Exotic Istanbul

Go beyond the mundane and enjoy Turkey’s millennia-old treasures like a local with our definitive guide to Istanbul.

With the exotic pluck of Asia and the sophistication of Europe, the city has stormed through more than 2000 years of war, conquest and natural disaster to emerge as one of the most definitive cultural destinations of 2012.

From the revitalised banks of the Bosphorus strait to the fiery nightlife of the rooftop bars that rock the city at night, Istanbul is definitely a place to see and be seen. But beyond the glamour, the city has a rich heritage and a powerful sense of tradition just waiting to be discovered and embraced. Welcome to Istanbul, a city like no other.

A Place in Time 

Defying time, gravity and the thrust of several major earthquakes, the Hagia Sophia is one of the most magnificent monuments in Europe and Asia. The existing structure was first built as a Byzantine church in 537AD, then converted into a mosque in the mid-15th century following the conquest of Istanbul (then Constantinople) by Sultan Mehmed.

Now a major heritage site and museum, Hagia Sophia is warped, cracked and crumpled at odd angles — largely due to the effects of earthquakes. Head up to the second level to see the incredible mosaics and domed roof, before stepping outside and sipping a cup of hot sahlep, made from the sweet juice of crushed orchid roots and sold by the hawkers.

The Spice Bazaar is a more palatable experience than Istanbul’s iconic Grand Bazaar. For hundreds of years, travellers along the Silk Route would trade perfumes, oils and spices with the Ottoman Empire at this site. Today, heaving tables are loaded with nuts, honeycomb, fragrant spices and sweets that vendors will insist you try before you buy.

Another historical site can be found underground — the Basilica Cistern once stored water for the city’s Topkapi Palace. The eerie subterranean cavern is the size of a football field and is supported by 336 illuminated columns. Venture all the way to the back of the cavern to see the two mysterious sculpted heads of Medusa — if you dare take on the rickety wooden walkway.

Arabian Nights 

Our pick of the best hotels in Istanbul feature all the cornerstones of Turkish culture, from clandestine cabanas to cosmopolitan cool.

One: Hôtel Les Ottomans, a 19th-century mansion on the banks of the Bosphorus, is the crème of luxury offerings, featuring the Caudalíe Vinothérapie spa enjoyed by celebrity clientele.

Two: Set in the famous Akaretler Row Houses, W Istanbul hotel is a sophisticated choice with private cabanas, close to trendy restaurants, cafes and shops.

Three: The Istanbul Edition is set up as a lifestyle complex with oversized guest rooms and an 1858-square-metre spa.

Four: Some things never get tired, they just get restored, like the Pera Palace Hotel where, some claim, Agatha Christie penned the classic, Murder on the Orient Express.

Five: In the shadow of the Blue Mosque, the luxury lodgings of the Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet are housed in a century-old neoclassic Turkish prison.

Dishing it Up

“As Istanbul sits at the crossroads of two continents, numerous cultures have left their indelible culinary mark on the city over the past centuries,” says Yigal Schleifer, co-founder and author of www.istanbuleats.com. “All of these influences combine to make a very unique food scene,” he adds.

One: Ciya Sofrasi, in the Kadiköy neighbourhood, is a culinary pilgrimage site. There’s no menu here — just walk up to a dozen pots and point to what looks interesting. It’s fresh Turkish cuisine with great service and pleasing prices.

Two: Didem Senol, the young chef behind Lokanta Maya restaurant, is someone to keep an eye on. She uses strictly local ingredients to create classic Turkish dishes with a modern spin.

Three: Mandabatmaz is a tiny coffee house off the pedestrian-only İstiklal Avenue and serves some of the best Turkish coffee in Istanbul.

Four: Zübeyir Ocakbaşi is the best place to experience authentic kebabs. Here, the succulent meat is charred over hardwood coals. Try to nab a seat around the traditional copper fume grill.

Five: La Mouette Restaurant is on the terrace floor of the Tomtom Suites hotel. The panoramic views are only eclipsed by the original artworks dominating the walls.

After Dark

According to Emre Ergani, manager of the W Lounge, “When the darkness shifts, Istanbul’s legendary indulgent nightlife begins.”

What’s the nightlife scene like in Istanbul?

Istanbul is a bridge between Europe and Asia, so it’s a mixture of traditional, oriental and modern.

What are the most happening neighbourhoods to visit?

The Kuruçeşme area consists of mostly nightclubs, while Bebek is filled with cafes and bars. Nişantaşi is the place of elegance, where visitors could find classy bars and restaurants surrounded with the most high-end shopping district of Istanbul. There is also the Beyoğlu side which is the SoHo of Istanbul.

What should we see?

Visitors can find all sorts of entertainment and amusement depending on their preferences. One not to be missed is Blackk, on the banks of the Bosphorus. It’s a celebrity hotspot, while the DJs to watch include Doğus Çabakçor and Kerem Onger.

Where should we dine?

Check out Topaz Restaurant to enjoy a great view of the city skyline.

And for a more low-key night?

Definitely the Nişantaşi area, including Biber Bar and Beymen Brasserie.

Don’t Leave Without

Entering the inner sanctum of a Turkish hamam (bath) is the pinnacle of any visit to Istanbul. Visit the Cağaloğlu Hamami and be scrubbed red raw by a big Turkish masseur as you lay almost naked on a warm marble stone, peering up at the bathhouse’s centuries-old dome. Afterwards, sip mint tea and nibble on Turkish delight in soft robes.

Settle in for a lazy evening on thick cushions underneath hundreds of stain-glassed lamps at Erenler Nargile (Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, Çemberlitaş), a large open-air shisha bar where you can inhale thick lungfuls of sweet melon tobacco from ornate waterpipes, and sip apple tea among the quiet laughter and friendly chatter of everyday Turks.

If you’re itching for a day-trip, escape to the Princes’ Islands, a closely-guarded secret of the locals. The nine islands off the coast of Istanbul offer timeless beauty, with green woods, small villages, wooden mansions and lack of motor transport. Hop on a horse and cart to explore island life, with a view of Asia on the horizon.

Words by Shaney Hudson - Published in Voyeur November 2011
Quick Facts 
Population Approx. 12,782,960
Time Zone UTC +3
Languages Turkish (official), Kurdish, Arabic
Currency Turkish Lira
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