before you emerge pink, glowing and cleaner than you've ever been before.

Istanbul's most famous is the beautiful Cemberlitas Hamami in a building dating from the 16th century. Not far from the Grand Bazaar, just off Divan Yolu, there's separate baths for men and women and it costs around £22.50. Or the 18th century Cagaloglu Hamami may have been visited by Florence Nightingale – and definitely featured in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. On Yerebatan Caddesi, it also has separate male and female sections and costs from around £15. There's also a cafe and shop selling hamam accessories if you fancy trying to replicate the experience at home.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

Don't miss the sights of Sultanahmet – Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Basilica Cistern, all within a few minutes of each other. Start at the Hippodrome, the former chariot racetrack which links them all, to see its historic columns, including the 5th century BC serpent column and the pink granite obelisk of Thutmose which was brought from Karnak in Egypt.

Then head to the two iconic buildings at each end. With its six minarets, the Blue Mosque, named for its coloured tiles, is still a place of worship so you'll need to be dressed appropriately to enter, including covering your head and shoulders. Almost opposite, the 1,500-year-old Hagia Sophia was once the world's largest cathedral before being converted into a mosque after the fall of Constantinople, and is now the Ayasofya museum, where you can still see relics from its history including some stunning mosaics. Entrance costs from around £4, and it's closed on Mondays.

Less well known is Yerebatan Sarnici or the Basilica Cistern, on Yerebatan Caddesi, a sixth century Roman reservoir with its columns reflected in the still water and carved Medusa heads decorating two of the bases. Undiscovered for centuries, it's one of the coolest places in the city during summer. Entry costs around £4.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

Home to the world's most famous harem, the Topkapi palace on the hill behind Hagia Sophia was home to the Sultans for centuries and the heart of the Ottoman Empire. As well as wandering around the gilded prison which housed so many wives and concubines, trying to imagine their secluded lives, you can see the ornate decoration in the chambers belonging to the Sultan and his mother.

There's also exhibitions, including the dazzling display of jewels in the Treasury – be prepared to queue for this one – as well as the kitchens which had to feed around 5,000 people every day, plus collections of armour and porcelain. Behind the main section, you can walk to the quieter outer walls for a view across the Bosphorus, as well as the opulent gold Breakfast Pavilion, where the Sultan could sit and survey his domain.

It's open between 9am and 5pm every day except Tuesdays, and costs around £8. You need a separate ticket for the harem for around £6.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

Lose yourself in the endless corridors of the Grand Bazaar, as you haggle over anything from belly-dancing costumes to carpets and leather. Go armed with a map, as the sprawling souk is split into different areas for different types of goods, but do expect to get completely lost at least once.

There's plenty of souvenirs – and a large helping of tourist tat – but you can also find a whole area dedicated to musical instruments, another for copper ware, and acres of gold, although it's worth doing your research in advance if you're planning to splash out on precious metal or antiques.

There are bargains to be had, although you're up against the experts so enjoy the experience rather than focusing on shaving off as many lira as you can.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

Istanbul has its share of tourist traps, but if you want something more than a quick kebab, there's plenty of restaurants to tempt you.

For something traditional, head to Rami in a restored Ottoman house on Utangac Sokak, in Sultanahmet, specialising in Ottoman cuisine. There's a roof terrace with views out to the Blue Mosque, although if you want a table up here you'll need to request it when you book. Try the Imam Bayildi, a stuffed aubergine dish which got its name after the original Imam who tasted it fainted at its sheer deliciousness.

Or relax in the peaceful garden restaurant at Konuk Evi, on Caferiye Sokak, just off Sogukcesme Sokak. Not far from Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace, it offers Anatolian dishes, as well as grilled meats.

For something more modern, Anjelique in Ortakoy, has a stunning view out to the Bosphorus – and after a laid-back meal, it turns into a club later in the night or you can chill out with a cocktail on the terrace.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

From the outside, 360 looks nothing special. Set inside an inconspicuous block on Istklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian street in Beyoglu, the lift opens into one of the city's most chic bars, with a fantastic cocktail list (try the pomegranate martini) and tables on the balcony looking out to the lights of Sultanahmet.

There's also great fusion food in the award-winning restaurant, including sushi with a twist and spiced seafood, or go for the Turkish inspired dishes, such as quail with pistachio rice stuffing and pomegranate sauce, and it turns into a club after midnight at the weekend.

Or head to Babylon, on Seyhbender Sokak, for live performances including international music acts, and everything from jazz to hip hop and techno to world music – plus another great cocktail list in the lounge.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

If you haven't picked up everything you want while wandering around the Grand Bazaar, there's some less overwhelming places to splash your cash. Check out the smaller Spice Bazaar in Eminonu, for cut-price saffron as well as aphrodisiacs galore or the Arasta Bazaar, around the back of the Blue Mosque, which has souvenirs, carpets, ceramics and some lovely jewellery at Turquoise silver, where the friendly owner will alter rings for free.

For stress-free shopping with a chat, head to Kalici, on Sogukcesme Sokak, behind Hagia Sophia, where owner Mehmet has beautiful ceramics, scarves and other souvenirs, and no hard sell. Or for contemporary jewellery by young local artists, check out Takil Pera just off Tunel Square.

Lastly, don't leave without a stop at Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, the original Turkish delight shop on Hamidiye Caddesi for some traditional lokum, as the sweet is called. If you hate the usual rose versions, there's a huge array of flavours, including pistachio and almond.

Starter for 10: Istanbul

The heart of Istanbul is the Bosphorus, still one of the world's busiest waterways – and one of the best ways to see another side to the city. There are day cruises, sailing north up the river, or if you're pressed for time, jump on one of the ferries crossing from Eminonu and Karakoy on the European side to Uskudar on the Asian shore and tick off two continents in around 20 minutes.

Uskudar is much quieter then the touristy centres on the other bank, so you'll get a real taste of local life. Grab a sesame covered Turkish pretzel from one of the vendors and take a walk along the bank to see the Maiden's Tower, also known as Leander's Tower, to learn about the legends which are believed to have given it its name.

The area was also the home of Florence Nightingale's hospital during the Crimean War, when it was known as Scutari, now the site of the Selimiye barracks. There's also two 16th century mosques built by Istanbul's famous architect Sinan, the Mihrimah Sultan and Semsi Pasha Mosques.

Starter for 10: Istanbul