ISTANBUL is not the first place that springs to mind for a weekend break.
But if you've done Paris, Venice and Rome and you fancy something with a little more bite, then this good-time city poised on the Europe-Asia divide is just the ticket.
With a skyline of jewelled domes and carved minarets, bustling markets awash with exotic goods and the gentle aroma of spices in the air, Istanbul is a romantic city.
From Luton, it's only three-and-a-half hours away with easyJet - and dirt cheap too. Return flights start from just £63.
When you get there, the hotels, food and drink are all reasonably priced.
On arrival, I strolled through old Sultanhamet, the district centred on the Byzantine Hippodrome, to get to my hotel.
That was the Best Western Empire Palace, which boasts a fabulous view of the city from the roof-terrace restaurant.
To give yourself an instant hit of Turkish culture, book yourself into the hotel's very own Turkish hamam (bath).
It's not for the shy. Be prepared to get your kit off in front of lots of people (of your own sex).
Step two is to sweat off half your body weight in the sauna.
Step three involves being laid out on a concrete slab and pummelled and buffed until you are lying in a trough of your own skin. Lovely.
However embarrassing or uncomfortable, it does leave you feeling baby soft, clean and glowing.
For my first bit of sight-seeing, I headed for the beautiful Topkapi Palace - where Selim the Sot drowned in his bath after knocking back too much champagne and Ibrahim the Mad went barmy after being locked in a cage for four years.
Get there early for the popular harem tour.
From the grounds of Topkapi, take the short ferry ride to Kadikoy to sample real local life.
With its fresh fruit stalls and clothes and silver shops, this is one area to spend, spend, spend.
Another must-see is Taksim Square, the heart of modern Istanbul.
Off it is the Taksim Strip where you will find countless bars, shops and eateries. Don't be afraid to go down side-streets and have a mooch around.
Look out for Keve bar in Tunel Gecidi, a brightly lit courtyard.
Time it right and you can eat and listen to the live music too.
Fine fodder is everywhere in Istanbul.
From tea on the ferries at a tiny price, to the cay bahce (tea gardens), to the more exclusive eateries, you can always find mezes and Mediterranean-style meals.
If you're brave enough, give the local fire water - raki - a try.
Like all good foreign holiday drinks, it tastes like pure alcohol and is probably more suited to unblocking drains but a little goes a long way.
Taxis are relatively cheap but make sure you are not given short change.
And you must try the Grand Bazaar.
Haggling at one of the 4,000 shops can be hilarious fun.
Then you can unwind at the Havuzlu restaurant with its vaulted ceiling and ornate lights.
Order a snack of falafel or a kebab to tide you over or ask the waiter to tell you about the specials.
For Turkish delight to take back to the masses at home, try Ali Muhiddin Haci Beki (the shop of earthly delights). This soap - sorry roseflavoured sweet - was actually invented by Ali in the 18th century and is still sold by his descendants.
After the shopping, I popped into the Basilica Cistern, built in 532 AD.
Boasting 336 columns, a high, vaulted ceiling, this Byzantine relic used to be used to store water for the Great Palace and surrounding buildings.
I also managed to squeeze in a visit to the Blue Mosque with its six minarets, mosaic tiles, stained glass windows and the biggest courtyards of all the Ottoman mosques.
Then it was back for a cheap and cheerful boat ride along the Bosphorus where you can admire the bridge which connects the Asian side to Europe.
I found the European side more expensive and touristy. The Asian was friendlier and cheaper.
I even came back with a few Turkish lira.
And I had splashed out on several silver bracelets.
Prices for the Best Western Empire Palace in Istanbul start from £60 per double. To book visit www.hotelclub.net
.GETTING THEREeasyJet flies to Istanbul from London Luton from £31.99 one-way (inc. taxes) and return from £63.98 (inc. taxes).For bookings log onto www.easyJet.com.To connect from the north, GNER provides a fast and frequent service from Leeds to London Kings Cross, starting from £19 return. To book visit www.gner.co.uk.