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Straddling two continents, built on seven hills and the legendary centre of two of the world’s greatest empires (Roman and Ottoman), Istanbul isn’t just a melting pot of cultures. It’s a furnace ablaze with elements of East, West, the contemporary and the classical that create one sensational whole. From the majestic and bustling ancient landmarks of the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar, to the glamour and gilt of the party scene and the avant-garde landscape of art and design – all set against the splendour of the Bosphorus straits – there really is nothing quite like Istanbul. While planning your day, just be sure to factor in ample travel time as traffic can be heinous, even outside of rush hours.
Turks enjoy a hearty breakfast, and one of the best places to sample the classics is at Bahar Pastanesi (Arnavutkoy 1 Caddesi 46, Bolluca Merkez, Tel: 90 212 265 1564). While the off-white walls and chestnut-coloured linoleum floors won’t be much to write home about, their famed meneme (scrambled eggs with white cheese and tomatoes) will. Settle at one of the simple timber tables inside next to the large glass windows or on the pavement outdoors, order up those eggs and a few pastries from the glass cases that line the shop, and savour the fresh, local flavours.
You’ve visited the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, the Chora church and their must-see siblings – it’s time to hit some private collections. The Koc and Sabanci families both have superb stashes of Anatolian and Ottoman art housed in beautiful historic residences. Start at the former’s Sadberk Hanim Museum. It’s a fair way out but once you step into the three-storey seaside yali (house), you’ll be rewarded with an abundance of antiques and artefacts dating back to 6000BC, plus costumes, jewellery and an array of Iznik tiles and plates (highly decorated ceramics popular in Turkey in the late 16th century). Next, grab a cab and head back towards town along the coastal road to Sakip Sabanci Museum, which houses a truly remarkable collection of manuscripts and beautiful calligraphy.
Once you’ve oohed and aahed over the calligraphic works at the Sakip Sabanci Museum, stay behind for gourmet treasure Muzedechanga, which serves light, contemporary Turkish-Mediterranean fare. Mezzes are the stars of the menu – tickle your tongue with a plate of changa sucuk or spicy sausages with pistachio. In clement weather, the tables on the expansive terrace, with front-row Bosphorus views, make it a picture-perfect delight.
If you find yourself in a hotel, shop, bar or restaurant in town with decor that fuses modernist and Ottoman in a seamless, cutting-edge whole, it’s likely to have been an Autoban project. Locals Seyhan Ozdemir and Sefer Caglar set up their design studio in 2003 and have been in high demand ever since, grabbing awards and attention all over the globe. At their gallery, you’ll find their full range of sleek furniture, lighting and accessories, just the things to juxtapose with your traditional Turkish carpet. For something decidedly less minimalist, head to Yastik by Rifat Ozbek, replete with colourful, fluffed and stuffed cushions inspired by fashion designer Ozbek’s travels.
There’s no such thing as too much of that glittery Bosphorus view, so make a beeline for the smashing waterside garden cafe Assk Kahve (Muallim Naci Caddesi 64B, Tel: 90 212 265 4734). It’s one of the few places for a light refreshment along this handsome strip of the coast, so manoeuvre your way through the crowds and out onto the terrace to join the buff and beautiful people for a homemade lemonade or peach tea.
While some parts of the Ciragan Palace Kempinski hotel can be over-the-top, its bath and spa, the lovely, intimate Ciragan Spa & Hammam is refreshingly tranquil and elegant. You can luxuriate in style in this very private and peaceful marble-laden oasis, complete with indoor pool and attentive masseurs, plus all the bells and whistles to ensure you come out glowing.
The fabulous glass and steel urban 360istanbul, perched atop the historic Misir Apartments, is no secret to locals or visitors, and for good reason – the panoramas from this hilltop terrace are spectacular. So pop in at dusk, and with your eyes on the horizon and your hands on a libation, kick back and enjoy nature’s light show.
Passionate young Turk Didem Senol, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute of New York, has had the city’s smartest gourmands flocking to Lokanta Maya (Kemankes Caddesi 35A, Karakol, Tel: 90 212 252 6884), her Scandinavian-chic black, white and timber bistro. Focusing on local, organic ingredients, Senol whisks you to the Aegean coast in a seasonally aware menu of light yet rustic plates. Try the caramelised seabass with orange, a delicious showcase of the chef’s prowess.
Replete with wholesome locavore fare, retox with a night of imbibing at the Nu Pera complex, whose rooftop becomes Nu Teras (Mesrutiyet Caddesi 67, Beyoglu, Tel: 90 212 245 6070) come summertime (May to October). Mingle and dance with the jet set, all the while with the Golden Horn inlet and the conurbation below as your spangly backdrop. In winter, the party simply moves downstairs – nothing can stop Istanbulites from shimmying the night away.
Look no further than Istanbul’s Edition hotel for one of the town’s swankiest boutique stays. It’s a Marriott, but not like you know it, thanks to a collaboration with ultra-hotelier Ian Schrager. The property is a study in modern Ottoman sophistication, awash in a masculine-glam palette of muted bronze and silvery gold, with clean, restrained lines. The 78 commodious rooms come in either light-soaped oak or rich rosewood tones, complete with all modern conveniences. Throw in the three-storey ESPA with treatments by pedicure king Bastien Gonzalez, a branch of famed Venetian restaurant Cipriani and the Gold Bar, with its lush landscaped gardens and terrace, and you’ve got a neat base from which to continue your adventure.
Now that you know our favourite places to see, shop, eat, sip and stay, it’s your turn. Pack your party wear and get away into the shimmery bosom of the Bosphorus.
Next month, we’ll be bringing you the best insider picks for Hong Kong. Don’t miss it.