Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.” Spend a week there and you’ll begin to understand why. This massive metropolis of 15 million people quite literally bridges Europe and Asia. It has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, from the Roman Empire to the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire, each of which has left its trace on the city. For this reason, Istanbul is a playground for design lovers, who can gaze upon incredible palaces and mosques, shop for ceramics and textiles in the Grand Bazaar, drink and dine in stylish restaurants and bars, and sleep in some of the world’s most luxurious hotels. And with Turkish Airlines now flying directly to and from Istanbul out of Newark (its 10th U.S. gateway), it’s easier than ever to visit this historic nation. Here’s what to do when you arrive.
Where to Stay
Istanbul has no shortage of spectacular hotels, from former sultans’ palaces to intimate boutique properties. The crème de la crème is the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, the oldest remaining part of which was built as Sultan Abdülaziz’s palace in 1871. Though a fire in 1910 destroyed the interiors, you can still admire the original exteriors and the sultan’s marble hammam. When the hotel opened in 1991, a new wing was built and a swimming pool with views of the Bosphorus was installed.
Another posh option is the Park Hyatt Istanbul—Maçka Palas, which is ideally situated in the upscale Nişantaşı neighborhood. Request a spa suite and you’ll get a steam room and miniature Turkish hammam in the bathroom. Nearby you’ll find designer boutiques, chic restaurants, and the verdant Maçka Park. One of the city’s glitziest hotels is the Raffles Istanbul at the futuristic Zorlu Center. The property boasts some of the largest rooms and suites in the city, including the opulent Presidential Suite, where Lady Gaga once stayed. Guests can take an art tour of the hotel, which has a collection of 200 works by contemporary artists, savor pastries made in house during afternoon tea, and indulge in a hammam or massage at the award-winning spa.
Where to Eat & Drink
With so many incredible hotels, it’s no wonder that some of the chicest restaurants and bars are found in them. You don’t have to stay at the Raffles Istanbul to enjoy a night out at its glamorous pan-Asian restaurant Isokyo or Rocca Restaurant. For dinner with views of the Bosphorus, book a table at Aqua, the upscale seafood restaurant at the Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus, which is housed in a restored 19th-century Ottoman palace.
For a more traditional Turkish experience, book a table at Karaköy Lokantası, which serves mezze and seafood in an enchanting two-story space whose walls are covered from floor to ceiling in turquoise tiles. At Yeni Lokanta, well-dressed locals and visitors dine on Anatolian-inspired dishes with a modern twist, like grilled octopus with bottarga, coriander, and tabbouleh. When in Istanbul, you’d be remiss not to try the many variations on baklava, which you can find at pastry shops around the city and at teahouses like Hafız Mustafa, which is conveniently located in Sultanahmet near most of the major sites.
What to Do
Most of Istanbul’s major historic sites are located in the Sultanahmet area, which is easily accessible by tram, so you should plan to spend a full day here. The top must-visit site for architecture and design lovers is the incredible Topkapı Palace, which was originally built by Sultan Mehmed II in the 15th century and expanded many times until the mid-1800s, when the sultans moved to Dolmabhçe Palace on the Bosphorus. You could spend hours strolling the grounds and admiring the Oriental rugs, rich furnishings, lattice windows, doors inlaid with mother of pearl, and gorgeous iznik tiles lining rooms like the sultan’s library. Afterward, head to the Hagia Sophia, which served as the church where Eastern Roman emperors were crowned before it became a mosque in the 15th century. Look up to admire the stained-glass windows, domes covered in gold, and glittering Byzantine mosaics.
In this area, you’ll also find the famed Blue Mosque, which is currently undergoing a restoration. You can still enter, but you won’t be able to see its spectacular dome, which is covered by scaffolding. However, you can see ancient artifacts, beautiful woven carpets, and scenes depicting life under the Ottoman Empire at the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum nearby. Urban Adventures offers tours of the Sultanahmet area that will take you to see sites like these as well as an ancient cistern turned museum, the book bazaar, and more with a local guide.
Of course, Istanbul has a thriving contemporary art scene, too. The best place to discover it is Arter, a contemporary art center that opened in a 2019 in an 18,000-square-foot building designed by London-based Grimshaw Architects. There, you’ll find works by Turkish and international artists, including Sophie Calle and Alicja Kwade.
Where to Shop
You could spend days wandering around the Grand Bazaar and still only see a fraction of what’s inside. One of the largest covered markets in the world, it has an estimated 4,000 shops selling everything from sweets to handmade ceramics, carpets, and gorgeous ikat, suzani, and kilim textiles. Embrace the maze-like atmosphere and know that haggling is a must. For ceramics, Oreks has an excellent selection of handmade izknik pottery at fair prices. Old Textiles Kaftan & Ikat, run by Ismail Deregözü, sells high-quality ikat, suzani, and kilim pillow cases, kaftans, and fabric that you can purchase by the yard and have made into something wonderful. For fashion and accessories by contemporary Turkish designers, head to Openhaus in Nişantaşı.
Istanbul’s hustle and bustle can be a bit overwhelming, so we recommend adding on a few days in Bodrum, an idyllic resort town on Turkey’s Aegean coast. Hop on a quick one-hour flight and check into the Bodrum Edition, a serene oasis opened last year as a new location of Ian Schrager’s ultra-stylish Edition brand. Built as a series of cascading buildings that descend toward the sea, the resort is a minimalist’s fantasy. Relax with a cleansing hammam treatment at the spa, sunbathe on the beach (which has impossibly white sand supposedly made from crushed marble), and indulge in lobster spaghetti and other delicacies at Brava or Morena. If there’s a beach barbecue planned during your stay, you won’t want to miss it.
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