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10 Great Reasons to Fall in Love with Istanbul

Istanbul is a huge tourist favorite globally, but Americans are just beginning to discover its riches.

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Most of the time, you can enjoy all this beauty in comfort. Istanbul has a mild Mediterranean climate—generally warm, but rarely super hot. (On the downside, it can be humid, and it does snow in the winter.) Summer visitors can expect day after day of bright sunshine, with virtually no rain.

2. I can’t believe my eyes: Istanbul’s architecture.

It's not just nature that makes Istanbul beautiful. A couple of thousand years at the hub of civilization has filled the Old City with breathtaking architectural wonders. Hagia Sophia's vast domes and newly restored, vividly expressive mosaics recall the glories of Byzantine Christendom, even after the church was converted to a mosque for 500 years. The astonishing Sinan, sort of the Shakespeare of Ottoman architecture, contributed the airy, elegant Suleymaniye Mosque in the mid-1500s. Half a century later one of his disciples supervised construction of the Sultan Ahmed (Blue) Mosque, with its dazzling tiles and six minarets, directly facing Hagia Sophia. The city abounds with smaller gems as well, such as the delicate Rustem Pasha mosque, named for a devious vizier who would have felt completely at home in the world of Game of Thrones.

The religious monuments are fabulous, but the city offers a great deal more. Not to be missed is the haunting Basilica Cistern, a huge underground vault supported by rows of ancient, intricately carved Greek pillars, built in the sixth century by thousands of slaves to ensure a steady water supply for the city's rulers. And, of course, there's Topkapi Palace, home to the Ottoman sultans for nearly 400 years, until the late 19th century. Although the entrance looks like the inspiration for Disney's Magic Kingdom, the palace’s graceful courtyards, gardens and low-slung buildings, perched on a promontory overlooking the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus Strait and the Golden Horn, evokes an era of privileged seclusion. It's easy to imagine peacocks and gazelles wandering the inner courtyards.

There's nothing like ruling the world from Austria to Azerbaijan to ensure truly generous gifts, along with a fair amount of plunder, and much of this wealth is on show in various of the pavilions. A display of armaments reflects centuries of glorified warfare, with an enormous greatsword attesting to the fact that huge, powerful men had a valued role long before the NBA. Intricate castings, carvings and jewel-work adorn scimitars, swords, daggers, and rifles that look too beautiful to use—and too lethal to be mere accessories. There’s even a jewel-encrusted mace! And speaking of jewels—well, you'll never again see emeralds or diamonds the size of those on display from the palace treasury.

3. The welcome mat. 

A highly sophisticated travel and tourism infrastructure makes Istanbul, and Turkey, unexpectedly easy to visit—and with more than 31.5 million visitors in 2011, all that organization sure helps.  Turkey ranks as the sixth most popular tourist destination in the world. In fact, Istanbul alone, with seven million foreign visitors, became the world's 10th most popular tourist destination in 2010, when it was named the  European Capital of Culture

Turks never make you feel bad for not speaking their language. They convey that the onus is on them to communicate with you, their guest. And millions of Turks do speak English, many fluently, some haltingly, pretty much all happily, even when they have only a few words to share. Turkey's travel agents, guides and hotel and restaurant personnel are a marvel of informative helpfulness. Say what you need, or even just hint, and it's taken care of with dispatch. Tour guides are university trained and genuinely expert in the country, its history and its treasures. Having a "master guide" help plan your trip via email before your arrival is a real asset. [v] Hiring a personal guide for a day in Istanbul, which will run about $150, will fill you in on all the tour books have to offer and more, as well as providing an opportunity to have an extended conversation with a smart, informed Istanbuli who speaks fluent English. “Taksis” are inexpensive and ubiquitous—and despite warnings of “scrambling,” we found the drivers smart, quick and honest.

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