Istanbul, Turkey

Where else in the world can you hop from one continent to another in just two minutes but in Istanbul? In this city, Europe meets Asia through two suspension bridges spanning the legendary Bosphorus, a choppy waterway that stretches from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. From the vantage point of Camlica Hill located on the Asian side, you're treated to a stunning panorama of domes and minarets vying for attention.

Known in bygone days as Byzantium and Constantinople, the city of Istanbul was the capital of 4 great empires: Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman. With a history covering almost 3,000 years, the city was built, destroyed and rebuilt by a succession of conquerors and invaders, emperors and sultans. Politics, religion and intrigue played a big role in the dizzying chronology of events that shaped this city. As Turkey's cultural capital, much of what can be seen today is a tangible reminder of Istanbul's colorful past.

Most of the city's first-time visitors gravitate first towards the Hippodrome, an ancient square that was the very heart of then Constantinople. The three remaining monuments are hard to miss as throngs of tourists congregate there: The Egyptian obelisk, the bronze Serpentine column, and the column of Constantine. These monuments mark the spot where chariot races and other sporting and social events were held in those times. At the northern end of the Hippodrome is the German fountain given by Kaiser Wilhelm II for a sultan during the early 20th century.

Adjacent to the square lies the two imposing structures that very well define the artistry of the two empires. The massive basilica of Haghia Sophia, built by Constantine the Great and reconstructed by Emperor Justinian, is a leading example of Byzantine architecture. From being an early Christian church, it became an Eastern Orthodox church, becoming a mosque in 1453 during the Ottoman conquest before finally being turned into a museum in 1935. Facing it right across the public gardens is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque due to its interior paneling of intricately-patterned blue Iznic tiles. The mosque's symmetry of domes, semi-domes and minarets blends well with the soaring outline of the much bigger Haghia Sophia.

To the west side of the Haghia Sophia is the 6th-century Basilica Cistern or Yerebatan Sarayi. This is the largest among the many cisterns that stored water underneath the old city, about 2.4 acres in size and able to hold a capacity of over 21 million US gallons. A scene of the old James Bond movie From Russia With Love was shot here, showing Bond rowing a small boat through the 336 massive marble columns that support the cistern.

If you can't do away with shopping, Istanbul certainly has glitzy shops in its Taksim and Nisantasi districts. For a real bargain-hunting though, or even for a mere window-shopping, a visit to the Grand Bazaar (or Covered Bazaar) is a must. With over 3,000 shops under its vast roof, this is absolutely the original mall, offering a large selection of items that run the gamut: from handwoven kilims and carpets to intricate jewellery, silverware and brassware, to ceramics, leather goods and kitschy souvenirs. Purchases are usually made after much haggling and sometimes, after the shop owner has offered a potential customer with a cup of apple tea.

Another interesting old market is the Egyptian Bazaar or the Spice Bazaar nestled on the bank of the Golden Horn, an estuary connected to the Bosphorus. The aroma of spices waft through the air as you walk through its long arcades and be overwhelmed by its flourishing trade that includes open sacks of herbs and spices, heaps of dried fruits, lentils and beans, glass jars filled with strange-looking powders and potions, and boxes of Turkish Delight or lokum (a traditional sweet delicacy made from starch and sugar).

As the Bosphorus is very much a part of everyday life in Istanbul, cruising it is assuredly memorable as it gives you a chance to mingle with the locals who take the ferry as their regular means of transport. Ferries await for passengers at the southern end of the Galata bridge and has multiple stops on both the European and Asian side of the Bosphorus until it reaches Sariyer, a fisherman's village near the Black Sea. Expect to see architectural wonders (which can be visited separately for a closer look) as the ferry sails on: the Dolmabahce Palace, last imperial residence of the Ottoman sultans where Kamal Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic, breathed his last; the Beylerbeyi Palace, summer residence of the sultans; the Rumeli Hisari, an Ottoman military fortress built on a hill; and the few remaining yalis, old wooden mansions most of which date back to the 18th century.

After all that sightseeing and walking, what better way to treat and cleanse the weary body than visiting a Hamam or Turkish Bath? One such temple of relaxation is the Cagaloglu Hamami, not very far from Haghia Sophia.Take a steam bath and be scrubbed by your own attendant followed by a rough pummeling while you lay down on a stone platform. A tradition steeped with Anatolian, Byzantine and Roman influences, a visit to the Hamam is an experience worth doing to cap your Istanbul escapade.

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