Just Back From
Today was my last day in Istanbul, and in my mind I am still sifting through images. The glittering golden interior dome of the Hagia Sophia cathedral, the masterpiece of the Byzantine era; the harmony and serenity of Suleymaniye Mosque, with its intricately painted tiles; a sultan’s diamond the size of an egg at Topkapi Palace, the sun setting orange behind the minarets of the Blue Mosque as we cruised on the Bosphorus Strait; our rooftop dinner with the vast city spread out before us, a spangle of lights below. Or maybe the moment of departure, when our car was waiting outside, bags loaded, but no one in our group could climb in without going back out to look at the Bosphorus one more time, all of us standing on the marble terrace transfixed by the sunlight playing on its silver surface beyond the magnolia trees and rows of red geraniums. There is nothing subtle about Istanbul. It is high drama, regal and over-the-top—and from a cultural and historical perspective, as mind blowing as one’s first visit to Rome or Paris. I can’t believe that I have been to those cities multiple times and never set foot in Istanbul until now. It is simply unmissable, even in the off season, even in November. A last tidbit: one item on display at Topkapi Palace is the original staff used by Moses to part the Red Sea (um, what?!). It’s Istanbul. Prepare to suspend your disbelief. It’s magic, just go with it. Here are some tips for a first visit.
If you want to try a traditional Turkish hammam, a good place to start is in the gorgeous spa of the Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, where you will have a private room and a therapist who is clothed (in most local hammams, you would share the room with other women, in various states of undress, and your therapist is likely to be dressed with no more than a cloth tied around her waist). If you want to go where the locals go, the Ayasofya Hammam (Cankurtaran, Ayasofya Meydanı 2) is a good choice. In a hammam, you will sit on a marble table, while the therapist pours warm water on you, then exfoliates your skin with loofah, then piles feathery soap bubbles (like a bubble bath) on you, then rinses you. It is a very relaxing and enjoyable experience.
Bosphorus Cruise: A magical way to see Istanbul is from the water. Indagare can arrange a 90-minute private cocktail cruise with a guide to give you some history and context. Seeing the sunset behind the silhouetted spires of the Blue Mosque minarets is unforgettable.
Most Indagare members prefer to stay at one or both of the Four Seasons properties, our top two choices in Istanbul, which are both excellent and very different in style. With only 65 rooms centered on a landscaped courtyard in a historic building, the Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet is intimate and cozy, with a strong sense of place but minimal amenities (no pool). It is ideally located about a five-minute walk from the most important cultural sights in the Old City, such as the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque.
Considering the traffic in Istanbul, it is a real luxury to be a short walk from your hotel at the end of a long day of touring. For this reason, it makes a good choice for your first night or two. (Insider tip: there’s no need to spring for a suite, as even the lowest category rooms are spacious and charming.) That said, once you lay eyes on the uber-fabulous Four Seasons on the Bosphorus, which is much more glamorous and resort-like in feel, it’s hard to want to stay anywhere else, traffic be damned. The hotel has an enormous marble terrace right on the water with a burbling fountain and lots of places to lounge among the purple bougainvillea and clipped parterres. With its expansive water views and the huge outdoor pool, it has a vibe similar to Lake Como. It is worth the splurge for a Bosphorus view room, which are in short supply, so book as far in advance as possible (I like the Deluxe Bosphorus Rooms, which have a day-bed window seat.)
The Istanbul restaurant scene is buzzing and fun; make reservations well in advance. Be sure to taste these local specialties: assorted mezze (hummus, eggplant dip, etc), kebap (aka kebabs), manti (similar to ravioli), stuffed pide (like pizza), braised fresh fish, hamsi if in season (a sardine-like fish), Turkish coffee (it’s unfiltered and very strong) and Turkish delights (chewy, bite-sized desserts).
Our top pick is Mikla, for its sublime farm-to-table Mediterranean food, chic crowd and panoramic views of the city skyline. The most coveted spots are those on the tiny outdoor terrace (open in summer), but all of the tables have good views. Sunset Grill is another solid option.
A kebap lunch: One local favorite is Hamdi Restaurant, on a rooftop by the waterfront right near the Egyptian Spice Bazaar.
Beyond souvenirs, the Grand Bazaar mostly sells four types of product: (1) leather goods (preponderance of knock-off designer handbags); (2) jewelry (especially gold and silver); (3) tiles, bowls and other pottery; (4) rugs, pashminas, tablecloths and other textiles. You should pay no more than about a third of the initial price suggested; if you agree on a price for something, you will be expected to buy it. As a foodie, I prefer the Egyptian Spice Bazaar (Rüstem Paşa, Erzak Ambarı Sok. 92), which feels more authentic (more locals, fewer tourists, less wild price inflation). Stroll past vibrant triangular mounds of crimson paprika, yellow turmeric and red peppercorns; dried mangos, kiwis and anise; pistachios, cashews and walnuts; all kinds of Turkish delights; honeys; and flavored olive oils. My favorite stand is Develi Baharat. Try their Turkish delight with pistachios, pomegranate juice and honey. Later, stop at nearby Hamdi for a kebap lunch.
To do Istanbul properly, you will need a minimum of two full days of touring. Conveniently, the most essential sights are all in easy walking distance from each other in the Old City: the Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, Topkapi Palace and the Archaeology Museum. Each is spectacular and a must. I suggest doing Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque at the beginning of the day, when you are fresh and can fully appreciate their beauty. At Topkapi Palace, make sure to visit the Harem Apartments, in particular the chambers of the sultans. The Hippodrome and the Basilica Cistern are also fascinating and close by.
Yes, you need a guide. The city has extraordinary cultural riches and a good guide will add immeasurably to the experience. From a practical standpoint, you will also be expedited through admission lines that would otherwise consume half your day (in high season, you might wait two hours to enter the Hagia Sophia). Our booking department would be happy to arrange a guide for you. If you have a third day, two lovely sights are the Church of St Savior in Chora (exquisite frescoes and gold mosaics) and the Suleymaniye Mosque.
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