Turkish delights in Istanbul

Aerial View of Galata Tower
An aerial view of the striking Galata Tower. Built in 1348, the cone-capped cylinder dominates the skyline the Galata side of the Golden Horn.Yann Arthus-bertrand / Corbis
/ Source: Special to msnbc.com

When it comes to empire building, Istanbul, once known as Constantinople, has been the irresistible prize, the “golden ring”, the “ne plus ultra”, for would-be conquerors. Over the centuries, it has served as the capital for no less than three major empires — the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman. Each left their mark; and a prime delight of visiting the city is foraging through its rich history, tracing the development of architectural styles, and noting what each culture stole from the last. In just one day, you won’t be able to “conquer” all of Istanbul yourself, but you’ll get a good idea why so many lives were lost trying to possess this fascinating, complex city.

9 a.m.-12:30 p.m.: Confine yourself to the Sultanahmet for your morning wanderings, and you’ll be able to hop the centuries somewhat efficiently. Start at the Hippodrome, built in A.D. 203, site of numerous bloody gladiator battles and chariot races. Its most famous monument, a massive bronze statue of four horses, now graces St. Mark’s in Venice, looted by the crusaders in 1204 (what you see in Istanbul is a replica). (aka Hagia Sofia, completed in A.D. 537) is nearby. Until 1624 it was the largest Christian church ever built, though, as tended to happen in this city, it was a mosque by that time. Ahmet II’s first official act, upon conquering Istanbul in 1453, was to re-consecrate it in the name of Allah. President Ataturk declared it a museum in 1935, restoring much of the original Byzantine mosaics and icons you see today. Make your descent next to the atmospheric , an underground lake created by the Emperor Constantine and expanded by Justinian, to serve as a reservoir in case of invasion or drought. Once above ground, head back to the Hippodrome where you’ll find the entrance to what is arguably the most eye-poppingly beautiful of all of Istanbul’s great sights, . Built between 1609 and 1617, it gets its nickname from the ravishing blue and green Iznik tiles that cover it.

Morning alternative: Splurge on a kilim rug, order a custom-made pair of leather pants, or pick up an intricate piece of gold or silver jewelry at the . With over 2,500 shops covering 65 blocks, it’s one of the world’s greatest, if most befuddling, shopping experiences. And don’t be shy about haggling, it’s expected.

12:30 p.m.-1:30 p.m.: Let your nose guide you to the unpretentious , where the scent of freshly based bread and roasting kebabs perfumes the air. For a quick, tasty, reasonably-priced lunch, it’s the top pick in the touristy Sultanahmet district.

1:30 p.m.-5 p.m.:  Imagine Versailles, the Tower of London and Ali Baba’s cave of wonders all rolled into one and you’ll have a small idea of what awaits you at . After entering a gate once lined with the severed heads of those who dared oppose the Sultan, you’ll wander through opulent room after room, stuffed with precious artworks and artifacts. In one are relics of the Prophet Muhammed, in another the supposed staff of Moses and part of the skull of St. John the Baptist. The Treasury holds the Spoonmaker Diamond (fifth largest in the world); clothing, porcelains and jeweled swords and armor of the Sultans grace other exhibit halls. Be sure to pay the extra fee to visit the harem, the quarters where 800-plus unhappy concubines once languished, guarded by even more miserable eunuchs. Very few ever came into contact with Sultan himself (crunch the numbers), though if that Sultan died, his successor often had the concubines executed, just in case one was carrying a child who could become a rival heir.

Afternoon alternative: Exfoliate, steam up and rub down at the , one of Istanbul’s most celebrated Hammams (or Turkish Baths). After changing into a pestamal (a traditional checkered cloth, loosely wrapped around the body), you’ll enter a steam room where an attendant will lather you with soap and then scrape it off with a kese (a brillo-like mitt meant to remove the dead skin); a massage and sometimes a hairwash or another soaping follow. And in spending the afternoon at this 18th century-era Hamman, you’ll be following in the footsteps not only of countless Turks, but also Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Kaiser Wilhelm, all of whom got the treatment when in Istanbul.

7 p.m.-10 p.m.: Hop aboard the private skiff of the restaurant for a sunset sail across the Bosporous … and across continents. In the course of the splendidly scenic 20-minute ride, you’ll pass from Europe to Asia. Once there, you’ll dine on fresh seafood right on the river, in the most romantic of settings, all twinkling candlelight and spectacular views.

10 p.m. on: Cruise the Beyoglu district, which has evolved from one of the dullest areas of town to one of the most happening in just the past 10 years. Though this is a Muslim country, Turkish wines flow freely at the bars here; for those seeking music with their libations, there’s , which features live pop, rock or jazz many nights of the week, with acts from across Europe.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.

Ayasofya, phone 0212/522-1750. Admission is approximately $11; the museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.

Yerebatan Cistern, Yerebatan Cad. diagonal from St. Sophia in the Sultanahmet; phone 0212/522-1259. It’s open Wednesday’s through Mondays, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m. Admission is approximately $8. 

The Blue Mosque is open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., though out of respect you should avoid visiting during prayer times, unless you are Muslim. There is no admissions fee.

Shops in the Grand Bazaar are open from 8:30am to 7pm Mondays through Saturdays; the least confusing entry point is at the Beyazit Gate or the Nuruosmaniye Gate. There’s no entry fee at any of the stores or to get into the Bazaar area, but you might consider investing $7 in a helpful map of the bazaar (you’ll find the maps at all the newsstands in the area).

Buhara 93, Sifa Hamami Sokak 15A; phone  0212/518-1511.

The entrance to the is atthe end of Babuhümayun Cad., behind the Ayasofya; phone 0212/512-0480.Admission to the palace is about $9. You’ll pay an additional $7 each to tour the Harem and the Treasury. The palace is open Wednesdays through Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. but the Harem closes at 4 p.m.

Cagaloglu Hamami, Yerebatan Caddesi at Ankara Caddesi; phone 0212/522-2424. The cost is about $24 for bath and kese treatment and 36 if you get the special massage. It’s open daily 7 a.m. - 10 p.m. for men, 8 a.m. - 8 p.m. for women and there are separate sections for each.

Körfez is located on the Asian side, across from Rumeli Hisari at Körfez Cad. 78; phone 0216/413-4314 (advance reservations needed both for the restaurant and the boat rides to and from).

Babylon, Sehbender Sok. 3 in Beyoglu, phone 0212/292-7368. Cover charges range from $10 to $20 depending on which bands are playing. Babylon does shut down for certain periods in the summer, so call first to make sure they’re open before heading over.

Pauline Frommer is the creator of the new guides in bookstores now. Her book, Pauline Frommer's New York, was named Best Guidebook of the Year by the North American Travel Journalists Association.