Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities – Simon Montefiore offers his travel tips for ancient Istanbul

Explore incredible architecture, food and learn about the tales of power, death and sex throughout the city's 3,000-year history

“It’s very like Game of Thrones,” explains historian and traveller Simon Sebag Montefiore, the presenter of tonight’s Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities (9pm, BBC4), when we chat to him about the history of Istanbul. “There’s a lot of power, conquests, death, sex and majesty.


“I think Game of Thrones is based on the history of Istanbul.”

During the series, Montefiore takes an in-depth look at this history-rich area, where three faiths – Paganism, Christianity and Islam – co-exist. Over the past 3,000 years, some of the fiercest conflicts in history have taken place here. And the city has maintained its moniker as the ‘city of the world’s desire’.

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“It’s a very pleasure-loving city, there’s great food there,” explains Montefiore, “it’s a very hedonistic place, even now.”

In the first episode of the series we saw Montefiore cruise along the Bosphorus, explore the Basilica Cistern beneath the city and uncover the city’s ancient Greek roots. Tonight we’ll watch as he explores modern Istanbul, and learn how Christian crusaders destroyed the city, until the Ottoman Muslims revived it.

“I love the height of the Constantine Empire and the fall of the city, when the Ottomans conquered it. The series is about the greatest stories in history.”

Watch Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities tonight at 9pm on BBC4, and see below for Simon Sebag Montefiore’s top three places to visit on a trip to Istanbul…

1. Hagia Sophia

“It gives you the breathtaking magnificence of the Byzantine Roman Empire; it’s probably the greatest building in Europe,” Montefiore claims.

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2. Rüstem Pasha mosque

Montefiore explains: “It’s a lesser-known mosque but it has the most exquisite tiles in the world, I think. It’s absolutely charming.”

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3. Chora Church

“This Byzantine church really captures the exquisite part of Constantinople before its fall,” says Montefiore.

Visit Istanbul with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details