And it is under five hours direct flight from Dubai.
Whether you’re a shopper, an art enthusiast, history hound or a people watcher, this is a magnetic destination.
Many first-timers head straight for Taksim Square, the huge wide-open space and transport hub that has been the scene of parades, mass celebrations and public protest.
It is set on the European side, but the plethora of hotels, shops and restaurants that spin off it borrow from almost everywhere.
These days the place viewed by many as the heart of modern Istanbul is bustling with tourists, friends convening at the Monument of the Republic ahead of nights out and snack sellers keen to catch trade disappearing to the ever-busy Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue).
Istanbul prides itself on being a walkable city and the city’s longest street is also one of the planet’s busiest, with around three million people per day at weekends packing the shop, nightclub, gallery and café-lined Istiklal thoroughfare.
The cacophony of chatter and laughter is occasionally interrupted by the bell of an historic tram that passes slowly along the middle, respite for those who want to give their feet a break. Smaller streets and alleyways branch off, giving access to trendy bars, as well as more boutiques and eating opportunities.
Keep going, however, and the street narrows and steepens to the buzzing Beyoğlu district. For a 360 degrees perspective of the modern and the old city, seek out the 1348-built Galata Tower (7 Turkish Lira /9.5AED). It was from this one-time fire lookout spot that Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi flew across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia in 1638 to complete the first intercontinental flight. Nowadays, it offers a healthy climb and great views, but the queues grow long especially at sundown, so try to get there first thing before you venture to other key sights.
Constructed in the sixth century, but forgotten for many generations, the cistern is part of a complicated system that once brought drinking water into Istanbul’s Great Palace zone.
Restored and operated as a tourist haven since 1987, it is fitted with low lights that pick out the 336 columns and fish that swim around them. Completing the curious nature of the place is an upside-down head of Medusa at the base of one column, proof that Byzantine builders salvaged the relics of Istanbul’s former Roman occupiers for little more than reusable blocks for a new era.
Back in daylight and Istanbul’s most famous landmark is a short walk across tram tracks and the Roman-era Hippodrome where chariots once raced.
Dominating the skyline since the early 17th-century, the Blue Mosque - aka Sultan Ahmet Mosque - remains one of a handful in the world to boast six minarets.
This elegant structure isn’t noticeably blue outside, but the interior walls and ceiling feature thousands of fine İznik tiles amid architectural detail that is stunning. If time allows, visit the building on the corner of the complex that houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, the man who gave his name to both the mosque and the neighbourhood.
Emperor Justinian's sixth-century Byzantine masterpiece is a spacious church-turned-mosque-turned museum that throngs with visitors.
The mosaics in the upstairs galleries are the big draw along with the tombs of several early Ottoman sultans and their sons.
Behind Aya Sofya is another must-see. Beyond its ornate gate, the Topkapi Palace (entry is 20TL) was once home to generations of sultans and their wives and a former seat of Ottoman government.
It boasts one of the best panoramas of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara and Golden Horn as well as a treasury that could bail out a small nation.
Some areas are off-limits to photos, but with much-guarded hairs from the Prophet Mohammed’s beard, green courtyards and a former harem of delicately tiled rooms, it is no surprise this city within a city gets almost as busy as that other cruise ship and tour guide favourite, The Grand Bazaar.
One of the oldest, and largest, covered markets in the world, the 3,000-plus shops spread across 61 streets in the Beyazit district draw up to 400,000 visitors each day apart from on Sundays, when closed.
In fact, you’ll notice everything about Istanbul seems busy, not least the roads. Rather than spend hours watching a taxi meter click, we utilized the city’s extensive public transport network.
This includes an easy-to-navigate system of trams and the world’s oldest underground metro line after London.
In 2012 artist Sibel Akgun produced a painting she called “Istanbul, Full Of Stuff”. Having witnessed and walked the city of her inspiration, that colourfully frantic piece sums up this contagious place, powered as much by history and modern aspirations as it is lit by chaos and timeless charisma.
There is nowhere else quite like it.
Turkish Airlines flies twice daily from Dubai International to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. For more visit www.turkishairlines.com
Must Do Dubai stayed in the Istanbul Gonan Hotel, a stylish five star property located 15 minutes drive from the airport. See www.istanbulgonen.com
We also stayed at Barcelo Eresin Topkapi hotel, beside the tramline, a 10-minute ride from old town attractions. For bookings go to www.barcelo.com
UAE hotel group Rotana now has a presence in Istanbul. Burgu Arjaan by Rotana and Tango Arjaan by Rotana are located in Maltepe district, adjacent to metro line and in proximity to major business and leisure destinations.
For tram and metro turnstyles, as well as buses and ferries, use tokens that you buy from a Jetonmatik machine for 4TL (5.5AED).
Try a traditional chicken or lamb kebab at the top of Istaklal Avenue for just 5TL (7AED) or a simit, a donut-style snack covered in sesame seeds, for 2TL (2.5AED).