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Istanbul, Turkey

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20 April 2010

Straddling two continents, Istanbul has long been the gateway through which Eastern influences have reached Europe, as well as the Wests window on Asia and the Islamic world. Its Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches, sprawling palaces and covered bazaars are without equal on either side of the continental marker.

Add that Turkey right now is great value for money and we’d be telling you to go whatever the year was. But the fact that Istanbul is European Capital of Culture 2010 (an honour it shares with in Hungary and Essen in Germany) makes now an especially exciting time to visit, as Wexas Europe specialist, Toby Bishop, discovered when he went in December last year.

"Everything from traditional Ottoman houses to historic tombs and fountains have been carefully restored in the run-up to 2010, explains Toby."

The Seymaniye Mosque, for example, was still under scaffolding while I was there but will doubtless be resplendent by the time this goes to print. It may not be the largest of the Ottoman mosques but it competes with the Blue Mosque for the title of the grandest. In fact, most of the main sights have been given some spit and polish, including the most celebrated of all the city’s buildings, Aya Sofya. Aya Sofya was the world’s largest enclosed space for nearly 1,000 years, recalls Toby. Originally a church, later a mosque and now a museum, it remains the greatest legacy of the Byzantine Empire and 2010 will see new archeological finds shown off for the first time.Topkapi Palace, the heart of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries, has also received some treatment.

The 175-acre complex, built on a promontory overlooking the Bosphorus, was home to 25 sultans, and though many of their treasures have long since disappeared, the pieces that remain make it easy to imagine its former splendour.

It’s one of my absolute must-sees, says Toby, though you need at least half a day to do it justice. I’d recommend you hire a guide. They really bring the place to life, feeding you information as you view things so you don’t spend your visit turning pages in a guidebook. Besides the renovations, 2010 will also see a packed calendar of cultural events.

I particularly like the sound of the Museum of Innocence,says Toby, which uses films and photos to document daily life in Istanbul. Other forthcoming exhibitions include Assyrians in Istanbul, which will look at the role Anatolian civilisations have played in the formation of European cultures, using Istanbul as a bridge; and 99 Qur’ans, a display of the exquisite calligraphy for which Istanbul became famous in the Ottoman Empire. And to take this all in, where would Toby recommend staying?

If you want the very best it’s still hard to top the Four Seasons. Formerly a prison in the core of the old city, its levels of service are almost unprecedented. But if it&;rsquo;s culture you’re after, it has to be the Avicenna, a converted 19th century traditional Ottoman house with views of the Sea of Marmara, just a few minutes walk from the Aya Sofya, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace and Grand Bazaar.

I’ve been recommending it for 15 years and always get good feedback.

Should you need convincing of Istanbul’s cultural credentials, 2011 will be the year to visit.

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