TRAVEL: Don't Miss the Bos; ISTANBUL HAS THE LOT -HISTORY, CULTURE, FOOD AND NIGHTLIFE

Article excerpt

Byline: IAIN MAYHEW

I AM standing in the middle of the Bosphorus. That is to say, I am at the top of the Maiden's Tower - Kiz Kulesi - which, at various stages in its centuries-old career, has been a lighthouse, a fortress, a customs house and the hideout of evil Elektra in the Bond movie The World Is Not Enough.

It's like being stranded on a busy roundabout. Small yellow-funnelled ferries criss-cross the strait, scurrying under the bows of tankers and container ships as they thump up the Bosphorus towards the Black Sea ports.

On my left is the continent of Europe, once buttressed by the ancient walls of Byzantium against any threat from the land mass on my right. And that, not 300 yards away, is Asia.

Of all the cities you might visit for a long weekend break, Istanbul deserves a bit of homework before you go. A brush-up on the city's history will give you a far better insight into its sights, smells, culture and confusing identity.

For 1,000 years and more, Istanbul was at the centre of the known world. The Byzantines, the Romans (the Emperor Constantine called it Constantinople and it became the new capital of the crumbling Roman Empire), the Crusaders and finally the Ottomans in turn sacked, burned, looted and then rebuilt the place.

In the 15th century, when London was just a small town of barely more than 50,000 people, Constantinople - by then capital of an Ottoman Empire which stretched from Austria to Egypt - had a population of more than a million, the Western world's largest city.

And the beauty of it all is that a tour around Istanbul, skipping happily between Europe and Asia in a matter of a few minutes, will reveal much of its past.

It's a modern city too, with more than 12 million now packed into suburbs each side of the Bosphorus and along the banks of the Golden Horn, the five-mile-long inlet which divides the western side of the city.

Flash new hotels have sprung up in the business districts. You'll find shopping malls selling everything from Armani to Hugo Boss, Gucci to Mango and even a Marks & Spencer.

There's a new metro to relieve the city's chronic traffic congestion and the days are over when the international airport - now refurbished - looked like a back-street bazaar.

Homes along the banks of the Bosphorus are fetching millions of dollars and every other car parked outside the nightclubs and restaurants around Taksim Square is a BMW or a Merc.

This lurch towards EU membership (everyone is busily fingering their prayer beads for Brussels to say yes) hasn't always been easy.

When Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, outlawed the fez - a red, tassled, flower-pot hat - in 1925 he was trying to drag his people into a more Westernised 20th century.

There were riots and not a few people killed (in one bizarre incident a muezzin climbed a minaret in Istanbul and called the faithful to prayer in a bowler hat).

But despite the rapid modernisation there is still magic and mystery to Istanbul. Stroll the tiny streets of Ortakoy or along the Ottoman battlements of Rumeli Hisari and you are walking with the ghosts of sultans and vizirs, crusaders and Byzantine princes.

Istanbul is just a four-hour flight from the UK and perfect for a weekend break. British Airways currently has daily flights from Heathrow, while easyJet is due to start a budget service from Luton at the end of June. Here's a guide to this extraordinary city...

WHAT TO SEE

SULTANHAMET, on a headland where the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn meet, is the obvious starting point. All its sights - the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace (the name means Cannongate), the Hippodrome, Cistern Basilica, Haghia Sofia and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts - are within a short stroll of each other.

The area is a kaleidoscope of the city's history. The Hippodrome, now fringed by coffee shops and souvenir stalls, was the focal point of Roman and Byzantine Istanbul. …