THERE'S A TOUCH OF MAGIC IN STORE IN EXOTIC ISTANBUL, WRITES MARK EVANS
Istanbul: So good, they named it about a dozen times. Byzantium, Constantinople, Stamboul -- whatever the title, it has been fascinating throughout the ages. The world's only city that straddles two continents, you can go sightseeing in Europe, and then hop over to Asia, in the same afternoon.
Now Turkey's biggest city (no one seems to know if 10, 13 or even 19 million people live here) is ready to become a weekend-break choice for Irish travellers.
I stayed in the heart of the historic Sultanahmet area, a small peninsula filled with the major historical sites -- most of which can be easily seen in a day or two. And while the Seres Hotel is right on the edge of Europe, one can expect the exotic touch of the Orient.
Imams calling the faithful to prayer in the Blue Mosque around the corner; the horns of ships tooting as they ferry goods to and from the Black Sea or Sea of Marmara; street vendors plying everything from roasted corn to shoe shines.
It's also a shopper's paradise. A few minutes' stroll from my base lies the sprawling Grand Bazaar -- one of the world's largest covered shopping areas. A medieval Dundrum, its 5,000 shops sell an intoxicating array of spices, jewels, linens, clothes and carpets -- and a whole lot more. Haggling is an art form. And it's easy-going and fun: only the streetside Viagra vendors give you the hard sell.
The major sites are just a stroll away, too.
To immerse yourself in an entirely different culture, start with the Sultan Ahmet Mosque. Better known as the Blue Mosque, it's a beautiful Ottoman-era building with more than 20,000 blue tiles inside which give it its nickname. With its six towering minarets, they morning invitation to prayer is your guaranteed wake-up call.
Facing the mosque is the even older Hagia Sophia, once the beating heart of the Eastern Roman Empire. Still boasting the world's fourth largest dome, the former Byzantine church was a treasure trove of riches and of history. Pillaged by the Crusaders in 1209, it was on its altar in 1453 that what was left of the Roman Empire finally died, and the age of the Ottomans began in earnest as the Turkish forces began a three-day orgy of looting and debauchery among the Greek-speaking population.
But their loss was our gain as the flight of knowledge and people gave birth to the Renaissance and the Western world as we know it. Thanks, guys.
But the Ottomans were a decent enough lot for their time, and soon introduced a new golden age of culture and architecture.
Near Hagia Sophia is Topkapi Palace, one of the largest and most historic in the world. A sprawling harem, courtyards and treasure collections that would have Indiana Jones salivating, it's a must-see.
Take a stroll outside the palace gates, and you can see why this city was once dubbed New Rome. The sprawling hippodrome avenue could once hold 100,000 spectators watching chariot races.
And the obelisk is amazing -- looking new and in perfect condition, it's actually been dated to 1490BC, which goes to show you get what you pay for with contractors.
Another must-visit around the corner is the Basilica Cistern, built in the reign of Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century to supply fresh water to the city. Nowadays it's a curious underground museum, with waters teeming with goldfish, grey-coloured fish - you name it.
And you can also look like a prat by dressing up as a sultan for a photo op in the chamber for just a fiver.
If you want to see how today's elite live, take a boat trip along the Bosphorous. The din and bustle of downtown Istanbul quickly fade away as you head past its waterside suburbs of Europe and Asia where houses in the tens of millions are, well, ten a penny.
If you fancy a night out, head across the river from Sultanahmet to the area around Taksim Square.
If the Grand Bazaar district is Moore Street, the 3km Istiklal Caddesi is its Grafton Street. All the Western chains --and a few surprises -- are here.
It's also filled with lively bars and restaurants, but it's best to find out where's okay from your concierge or over a chat with the crew at the James Joyce Irish bar just around the corner from Istiklal Cadesi.
If you've done Barcelona, are tired of Paris and seen Rome, check out Istanbul -- it's like the continent but with that little bit of magic . . .