East meets west in a city that looks like it has one foot in a fairy tale and the other in the modern world. The two halves of Istanbul have been luring travellers for centuries and never fail to show visitors a good time. While many of the best sights can be explored for free or just a small donation, visitors with a bit of change to spend can enjoy an entirely different side of this ancient city.
Where to Eat
Lokanta Maya – Serving fine Turkish food with a contemporary twist, Maya has a loyal following despite being only a few years old. The lunch menu is designed to please the working crowd of businessmen that frequent the restaurant during the day, serving meals that are light and somewhat traditional. The evening crowd sees an entirely different menu that focuses on shareable meals and smaller tapas-style bites.
Rumelihisari Iskele – Settled in the shadow of a medieval fortress, the restaurant overlooks the Bosporus and offers its diners stunning views with their meal. The building sits on a dock and diners are actually over the water looking out on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bosporus bridge through floor-to-ceiling glass doors. Meals are served as traditional courses starting with cold meze (appetizers) and finishing with seasonal seafood.
Fish – One of the six restaurants on Galatsaray Islet, Fish is highly exclusive and a social spot for the younger upper-crust crowd. Set in the middle of the Bosporus, the islet has amazing views and unexpectedly fascinating architecture. The meals are served as traditional shared dishes and although the restaurant has a full bar, plan to head to one of the nearby nightclubs to finish off your evening in style.
Where to Stay
Hotel Ibrahim Pasha – An absolutely delightful boutique hotel named after Suleiman the Magnificent’s grand vizier. It’s only a short distance away from the historic Hippodrome and the rooftop terrace overlooks the Blue Mosque. The wooden floors and throw rugs give a homey feel to the rooms and the heated floors make those chilly mornings so much more comfortable.
Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet – Not only is this the swankiest hotel in the city, it’s also a repurposed prison to provide that thrill factor for the adventurous. Sixty five luxury rooms surround a courtyard with peaceful landscaping and the hotel is within walking distance of Topkapi Palace. The lower suites open directly onto the courtyard and the suites upstairs offer views of the city or the Bosporus. All of the rooms are decorated with an artistic Turkish theme, often including hand-woven kilim and wall hangings by local artisans.
What to do
Topkapi Palace was home to the Ottoman sultans for almost 400 years and is very different from European palaces. For one thing it contained mosques, a hospital and even a mint. A tour provides a glimpse into the life of a sultan including the porcelain collection, the imperial treasury and the separate rooms of the harem. The 400 rooms of the Imperial Harem housed the sultan’s mother, his wives, concubines and their children, and an army of servants. The rooms are segregated in clusters according to the rank of the residents and those that entered the harem were rarely allowed to leave except by permission of the sultan.
A day trip to the Prince’s Islands southeast of the city will show you how the royals used to live when they were out of favor with the sultan. Buyukada is the largest and filled with Ottoman era mansions that hearken back to a bygone era. Take a tour in a horse-drawn carriage and imagine the life of luxury the residents here lived.
Istikal Cadessi is located in Beyoglu begins at Taksim Square and is the hub of the modern city. Walk down the avenue and peek into the consulates as you peruse the shops for fun things to buy. Enjoy traditional Turkish coffee in one of the many cafes and explore the side alleys for interesting restaurants or unexpected treasures.
Nisantasi is a shopping district for the well-to-do tucked in to one of the city’s more exclusive neighbourhoods. Start here if you’re looking for high-end European designers such as Louis Vuitton, Hermes, Chanel and Prada. Even the Art Nouveau buildings are fun to look into to see the elegant winding staircases and antique elevators inside.