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In this ancient country where Europe meets Asia, the sun shines down on a unique fusion of history and scenery, combining classical ruins, curious rock formations, golden beaches and tumbledown towns with memorable views.

Istanbul: Best for Ottoman splendour
Istanbul displays all the signs of bullish development you’d expect in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, with shiny skyscrapers growing ever upward, shops as far as the eye can see and tankers queueing in the Bosphorus river. And yet, among the organised chaos of this great modern city, ancient mosques and palaces rise sphinx-like from the jumble of roofs.

For nearly 500 years, Istanbul – or Constantinople, as it was previously known – was the capital of the Ottoman Empire, a powerful regime that, at its height, stretched from Hungary to Iraq. In the city’s imperial days, traders sold spices from distant dominions in the bazaars, dignitaries hunted in parks lining the Bosphorus, and buildings rose to immortalise the sultans. People came here from across the empire. ‘It was global before there was “global”,’ says Ottoman historian Caroline Finkel, who has lived in the city for 25 years.

Standing proud near the city’s spice bazaar is Rüstem Pa¸sa Mosque. Built during the Ottoman Empire, it showcases the best Ottoman architecture and exquisite Iznik tiles, which cover the walls, columns and the façade of its porch. Rüstem Paşa has a stillness, beauty and calm that offers respite from the clamour of the markets outside its walls.

On a much grander scale is the famous Blue Mosque, also decorated with Iznik tiles and stained-glass windows. It lies in the Sultanahmet area, the old town centre that was once the heart of Ottoman life.

This remarkable mosque was built after the Ottomans took the city from the Christian Byzantine Empire, to compete with the Aya Sofya cathedral, which was a conspicuous reminder of the old regime. Now a museum, Aya Sofya was made into a mosque under the Ottomans. ‘It was about imperial rivalry,’ says Caroline, ‘making your own what was there before. Demolishing it by giving new meaning.’

The 1,500-year-old building of Aya Sofya still has a sacred atmosphere. Turkish families crowd the entrance, craning their necks to view the soaring ceiling. They wander through the hushed space and queue up at the weeping column, said to cure ailments with its tears. Ottoman features such as medallions with gilt Arabic calligraphy draw the eye, but the shadowy corners are rich with original Christian fragments from the Byzantine era – enduring signs of Istanbul’s rich past.

Further information
Entry to the Blue Mosque is free, but it closes for about half an hour at prayer times. The Aya Sofya museum (£8) is open Tue-Sun.

Where to eat
Istanbul’s premier rooftop bar-restaurant, 360, has views of the old city from its eighth-floor perch. DJs and sporadic performances add to the buzz (dishes from £5).

Where to stay
Opened in 1892, Pera Palace was the address in Istanbul for guests arriving on the Orient Express. Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express was inspired by her stays in the Ottoman hotel, its neoclassical façade overlooking the Golden Horn estuary. Completed in September 2010, a two-and-ahalf- year, £21m renovation has maintained the elegance of the eclectic architecture and the grandeur of the public salons. Rooms and suites reflect their famous past guests. With antique furniture and luxuries such as hamamlike showers, modern comforts mix with vintage style (from £230).

Ayvalik: Best for coastal life
Fly to Izmir from Istanbul (one hour). Ayvalık is then two-and-a-half hours north by hire car or taxi.

In the restaurants lining Ayvalık’s seafront, mellow evenings are spent washing meze and balık (fish) down with the anise spirit raki. There’s even an Aegean saying about the time-honoured activity: ‘Raki, balık, Ayvalık’ – which tells us something about the pace of life in this classic small town.

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