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Sampling Istanbul’s Charms

Sitting astride one of the world’s great crossroads, Istanbul is a charming blend of European and Asian identities.

Sitting astride one of the world’s great crossroads, Istanbul is a charming blend of European and Asian identities. Any exploration of this megalopolis of 13 million inhabitants should start with a ferry ride on the Bosporus, the narrow strait separating the two continents.

Once the morning crowds thin out, it’s easy to find an upper-deck seat on a boat at the docks of Ortaköy, the trendy coffeehouse-and-boutique neighborhood at the foot of the Bosporus Bridge, and set sail to the busy Eminönü terminal on the southern side of the Golden Horn inlet in the heart of old Istanbul. The 15-minute journey, which costs 1.50 Turkish lira (about $1.00), offers wondrous views of the towering minarets of the medieval Süleymaniye Mosque and the enormous dome of Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya in Turkish), the sixth-century Byzantine-church-turned-mosque that is now a museum.

At Eminönü, hop a taxi or take a 15-minute walk through the winding streets that ascend to the Grand Bazaar, founded in 1461 as the commercial heart of the Ottoman Empire. The arcaded market’s more than 60 lanes and 4,000 shops remain an Oriental fantasy of carpets, gold, silks, water pipes and ceramics — as well as modern consumer electronics. When you begin to despair of getting your bearings, just ask a succession of shopkeepers, “Aya Sofya?” and miraculously, you will emerge in its shadow.

Between visits to Hagia Sophia and two other nearby landmarks — Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque — plan on lunch at Balikçi Sabahattin (Seyit Hasan Kuyu Sokak 1; tel. 212 458 1824; about Tl 70 per person; AE, MasterCard, Visa accepted), a fish restaurant in the courtyard of a former Ottoman mansion.

Before going to the next palace or mosque, stroll the corniche past women in traditional head scarves pushing baby carriages, teenage girls in tight tube tops and slacks and weekend fishermen perched on the breakwall.

For dinner head back north and up the forested hillside to Sunset Grill (Yol Sokak 2, Kuruçeşme; tel. 212 287 0387; about Tl 120 per person, including wine; all major credit cards accepted). The cuisine is mostly international but includes Turkish specialties like lamb shank wrapped in eggplant. From the terrace you can look over the pine trees to the Bosporus Bridge.

Set aside a full day for sightseeing in Beyog˘lu, on the northern side of the Golden Horn, across the Galata Bridge from old Istanbul. In Istanbul: Memories and the City, his memoir of coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s, Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel laureate, evokes Beyog˘lu as the bohemian quarter that drew intellectuals into its cafés and taverns. Today the district is infused with more-commercial energy. The milelong pedestrian avenue Istiklal Caddesi is lined with boutiques, bookstores and galleries. For the unexpected finds that make Istanbul shopping so memorable, however, it’s best to detour a block away into Çukurcuma, a funky antiques district.

While in the neighborhood, stop in at one of the oldest Turkish bathhouses, Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami (Turnasibaşi Sokak 24; tel. 212 252 4242). The 90-minute “full treatment,” which costs Tl 90 plus a 10 percent tip, includes a soaking sweat, a rigorous soapy massage and a bucket rinse in a 15th-century hall where sunlight streams down through apertures in the marble-domed roof.

For dinner the nearby Yakup 2 (Asmali Mescit Sokak 35; tel. 212 249 2925; Tl 60 per person; all major credit cards) is a traditional meyhane (“drinking place”), where friends gather after work for mezes (varied appetizers), grilled fish and lamb chops, washed down with plenty of cold raki, Turkey’s traditional anise-flavored aperitif. Then end your wanderings where you began, in Ortaköy, at Blackk (Muallim Naci Caddesi 71; tel. 212 236 7256; ), a nightclub for fashionistas where everything — tables, banquettes, floors, waiters’ uniforms — is in monochrome black.

See related article, "IMF Credit Standing By in Turkey".

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