Istanbul — the honeyed sound rolls off the tongue like a mystical spell. Gilded domes, glittering minarets, aristocratic pavilions and sultans’ palaces rise amidst a vibrant, über-cool metropolis. An intoxicating fusion of warm spices and Middle Eastern flavors scent the air of an outstanding, contemporary culture, alive with all the bustling background notes of a 21st-century city.
Magnificently Turkish, it’s the only destination on the planet whose footprint spreads across two continents. One embellished slipper firmly planted in Asia, the other testing the cooler waters of Europe, separated by the majestic Bosphoros, seemingly a narrow strait yet a great slice of ocean flowing through the center of this throbbing, colorful city.
This impressive central waterway never fails to thrill with its ever-changing panorama of passing ships — from working oil tankers, grimy tramp steamers and fishing caïques to gleaming yachts, gin palaces, flashy motor launches and slick ocean liners. The mercurial mood of the Bosphorus remains a constant backdrop to the magic of Istanbul. When night falls and the crescent moon hangs with the stars over the water, the party begins.
What to See
The magical waters of the Bosphorus divide the city between the romantic ideals of Europe and the intoxicating hubbub of Asia. Along these shimmering shores mighty empires have risen and fallen, palaces have crumbled, myths born and voyages begun. With so much to see, where do you begin?
Topkapi Palace is a typical tourist stop, but also the cultural symbol of imperial Istanbul. Built by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1459, Topkapi Palace showcases the heart and pride of the historic Turkish empires. The sultan’s harem, royal gardens, peeling frescoes, religious relics and tiled mosaics are all breathtaking in the context of their own historic beauty. The glittering jewel house isn’t bad either yet, sadly, nothing’s for sale at any price!
Istanbul Modern is the contemporary art museum, set in a stylishly restored warehouse in the old dock district of Tophane. Check out the permanent exhibitions, conceptual installations, cinema, art library and photographic exhibitions that chronicle the changing face of a diversely enchanting Istanbul. There’s also a splendid restaurant with a terrace on the Bosphorus offering an astounding view of the city.
Hagia Sophia is undoubtedly one of the most important and imposing religious buildings in the world; the gravity-defying domed basilica remains an architectural wonder, providing the blueprint for countless Ottoman-era mosques. Sparkling with gold mosaics, Hagia Sophia is surely the ultimate, must-see Byzantine building in Istanbul.
Built more than 1,000 years after Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque is a divine statement of voluptuous domes and gorgeously spindly minarets. The interior space gleams with the dreamy hue of blue Iznik tiles from which its name derives. The trip by ferry to the fine arts Sakip Sabanci Museum is half the fun. Set in a sumptuous private villa, the often-overlooked museum is one of the best in the city. It has touring exhibitions (recently Picasso and Rembrandt) along with its own collections concentrated on exquisite Ottoman calligraphy. Plan your visit in time for lunch on a terrace overlooking the strait.
Istanbul Tour Studio, a boutique travel agency, can create perfectly designed experiences across the city, including any and all of the sites mentioned above. The company offers both customized and turnkey travel options covering everything from daily tours to multiple-day private itineraries.
If you do one thing: The Basilica Cistern
Subterranean depths and a sunken palace known as the Basilica Cistern are not for everyone, yet this marvel of Byzantine engineering remains unmissable. Invisible beneath the streets of Istanbul, it’s an urban fascination in the bowels of a 1,500-year-old building supported by 336 ancient columns. Look for the twin blocks carved into snake-haired Medusas, and the lazy carp idling in the shallow waters.
Where to Stay
Raffles Suite at Raffles Istanbul
For something completely different, Raffles Istanbul offers exquisite, top-of-the-line luxury with an alternative vibe, starting with its unexpected location in the vibrant business district. A soaring symbol of modern, self-confident Turkey, Raffles makes a serious statement with quirky art, glass corridors, sinuous sculptures and a liquid lobby of limpid pools. Sophisticated and startlingly sleek, Raffles has removed itself from the traditional Ottoman/Byzantine blueprint and styled itself up into a totally different orbit. The Raffles Suite is super-spacious and amazingly light, with wall-to-wall windows offering amazing views across the multifaceted city. It is elegant, individual and perfectly appointed with a grand piano for celebrated company.
Sultan Suite at Çırağan Palace Kempinski
For sheer opulence alone, with its breathtaking grandeur and spirit of imperial Istanbul, the impressive Çırağan Palace Kempinski remains an unequaled experience on the Bosphorus hotel scene. The Sultan Suite on the second floor is one of the most luxurious hotel suites in the world: It offers panoramic views of the iconic Bosphorus from its palatially appointed windows. Traditionally Turkish in its indulgent yet contemporary style, the sumptuous suite oozes sheer, classical elegance. This is where sheiks and sultans mingle with the stars, and European royalty consider it the only place to stay.
The Atik Pasha Suite at Four Seasons Bosphorus
with its neoclassical symmetry, is best worshipped from across the water, set apart from any opposition by its stunning waterfront terrace, and dramatically lit by night with a romantic floodlight of flaming torches. Flawless service, hand-painted ceilings, rivers of pale marble and a plush neutral palette throughout reflect the promise of chic pampering at Istanbul’s latest Four Seasons. The Atik Pasha Suite shines as the star of the show, resplendent as a jewel in the Four Seasons crown. Grab a glass of champagne, throw open the windows and gaze across the Bosphorus strait to the city’s Asian shores.
Where to Eat
You can’t possibly eat your way around Istanbul in one visit, but it’s well worth a try. Driven by the cultural and culinary influences of ancient Greeks, Romans, Venetians and the Ottomans, it’s no surprise that the gastronomic scene in Istanbul is equally vibrant and colorful; diverse with aromatic Asian dishes, Mediterranean mezze and European classics along with the omnipresent variations of the local köfte.
Breakfast is a huge deal in Istanbul, usually taken banquet-style with trays of freshly baked flatbreads to soak up the array of delicacies on offer, some off the radar yet worth leaving your hotel to experience.
It’s not your regular fresh fruit and a skinny latte, but often lemony rice-stuffed mussels, salty white cheeses, muhammara (an addictive red pepper and walnut spread), bal kaymak (a delicious clotted cream with honey) and kuru fasulye (a white-bean stew in fruity olive oil and tomato sauce: Turkey’s unofficial national dish, served at breakfast or any time of the day). Look for fresh figs the size of a baby’s fist, and eat eggs scrambled with tomato and chilies alongside condiments of pickled everything.
Tugra Restaurant at Çırağan Palace Kempinski hotel has loads of atmosphere, live music and some of the finest food in the city — world-class cuisine, with traditional Ottoman-style palace dishes for the venerable purist and a contemporary take for the more modern palate. Aqua is a fine-dining restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul with an imaginative fusion of Turkish and Italian influences. Expect impeccable dining with outstanding service, great food and even greater waterfront views.
For vertiginous value alone, nowhere tops Mikla, owning its lofty location atop the fashionable, 18-story Marmara Pera hotel. Hailed as the most ambitious and revered restaurant in the city, and consistently receiving rave local and international reviews, Mikla is now showcasing its new Anatolian kitchen — that’s traditional Turkish and Kurdish cuisine conceived with mind-blowing flair.
Image credits: Eric Laignel, Shutterstock