Istanbul, a cosmopolitan city straddling the Bosphorus, is a mix of old and new — from the nightlife to the architectural icons that will stop you in your tracks. Places of deeply rooted tradition (spice bazaars, marble-tiled hammams) flourish right next to those with serious cool factor (stylish bars, avant-garde art museums). Things never get old in this millennia-old metropolis.
The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul is one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. With 4,000 shops, the market is always abuzz with people.//Photo courtesy of Sea Song
What’s new? A $12 billion international airport opens in October; after a second phase is complete, it will become the world’s largest hub with an annual passenger capacity of 200 million. We hear there will even be robot assistants.
The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (above) is popularly known as Blue Mosque, as its interior walls are adorned with hand-painted blue tiles.//Photo courtesy of Sea Song
Peninsula Hotels will soon open in the Karakoy neighborhood’s Port Terminal, currently being revamped as an upscale destination lined with fashionable boutiques catering to luxury cruise lines. Insiders tell us that Mandarin Oriental is developing a hotel on the banks of the Bosphorus, on the site of a former open-air arena in the Besiktas neighborhood. These new hotels join luxury standbys like the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, Raffles and Les Ottomans, which continue to draw international celebrities.
Even after multiple trips to Istanbul, we discovered new insights, thanks to Sea Song, founded in 2000 by American Karen Fedorko Sefer ([email protected]). A bespoke tour starts with a Sea Song greeter at the airport and might include a boat ride on the Bosphorus (highly recommended) and reservations at restaurants such as local favorites Karakoy Locanta and Lucca in Bebek.
The Bebek Neighborhood (above) in Besiktas is situated on the European side of the Bosphorus and has a number of cafés and shops along the waterfront.//Photo courtesy of Sea Song
Guided tours, in both local neighborhoods and well-touristed Sultanahmet, are a must. First-timers shouldn’t miss Sultanahmet’s treasures, including the Hagia Sophia, the Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque, where Glee, the resident cat is a star of Instagram. Request Anka Benli Kivanc, one of the best guides we’ve had anywhere. A seventh generation resident, Anka frequently guides film crews and celebrities.
The Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul has 313 rooms and suites and is the only hotel in Istanbul that can be reached by car, yacht or helicopter.
For Istanbullus, life revolves around the mighty Bosphorus. The Ciragan Palace Kempinski occupies a prime piece of real estate on this mythical waterway, with a swimming pool that’s quite the scene in the summer months. This is Istanbul’s only hotel reachable by three modes of transport — car, yacht or helicopter. In a competitive luxury hotel market, here’s what distinguishes the Ciragan Palace: Eighty percent of the rooms have Bosphorus views and all rooms have balconies. The 313 guestrooms are spread between two buildings: A newer hotel and the adjacent palace, also home to the award-winning Tuğra restaurant. The palace building hosts special events (like Indian weddings) in opulent Ottoman surroundings. The stunning centerpiece is the historic hammam, done up in intricately sculpted marble, today used for fashion shoots or private parties.
The Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul’s 4,930-square-foot Sultan Suite affords panoramic views of the Bosphorus and has its own spa and kitchen.
Insiders tell us that an extensive redesign project is in the works for this grande dame hotel. The top suites are housed in the historic palace. The Sultan Suite (more than 4,300 square feet) comes with its own spa and kitchen. We hear celebs such as Oprah have checked in here. In the main hotel building, where most guestrooms are concentrated, we like the Grand Deluxe Room, a highly requested category that includes a separate sitting area. Our room, No. 344, afforded direct views of the hotel’s iconic pool and the Bosphorus beyond. Nice Touch: Guests are greeted by their own personal butler at check-in, who presents a bouquet of freshly cut flowers, to be placed in a vase in your room. For VIP bookings, luxury travel advisors may contact Director of Sales Armagan Yolcu ([email protected]), or Director of Sales & Marketing Elif Bakkal ([email protected]).
The Ciragan Palace Kempinski’s historic hammam, above, offers guests a traditional Turkish massage and bath. Shown below is a One Bedroom Bosphorus View Palace Suite located in the historical palace.
Head Concierge Baris Oguzbas ([email protected]) has been known to pull strings for over-the-top client requests (like Ottoman-style wedding proposals). For treatments at the Sanitas spa, contact [email protected] The most popular treatment is the Sherazad Turkish Hammam treatment, which includes a full body exfoliation followed by a massage with aromatic oils.
Tips for foodies: Get the scoop on authentic Turkish traditions by partaking in a Turkish coffee or baklava-making workshop. Brunch fans are in for a treat at Laledan restaurant, which offers one of city’s best. Soon you’ll be able to feast like an Ottoman sultan with a new “Sultan’s Dinner” experience, staged in a private palace room, festooned with marble and hand-painted walls, and flanked by a large private balcony overlooking the Bosphorus. A throwback to the extravagant rituals of yesteryear, the dinner will begin with guest arrival by boat directly to the palace dock, where waiters dressed in period costume guide the entourage to their multi-course affair. Dishes from different eras in the Ottoman Empire’s history will be served on tableware sourced from antique shops.
Fairmont Quasar Istanbul’s 2,831-square-foot Presidential Suite has two bedrooms.
Speaking of food, we highly recommend the Aila restaurant at the Fairmont Quasar Istanbul, which opened in January 2017 as a contemporary, urban hotel. Enjoy a tantalizing variety of Turkish specialties that span the country’s geography and culinary breadth — from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea. Chef Umut Karakus adds innovative touches to grilled items and the traditional Turkish starters known as mezzes; a “Spice Library” showcases 120 different spices, including 20 that are unique blends created by the chef. Get giddy over a new flavor combination? Diners can sniff the different aromas in the Spice Library and even purchase a sachet to take home with them. There’s also a raki bar stocked with a wide variety of the Turkish spirit.
The Aila Restaurant (above and below) at the hotel serves Turkish specialities and has a “Spice Library.”
Located in the Mecidiyeköy business district, the Fairmont originally launched as a business hotel but has attracted a mix of leisure and corporate guests. The 209 guestrooms, including the enormous Presidential Suite, are designed in a chic, contemporary style with minibars inspired by vintage travel trunks, hamman-style showers, and all the latest technology. There’s a well-equipped fitness room and a signature Willow Stream Spa. The best contact for luxury travel agents is Can Ozmeric ([email protected]), executive assistant manager, sales & marketing; or Ahmet Ucas ([email protected]), leisure sales manager.
Access: Turkish Airlines Business Class
With Turkish Airlines’ stopover program, passengers can enjoy Istanbul on a layover, free of charge. A new service called “Exclusive Drive” means that the Business Class experience starts at home, with a chauffeured limo driving passengers to/from the airport (within 35 miles). An onboard highlight is the cuisine prepared by “Flying Chefs.” In Istanbul, get expedited private entries at Ataturk International Airport, plus access to the Business Class Lounge, awarded “Best Business Class Lounge” (2015, 2017) and “Best Business Class Dining Lounge” (third consecutive year) by the Skytrax survey. There’s a cinema, golf simulation, video games, roaming massage therapists and a delicious gourmet experience with a variety of culinary stations showcasing Turkey’s different regional specialties.