When I was aged about 10 or so, my career choices were complicated by seriously divided loyalties: Indiana Jones or James Bond? Indy had ancient treasures and a killer fedora, but he had to cope with snakes, spiders and Nazis. As for Bond, well, he got to play with gadgets, fast cars and private jets, but spent his life dodging malevolent SPECTRE hitmen and, I'm sure, the odd paternity suit. By the time I got around to enrolling at university, the choice was made for me. The University of Melbourne didn't offer a course in international espionage but Western Asian archaeology was an option. Archaeology it was.
Western Asia, with Turkey on its Mediterranean extremity, is that part of the world popularly referred to as the Middle East. So, almost 20 years ago and having paid my dues at university - studying Akkadian texts, memorising the Sumerian King List - I found myself among the minarets and muezzins in Istanbul, Western Asia's most extraordinary metropolis.
My ultimate destination was an excavation near the city of Erzurum in the mountainous and remote far east of Turkey. But before I packed my trowel and headed out to the Turkish equivalent of Broken Hill, I wanted to explore Istanbul. My archaeological adventure might have been lifted straight from the Indiana Jones playbook, but I was also retracing 007's steps. Bond first landed on the banks of the Bosphorus in From Russia with Love, a 1963 classic dripping with cultural stereotypes - scantily clad, knife-fighting gypsy girls, Russian femme fatales, and lavishly moustachioed Turkish secret agents. I didn't stumble across Sean Connery himself in my wanderings, but I wasn't too disappointed. I had a new crush: the city itself. It was love at first site - the most utterly intoxicating place I'd ever seen.
My ardour hasn't dimmed with age. I've managed to find an excuse to visit Istanbul every few years and in that time it has changed - mostly for the better. It seems James Bond can't stay away either. The British superspy, now played by Daniel Craig, has found his way back to this happening East-meets-West city to film his 50th-anniversary flick. I'm not surprised; Bond has always been a barometer of cool.
Don't expect too many shimmying belly dancers or nargile-smoking villains in Skyfall. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Revolutionary Road) has brought Bond back to the city to indulge in a mezze platter of a distinctly 21st-century flavour. The crew took over the Grand Bazaar to shoot a motorcycle chase at full-tilt across its rooftop, with the skyline as an exotic backdrop. International man of mystery meets 15th-century trading emporium. Culture clash? No doubt. But clash turned to crash when the stunt went awry and Bond's bike slammed through the front window of a 300-year-old jewellery shop to the consternation of its proprietor.
Skyfall celebrates Istanbul's sumptuous cityscape, with its fluted minarets, soaring domes and gilded crescents, although 007 isn't here to take in the sights. He's back to see what's happening at street level, where things are moving at a breakneck pace.
Today's Istanbul is far more than a historical diorama for tourists. In the laneways that wind between Ottoman terraces and ancient palaces, a modern culture thrives. When I first visited, the only good coffee you could find in the city was a Turkish one. Now, espresso machines abound. Hipsters rocking ironically retro facial hair, knitted beanies and vintage jeans sit in clusters on mismatched '50s kitchen furniture as sharply dressed business folk stride past on the well-worn pavements. And Istanbuli geeks give Q a run for his money - WiFi accessibility is a given and i-Things and smart gadgets rule in even in the tiniest cafés of Beyoglu's back lanes.
The Istanbul of now can be found in the old consular districts around Istiklal Caddesi, just across the Golden Horn from the tourist hub of Sultanahmet. As the sun sets, casting the peachy light that is peculiar to this part of the world, rooftop bars and restaurants come to life. On the terrace at 360 Istanbul, the jet-set crowd jostles for position. The view from up here is not simply skyscrapers, or a pleasant harbour, or the twinkling lights of a sprawling city at night. To my right is the floodlit Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348. To my left, the ink-black waters of the Bosphorus. Straight ahead, the iconic profile of Sultanahmet illuminated against the darkening sky: Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque. The remains and reminders of the great fallen Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires.
At my feet in Beyoglu, Cukurcuma and Cihangir is the buzzing art scene that's made the Istanbul Biennial one of the hottest tickets on the international contemporary art circuit. When I first visited, this district was rundown, bohemian, and impossibly romantic. Today, jazz clubs, boutiques and antique dealers jostle for space with slick design shops and galleries. This city isn't trying to look like anyone else. It takes the best of the West, and absorbs it into a proud local cultural lexicon. Turkish motifs abound: gilt Ottoman script in elaborate cartouches, lusciously coloured Iznik tiles, indigo evil eyes embedded in terrazzo paving. Istanbul has been the centre of the world for two millennia, and it's a city of leaders, not followers; a place to leave you shaken and stirred.
STAY In Beyoglu, the heart of hipstanbul, choose between the sumptuous surrounds of Agatha Christie's abode of choice, the Pera Palace, with its Belle Époque glamour, and the endearing 19th-century Buyuk Londra for wacky Miss Havisham-esque décor, famously attentive staff, and a low-key rooftop terrace bar with views over the city. If you can't live without a dock for your i-Thing or somewhere to charge your shoe-phone or laser-watch, the ultra mod surrounds of W Istanbul may be more your speed. For a glitzy take on luxury, head down to the Ciragan Palace Kempinski for a view to kill for in a 19th-century palace on the shores of the Bosphorus. Ottomania rules at the romantic Empress Zoe, an exquisitely furnished boutique hotel in Sultanahmet, perfectly located between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
DINE Dine with the glitterati at 360 Istanbul, high above the buzzing pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi, and at Mikla, on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel. Both serve cocktails and excellent food against a panaromic view of the most picturesque city on the planet. Although a marketing decision means Bond's new beverage of choice is Heineken, the bartender at Mikla mixes the best Martini in town. Those averse to heights should try the traditional Turkish fare at Tophane's Peymane, served at candlelit tables placed beneath soaring chestnut trees in a clandestine courtyard garden. Up the road, Munferit attracts scenesters with its new-school meyhane - or Turkish mezze bar - menu and thrice-distilled raki.
SNACK Even a superspy needs sustenance, and for breakfast with the lot, Turkish-style, head to the streets around Cihangir. On weekends it's standing-room only at Yimirta, where it's worth braving the Europop blaring from the wall-mounted flatscreen for the generous house brekkie platter: organic honeycomb from the Anatolian hinterland and farm eggs baked in a copper pan. Boost your caffeine levels in Galatasaray at Kronot Rop, Istanbul's first micro-roastery. It's hard to go past perennial lunch favourite Pandeli, set in a suite of turquoise Iznik-tiled rooms above the entrance to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. A glimpse of the views across the Golden Horn and you'll forgive the touristy vibe. Fes Cafe has been kick-starting weary visitors to the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar with tasty toasties and great espresso for more than 15 years. Owner Metin Tosun was one of the first to embrace Italian coffee culture in the days when "coffee" in Istanbul meant only Turkish or Nescafé. When you can't face another köfte, a second branch of Fes in the antiques district around Nuruosmaniye Caddesi offers a good menu of Euro-fusion dishes. For street-food à la Turk, try a balik sandvic: char-grilled fish cooked on board boats docked at Eminonu, served in a crunchy white loaf the size of a KGB hitman's forearm with tomato, lettuce and a squeeze of lemon juice.
NIGHT LIFE The music scene in and around Tunel and Galata attracts international jazz luminaries. Specialist purveyors of musical instruments line the streets, and musos inspecting the wares often kick off spontaneous street parties. For jazz clubs, check out the laid-back surrounds of Nardis. If you'd rather be entertained by wandering street performers, grab a table at one of the countless meyhanes, bars and raki joints in the lanes branching off Istiklal Caddesi. Take your pick of those on offer in the sumptuous Cicek Pasaji - literally "Flower Passage" - and Nevizade Sokak. The house music scene in Istanbul has more DJs than 007 has bullet wounds. Find your way past the black-clad hefties (the same the world over) through nondescript entrances to Istanbul's strobe-lit, candy-coloured club land. On the shores of the Bosphorus at Ortakoy, Anjelique has found favour with members of the glam set who flit between here and the waterfront terrace at Zuma. For a low-key evening, grab a seat on the terrace at Beyoglu's Nu Teras and watch the sun set over the Golden Horn.
SHOP Looking for something special for the long-suffering Ms or Mr Moneypenny in your life? The Grand Bazaar or Kapali Carsi in Sultanahmet is one of the oldest markets in the world but you'll need a game plan - it has more than 3000 shops. Check out the textiles at Abdulla for a modern take on silk and linen hamam wraps, olive oil soaps and luxurious throws. For unique handcrafted jewellery incorporating ancient coins and semiprecious stones, see By Saka. Drop in on the charming Hasan Selamet at Zenne for silver with a real Ottoman flavour. Venture to the heart of the complex to the Old Bazaar, populated by the city's most savvy antique dealers. Once you've found your way out of the Bazaar, head across the Golden Horn for slick contemporary design, multilingual bookshops, more artisanal and organic goodies than you can poke a cinnamon stick at, and clothes ranging from vintage to terminally hip. For tricky gadgets, see Karinca in Tunel, while bookworms should visit Robinson Crusoe 389 and Mephisto bookshops in Istiklal Caddesi. Indulge in some window-shopping in the antique, vintage and retro boutiques around Cukurcuma, Beyoglu, Galata and Cihangir. Try Mozk for 20th-century retro Turkomania, The Works: Objects of Desire for quirk (merry-go-round horse, anyone?), and Karadeniz Antik and A la Turca for ancient treasures and carpets.
CULTURE Do 4213 cigarette butts mean the end of the museum as we know it? Documenting the persistence of history and memory in Istanbul is Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk's groundbreaking curatorial venture, The Museum of Innocence. This emotionally charged display charts the minutiae of everyday life in Istanbul in the second half of the 20th century, complete with nostalgic sensory experiences. The museum was conceived by Pamuk to complement his novel of the same name, and traces the love story of the novel's central characters. The taxonomic display of cigarette ends, pinned like butterflies to a display board, is said to have been collected by the fictional protagonist Kemal. By contrast, Istanbul Modern, on the shores of the Bosphorus, delivers in spades what you expect from a 21st-century contemporary art institution: industrial fit-out, polished concrete floors, and acres of white walls with a digestible survey of Turkey's most accomplished modern and contemporary artists. If your visit doesn't happen to coincide with the Biennial year, get a taste of what's happening on the art scene in Istanbul and further afield in the sharp commercial galleries around Beyoglu. One of the best is Arter; Australian superstar Patricia Piccinini exhibited here in 2011.
RELAX For a city that whirrs at such a frenetic pace, Istanbul takes the art of relaxing extremely seriously. Join the ranks of the deeply contented nargile-smokers at Erenler Nargile, set in a colonnaded courtyard. Lounge back on the cushions upholstered in worn kilim fabric and order the ubiquitous tannin-heavy tea served in tiny glasses on gilded saucers. If you're brave enough to try something beyond passive smoking, the attendant will fit you out with a waterpipe fuelled by chunks of glowing charcoal atop densely packed tobacco leaves. Equally charming, although lacking the same drifts of hypnotic smoke, is the shaded oasis of Limonlu Bahce. Vines hang in swathes from the ancient stone wall that edges the garden, and patrons lounge on the eclectic mix of garden furniture. The best blends on offer are the freshly pressed tomato juice, and signature limonata with mint. After a day pounding the pavements, it's hard to beat the Turkish hamam experience. If rubbing your exfoliated shoulders with Istanbul's affluent is your cup of cay, head to the Swissôtel in Besiktas. If you'd rather lie supine on a heated marble slab beneath a dome designed in 1584 by Sinan, the architect of the Suleiman Mosque, then give the Cemberlitas Hamami a go. Don't be put off by the unimpressive entrance; the suds, steam and stunning interior make it all worthwhile.
SIGHTS SELDOM SEEN Follow the footsteps of 007 down the steep stone stairs into the monumental underground cistern, Yerebatan Sarnici, built by the Emperor Justinian 1500 years ago. In From Russia with Love Sean Connery navigated a small rowboat between the 336 columns that support the roof of this vast subterranean space. Take a short diversion off the tourist beat to the top of the Golden Horn where a funicular will deposit you at Pierre Loti Cay Bahcesi. Pause for a cay or a soda at a table along the edge of the terrace and take in the views towards old Constantinople. Find time to see the mosaics of the stunning Chora Church, regarded as one of the most beautiful Byzantine churches still standing. If you have an extra day, Buyukada, one of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara, is an hour and a half by ferry. On the car-free island, horses and buggies and pedal power are de rigueur. No Aston Martins allowed.
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