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March 27, 2005

GOING TO; Istanbul

Why Go Now

After getting a green light in December to negotiate entry into the European Union, Turkey is buzzing with change. Turkey has reinvented its currency as the new lira, opened a new modern art museum and is feeling a new burst of confidence. Shakeups at the political level have led to a merged Ministry of Culture and Tourism and larger budgets for the arts, a move designed to push Turkey's cultural profile into the international news, even as Istanbul grabs headlines with its human rights reforms.

The new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art makes an unmistakable statement about Istanbul's self-perception as a major cultural capital. The gravel courtyard and warehouse-like exterior are reminiscent of P.S. 1 in Long Island City, Queens, and the interior -- with its industrial feel and long, fluorescently lighted hallways lined with amply spaced paintings -- brings to mind the Pompidou Center in Paris.

The lively cafe culture in the artsy Beyoglu district reflects this renewed energy. Beyoglu was a renowned intellectual center in the 1960's and 70's, and, despite a period of decline, the narrow streets again resemble the Beyoglu of 350 years ago, which the contemporary travel writer Evliya Celebi described as a place where ''the word guhana, temptation, is most particularly applied ... because there all kinds of playing and dancing boys, mimics and fools, flock together and delight themselves day and night.''

Where to Stay

Try running the names of hotels through a search engine before you book; some travel agencies' Web sites offer lower rates than those quoted below. In winter, prices can drop by as much as 50 percent.

Film directors, actors and writers thrive in the rundown, eccentric atmosphere of the Buyuk Londra Hotel, with its threadbare wine-red carpeting and old crystal chandeliers in the lobby. The hotel, at Mesrutiyet Caddesi 117, (90-212) 245 0670 or (90-212) 293 1619, has recently redone some of its rooms with water views and added such amenities as televisions and air-conditioning and is billing them as ''special rooms.'' The owner has an interesting collection of antique radios. Special rooms are $82 to $205, at $1.37 to the euro; old rooms are sometimes discounted to $41 to $55.

Up the street, at Mesrutiyet Caddesi 130, Ansen 130 Suites, (90-212) 245 8808, at www.ansensuite.com, is a new boutique hotel in an ornate, creamy building that dates back to Ottoman times. It has 10 suites, each bigger than many Manhattan one-bedrooms , furnished in glass, steel and sleek wood, and equipped with wireless Internet access and a full kitchen, for $200 a night.

Most of the rooms at the charming Anemon Galata, Buyukhendek Caddesi 11, (90-212) 293 2343, www.anemonhotels.com, have a view of either the 15th-century Galata Tower or the Bosporus. Rooms at the ends of the floor have fine views, but if you don't get one of those, spend some time in the restaurant on the top floor. Its floor-to-ceiling windows offer a spectacular panorama. Doubles for $218 a night.

On the Asian side of the Bosporus, the new Ajia hotel, Cubuklu Caddesi 27, (90-216) 413 9300, www.ajiahotel.com, brings elegant modern design to a sleepy little fishing village. The 10 rooms and 6 suites in the restored mansion are tucked behind the coastal road, with a dining room and terraces perched on the water. The luxury comes at a price: doubles begin at $341, plus tax and breakfast.

Where to Eat

Just up the hill from Taksim Square in Harbiye is Loft, located in the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Center, (90-212) 219 6384 or (90-212) 219 6385, on the Web at www.icec.org/rumelimed.htm. The Mediterranean cuisine is flawless and the service impeccable; the menu includes excellent seafood pancakes, tender filet mignon, and homemade goat cheese ravioli. Dinner for two, with wine, about $140.

The new cafe at the Istanbul Modern museum overlooking the Bosporus is operated by the managers of Loft. Elements of the Loft menu have made the move, but the excellent service and painstaking care in the kitchen seem to have been lost along the way. Spoonfuls of the Turkish baked rice pudding, however, which emphasizes milky pudding over rice, will ease thoughts of the forgetful waiter from your mind. Lunch for two, $35.

Or, save your new lira (one new lira is a million old lira) and get a quick bite at Gulluoglu, Mumhane Caddesi 171, (90-212) 249 9680 in Karakoy, a few blocks from the Modern. It's known for the best pastry in Istanbul, and a superior su borek, a lasagne without meat and sauce, made from sheets of pasta layered with cheese and covered with a flaky pastry crust ($2). Eat inside at the freestanding counter to get a glimpse of big-bellied Turkish men attempting to stretch their mouths wide enough for the large diamonds of unfathomably rich sweet baklava to pass through whole. A plate of assorted pastry goes for around $4.

Back in Beyoglu, Helvetia Lokanta, Gen. Yazgan Sokak 12, (90-212) 245 8780, is the perfect neighborhood restaurant. The small open kitchen takes up about a third of the restaurant, while the other two-thirds is occupied by hipsters craving mom's home cooking. The small, handwritten menu of Turkish specialties changes daily. Dinner for two, $25.

What to Do During the Day

Istanbul's main attraction has always been the stunning Old City, with its breathtaking mosques and palaces. For an Ottoman-era ''Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'' experience, nothing beats the Topkapi Palace (90-212) 512 0480, on the Web at www.ee.bilkent.edu.tr/history/topkapi.html. Its four treasury rooms, containing too many golf-ball sized emeralds and diamonds to count, are mind-boggling. Admission to the Palace, with treasury rooms, is $17 at 1.35 new lira to the dollar, or $9.30 without. Open daily except Tuesday. Cross back over the bridge to Beyoglu, where newer-fangled diversions await. The new Istanbul Modern museum, Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi Liman Sahasi Antrepo 4, (90-212) 334 7300, on the Web at www.istanbulmodern.org, shows the work of prominent and emerging Turkish artists, with a strong photography show on the bottom floor. Admission is $3.87.

Relax and enjoy Simdi, Asmali Mescit 9, (90-212) 252 5443, the platonic ideal of a cafe, with its comfy chairs, high ceilings, and brilliant selection of magazines ranging from Wallpaper* to New Africa. Or inhale the 1930's Art Nouveau atmosphere of Markiz, 362 Istiqlal Caddesi, (90-212) 245 8394, over a cup of sahlep ($4.65), a creamy winter drink made from wild orchid root and sprinkled with cinnamon, before emerging back onto the street.

What to Do at Night

Istanbulians emerge in droves on the weekends, so reserve a table or buy a ticket in advance. See www.biletix.com for concert listings.

Babylon, Seyhbender Sokak 3 (90-212) 292 7368, www.babylon.com.tr, is a gorgeous, legendary and blissfully well-ventilated place with acts ranging from mildly politicized Turkish hip-hop to live jazz and Turkish folk music. Winding over to Nardis, Galata Kulesi Sokak 14 (90-212) 244 6327, www.nardisjazz.com, a chic jazz club, takes you past the floodlighted Galata Tower. Inside, Turkish musicians play Latin music and jazz to a sedate, smartly dressed crowd of yuppies.

If you've got energy to burn, Sawady, Kalyoncu Kulluk Caddesi Ekrem Tur Sokak, 5/7, (90-212) 244 7810, an old house converted into a five-floor nightclub, with the music becoming progressively more cheesy and fun as you climb the stairs. At the top it is contemporary R&B and Turkish pop.

Rich kids puff their cigars at the latest ''in place,'' Wan-na, Mesrutiyet Sokak 151, (90-212) 243 1794 or (90-212) 244 5922, a restaurant and bar that serves surprisingly authentic East Asian food.

Where to Shop

Istanbul's legendary Grand Bazaar is a labyrinthine nightmare of heckling salesmen. Find your way to the shops specializing in beautiful antique textiles and robes from Central Asia. Alternatively, trot around the streets surrounding the Arasta Bazaar, where many smaller shops have caches of similar goods, minus the headache.

Hunt for antiques in the side streets off of Istiqlal Street in the small Cukurcuma neighborhood, full of picturesque shops with cluttered windows and eccentric, gray-haired proprietors. International brands, and high-end Turkish brands like Vakko, are mostly found in the Nisantasi neighborhood, up the hill from Taksim. Foodies should make a stop at Ambar, just off Istiqlal Caddesi at Kallavi Sokak 12, (90-212) 292 9272, a natural foods store that stocks regional specialties such as poppy seed butter.

How to Stay Wired

At the Istanbul Modern, there are 16 free Internet kiosks.

Your First Time or Your Tenth

In a city surrounded by three bodies of water, there's no excuse not to dine waterside, and Florina, Yahya Kemal Caddesi 32-34, (90-212) 265 6586, is a perfect place to enjoy the views with your breakfast. Their rendition of menemen, a classic Turkish dish of scrambled eggs slow-cooked with peppers and onions until creamy, is outstanding, and the house made savory pastries that make an excellent companion to the traditional Turkish breakfast of honey, clotted cream, olives, cheese, cucumbers and tomato. Breakfast for two, $20.

How to Get There

Turkish Airlines flies nonstop from New York to Istanbul, one flight daily. In late March, the fare for travel in mid-April was $665 round trip. See www.turkishairlines.com.

Getting Around

Istanbul has a public transport network made up of buses, trolleys and ferries. The latter run all day. At night, taxis are relatively inexpensive if you stay on one side of the river, or ask around to find shared vans that run between neighborhoods.