A crossroads between Europe and Asia, the Turkish second city of Istanbul gracefully bridges cultures
Where to eat, sleep and shop in Istanbul
The plummeting Turkish lira means this city is a bargain for tourists right now. And Istanbul can certainly stretch a dirham a long way, offering a hotch-potch of historical and cultural sites, as well as a flourishing food and nightlife scene. There are not many places that offer spectacular ferry trips, beaches and more of the ancient world than is easy for one brain to comprehend. It has cool by the bucketload, and if ever there was somewhere more suited to just having a wander, it eludes us. This city of 15 million people (and unofficially many more) has a jewel waiting around every corner. One visit to Turkey’s second city – Ankara is the nation’s capital 450 kilometres to the south – never seems enough, so it’s a good job there’s plenty to do to fill many trips back.
A comfortable bed
With a helipad and an outdoor heated infinity pool, Kempinski’s Ciragan Palace offers resort comfort. Completed in the late 19th century and having served briefly as parliament for the Ottoman Empire, it has won many awards. Impressive. And that’s probably why double rooms start at Dh1,405 and increase significantly as you head up the rankings. The Rixos Pera (peraistanbul.rixos.com) is a more of a central option, located in the Beyoglu district and near to main shopping street Istiklal Caddesi. With sea views and grand, elegant decor, it’s a favourite of regular visitors. Prices start from Dh530 for a double.
Stay in the old city in modern style at Boutique Saint Sophia (www.boutiquesaintsophia.com), a few hundred metres from the Hagia Sophia, the basilica-turned-mosque-turned-museum. It’s close to many of the tourist sites and, for a short break or your first visit to the city, there is little need to venture much further. Doubles start from Dh550.
Find your feet
If it’s your first visit, start in Sultanahmet, the old part of the city. Here you can stand in the green space between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia and listen as the two compete with each other at the call to prayer. If you can only visit one, make it the Hagia Sophia – where the oldest parts were built almost one-and-a-half millennia ago, old enough to house Viking graffiti.
From here, head north for an easy walk to Topkapi Palace, which once served as the court of the Ottoman Empire, and then on to the Grand Bazaar – one of the oldest markets in the world.
For the quirkier side of the city, hop on a tram to Çukurcuma and head to the Museum of Innocence, an immersive collection of items themed on a book of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk. Then, take time to wander the streets of nearby Cihangir to take in the street art and find some of the famous street cats. If that’s all too much, catch a ferry out to the Princes’ Islands, find a beach and relax.
Meet the locals
While the Cihangir and Karakoy neighbourhoods offer plenty of photo opportunities with colourful doorways, ramshackle, cafe-flanked side streets and steep stairways down to the Bosphorus, they have become gentrified and a bit pricey for the average Turk. On the Asian side, Kadikoy-Moda has been making waves on the liberal cultural scene with its music venues and street food outlets. It may take a ferry ride to get there from the European side, but that adds to the charm.
Book a table
Located up an unmarked lift on the backstreets of Cihangur, 5. Kat is an indoor and rooftop restaurant offering impressive views across to the Asian side of the city. It has a shabby chic, French-inspired interior and quirky jazz tunes, and the stand-out dishes are the salads – the grilled sea bass salad is Dh27 – and some very indulgent desserts (Dh14.50).
Asmali Cavit is an old-style meyhane offering mezze in the centre of town, but it does it better than pretty much any other in the area. Try the deniz borulcesi, or samphire, and topik, an Armenian dish of chickpea and potato balls for starters – all cost between Dh9 and Dh22.50.
If you fancy some food with a zing, high-end UAE favourite Zuma (www.zumarestaurant.com/zuma-landing/istanbul/en/welcome) also has an Istanbul branch. Situated in Istinye Park, a fashion district, you can’t go wrong with this Japanese sushi bar and grill.
Aside from the main hustle of Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s answer to Oxford Street, the city is dotted with shopping areas offering everything from upcycled homewares to entire rows of wig shops. For high-end shopping, Nisantasi is a favourite for its independent boutiques and couture designers from Turkey and beyond. Abdi Ipekci Caddesi offers luxury brands, while Tesvikiye Caddesi is more trendy and moderately priced.
Cukurcuma is the main antique-hunting area. The beautiful old houses are in various stages of renovation and romantic neglect, much like the items on sale, and there are also vintage clothes stores, art galleries and pretty cafes and restaurants.
A good Turkish breakfast is a thing of beauty with so many elements to it, from boiled eggs and cold meats to veg, local honey and olives, that it’s impossible not to please even the fussiest of eaters. A short walk from Galata Tower, Cafe Privato does a great one, and with its bare-brick walls and eclectic, higgledy-piggledy decor, it also offers a lot in hipster credentials.
What to avoid
Traffic – Istanbul is famous for it. A short journey across town can become a source of stress, and taxi drivers can be rude, take suspiciously winding routes or may even refuse short journeys. Where you can, walk, or wait until rush “hour” is over. It runs between 5pm and 7pm, and probably a good few minutes either side.