Garth Twa is seduced by edible aphrodisiacs, steamy hammams and Ottoman architecture.
The ideal place to start your tour of the European side of Istanbul is at the Blue Mosque (bluemosque.org) – beyond which is the gleaming Sea of Marmara, where Xerxes sailed and Jason got trapped with the Argonauts. Built in 1616 by Ahmed I, it is the crowning achievement of classical Ottoman architecture, and is positioned opposite the Hagia Sophia (a former mosque and now museum). It’s not blue, however, until you get inside, where more than 20,000 handmade tiles line the serene interior, lit by 260 stained-glass windows. Entry is free but take your shoes off before you go in.
Head onwards across the Hippodrome – formerly a Roman sports stage, now a park – to 39-41 Ticarethane Sokak, just across the tram tracks and up a narrow street. The Khorasani offers superb Anatolian cuisine, intoxicating Turkish ambience, and excellent service. Try the baked hummus with pastrami, cicik (yogurt with cucumber, garlic and dill), a good portion of soft, salty tulum (Turkish cheese), pastry parcels filled with spices and cheese, and Anatolian bread that comes out hot and bloated, deflating once you rip into it to make nice, toasty pitta-like strips. Visit khorasanirestaurant.com
Next to the Khorasani is the thrillingly eerie Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici), dating back to the sixth century. Only rediscovered when it was noticed that locals were drawing water from wells in their homes, it was dredged in 1987. The 10,000 sqm underground reservoir is punctuated by 336 marble columns that you can wander through on elevated footpaths, while sinuous music plays from hidden speakers and the dim lights reflect off carp troubling the water below. In the far southwest corner are two Medusa heads supporting two columns, hauntingly placed sideways and upside down. Entry is TL10 (£3.60). Open daily 9am-5.30pm.
Follow Yerebatan Caddesi to this hammam for men and women. Entering the central room – wisps of steam rise to the marble dome pierced by tiny windows shaped like stars, striating the room with shafts of ethereal light – you are transported back into Scheherazade’s 1,001 Nights. Marble columns loom over a huge central plinth and there are fonts to cool down in and have a good scrub. Entry is TL72 (£6.80) for self-service. Open 8am-8pm. Visit cagalogluhamami.com.tr
The Spice Market
A short walk away, this market is easier to negotiate than the Grand Bazaar and, with locals shopping there, is somewhat more genuine. Get ready to have your nostrils seduced as you jostle past bowls of saffron, cumin and paprika, stalls of honey, crates of pungent teas and lokum (Turkish delight) in every conceivable flavour. There’s also a boggling array of suspect aphrodisiacs, from peppers stuffed with garlic to figs stuffed with walnuts. Open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm. Visit turkeytravelplanner.com