The long weekend: Istanbul

East meets West in this dynamic city brimming with history, architecture and fabulous food 

Istanbul views from a helicopter by Getty Images

Thriving culture, magnificent architecture and a unique location straddling Asia and Europe makes Istanbul as tantalising as ever. The city has been the capital of three empires – the Byzantine, Roman and Ottoman – and, while Ankara wears the crown today, Istanbul remains the economic and cultural heart of modern Turkey.

Home to more than 15 million people, the city is located on a peninsula surrounded by the Golden Horn to the north, the Bosphorus – the scenic strait that links Europe and   Asia – to the east, and the Sea of Marmara to the south. Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s oldest neighbourhood, is home to iconic sights such as the Blue Mosque and Grand Bazaar.

Across the Galata Bridge, Beyoğlu is the centre of the city’s nightlife and includes the waterfront Karaköy neighbourhood, dotted with small galleries and cool shops. Leafy Nişantaşi, meanwhile, is known for its luxury hotels and designer boutiques; just down the hill is bustling Beşiktaş fronting the Bosphorus. Here’s our curated guide to the best Istanbul has to offer…

Stylish Sleeps

From palatial properties to hipster hotels, here’s the pick of the places to sleep

Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Enjoy the ultimate Istanbul experience at the Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus, a 19th-century Ottoman palace in Beşiktaş. Elegant rooms are flooded with light, although you’ll most likely be by the waterfront pool or in the lantern-lit hammam.

A couple of doors down, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul combines a former sultan’s palace with a modern annexe. Palm-studded lawns and an infinity pool overlook the Bosphorus, while all rooms come with a butler and a balcony with views of the water or lush gardens.

In nearby Nişantaşı, The St. Regis Istanbul features Art Deco-influenced interiors and sleek rooms, including a unique suite inspired by the Bentley Continental. Don’t miss dinner at rooftop Spago, the only European outpost of chef Wolfgang Puck’s storied restaurant.

Creative souls should check-in to Soho House Istanbul in Beyoğlu. Social spaces are in a 19th-century mansion, where original frescos sit alongside mid-century furniture. The main attraction, however, is the buzzy rooftop pool.

In the same neighbourhood, Witt Istanbul Hotel is an 18-room boutique bolthole with bags of character. Each apartment-style room is outfitted with a marble kitchenette and a Juliette balcony or wrap-around terrace offering sweeping views of the Golden Horn.

Enjoy the ultimate Istanbul experience at the Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus, a 19th-century Ottoman palace in Beşiktaş. Elegant rooms are flooded with light, although you’ll most likely be by the waterfront pool or in the lantern-lit hammam.

A couple of doors down, the Çırağan Palace Kempinski Istanbul combines a former sultan’s palace with a modern annexe. Palm-studded lawns and an infinity pool overlook the Bosphorus, while all rooms come with a butler and a balcony with views of the water or lush gardens.

In nearby Nişantaşı, The St. Regis Istanbul features Art Deco-influenced interiors and sleek rooms, including a unique suite inspired by the Bentley Continental. Don’t miss dinner at rooftop Spago, the only European outpost of chef Wolfgang Puck’s storied restaurant.

Creative souls should check-in to Soho House Istanbul in Beyoğlu. Social spaces are in a 19th-century mansion, where original frescos sit alongside mid-century furniture. The main attraction, however, is the buzzy rooftop pool.

In the same neighbourhood, Witt Istanbul Hotel is an 18-room boutique bolthole with bags of character. Each apartment-style room is outfitted with a marble kitchenette and a Juliette balcony or wrap-around terrace offering sweeping views of the Golden Horn.

How Bazaar

With Ottoman-era markets overflowing with exotic goods, Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise. Set aside a few hours – or days – to explore the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, which houses some 4,500 shops. You’ll find everything from hand-knotted silk carpets and antique jewellery to fake designer handbags in this Aladdin’s cave of treasures. Top buys include handwoven pestemals (bath wraps) at Abdulla (abdulla.com) and traditional glazed pottery at Iznik Art (iznik-art.com).

A 10-minute stroll away, the aromatic Spice Bazaar has been the go-to for herbs and spices, dried fruits, nuts and olives since 1664. Be sure to grab a bag of freshly-ground Turkish coffee from Kurukahveci Mehmet Efendi (mehmetefendi.com), one of Istanbul’s oldest coffee shops, and hunt out the city’s best lokum (Turkish delight) at nearby Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir (hacibekir.com).

Culture Fix

Discover the thriving art scene at these unique spaces and museums

Istanbul Modern gallery

Istanbul Modern 

Temporarily located in Beyoğlu while its new building on the shores of the Bosphorus takes shape, the city’s premier arts venue showcases the best of modern Turkish art. The current exhibition explores the relationship between humans and cities, nature, and each other, with works by the likes of Sarkis, Tracey Emin and Olafur Eliasson. 

Salt Galata

Housed in a former 19th-century bank in Karaköy, this cutting-edge institution presents temporary art exhibitions, lectures and screenings, all of which are free. Architecture fans will appreciate the surprisingly distinct styles – Neo-classical and Oriental – found on opposing façades.

Museum of Turkish & Islamic Arts

In a 16th-century Ottoman palace opposite the Blue Mosque, this must-visit museum is a treasure trove of artefacts dating to the 8th century. Highlights include the 800-year-old carved wooden doors
from Damascus. 

Turkish Delights

Where to get your fill of one of the world’s finest cuisines

A dish served at Neolokal

Neolokal Book a table by the window for dreamy views across the water at this stylish restaurant, which masterfully mixes traditionalism with modern flair. Opt for the multi-course sharing menu to taste as many of the modern Anatolian dishes as possible, such as shrimp su böreği – a twist on traditional Turkish borek. neolokal.com 

Pandeli With beautiful blue tiles adorning its walls, this iconic restaurant above the entrance to the Spice Bazaar has welcomed a slew of famous diners, including Robert De Niro. Open for lunch only, be sure to order the famous hünkar beğendi – slow-cooked lamb served on a bed of smoked eggplant. pandeli.com.tr

Mikla Regularly named one of the best restaurants in Istanbul, this rooftop spot atop the Marmara Pera hotel offers inventive local cuisine to match the postcard-perfect panorama. Multi-course menus feature dishes such as slow-cooked grouper with pickled mandarin and mantı dumplings with smoked buffalo yoghurt. miklarestaurant.com

World Heritage Wonders

Pack your walking shoes and devote a day to wandering around Sultanahmet. Start at the ancient Hippodrome, where chariot races were held in Byzantine times. Next, wander over to the Blue Mosque to admire the cascading domes and six slender minarets, before heading inside to soak up its grand proportions and walls adorned with blue İznik tiles.

Stroll over to the neighbouring Hagia Sophia; built nearly 1,500 years ago for Byzantine emperor Justinian I, the architectural marvel is famous for its shimmering gold mosaics, swirling Arabic calligraphy and huge dome. Next, descend the 52 stone steps to the Basilica Cistern, a Byzantine-era aqueduct system with more than 300 columns.

Finish up at Topkapı Palace, the opulent residence of Ottoman sultans until the mid-1800s. Don’t miss the Imperial Treasury, filled with a dazzling collection of jewels, thrones and ceremonial swords.

Hip Boutiques

Beyond the bazaars, check out these stylish independent stores

Bey Karakoy boutique, Istanbul

Sanayi 313 This concept store in the Maslak district mixes fashion, design and food. Shop for co-founder Serena Uziyel’s super luxe shoes, featuring bold decorative elements like embroidery and sequins, and stay for lunch at the contemporary Turkish restaurant. sanayi313.com

Bey Karaköy Fashion-forward gents should head to this multi-brand boutique in Karaköy, which mixes cool-kid Scandinavian staples with pieces from talented homegrown designers. Be sure to check out Bey’s own brand of bestselling jeans too. beykarakoy.com

Souq Dukkan Founded by a former Turkish Vogue features editor, this concept store in Kanyon mall stocks a thoughtful edit of largely local brands and designers, ranging from men’s and women’s fashion to homewares, books and prints. souqdukkan.com

Ask a local

Yaprak Aras, co-founder of Souq Dukkan (souqdukkan.com), shares her top tips for exploring the city

The coolest neighbourhood in Istanbul right now is Kadıköy-Moda on the Asian side. There’s been an influx of young and creative İstanbulites moving from the European side in the last couple of years, making it a vibrant place with lots going on.

My favourite café is Bi Nevi Deli (binevideli.com) in Beşiktaş; it’s the most innovative plant-based kitchen in the city. Don’t leave without thoroughly exploring the Bosphorus. Skip the boat trips and take the ferry from Eminönü pier instead.

Stop for brunch at Feriye Lokantası (feriye.com) in Ortaköy, and enjoy the 40-minute stroll along the waterfront promenade from Arnavutköy, a pretty village with ornate wooden mansions, to the 15th-century fortress Rumeli Hisarı. 

Heavenly Hammas

Indulge in a traditional Turkish hammam in one of these historic bathhouses

Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam, Istanbul

Cağaloğlu Hamamı
This 300-year-old hammam in Sultanahmet boasts soaring marble columns, domed ceilings and Romanesque arches. Plump for the Sultan Mahmud package, which includes a collagen facemask and 45-minute aromatherapy massage. cagalogluhamami.com.tr. 

Kiliç Ali Paşa Hamam Across the water in Beyoğlu, this 16th-century gem features one of the largest hammam domes in Istanbul. Alongside the traditional steam, scrub and soak ritual, you can add an aromatic oil or a deep tissue massage. kilicalipasahamami.com.

Çukurcuma Hamamı Also in Beyoğlu, this 1830s hammam opened last year after a decade-long renovation. With grey marble bathing areas and a sleek white relaxation lounge, it’s one of the most luxurious hammams in Istanbul, and welcomes couples too. cukurcumahamami.com

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