Asian by nature and European by choice, Turkey is among the most extraordinarily beautiful countries in the world. With its backdrop of early Byzantine-Christian-Roman influences that is interwoven with an Ottoman-Islamic heritage and newer, secular ideals, Istanbul is an effervescent mix of exciting cultures.

Cruise the Bosphorus

Flanked by water-side mansions, large palaces and trendy villas, this horn-shaped channel that connects Asia and Europe via the Bosphorus (suspension) Bridge is one of the world’s busiest waterways. A relaxing and peaceful spot by day and a beautiful stretch at night, a cruise along the 20 km stretch is a must.

Open: April through October

Cruise fee: 25 TRY approx for a round trip by ferry. Considerably more if you go with a tour operator.

Marvel at Hagia Sophia

A 4 century Byzantine cathedral with a 6 century Roman makeover that was turned into a 15 century Ottoman mosque, the Hagia Sophia is now a Turkish museum, where Dan Brown’s latest book Inferno reaches its climax. Its minarets and dome etched in the skyline identify Istanbul and former Constantinople to the world.

Open: Except on Mondays

Entrance fee: 25 TRY

Stop at the Blue Mosque

Built by Sultan Ahmet I in the 17 century to rival the stunning Hagia Sofia, till then the largest mosque in the world, the Sultan Ahmet Mosque is even today an enormous functioning mosque. Popularly known as the Blue Mosque due to its now faded blue mosaic interior, its majestic charm is legendary.

Entrance free.

Gawk at Topkapi Palace

Home of the Ottoman Emperors for about 400 years, it is an impressive walk to get there, across a hill that offers an incredible view of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Don’t miss the palace treasury, which has the world’s most brilliant and priceless baubles including Nadir Shah’s Peacock Throne and the famous encrusted Topkapi Dagger.

Entrance fee: Palace: 20 TRY

Harem: 15 TRY

Explore Basilica Cistern

Dark, damp and mysterious, with flickering lights and darting fish, is the Basilica Cistern. Built by Emperor Justinian in the 6 century to meet the city’s water needs, it is supported by 336 grand marble columns rising from the water, two of which flaunt the evil Medusa’s head.

Entrance fee: 20 TRY

Walk around Sultanahmet

Wandering becomes that much more exciting when you do it where Roman chariots once raced at the Hippodrome, or among the columns of Constantine and Theodosius or the Fountain of Wilhelm II. The cobbled streets of the Sultanahmet are abuzz with quaint shops, cozy wayside eateries and interesting kitsch steeped in history. The Grand Bazaar and the Arasta are just a few corners away.

Entrance is free.

Enjoy the Spice Bazaar

Also known as the Egyptian Bazaar, it sits on the Bosphorus waterfront, a stone’s throw from Sirkeci station where Agatha Christie’s Orient Express once docked. A covered maze of innumerable narrow little stalls, it’s next door to the 14th century Galata Bridge — with its charming restaurants below — that connects old and new Istanbul. Closed on Sundays.

Shop at Grand Bazaar

The Grand Bazaar is a warren of some 5,000 shops stacked with exotic goodies to choose from. Be prepared to haggle and quote less than half the price charged for that expensive carpet or those exquisite dome lamps you’ve set your heart on.

Closed on Sundays.

Drop in at Dolmabahçe Palace

Spectacular in every sense of the word, this 19 century palace with its incredible crystals and carpets also boasts of an unbelievably exquisite 4.5 tonne (world’s largest) crystal chandelier hanging from an ornate ceiling. The seat and home of the later Ottoman Sultans, the Dolmabahçe Palace is also where Kemal Ataturk, the father of modern Turkey, worked, lived and died.

Closed on Mondays and Thursdays.

Entrance fee: 30 TRY

Get a Turkish high

No Istanbul holiday is complete without the whirling Dervishes, a clean-up at a Hamam, or watching a belly dancer swishing the night away as you dig into heady culinary creations such as Doner Kababs and Lokum (Turkish Delight).