Steeped in history, yet humming with contemporary energy, Istanbul gets under your skin like no place else on earth. Dynamite cuisine, sophisticated nightlife and major international events like the Contemporary Istanbul art fair and Turkish Airlines Open (Tiger Woods shut down traffic on the Bosphorus Bridge in November while hitting a golf ball from Europe to Asia) contribute to a constant buzz to this city which straddles Asia and Europe.
We love that Turkish Airlines has expanded operations with frequent, inexpensive departures from major U.S. cities. The new Business Lounge at Ataturk International Airport is also worth writing home about—and we hear there’s a new Istanbul airport in the works that will be the world’s biggest.
Then there’s the new Shangri-La Hotel, where you can sit all day and watch the boat traffic on the Bosphorus, a kind of theater that’s mesmerized spectators for millennia.
Fresh from a stay in this beguiling city, we’re armed with insider tips. But we say beware; when it’s time to brave the traffic and head back to the airport, you might just end up extending your stay.
First-time visitors should devote at least a day to checking out the sites in Sultanahmet. After gaping at the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace, and the Basilica Cistern, head to the Grand Bazaar and Spice Market for shopping (or at least bottomless cups of tea as you peruse Turkish rugs).
The sprawling city has more neighborhoods than you can count on your fingers, so best to focus on a chosen few. The hilly streets of Çukurcuma, a rakishly tumble-down district, are now lined with antique stores and trendy design shops. This is where interior designers likeOytun Berktan have set up shop. (We stopped by his studio to learn about his hotel projects like Urban Suites and Argos in Cappadocia.) You’ll also find the Museum of Innocence, created by Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Jammed with tzotchkes describing the memories of a fictional character’s life, the museum provides a lens for looking at a changing Turkish society from 1950 to 2000.
Beyoglu is the beating heart of the modern city; its main artery, Istiklal Caddesi, leads from Taksim Square to Galata Tower. Indeed, its denizens call Taksim the “center of the world” and the meyhanes are thronged with happy diners feasting on mezes. The Nisantasi district beckons for chic shopping, while Ortakoy—right under the Bosphorus Bridge—has lively cafés within walking distance to the Shangri-La.
When it’s time to get a taste of contemporary culture, let InS Luxury Travel arrange the details. The preferred partner of Shangri-La, InS puts you in the shoes of an in-the-know Istanbullu for the day. InS also arranges spectacular events—like birthday parties and weddings—for international celebrities and business tycoons.
In the good hands of InS, we discovered the Sakip Sabanci Muzesi, a hilltop mansion that’s now a private museum overlooking the Bosphorus. Guarded by a bronze horse statue, the museum hosts major exhibitions of international artists. Our visit coincided with Anish Kapoor’s first solo show in Turkey. Tip: The museum’s design-driven café is a great spot for lunch.
Nearby, the corporate offices of Borusan Holding create a unique venue for an acclaimed contemporary art collection. Decorated with new media sculptures and interactive installations, Borusan Contemporary is open to the public on the weekend, so employees must completely clear their desks on Friday.
A word about the Shangri-La. Gorgeous guest rooms aside, this is a hotel with a soul. Originally built in 1929 as a tobacco warehouse on the Bosphorus, the neoclassical building was painstakingly restored for its new life; even the sycamore trees in the courtyard, one 350 years old, were protected. There’s a serious wow factor here. Consider the lobby, where a crystal chandelier cascades over the central staircase, commanding your gaze from multiple levels of the hotel. The abundant use of marble is a nod to both the Ottoman palaces and the hammams that are a fixture in Turkish culture. As you ride the elevator to your room, you’ll notice a giant painting suspended in the atrium. Resembling a parchment scroll, it was created by 12 Chinese artists who flew to Istanbul just to paint the Shangri-La story on a silk canvas.
In-room check-in is accompanied by a tea service, and therapists at Chi, the spa, transform the traditional hammam experience into a luxurious respite under a mountain of bubbles in your own private hammam. At Shang Palace, the signature gastronomic restaurant celebrated for Cantonese cuisine, the “Kung Fu Tea Master” delights diners with his theatrical tea-pouring skills straight from Chengdu.
Of the 186 rooms, 28 Deluxe rooms are the largest of that room category in the city, resembling private apartments decorated with framed Chinese ink drawings and stocked with all the mod cons (Nespresso machines, TVs embedded in the bathroom mirrors, Bulgari bath products). Request Bosphorus views (60 percent have them) and you’ll reign over your very own waterfront fiefdom. The 17 suites make for a decadent hotel experience, especially the five Deluxe Bosphorus Suites, each occupying a corner of the building so the views are expansive—taking in the city’s domes, minarets, and the twinkling Bosphorus Bridge. The crème de la crème is the Shangri-La Suite, equipped with three private terraces.
The breakfast buffet at Ist Too has a vast array of choices—from dim sum to thick Turkish yogurt served with organic honeycomb. The lounge offers an afternoon chocolate bar (sculpted creations include chocolate stilettos), and the bar serves handcrafted cocktails (like the Fleur de Istanbul) with traditional snacks (pickled okra). We also suggest the Peking Duck at Shang Palace.
For VIP reservations at the Shangri-La Istanbul, contact Director of Sales and Marketing Figen Caglar (email@example.com; 011-90-212-310-5163).
Enlist the help of the Shangri-La concierge team, led by industry veteran Fetih Gucluer (firstname.lastname@example.org; 011-90-212-275-8888). Concierge LeaderBahar Turkon (email@example.com) is a wealth of information: “Frankiehas great Mediterranean cuisine and live jazz music on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. Park Fora is one of the best seafood restaurants, while Kosebasi inNisantasi is a good option for classic Turkish cuisine.”
The concierge team can arrange a sunset cruise on a luxury yacht, so you can sip wine while ogling the old Ottoman mansions on the banks of the Bosphorus (one is listed by Sotheby’s for over $100 million.) For an over-the-top experience, consider a helicopter or seaplane tour. The concierge team can even privatize the Basilica Cistern, a magical underground site, for a concert.
On our epicurean itinerary through Istanbul, we found a few noteworthy spots. Scenesters flock to Ulus 29 for gustatory delights and sweeping city views. Smartly dressed waiters crisscross the room with plates of mezes and freshly grilled fish, while the French sommelier, who’s worked with star chefs like Gordon Ramsay, charms diners with his wine knowledge. (He also consults for Turkish vineyards.) Kick off your soirée with a cocktail on the outside terrace; creatures of the night can party with the in-crowd at the adjacent club.
Istanbul Modern, the not-to-miss art museum, has a good restaurant with Bosphorus views. Try a lahmacun (a thin-crust pizza topped with minced meat) at Tatbak, a hole-in-the-wall eatery in Nisantasi. Always thronged with locals, Tatbak appeared on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations TV show. For regional dishes from Anatolia, you can’t go wrong with a meal at Galata Kiva.
It can be challenging to find an untouristy spot while touring Sultanahmet’s ancient sites, but Armaggan fits the bill. A luxury store known for quality handicrafts and Turkish objets d’art, the Armaggan Nuruosmaniye’s location offers Anatolian specialties just a stone’s throw from the Grand Bazaar.
Insider Istanbul Tips
Koray Sahmali, managing partner of InS Luxury Travel, (firstname.lastname@example.org; 011-90-212-219-2440) creates personalized itineraries based on clients’ passion points. “Istanbul is cosmopolitan, but it’s always been that way, with a mix of culture, heritage and religion, everyone living peacefully together,” says Chief Guide Fatih Copuroglu (email@example.com).
His favorite neighborhood is the chic waterfront enclave of Bebek, with great fish restaurants. For breakfast, he suggests Kale café, and for a fun nighttime scene,Lucca. Sahmali also loves a family-run sweets shop in Bebek called Meshur Bebek Badem Ezmesi.
Karen Fedorko, president of Sea Song Tours, has a team of experts who create customized itineraries for travelers. Here, Fedorko shares some recommendations.
“I am really liking the Park Hyatt these days, located in the upscale residential neighborhood of Nisantasi. The hotel is small, only 78 rooms, and the location couldn’t be better for restaurants, cafes, and shopping; it just has a great vibe. My new favorite hotel is going to be the Vault Karakoy, The House Hotel, which had a soft opening in March in the heart of the city’s art scene. It’s located in a beautiful turn-of-the-century bank building that has been beautifully restored to its old glory but with the luxury touches demanded by guests today. The location is great and out of the dense traffic patterns.
“I enjoy the Vogue Restaurant, located in the Macka neighborhood, as the Mediterranean cuisine is excellent and the view of the Bosphorus, spectacular. A wonderful, high-end, local crowd is there every night and it is a great dining experience and actually low-key. My other local favorite is Meze by Lemon Tree, located in the Pera neighborhood with only 10 tables. The chef uses only the freshest ingredients for delicious cuisine. Reservations are a must.
“The Blue Mosque is now closed on Fridays until 2 p.m. for tourists and after that time it is very crowded. I suggest avoiding this site on Friday. Don’t miss arranging a private Bosphorus cruise, as it is a wonderful experience and a great way to understand the lay of the land in Istanbul. The entire city evolves around the Bosphorus and to cruise on this waterway is magical. Along the route, you’ll see the private villas (yalıs), palaces, and small villages. Be sure to see a carpet demonstration as this magnificent art form has been a part of the Turkish culture for centuries and you can see the ladies still weaving today, and perhaps try yourself. Apple tea is a must.”
By: Mary Winston Nicklin
Luxury Travel Advisor
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