Istanbul has always been what I call a "threshold" destination. It sits at the threshold of two continents. It exists at the threshold of two cultures. And every time I visit, I get to sit at the threshold of history.
Geographically, it straddles Europe and Asia. It's a great hub for traveling either east or west. But it's also a great place to start your trip. It brings together Ottoman mosques, Byzantine mosaics and Roman masonry. It is the most densely populated and cosmopolitan city in Turkey, and in my experience it remains the center of Turkish culture. Each neighborhood within the city retains its own distinct character.
Of course, there are many neighborhoods in Istanbul. And there are the must- see iconic places — St. Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi, the former palaces of the sultans. But for me, a trip to Istanbul must start on the water. Even the ride in from the airport is on a coastal road, with all the boat traffic on the Bosporus. In fact, it's the waterways of Istanbul that split the city into three sections. Two of these sections (Taksim and Sultanahmet) are on the European continent, while one (Kadikoy) is on the Asian continent.
The city always seems crowded, and much of that is because of its density. But there are two good times to go: May, and between September and November. And you can get a visa upon arrival. You can purchase a sticker-type entry visa when you arrive at the airport that is valid for three months. (If you purchase a single-entry tourist visa from a Turkish consulate in the U.S. prior to your trip, it will cost you $37.)
Golden Crown Hotel: This small, three-star hotel is clean, centrally located and affordable, with breakfast included. Rates range from about $95 to $200. 90 212 638 19 44;goldencrownhotel.com
Yesel Ev: On the higher end is Yesel Ev, located literally steps from the Blue and Hagia Sophia Mosques. This former 19th-century mansion comes complete with brass bed, kilims (woven carpets) and even velvet curtains to make you feel like royalty. Try to stay in room 31, which has its own marble Turkish bath. Double room, about $350.Kabasakal Cad. No: 5; 0212 5176785; istanbulyesilev.com
Grand Halic Hotel: Located about a 15-minute walk from the Sultanahmet area, this 177-room hotel is a good option for travelers on a modest budget — double rooms start at about $150 a night. Refik Saydam Caddesi 37; 90 (212) 252 69 80
Four Seasons Hotel: This former Turkish prison is one of the top luxury hotels in the city. It’s centrally located just steps from the Blue Mosque, with 65 rooms and suites surrounding an open courtyard. Expect to pay the price, though — rates are about $1,500 a night in early September. Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1, Sultanahmet-Eminönü, 90 (212) 638 82 00; fourseasons.com
Like Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food, Turkish cuisine is all about flavor and spices (caution: you must love garlic and lemon). Vegetarian dishes abound here, with salads, grilled vegetables, hummus and other spicy dips. You can also find plenty of lamb kebobs, seafood, and grilled meats. If you can’t decide on just one dish, mezzes are small plates of hot and cold appetizers, and are a popular dining option among locals.
Tea time is a local tradition here; tea is served in clear, tulip-shaped glasses and drunk only with sugar. Another tradition is the meyhane, a traditional Turkish bar where the locals gather to work their way through several small plates and wash it down with raki, the national anise-flavored liquor.
For home-style Turkish cooking in a slightly elevated, white-tablecloth type atmosphere, head to Hunkar, where you can view the day’s specials on the counter before making your choice. Mim Kemal Oeke Caddesi 21; (212) 225-4665
Hamdi is an excellent spot for dinner and an unbeatable view — if the weather is good, sit on the rooftop, where you can see the sun set over the Golden Horn. Reservations are a must to grab one of these seats. And the food is pretty good, too, with a focus on grilled meats and a good variety of baklava for dessert. Tahmis Caddesi, 17 Kalçin Sokak
Eminönü, 90 212 528 0390
Don’t skip out on Istanbul’s street food culture. The neighborhood of Ortakoy on the European banks of the Bosporus has several lanes filled with food stalls. In the neighborhood of Taksim, the main street, Istiklal Caddesi, is a pedestrian-only area with plenty of food stands. Try simit, a traditional ring-shaped bread covered in sesame seeds served warm around tea time, Turkish Delight and plenty of spicy kebabs.
Blue Mosque: Named for the blue tiles that decorate the interior, the Blue Mosque is a working religious facility, which means it is a bad idea to visit during prayer times. Completed in 1617, it was Sultan Ahmet’s way of saying “size doesn’t matter” in response to the Hagia Sophia, which is located right across from it. It has 16 balconies and six minarets and an underground pool that regulates the inside temperature. It also houses Sultan Ahmet’s tomb, those of his family, and a reliquary that contains strands of the Prophet Muhammad’s beard.
Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofia): When it was built in 537 C.E., it was the biggest building in the world. Now it is a museum, with a gold-leaf mosaic dome that has hundreds of circular windows. The gallery inside contains Byzantine mosaics that were uncovered from beneath a layer of Ottoman plaster, as well as the “sweating pillar.” The pillar contains a small hole that you stick your finger into, and the drop of water that hits your finger is thought to contain healing properties.
Hippodrome: This open area, which contains a large Egyptian obelisk, exists as a testament to Byzantine glory. This was the area used for chariot races and public executions of what was then called Constantinople.
Topkapi Palace: Just steps from the Hagia Sophia, this palace offers insight into the wealth, excess, cruelty and emphasis on artistic pursuits of the Ottoman Empire at its peak. The palace was built between 1458 and 1465, and is divided into four courtyards and a harem. The harem’s 400-plus rooms housed the Sultan and his family, as well as servants, eunuchs, concubines and general assistants.
Grand Bazaar: Consisting of more than 3,000 shops, this large, covered bazaar is a maze of small streets. It's a fun but daunting experience. Getting lost is almost guaranteed as you follow the labyrinthine streets, haggle for the abundance of goods spilling out onto the walkways, and get harassed by the overeager vendors. My advice: Don't go on Fridays. It's overcrowded. But if you visit on Saturday afternoons after lunch, it's when the locals go and it's more manageable.
Must-see sights (off the beaten track)
If you cross the Galata Bridge to the non-Sulatanahmet side, directly to your left you will find a small fish market. You will hear the Turkish fisherman yelling out and selling their freshly caught products.
Head to the Galatasaray neighborhood to get a feel for one of Istanbul’s artsy parts of town. French Street, or Fransiz Sokagi, is a steep, narrow street lined with art galleries, boutiques and cafes — this area particularly comes to life in the evening, with street musicians and crowds spilling onto the street.
Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar dates back to 1664 and is a heady introduction to Turkish flavors. Inside this covered market you can find spices, nuts, dried fruit and the ubiquitous Turkish Delight. But here’s a tip: If you just head outside to the street Hasircilar Caddesi, you’ll find more spice shops selling goods — often for a lower price!
Don’t miss out on a traditional Turkish bath. Public baths are still a way of daily life in Istanbul — the most famous (and some say best) of the bunch is Cagaloglu Hamami, a 300-year-old institution that has hosted some famous faces like Florence Nightingale, Omar Sharif, Tony Curtis and Harrison Ford. A separate women’s entrance is on the side. 34 Professor Kazim Gurkan Caddesi
For a day trip, you can sail down the Bosporus on a ferry ride to the village of Anadolu Kavagi (it’s the last stop on the Asiatic side). Ferries depart daily from Eminonu Pier. This little fishing village is about as authentic as you can get — and it’s loaded with fish restaurants (some say the best in Istanbul). Climb to the top of the hill to explore the Byzantine fortress Yoros Kalesi and take in the amazing view, then follow it up with a lunch at a restaurant for the fresh catch of the day.
There are spas, and then there is the traditional hamam. This is old-school massage. Every hotel has one. but go for the original. My best bet: Cagaloglu Hamam (cagalogluhamami.com.tr).
Or, hop on a ferry to a small islet to visit Kiz Kulesi (aka Maiden’s Tower or Leander’s Tower). This ancient structure, built in 341 B.C., serves primarily as a lighthouse, but also has a café and restaurant featuring live music and dance on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It also has one of the best views in town, with a 360-degree view of Istanbul from its unique position on the Bosporus.
If you’re into high-end shopping, sail down the Bosporus and inland a bit to the neighborhood of Nisantasi. This popular, fashionable shopping district has brand-name stores like Gucci and Armani, spas, and a surprising number of bakeries and sweet shops.
And, last but not least: One of my favorite desserts in the world is rice pudding. And no one does it better than the folks in Turkey. You can find it on almost every menu, so make room for it for dessert. You'll be glad you did ...
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