Insider Guide: Best of Istanbul
Nowhere does fusion like the best of Istanbul, a metropolis that owes as much to its centuries of history as it does to its emergence as one of the most dynamic cities in Asia or Europe.
It's strikingly beautiful. The Bosphorus -- aka the Istanbul Strait, the stretch of water that divides two continents -- stretches calmly before you under the warmth of the sun while the city soars above the shore.
But, mostly, the best of Istanbul is a jumble of activity, 13 million citizens strong, from celebrants staggering out of bars at 4 a.m. to imams calling the faithful out to prayer at dawn.
You can hear the hustle just as surely as you can see it. The horns of impatient taxi drivers. The lilting melodies of street musicians. The laughter of children. The clinking of raki glasses. And always, the whining cries of seagulls overhead.
The one thing to know about the best of Istanbul is that it’s growing, giving visitors more options than they can fit into any single trip.
Not that it’s ever stopped us from trying.
Most of best hotels are located on the European side in either Sultanahmet (location of most popular historical sites) or near and around Taksim Square (the city center), including the Beşiktaş, Maçka, Tepebaşı, and Galata neighborhoods.
Four Seasons Sultanahmet
Once an Ottoman prison, this best of Istanbul neoclassical building is now the Four Seasons boutique hotel located in the center of the old city, or Sultanahmet.
With a view of the famous Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia mosques, the hotel is steps away from Topkapı Palace and a 10-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar.
Some 65 uniquely designed rooms offer modern amenities and a serene courtyard, where genuinely great dining is available at the Seasons restaurant.
The Lounge serves cocktails, coffee and snacks. A fitness and spa center is also available with a range of massage options, including aromatherapy and Balinese massage.
Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1, Sultanahmet; +90 212 402 30 00; rooms from €550 (US$720) in low season; www.fourseasons.com/istanbul
Located near the city center in the Maçka neighborhood, Swissôtel provides expansive views of the Bosphorus from a wonderfully high vantage point.
Its award winning Amrita Spa & Wellness facility includes indoor and outdoor pools, private fitness trainers, daily group exercise classes and three tennis courts.
Restaurants include the Café Swiss, gourmet food at Gaja restaurant and Asian cuisine at Miyako restaurant. The Les Ambassadeurs Bar is a classy spot for a warm-up drink.
Bayıldım Caddesi No.2, Maçka; +90 212 326 11 00-22; Rooms from €214 (US$280) in low season; www.swissotel.com.tr
Located in the Galata district close to the city center, this best of Istanbul hotel has 40 individually designed rooms with custom-made wooden furniture and natural fiber curtains.
Housed in a renovated apartment building built in 1874, original architectural details are all around in the form of frescoes, columns and vaulted ceilings.
Along with modern amenities, the Adahan Istanbul has two restaurants, Baylo and Goodmoodpera, which are popular with the city's residents -- a sure sign you’ve picked a winner.
General Yazgan Sokak No.14, Beyoğlu; +90 212 243 85 81; Rooms from €180 ($236); adahanistanbul.com
The House Hotel Bosphorus
This 19th-century landmark is now a hotel offering, among other rooms, a penthouse suite with a 180-degree view of the surroundings and a private wraparound terrace.
The modern and minimalist interior was created by the famed Turkish Autoban design firm, while the Lounge Bar serves drinks with a seaside view.
It’s a bit far from the city center (a 20-minute drive), but the area has restaurants, cafés and shopping, as well as a close-up view of the Bosphorus Bridge.
Salhane Sokak No. 1, Ortaköy; +90 212 244 34 00; Rooms from €156 (US$204); www.thehousehotel.com
This 16-room hotel occupies two historic buildings. While the decor combines modern design with antique details, the walls still showcase their original frescoes.
All rooms have high ceilings, wooden floors and kitchenettes, but not all have private terraces.
If you need to breathe a little, there’s a rooftop terrace with a sea view, as well as a downstairs cafe and courtyard with outdoor seating.
The Galata is located in the Beyoğlu district, which is packed with an array of dining and nightlife options, a 20-minute walk from the city center.
Kumbaracı Yokuşu No. 37, Beyoğlu; +90 212 293 31 86/87; Rooms from €130 (US$170); www.roomsgalata.com
Close to the major historic sights in the old city, Ibrahimpaşa is in a renovated, three-story, turn-of-the-century Ottoman townhouse.
The hotel’s 16 rooms have elegant designs, while the rooftop terrace shows off a full view of historic sights, as well as a bar for guests only -- a nice touch.
Terzihane Sokak No. 5, Sultanahmet; +90 212 518 03 94; Rooms from €90 (US$118); www.ibrahimpasha.com/index.htm
Changa and Müzedechanga
After opening in 1999, Changa has simply got better -- the restaurant received a local Best New Restaurant award and was featured in numerous international magazines and newspapers.
Its contemporary Turkish menu is composed of fresh and locally produced items that change with the seasons. Apart from the à la carte menu, a tasting menu (for two or more people) is also available.
Grilled octopus with spicy red miso and nori sauce; grilled loin of lamb with roasted quince and peanuts with sumac molasses; wasabi and salmon tortellini in creamy lemongrass sauce. This is innovative and fine contemporary dining at its height.
Changa closes for the summer and Müzedechanga, located within the Sakip Sabanci Museum, continues the menu in the hot summer months; Siraselviler Caddesi No. 47/1, Taksim; +90 212 251 70 64; www.changa-istanbul.com
Mikla chef Mehmet Gürs’ dual nationality has a strong influence on his Scandinavian-Turkish menu.
Open since 2005, this best of Istanbul restaurant focuses on creative fusion, with dishes such as molasses-glazed lamb with apricot and mustard-seeded mashed potato, or Gravlax with Turkish cacık (yogurt with chopped cucumber).
Along with a solid wine list, the restaurant’s top-floor spot allows for views of Istanbul dressed for night. The bar and terrace are good options for after-dinner drinks.
Meşrutiyet Caddesi 167/185, Beyoğlu; +90 212 293 56 56; www.miklarestaurant.com
If you didn’t grow up eating the home-cooked recipes of a talented Turkish grandmother, then Hünkar may become your second home.
Whether you eat from the buffet or order from the menu, every dish -- from cold meze starters to main dishes of Ottoman descent -- tastes the way locals like it.
Items include Hünkar Beğendi (smoked eggplant puree topped with lamb or beef chunks), fava bean spread and aşure (pudding of chickpeas, kidney beans, rice and sugar topped with walnuts, pistachios, pomegranate, almonds and cinnamon).
The tasting menu encapsulates almost everything Turkish cuisine has to offer and is a good start for beginners.
Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi No. 21, Nişantaşı; +90 212 225 46 65; www.hunkar1950.com
An Istanbul standout since 1927, Borsa stands for the essentials of the Turkish kitchen.
The rich interior of dark mahogany, white tablecloths and floor-to-ceiling windows leads to a terrace that’s open in the summer.
The menu speaks of equally grand values, with everything from simple artichoke cooked in olive oil with fava beans, carrots and potatoes, to iskender kebap -- roasted lamb slices over pita bread covered in tomato and butter sauce and yogurt.
Lütfi Kırdar Convention Center, Gümüş Caddesi No.4, Harbiye; +90 0212 232 42 01; www.borsarestaurant.com
At Kiyi, the rakı table is where conversation unfolds over hours while the sea glides by undisturbed.
The restaurant’s seafood appetizers and fresh grilled fish have made it one of the best of Istanbul locations to enjoy lengthy meals.
Along with an interior decorated with the paintings of local artists and a terrace for the summer months, this waterfront restaurant makes for a worthy trip to Tarabya, about 30 minutes' drive from the city center.
Haydar Aliyev Caddesi No. 186, Tarabya; +90 212 262 00 02; www.kiyi.com.tr
Consistency has made the fine dining at Park Şamdan especially popular.
With a menu that lists both Turkish and international dishes, this is a good place for business lunches or dinners.
The main room overlooks a garden. The menu includes paça Çorbası (soup with leg of lamb chunks), risottolu dana kaburga (beef ribs with risotto), keşkül (almond-based milk pudding) and kaymaklı ekmek kadayıfı (crumpets with syrup and clotted cream).
Mim Kemal Öke Caddesi No. 18/1, Nişantaşı; +90 212 225 07 10; www.parksamdan.com
Sunset Grill & Bar
One of the best of Istanbul places to check out the nighttime illuminations of the Bosphorus Bridge is on the hilltop where Sunset Grill & Bar sits among the wealthy residences of the Ulus neighborhood.
Apart from one of the most international wine lists in the city, the restaurant also highlights Japanese cuisine.
While sushi chef Takemura’s specials are the highlight of menu, Turkish and international dishes are also included.
An expansive outdoor seating area and floor-to-ceiling windows inside guarantee unobstructed views.
Adnan Saygun Caddesi Yol Sokak No. 2, Ulus Parkı; +90 212 287 03 57; www.sunsetgrillbar.com
Unlike most cosmopolitan cities, a rampant clubbing scene is not what most locals look forward to on their weekends. Istanbul’s nightlife revolves, instead, around trendy restaurants that transform into crowded bars after dinner, with the music turned up loud.
Bird is not easy to miss. Starting at about midnight, the restaurant tables disappear and diners are displaced by a young upscale crowd, all clutching cocktails and swaying to the music.
The bar is always filled to capacity, with many partygoers spilling into the streets in a cloud of cigarette smoke and conversation.
Meşrutiyet Caddesi No. 103, Şişhane; +90 212 245 70 85; www.birdistanbul.com
Another restaurant that transforms into a dimly lit bar with throbbing music after midnight, Lucca has remained one of the most popular places to show your face and mingle.
Don’t be surprised if someone hands you their business card after checking you out for several minutes from across the room.
The well-prepared cocktails, especially margaritas, are another lure, of course.
Cevdetpaşa Caddesi No. 51/B, Bebek; +90 212 257 12 55; www.luccastyle.com
An opulent restaurant for dinner, Ulus29 also houses a lounge that looks onto the lights of the Bosphorus Bridge reflecting on the water.
A favorite in the upscale neighborhood of Etiler, the lounge is a relaxing option for an after-dinner drink.
If you’re looking for more action, the restaurant also includes a nightclub in another compartment of the building where the music is a little louder and the lights a littler lower.
Adnan Saygun Caddesi Ulus Parkı Içi; +90 0212 358 29 29; www.group-29.com
Nupera is probably the best bar in the Beyoğlu district (close to the city center). In the same building, three restaurants turn into bars after dinner.
It’s best to come a little early to avoid getting stuck at the door -- a sea of people is always present, moving chaotically from one bar space to the next.
In the summer, the threesome closes and Nuteras nightclub opens on the top floor to reveal a 360-degree view of Istanbul’s glimmering lights.
A best of Istanbul dance floor made of glass allows a view all the way to the bottom of the building, where normally dance-resistant Turks can be seen shedding stereotypes.
Meşrutiyet Caddesi No.67, Beyoğlu; +90 212 245 60 70; www.nupera.com.tr
Nardis Jazz Club
For a more relaxed evening, Nardis Jazz Bar is an alternative to the excitable crowds. It has an intimate performing space within a historic building.
Named after a Miles Davis song, the club is the city’s only internationally acclaimed jazz venue.
Because of its small 120-person capacity, reservations are recommended on weekends.
Kuledibi Sokak No. 14, Galata; +90 212 244 63 27; www.nardisjazz.com
When the words “best of Istanbul” and “shopping” are spoken in one breath, the inevitable association is the Grand Bazaar, with more than 4,000 stores under one roof.
Yet the city is also luring a wave of talented young designers that are marking their presence with creations inspired by the motifs of their own country and others gathered from abroad.
Bülbül, an Izmir native, was educated in England and Holland, where a love for leather developed and gave way to her boutique in Galata, open since 2009.
With a vision based on simplicity and attention to detail, women’s jackets, dresses, pants, blouses and tunics are made entirely of soft leather, or at least include a small element of it.
Bülbül also works as a style consultant for the best of Istanbul celebrities, creating designs for women unafraid of breaking the usual molds.
Simay Bülbül, Şahkulu Bostan Sokak No.22, Galata; +90 212 292 45 86; simaybulbul.com
With a boutique in Teşvikiye, Gönül Paksoy’s one-of-a-kind creations are individual pieces of art that are ready to be worn.
With a PhD in chemical engineering, Paksoy may have deviated from her academic beginnings, but she’s integrated her scientific knowledge to invent a 100-percent-natural clothing philosophy.
With a focus on ethnic designs, the pieces in the boutique are all hand-dyed, hand-sewn and made from natural dyes and fabrics, including pure silk for thread and lining.
Gönül Paksoy; Atiye Sokak No. 6/A, Teşvikiye; +90 212 261 90 81
Ela Cindoruk-Nazan Pak
The idea of wearing paper as jewelry may seem ridiculous, but when crafted by designers Ela Cindourk and Nazan Pak it’s stunning.
In their boutique and studio in Teşvikiye, delicate qualities of the individually designed doily-like pieces are made durable by combining many layers to be worn as a necklace or bracelet.
From rings to cuff links, necklaces, brooches, earrings and bracelets, all pieces in the store are made by the owners or other young best of Istanbul designers.
Ela Cindoruk-Nazan Pak, Atiye Sokak No. 14/5, Teşvikiye; +90 212 219 62 92; www.elacindoruknazanpak.com
Not your typical Turkish gift shop, Armaggan in Teşvikiye stocks a large and varied selection of handmade items.
The jewelry collection includes diamonds, precious and semi-precious stones and pearls in contemporary settings and an18-karat gold foundation.
Hides tanned using locally harvested natural oak, mimosa and sumac bark are crafted into purses, notebooks, pillows and more best of Istanbul gifts.
Hand-dyed and hand-sewn textiles come as kaftans, towels or bedspreads.
Armaggan. Nuruosmaniye Caddesi No.65, Nuruosmaniye; +90 212 522 44 33; www.armaggan.com
Sofa Art & Antiques
A two-century-old Ottoman fountain is the appropriate setting for a best of Istanbul shop that’s become one of the most important antique dealers in the city.
Opened in 1976, Sofa Art and Antiques displays collections from gold Arabic letters of Islamic Calligraphy to the saintly glow of religious icons.
Other items include paintings, silver and ceramics from Iznik and Kütahya.
Sofa Art and Antiques is an antique store for serious collectors, though for those who choose to wander in it’s an equally worthy experience.
Sofa Art & Antiques; Nuruosmaniye Caddesi No. 53/A, Nuruosmaniye; +90 0212 520 28 5051; www.kashifsofa.com
In C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” little Edmund is tempted by White Witch’s with an offering of Turkish Delight.
One can easily imagine this as the inspiration behind Lokum Istanbul’s black lacquer interior.
The boutique in Bebek provides a fresh take on different-flavored Turkish delights and akide candy. The store also stocks candles and fragrances most notably Rumi’s Rose Cologne, which sends the buyer on an olfactory journey into another world.
Lokum Istanbul; Kuruçeşme Caddesi No. 19, Bebek; +90 212 287 15 28; www.lokumistanbul.com
The peaks and domes of the city’s historic mosques and basilica are the images that accompany the story of Istanbul.
The Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Dolmabahçe Palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar and Topkapı Palace are photographed millions of times a year.
Slightly off the well-beaten path of the major attractions, Galata Mevlevihanesi was once the retreat of the dervishes (Sufi mystics). It was closed with the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Half a century later, it was reopened as the Divan Literature Museum in 1975. Costumes and memorabilia from Mevlana schools are on display here, along with the graves of famous Mevlana scholars and whirling dervish performances.
Galata Mevlevihanesi Galip Dede Caddesi No. 15; +90 212 245 4141; www.mekder.org
The Istanbul Culinary Institute (Enstitü) was founded not only to educate professional cooks, but also to promote Turkish cuisine locally and abroad.
Housing a school of culinary arts, a practice kitchen and a gourmet store, ICI holds three-hour courses with chef instructors.
Classes are organized by themes, ranging from Italian to smoked meats, to pastries and, of course, the best of Istanbul dishes. Visit the website to see a full list of classes.
ICI Meşrutiyet Caddesi, No: 59 Tepebaşı; For class reservations call +90 212 251 2215 or fill out the online form: www.istanbulculinary.com
Turkish hamam bath
The Turkish bath is a revelatory experience. The process includes a period of preparing the skin for bathing in a sauna-like room, followed by a full-body wash and massage.
The Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı provides a luxurious, female-only hamam experience inside a building designed by Mimar Sinan in 1556 for the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Hürrem Sultan.
Services include traditional Turkish bath, redbud essence peeling application, body clay masks, aromatherapy massage and much more.
Another notable Turkish bath is Cağaloğlu Hamamı located in Sultanahmet. It was built for Sultan Mahmut I in 1741, and now services both men and women.
The best of Istanbul hamam has been featured on television and film and has been the site for illustrious visitors like Edward VIII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm, Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Tony Curtis.
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamamı Bab-ı Hümayun Caddesi No:1, Cankurtaran; +90 212 517 35 35; www.ayasofyahamami.com
Cağaloğlu Hamamı Kazım İsmail Gürkan Caddesi (Yerebatan Caddesi) No.24; +90 212 522 24 24; www.cagalogluhamami.com.tr