Istanbul is a fascinating city and ideal for an Ultimate Weekend Getaway. It is a city of contrasts – modern buildings sit adjacent to structures built centuries before; ancient traditions mix with contemporary culture; a church, a synagogue and a mosque sit in close proximity; the city straddles both Asia and Europe. The city has a rich history – during ancient times, it was known as Constantinople and was the capital of the Roman Empire and in the 15th Century fell with the Muslim conquest and became the capital of the Ottoman Empire. When the Republic of Turkey was founded in the early 20th Century, it was renamed “Istanbul.” Today it is a vibrant, if rather chaotic, city with luxurious hotels, fabulous restaurants serving traditional and modern dishes, an enormous variety of historical and cultural attractions and an emerging art scene.
UPDATE: GIVEN THE RECENT CIVIL UNREST AND TERRORIST ATTACKS IN ISTANBUL, TRAVELERS TO ISTANBUL SHOULD EXERCISE EXTREME CAUTION WHILE VISITING THIS CITY (OR POSTPONE TRAVEL UNTIL THE SITUATION IMPROVES)
Although many of the historic and cultural attractions of Istanbul are located in Old Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, we prefer to stay away from the tourist crowds and are drawn to the luxury hotels located along the banks of the Bosphorus. For your ultimate weekend getaway, we recommend the super-luxurious Çırağan Palace Kempinski, which is located on the European shore of the Bosphorus. The original building was a former Sultan palace (where the largest suites are currently located) and now includes a modern deluxe tower. Although Istanbul is a rather chaotic city, the Kempinski group has managed to create a resort-like feel in the heart of the bustling city. The hotel grounds are expansive, with a number of beautiful and peaceful gardens, three large swimming pools, including an infinity pool right at the edge of the Bosphorus, and a number of outdoor restaurants and bars. The hotel has two excellent restaurants and a spa that offers a traditional hamam experience. For this Ultimate Weekend Getaway, we recommend the luxury one-bedroom suites, which have a separate living room, an enormous modern bathroom and a spacious balcony overlooking the Bosphorus. Regardless of your room type, make sure you get a room facing the Bosphorus, rather than the side facing Yildiz Park.
Çırağan Palace Kempinski // Ciragan Caddesi 32 // Website
The Bosphorus is the lifeblood of the city and there is no better way to get a feel for Istanbul than a boat trip along its shores. Although there are as number of tour boats that ply the waterway offering guided tours, the best option is to have the Çırağan Palace hotel arrange a private afternoon excursion on their hotel boat. The private boat will pick you up directly at the hotel’s dock and you can enjoy a nice glass of wine as you glide past palaces of the Ottoman Sultans and their Pasha's villas, including the Dolmabahçe and Beylerbeyi Palaces, wooden 19th century seafront mansions and picturesque villages. This is a perfect way to get a taste of the splendors of Istanbul that you will explore over the next two days.
For tonight’s dinner, we recommend Mikla, which is located on the top two floors of the Marmara Pera Hotel in the Taksim area. Mikla is one of the highest points in Istanbul and has among the best views in Istanbul, with 360 degree views of the entire city. A perfect way to start the evening is with drinks on their outdoor terrace while watching the sun set over the Golden Horn and the iconic buildings of old Istanbul – the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace. After the sun sets, move to the restaurant and request a table on outdoor terrace facing old Istanbul. The menu at Mikla is modern Turkish with an international influence, reflecting the Turkish-Scandinavian background of chef/owner Mehmet Gürs. The restaurant has an extensive wine list that includes international classics and excellent Turkish wines that are definitely worth trying and pair well with the cuisine. Some of the standout dishes include Grilled Lamb with Eggplant “Beğendi” and slow-cooked Grouper with roasted tomato and Halhali olives. You can linger over dessert and coffee while enjoying the dramatic panoramic views from the terrace.
After dinner, we suggest a short stroll over to Istiklal Avenue, which is one of the most famous avenues in Istanbul. It is an elegant pedestrian street with boutiques, cafes, restaurants, bars, bookstores and nightclubs. On a Friday evening, the street will be packed with locals strolling along the wide promenade and socializing with friends. Running through the center of the street is an old red tram that has been completely renovated.
At the southern end of Istiklal Avenue is Galata Tower, a medieval stone tower that is one of the iconic buildings that dominates Istanbul’s skyline. After meandering along the street for a while, it is fun to grab a drink at one of the outdoor bar/cafes and enjoy the passing scene.
It is unusual for us to recommend eating at a hotel restaurant but the breakfast buffet at Çırağan Palace’s Ladedan Restaurant is an exception. The buffet is one of the largest and best we have seen anywhere in the world. The restaurant offers over 250 items, most of which are made with locally sourced organic ingredients. In fact, their Sunday brunch is even more extravagant. Load up as today will involve a lot of walking!
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without visiting the iconic historic, religious and cultural sites of old Istanbul located in the Sultanahmet district. To really get the most out of your visit, we highly recommend having the hotel arrange a private guide for the day. The guide will likely have a degree in history or architecture and will be able to explain the architectural, historical and cultural significance of the sights.
Located at the tip of the Golden Horn where the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus meet is the Topkapi Palace, which was the official residence of the Ottoman sultans and their harem for over 400 years. We recommend making this the first stop since it can get very crowded once the tour buses start arriving. The Palace was built in the middle of the 15th century and consists of four separate pavilions connected by enormous courtyards. Make sure you visit the Treasury, where you will find the famous 86-carat Spoonmaker’s diamond (the 5th largest diamond in the world) and the jewel-encrusted Topkapi dagger, and the harem, where the sultan’s wives and concubines lived.
From the Topkapi Palace, it is a short walk to Istanbul’s two most famous monuments, the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, which face each other across the enormous Sultanahmet Square. The Hagia Sofia (the “church of holy wisdom”) is one of the world’s greatest architectural monuments. The building was built in the early 6th century over two earlier churches and was the supreme church of Byzantium. In the 15th century, the Ottomans converted the church into a mosque and added minarets, tombs and fountains at that time. Today, this architectural marvel is extremely well preserved and is a testament to the skill of the 6th century architects and craftsmen. Inside, you will find soaring vaults and beautifully preserved mosaics from the early Byzantine period.
As you head to the Blue Mosque, we suggest you stop at the Basilica Cistern, a vast underground cistern built in 532 to provide water for the demands of the growing palace population. The roof of this enormous underground vault is supported by 338 columns, each over 26 feet tall. Today, this vast complex makes for a memorable experience – the cool damp space is a pleasant reprieve from the hot sun, the columns are seductively lit from below and classical music echos off the still water. The Basilica Cistern is well known for being featured in the James Bond movie, From Russia with Love.
The Blue Mosque, built in the early 17th century, is one of the world’s most famous religious buildings and gets its name from the beautiful and intricate blue Iznik tile work used throughout the mosque. The interior of the mosque is beautiful but note that it is often very crowded.
If you would like to have lunch in the Sultanahmet district, the Seasons Restaurant located in the Four Seasons Hotel comes highly recommended for a seasonal menu of Mediterranean dishes. Alternatively, we recommend Surplus, which is located at the bottom of the hill (in the Eminönü district) across from the Galata Bridge. Surplus, which occupies the top floor for a jewelry atelier, serves excellent modern Turkish cuisine and offers fabulous views of both the historic minarets, domes and mosques of Old Istanbul and the busy waterway. Some of their standout dishes include fresh fish and an excellent lamb tarakik. After a busy morning of touring, the serenity of either of these restaurants makes for a nice break from the tourist hordes.
Seasons// Four Seasons Hotel, Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1, 34122 // Website
Surplus// Rüstempaşa Mah. Ragıp Gümüş Cad. No: 54 // Website
No visit to Istanbul would be complete without a visit to the Grand Bazaar, but frankly it has become a giant tourist trap and, to our mind, has little true appeal. The Grand Bazaar is an enormous collection of over 4,000 shops, 24 private market places, restaurants and tea houses spanning over 77 acres (31 hectares). Today, you will find an endless series of florescent-lit shops selling just about everything imaginable. If you are looking for bargains or a taste of old Istanbul, you won’t find it here.
While you are in the area, it is worth a quick visit to the Spice Market, which is located just down the hill from the Grand Bazaar, where you will find stores filled with heaping piles of colorful spices and tasty dried fruits and nuts.
If you want to do some real shopping while in Istanbul, head to the neighborhood of Nişantaşı, a mostly residential neighborhood that has one of the best shopping districts in Istanbul. Here you will find designer label boutiques, trendy restaurants and cafes and a large shopping mall. The luxurious Park Hyatt Maçka Palas hotel is also located in this neighborhood, where you will find Armani and Gucci boutiques on the first floor. Some of the international designer boutiques in Nişantaşı include Burburry, Zegna, Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Hermes, Ferragamo, and Louboutin. For highly regarded Turkish designers, consider Arzu Kaprol, Hakan Yıldırım, Elif Cığızoğlu, Özlem Süer and Gönül Paksoy. Also consider Güneş Öztarakcı for an impressive array of carpets and BC Atelier for home décor.
If you have the stamina for visiting one of the later Sultan’s palace, consider a visit to the Dolmabahçe Palace, which is a lavish European palace that represents the later Sultans’ fixation on modern and western influences. The palace is massive, with 285 rooms, and is located in a beautiful spot along the banks of the Bosphorus.
For one of the best modern Turkish meals in Istanbul, we highly recommend Yeni Lokanta (literally New Eatery), a small and simply decorated bistro restaurant located on a steep street in Tünel neighborhood of Beyoğlu, very close to Istiklal Avenue and the rapidly gentrifying Karaköy district. Civan Er, the former head chef at Changa (the first fusion restaurant in Istanbul), makes traditional Turkish food with a contemporary twist and changes the menu seasonally. The restaurant uses its wood fired oven to bake the most delicious homemade sourdough bread, which is served with oak-smoked lor peyniri (Turkish ricotta) topped with fragrant olive oil. Yeni Lokamta is very popular with local and foreign foodies. Some of the recent standout dishes included a vegetarian manti (Turkish dumpling) (which is usually meat filled), burnt yogurt and bulgur salad with sour cherries and Antep sucuk (garlic and red pepper mixture) over bean puree. To really experience the creative cooking of Chef Er, we recommend choosing his tasting menu.
On weekends, starting the day with a traditional Turkish breakfast is a very popular (and social) pastime and one of Istanbul’s best traditional breakfast can be found at Kale Café, located in the trendy village of Ortakoy. The restaurant is not particularly fancy but is very popular for breakfast on weekends. We suggest requesting a table on the second floor by the windows, which offer great views of Bosphorus, and ordering a traditional Turkish breakfast. Very quickly your table will be filled with numerous small plates -- bread, fresh butter, jam, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers, Kaymak (a white sheep’s milk cheese similar to feta) served with honey, menemen (essentially Turkish scrambled eggs – onions, tomatoes and eggs scrambled until set), yogurt and strong tea. The food is delicious and the portions are sizeable.
After breakfast, we suggest exploring the area around Ortakoy, which is a modern and picturesque village on Bosphorus. Ortakoy has a downtown feel with cobble stone streets, cute restaurants, cafes, boutiques and sidewalk vendors, as well as a picturesque waterside quay that includes an open air market on Sunday mornings.
For the remainder of the morning, we suggest crossing the Bosphorus to the neighborhood of Kadiköy, Istanbul’s equivalent of Berkeley, located on the Asia side of Istanbul. The easiest (and most interesting) way to reach the Asia side is to take a ferry for 10-minute trip from Eminönü (by the Galata Bridge) or Beşiktaş (by the Dolmabahçe palace). Kadiköy is filled with lively street markets, bakeries, honey shops, fish stands and small food shops selling olives, cheese spice and meze. Also, the area has a number of streets filled with lively bars that are popular with the university students and expats living in the area.
Kadiköy is also the home of Ciya Sofrasi, which has become a destination for food lovers from all over the world. Chef Musa Dagdeviren, who was once the head of the California branch of the Culinary Academy of America, offers a frequently changing menu of Turkish dishes (over 1,000 different dishes every year), often made with unusual ingredients. After ordering, we suggest getting a table outside and watch world go by. If you want to try Istanbul’s famous kababs, consider Ciya Sofrasi’s two sister restaurants, Çiya Kebab and Lahmacun and Ciya Kebab II.
After exploring the streets and markets of Kadiköy, take a 10-minute ferry ride back to the European side of Istanbul.
While you are in Istanbul, we recommend trying a traditional Turkish hamam. If you prefer a private hamam where you will be the only visitor, the Çırağan Hotel Spa offers a luxurious private hamam experience in their luxurious spa. If you want to try a public hamam, there are two historic hamams that come highly recommended -- Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam and Kılıç Ali Pasa Hamamı. Both of these hamams, which were designed by the Ottoman’s chief architect in the 16th century and have been completely renovated, offer a luxurious hamam experience. The hamam experience has changed little over the centuries. First, the attendants will provide visitors with a peshtemal, a thin cotton towel to wrap yourself, and a regular towel to use after bathing. From there, you will be led into to the hot room (sıcaklık), which is a room with a large dome decorated with small glass windows that create a shafts of light and contains a large marble stone called göbek taşı (tummy stone). After working up a sweat in the hot room, the attendant will take you to the warm room and scrub every inch of your body with an exfoliating mitt, called a kese. After about two layers of skin has been scrubbed away, you will be taken back to the hot section (sıcaklık) and asked to lay on the large marble stone in the center of the room (göbek taşı) where your attendant will give you a sudsy massage using a foam-filled cloth. After the massage, you will be taken to the cold section (soğukluk) to relax, get dressed, have a refreshing drink, and, perhaps, take a short nap.
Çırağan Palace Kempinski // Ciragan Caddesi 32 // Website
Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam // Cankurtaran Mh., Ayasofya Meydanı // Website
Kılıç Ali Pasa Hamamı // Kemankes Mah. Hamam Sok. No:1 344 // Website
Turkish cuisine is well known for a series of small appetizer dishes, called meze, served before the main course. During your visit, you will likely be offered a variety of meze at each main meal. For some of the best meze in Istanbul, head to Meze by Lemon Tree, a tiny unassuming restaurant located in Beyoğlu area of Istanbul (not far from Mikla). The restaurant is not fancy but the food is outstanding. While the main courses are excellent, their meze is exceptional, with over 50 different meze. Frankly, you may want to make a full meal of just their meze. They also have an excellent wine list with wines mainly from the Tekirdağ region of Turkey.
EXCURSION TO BODRUM
While in Turkey, consider making an excursion to Bodrum, arguably the most beautiful spot along the Turkish Riviera. The Bodrum peninsula consists of a number of stunningly beautiful seaside towns, beautiful views of the Aegean Sea, secluded coves and beaches with azure waters, ancient ruins, boutique hotels, excellent fish restaurants and a very active nightlife. Bordum is a short one-hour flight from Istanbul but is worlds apart from the crowds and frenetic pace of Istanbul.
The main town of Bodrum is dominated by St. Peter’s Castle, which sits in the middle of Bodrum’s two harbors. Greek-style whitewashed stucco houses draped in bougainvillea cover the hillside leading to the marina area with its narrow cobbled streets and harbor packed with yachts and traditional wooden fishing vessels called “gulets”. The harbor area is also the home of numerous restaurants, boutiques, cocktail bars and Bodrum’s infamous nightclubs.
While there are a number of hotels in the main town of Bodrum, we recommend staying along the northern end of the peninsula where you will find a number of super-luxury resorts built on hillsides overlooking the crystal clear waters and secluded coves of the surrounding bay. We are always a fan of Aman resorts and the Amanruya does not disappoint. The Amanruya is located in Türkbükü (a 20-minute drive from the main town) along the northern end of peninsula and is surrounded on almost all sides by the water. The resort consists of 36 secluded stone cottages that are connected by winding paths, each with a private garden, a small swimming pool set among the olive trees, an outdoor shower and welcoming pergola. The rooms are serene with dark wood furniture and Turkish marble used throughout. The resort has a stunning 50-meter infinity pool that looks out over Torba Bay. As an alternative, the Mandarin Oriental recently opened a 100-room luxury resort in an area called Paradise Bay that is worth considering.
Bodrum is known for excellent fish restaurants and two of our favorites are Gonca Balik in Torba (not far from the Amanruya) and Kocadon in the main town of Bodrum. Gonca Balik is a casual fish restaurant with some of the freshest fish around. After choosing your freshly caught fish or seafood from their display, grab a table on the dock where you can enjoy your dinner with the sparkling lights of the Torba waterfront in the background. Kocadon, which is located in a stone-cobbled courtyard between two traditional stone houses on the main road along the harbor, offers great meze and excellent fish. Both of these restaurants are highly recommended.
For a very special experience, hire a traditional wooden fishing boat, known as a “gulet,” for a day of sailing along the stunning coast of the Bodrum peninsula. These fishing boats have been converted into luxury yachts and offer a fabulous way to explore the beautiful coastline and azure waters of the Aegean Sea. During the day, the captain will stop in secluded coves to allow you to swim and sunbathing on pristine beaches. For lunch, the crew will prepare a delicious multi-course meal while anchored in one of the secluded coves.
Additional Istanbul Recommendations
The following restaurants have been highly recommended by Gozde Eren, the General Manager of the Park Hyatt Hotel – Macka Palas, and Koray Tüfekci, who has been a concierge for 31 years and is the Head Concierge of the Park Hyatt Hotel – Macka Palas:
Topaz. Great menu with Ottoman and international food and magnificent views. Website
Lacivert. Excellent combination of Turkish food and seafood. Lacivert is a typical Turkish seafood restaurant at a very special location on Bosporus on the Asian side and they provide transportation with very nice boats. Website
Mangerie. Great for a leisurely long breakfast. (No English website, which is a good indication that it is not touristy). Website
Assk Kahve. Very cute café by the Bosporus for breakfast or an afternoon coffee. Website
Ulus 29. One of the top 5 restaurants in Istanbul. Excellent view from the terrace. Website
Raika Restaurant. Excellent Ottoman and Turkish cuisine. Located on the top floor of the Marmara Hotel with great views. Website