weekend away - Istanbul

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Famous meeting point of East and West, Istanbul has long captivated visitors with its rich history and cosmopolitan flair. Now, as a European Capital of Culture for 2010, the city is proving to be a vibrant artistic and cultural destination as well.

A former capital of three great empires – Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman – Istanbul boasts many layers of history, best seen in the old districts below the Golden Horn. ‘Old Istanbul,’ particularly Sultanahmet, is filled with Byzantine Era monuments, Ottoman mosques and bazaars, and museums housing important artefacts of Turkey’s cultural heritage, including the Istanbul Archaeological Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts.

In honour of Istanbul’s title as European Capital of Culture, some of its most important historic sites are getting a face-lift this year. Hagia Sophia, an architectural marvel built by the Byzantines in the 6th century, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks. After 17 years of restoration work on the interior of the church’s dome, the scaffolding was recently removed, allowing the famous dome to be appreciated in all its glory. Also newly visible is an impressive 1.5m-high mosaic of a seraph, or six-winged angel, which had been covered over with plaster in 1849 and was only rediscovered last year.

Topkapi Palace, which for four centuries served as the opulent residence of the sultans and the seat of Ottoman government, is another must-see. Highlights include the ornately decorated Harem; the Treasury, where the famous Topkapi Dagger and Spoonmaker’s Diamond are on display; and the Chamber of Sacred Relics, housing the Blessed Mantle of the Prophet Mohammed and other important Islamic religious items. The palace kitchens are being restored in order to better showcase one of the world’s best collections of Chinese and Japanese porcelain.

But there’s much more to Istanbul than Sultanahmet, so save time to explore other parts of the city. The Beyoğlu neighbourhood is a major centre for shopping, dining, and nightlife, as well as a great place to feel the rhythm of modern life in Turkey. It’s also home to the Pera Museum – with its excellent collections of Orientalist paintings by European and Ottoman artists, and beautiful Kutahya tiles and ceramics – and to a number of private art galleries.

Located in a former warehouse on the shores of the Bosphorus, the Istanbul Modern is the best place in Istanbul to view modern Turkish art. In addition to its first-rate permanent collection, it hosts temporary exhibitions of work by contemporary artists, both Turkish and international.

From annual events like the Istanbul Film Festival, Istanbul Music Festivals, and the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix, to this year’s special line-up of concerts, theatrical premieres, visiting artists, and museum openings, Istanbul is bursting with things to do – just as you’d expect of such a celebrated metropolis.

Connect Istanbul, Turkey Distance: 2,720 km Flight Time: 4 hours, 40 minutes Frequency: Daily

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