Ataturk airport is about 20km west of the city centre. Once through, the Havas bus shuttles every half-hour between the international arrivals and the city centre. Traffic permitting, the journey takes about 20 minutes to reach Aksaray , where you change for the tram into the old city, or 10 minutes longer to reach Taksim Square - the hub of the new city. The fare to either stop is 8 New Turkish Lira (YTL) (£3.50). The taxi fare to the city centre is around YTL25 (£11). Whichever way you travel, look out for the remains of the old city walls along the way.
Istanbul resembles three jigsaw puzzle pieces that don't quite match. Most of your time will be spent in Sultanahmet , the area where the city grew up. This is the thumb of Europe that points east across the Bosphorus (the drain from the Black Sea into the Med). To the north of this, across the estuary known as the Golden Horn, is Beyoglu - the more modern part of the city. The historic link between them is the Galata Bridge. The Asian part of the city, on the eastern side of the Bosphorus, is of limited interest - but the ferry trip there is magical (see Take a ride). Public transport is good, with dozens of bus routes and ferries, but you will probably walk most of the time - with the clean, air-conditioned trams helping out when you get weary for a flat fare of YTL1.10 (£0.50).
Ticket agent advises to check in.
The city has plenty of five-star options, but mid-range places tend to have more character. Most prices are quoted in euros, and often are open to negotiation. On the north side of the Galata Bridge, and beautifully located at the top of the Camondo Staircase, is the Galata Konutlari Apart Otel occupying a handsome 19th-century building on Felek Sokak (00 90 212 252 6062). It has been converted but has plenty of original features. A comfortable double room costs €60 (£43), excluding breakfast. Among the cluster of places near Sirkeci railway station, the Hotel Grand Seigneur at Nobethane Caddesi 30 (00 90 212 520 8275) is outstanding value: it is drenched in Ottoman furnishings, has an excellent location and bargain double rooms at €40 (£29), including breakfast. At the top of the range is the luxurious Four Seasons , in an old prison in Sultanahmet at Tevkifhane Sokak 1 (00 90 212 638 82 00; Doubles from $380 (£212) including breakfast.
Ticket agent advises to take a hike.
Start at the Karakoy tram stop on the north side of Galata Bridge. Walk south on either side of the bridge - the views from both across the Golden Horn are splendid, in between the row of fishermen. On the south bank, pause to look back over the water at the city then cross the tangle of roads using the subway. You should emerge beside the Spice Bazaar , completed in 1664 and still trading between 9am and 7pm daily. Opposite is the New Mosque - or at least it was new when finished in 1663. Continue along Hamidiye Caddesi, which serves as the main financial thoroughfare and has banks on either side of varying degrees of opulence. At the end of the street, cross to Sirkeci station , and try to imagine the grandeur of the place when the Orient-Express was at its prime in the early 20th century. These days, few trains go much further than the Greek or Bulgarian border. But the waiting room, adjacent to the huge memorial to Ataturk, still contains reminders of the former magnificence.
Ticket agent advises to take a cultural afternoon.
Istanbul is woven from ancient threads, a tangle of over two millennia of intrigue, conquest and capitulation. The most extravagant stories are told in the scattered chambers of the Topkapi Palace . It was built by Mehmet II in 1459 to mark the ascendance of the Ottoman Empire. Its fine pavilions reflect the dominance of the sultans over Europe and the Middle East until the 19th century. The breadth and depth of the treasures can seem overwhelming, so pace yourself and allow time to relax in the shady gardens. The palace and its grounds are open 9am-5pm daily, though from the end of the month they will close on Tuesday. Admission to the palace is YTL15 (£6.50). Once inside you must buy a separate ticket (price YTL12/£5) to visit the Harem - the highlight of a visit.
Ticket agent advises to go window shopping
Take the Grand Bazaar for what it has become - a vast, rambling and entertaining tourist attraction - rather than somewhere to find bargains. The covered market opens 8.30am-7pm daily except Sunday. On offer is everything from Turkish delight via hubble-bubble pipes to carpets. Even if you fancy your bargaining skills, you will be no match for the masterful Turkish traders. But while you are counting out the cash for that religious icon you never knew you needed, at least you will be cordially entertained and provided with endless tea. For serious purchases of good-quality clothing at low prices, join the Russian traders in the streets running south of the tramway between Beyozit and Laleli stops.
Ticket agent advises to go to church on Sunday morning.
Creations of two of the world's leading religions confront each other at opposite ends of Sultanahmet Square. Start at the Aya Sofia , the magnificent sixth-century celebration of Christianity built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. One thousand years later, when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, it became a mosque and four minarets were attached. When the Republic was proclaimed in 1924, the mosque was deconsecrated and is now, effectively, a glorious museum. The mosaics are the main attraction; the continued renovations the main detraction. It opens 9am-7.30pm daily except Monday, admission YTL15 (£6.50). A millennium after Justinian built the Aya Sofia, Sultan Ahmet trumped it with the mosque that is now named for him. It is better known as the Blue Mosque, because of the ornate tile work on the interior. Non-Muslims, both male and female, are welcome to visit (via the right-hand courtyard) outside prayer times, that is daily 9am-12.15pm, 1.15-4.30pm and 5.40-6.30pm; on Fridays, the only space is 11.45am-2.30pm.
Ticket agent advises to take a ride.
Passengers on the Orient-Express who were aiming further east were taken to Eminonu ferry station for the sailing across the Bosphorus to Haydarpasa station on the Asian side of the city. You can follow in their wake for a mere YTL1 (£0.40) on one of the frequent ferries; 20 minutes after departure, having seen superb views, you set foot on a different continent.
Ticket agent advises to go for a walk in the park.
The main attraction on the Asian side of the Bosphorus is the Karaca Ahmet cemetery, an easy walk from the ferry. So huge is Karaca Ahmet, and so extravagant the monuments, that you feel you are walking through a very strange city.
Ticket agents advise to put some icing on the cake.
At the end of a weekend in Istanbul, you deserve a trip to a hammam. At Cemberlitas Hamam Vezirhan Caddesi 8, Cemberlitas (00 90 212 522 7974, open 6am-midnight daily), you can indulge your senses with a steam and a massage (YTL25/ £11) in a Turkish bath over four centuries old.