We have all heard the descriptions of Istanbul being a bridge between Europe and Asia, a place where East meets West and where cultures have happily coexisted for centuries. But not everyone is aware of its endlessly fascinating contradictions. Here are the best ways to see how the different cultures of Istanbul unify.

Marvel at one of the world's truly great buildings: Aya Sofya
Istanbul has many architectural masterpieces, but one building surpasses the rest due to its innovative form, historical importance and sheer beauty. The somewhat squat exterior does not promise much, but wait till you see the mesmerising interior! Words cannot do it justice; this space truly makes the soul soar and the senses sharpen.  It is simply sublime. Close your eyes and imagine Byzantines celebrating the liturgy, Crusaders storming the main door, Muslims bowing their heads to Allah and the staunchly secular Atatürk striding in to declare it a museum in 1935.

Combat vertigo and admire the world's most stupendous skyline
Most great cities have a signature skyline view that graces a million postcards - Istanbul has enough of them to fill an entire album. The seven hills of the Old City are crowned with a collection of imperial mosques that offer a visual wham-bam unlike any other. With their delicate minarets, distinctive domes and curvaceous outer casings, they dominate the peninsula's skyline and provide a romantic backdrops for diners at terrace restaurants around Eminönü and Beyoğlu.

Join the crush and lose yourself in the atmospheric bazaar district
The bazaar district is chaotic and colourful. While glam Kanyon may be ground zero for sophisticated shoppers on the other side of the Golden Horn, serious bayanlar (ladies) bring their sharpened elbows here. Stroll through the hidden Ottoman hans (caravanserais) and labyrinthine shopping streets, where the waft of cinnamon and clove intensifies as you approach the historic Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı).

By the shore at Eminönü, ferries belch grey clouds over seagulls circling for scraps of simit (small rings of bread decorated with sesame seeds), and street vendors sell everything from fresh fish sandwiches to fake Rolexes.

Climb aboard Istanbul's famous flotilla of ferries
Spanned by two mammoth bridges, and with a third on the drawing board, the Bosphorus is traversed on a daily basis by thousands of cars, ferries, fishing boats and launches. Travelling in the famous public excursion ferry alongside massive tankers and cargo ships making their way from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea certainly makes a memorable day trip.

Climb aboard a ferry at sunset, when the grandiose silhouette of the Old City is thrown into relief against an orange-red or dusky pink sky.

Wine, dine and gallery-hop on and around Istiklal Caddesi, the heart of the modern city
Istiklal Caddesi is a perfect metaphor for 21st-Century Turkey. At one extremity is frantically busy Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of modern Istanbul. At the other extremity is Galata, home to meandering cobblestone lanes that have seen the comings and goings of umpteen imperial powers. This part of town retains a slightly louche and laid-back flavour, beckoning the traveller with its unexpected mix of churches, mosques, shops, hotels and gay hamams (bathhouses). Istiklal (Independence) is as European as anything east of the Champs Élysées.

Gallivant with the in-crowd at the city's amazing art galleries
Socially aspirational Istanbullus know that there is one foolproof way to build a public profile. All they need to do is build and endow an art gallery, preferably one dedicated to modern art. This trend is the best thing to hit the city since the tulip bulb arrived. All of this is great news for the visitor, who can see world-class exhibitions in drop-dead-gorgeous surroundings, complete with stylish gift shops and quality cafes.

Party through the night at a golden mile superclub
Istanbul's superclubs are as famous for their tough door staff and wallet-decimating bar prices as they are for their magnificent Bosphorus views. They are worth it, though. The sybaritic strip between Ortaköy and Kuruceşme is home to a clutch of nightclubs that epitomise the word indulgence - here patrons enjoy luxe surrounds, wonderful food, perfectly executed cocktails and a passing parade of Armani-clad businessmen, models on the make, one-hit celebs and local lasses squeezed into diamante-decorated jeans so tight their reproductive futures must be in serious danger.

Sample the flavours of Istanbul
More than anything else, Istanbullus love to eat. Here food is much more than mere fuel. It is a celebration of community. Meals unfurl with great ceremony - they are joyful, boisterous and almost inevitably communal.

The national cuisine has been refined over centuries and is treated more reverently than any museum collection in the country. That is not to say it is fussy, because what differentiates Turkish food from other national noshes is its rustic and honest base. The meze (hors d'oeuvres) you will eat will be simple, the kebaps austere, the salads unstructured and the seafood unsauced. Flavours will explode in your mouth because ingredients are used in season.

The country's best chefs come to Istanbul to perfect their art, and you will be able to order a better executed Italian pasta or fiery Thai curry from here. There is a mind-boggling array of options so the possibilities are endless. As the Turks say, Afiyet olsun! (Good appetite!)


The article 'Unmissable experiences in Istanbul' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.