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    • For much of human history it has been the greatest city on earth. Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul - the names by which the city has been known during its 28 centuries of existence are alone enough to conjure such a wealth of legends and stories as to stupefy the most curious. In that time it played various cameo roles in the great sweeps of ancient history before moving centre stage as the capital of, successively, two of the world's most powerful empires. Between Constantine's redefinition of the city in AD 330 as the New Rome and the final wreck of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, 97 Latin and Byzantine emperors and empresses and 30 Ottoman sultans ruled their lands from within its walls.

      Rumours of the city's splendours, which exhausted the superlatives of the most flowery of high Ottoman poets ('Stambul, peerless of cities, thou jewel beyond compare') have always attracted outsiders. Some came without invitation - the city was seriously besieged 22 times by assorted Greeks, Romans, Franks, Persians,Avars, Slavs,Arabs and Turks. Others, drawn to its centre from the vast imperial peripheries, settled to create the world's first truly cosmopolitan city. For adventurous Europeans from Lord Byron to Pierre Loti, meanwhile, the place was a summation of the exotic attractions of the Orient. For them, like Venice, it was a city to be approached by water from which vantage could be seen, if the timing was right, an otherworldly silhouette of minarets and domes set against a chromatic sunset.

      Though the flow of visitors never ceased, the last century was not kind to Istanbul, and the City of Cities faded a little from the world's collective memory. But now there are serious signs of revival.The city has quadrupled in size over the last few decades as Anatolians have migrated westward in search of betterment in the big city. Of more interest to the visitor, however, will be the hip, contemporary edge that a new generation of young, wealthy Istanbulus have conjured. Slick restaurants replete with asymmetric lighting displays and cool serving staff serve up new-fangled fusions such as beef carpaccios on a bed of pak choi while round the corner home-grown classics such as hunkar begendi are made with ingrained expertise in eateries that flourished while the sultans still ruled. Meanwhile dance acts from Stockholm or Berlin play to heaving crowds in clubs next door to venues playing Turkish folk.

      In what is a hallmark of the greatest cities, Istanbul offers a vibrant present set within a captivating past and visitors are advised to neglect neither.

      A few last words by way of introduction - get (mildly) lost (walking). In such a large and, at times, chaotic city, a guidebook, such as this one, should prove invaluable. But if you're unfamiliar with the city, clear a day, head for the middle of the Old City Sultanahmet, put away your maps and guidebooks and wander. After one such walk, though history does not record whether he got lost or not, Lord Byron wrote: 'I have seen the ruins of Athens, of Ephesus, and Delphi. I have traversed great part of Turkey, and many other parts of Europe, and some of Asia; but I never beheld a work of nature or art, which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side from the Seven Towers to the end of the Golden Horn.'