Few cities are more enthralling than Istanbul. An international crossroads for more than 2,000 years, it possesses a legacy of extraordinary buildings, which create a uniquely romantic urban skyline. And the glittering expanse of the Bosphorus is surely the world's most captivating waterway.
Today Istanbul is thriving. A teeming metropolis of nearly 13 million, it has been the principal beneficiary of Turkey's recent economic and political rise. As well as playing an increasingly important diplomatic role in a rapidly changing Middle East, Turkey is now a crucial terminus for oil and gas pipelines, linking producers in Russia and Central Asia with markets in the West. The result has been a dramatic increase in self-confidence and prosperity. Long renowned for its lavish palace hotels, Istanbul now offers a growing number of smaller properties that provide charm, privacy and attentive personal service. The city also has a host of fine new restaurants—with Turkish cuisine being at the height of culinary fashion—plus a vibrant contemporary art scene.
In Istanbul, history is inescapable. The original city of Byzantium was founded in the seventh century B.C. by Greeks from Megara (near Athens). Destroyed by the Romans, it was rebuilt by the Emperor Constantine and renamed Constantinople in A.D. 330, becoming the joint capital of the Roman Empire. The city's golden age was in the sixth century during the reign of the Emperor Justinian, who built the great Hagia Sophia (“Holy Wisdom”), completed in 537 and for nearly 1,000 years the largest cathedral in the world. Sacked by the Venetians in 1204 on their way to the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople began to decline, an atrophy that resulted in its capture by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Istanbul survived as a strikingly cosmopolitan city until the 1920s, when rising nationalism led to the departure of many non-Turkish residents.
We have always thought it a shame to arrive in Istanbul by air. No approach to a city is more dramatic and stirringly beautiful than the one a ship's passengers enjoy as they glide from the Sea of Marmara toward the incomparable Golden Horn. Those who wish to have this unforgettable experience can do so aboard two of the world's newest and most impressive cruise ships. Both the Seabourn Odyssey (launched in June 2009) and Silversea's Silver Spirit (launched in December 2009) offer a number of seven- and 14-day cruises to and from Istanbul in spring and fall 2011. For further information, contact the Andrew Harper Travel Office, (800) 375-4685.
Although wonderfully picturesque, Istanbul is not always an easy city. It is vast and cacophonous. This is not a place generally conducive to a quiet evening stroll, and for shopping and sightseeing, you will likely feel most comfortable with a driver and a private guide. And, alas, security considerations cannot be entirely ignored. In July 2008, there was a terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate, and although no Americans were hurt, three Turkish police officers were killed. At the time of this writing, the State Department had posted no warnings or advisories for Turkey, and merely urges Americans “to exercise caution and good judgment, keep a low profile, and remain vigilant with regard to their personal security.”
Over the years, we have always felt most comfortable and at ease next to the Bosphorus, the entrancing 19-mile-long strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Since it opened in June 2008, our favorite hotel has been the 170-room Four Seasons at the Bosphorus, housed within a 19th-century Ottoman palace formerly known as the Atik Pasha. Prior to that, we favored the adjacent 385-room Ciragan Palace Kempinski. We still recommend this property, but nowadays, it can seem rather dated in comparison with its illustrious neighbor. Some people prefer to stay in the heart of the old city, close to the Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque, and for them, the 65-room Four Seasons Sultanahmet is undoubtedly the best address. In our view, however, this area is fascinating but a little claustrophobic. Therefore, we invariably choose to avoid the crowds and to seek a room with a view of the water.
The Bosphorus flows swiftly, and even though it passes through a major city, it is astonishingly clean and clear. In part, this is because it is the outflow of the rivers Don, Dnieper and Danube, all of which empty into the Black Sea. At its narrowest, it is 2,300 feet wide (slightly less than half a mile) and in the middle, it is up to 400 feet deep. However, it is also relatively deep right next to the edge, which means that huge tankers and warships glide past, seemingly just at the end of people's gardens. Today, the Asian shore is where this booming metropolis still has room to grow. As a result, it has become suddenly fashionable and now boasts several small, charming hideaway hotels. Although they will probably appeal principally to those who have been to Istanbul before, they are wonderful places to relax.
Sumahan on the Water : This attractive 18-room hotel occupying a three-story brick-and-stone former raki distillery is the brainchild of Turkish-American architects Mark and Nedret Butler. Roughly equidistant from the Bosphorus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, it is perched right at the edge of the water. The hotel may be reached by a complimentary boat shuttle from the European shore or by car across the Bosphorus Bridge. A taxi to the center of town usually takes about 35 minutes and costs a modest $15.
On a rainy spring morning, our welcome proved warm, and the book-filled library adjacent to the reception desk seemed an appealing place to sit for a few minutes while the staff confirmed that our duplex Loft Suite was ready. Escorted to our room by a charming young woman, we instantly knew this was where we would happily base ourselves during an extended visit to Istanbul. In our opinion, very few duplex suites work—you constantly seem to be going up and down stairs in search of something on the other level—but this one was a delight, with a woodburning fireplace in the cozy sitting room on the main floor, from which French doors opened onto a grassy verge beside the Bosphorus and the stone-paved walkway leading to the hotel's jetty.
The main living area came with a wool-flannel sofa, a plasma-screen television with a DVD player on which to watch movies from the hotel's video library, and a half-bath with a shower. A proper stairway with a railing and wide wooden steps led up to the bedroom loft, which had two small windows overlooking the Bosphorus, and a large, very comfortable bed. The full bath was clad in mouse-gray marble worked in an intriguing checkerboard pattern and provided a soaking tub and stall shower, plus Turkish toiletries, including olive oil soap and spice-scented shampoo and lotion.
The property's excellent seafood restaurant, Kordon, actually preceded the hotel, having moved to the site in 2001. In fair weather, tables are set outside beneath an awning, from where there is a mesmerizing view of the water and the Bosphorus Bridge. The menu makes some charming seasonal suggestions, such as, “When fall arrives you will love the taste of Gypsy Bonito” and “As the snow falls in winter, the turbot start to show up.” Other dining options are available nearby, most notably the wonderful traditional Turkish restaurant Ciya in the busy Kadiköy district just south of the hotel.
Returning from a superb lunch one afternoon, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the hotel's beautiful Turkish bath. Though the female spa attendant spoke only a little English, it sufficed to guide us through a deeply relaxing hour that began with a sauna and continued with a brisk exfoliation, a vigorous rinse, a full-body lathering and a final soaking. Afterward, we retired to the adjacent relaxation room to sip tea and nibble on walnuts and dried apricots.
Overall, this exceptionally pleasant and well-run property will charm anyone who prefers smaller hotels and who also values a setting that encourages quiet contemplation.
SUMAHAN ON THE WATER 92 Deluxe Room, $380; Junior Suite, $445; Loft Suite, $490. Kuleli Cad. 51, Cengelköy, Istanbul. Tel. (90) 216-422-8000.
A'jia : Perhaps the most romantic of the new boutique properties on the Asian shore is A'jia, housed within an exquisite white yali formerly known as the Ahmet Rasim Pasha mansion. (Yalis are the extraordinarily desirable wooden residences that dot the shoreline on either side of the Bosphorus. Most date from the 19th century, but a handful can claim a lengthier pedigree.) Built as a private residence in the 1890s, it subsequently housed an elementary school before becoming a 15-room hotel in 2005. This is now a popular weekend escape for the beau monde of Istanbul. Certainly, it is a charming place to stay, especially during the summer. The principal drawback is that it is a good 40 minutes from the city center by taxi (although the hotel also has a private boat that will take you down the Bosphorus in about a half-hour).
Though the contemporary interior design is rather spare, we liked our comfortable double room with its white walls, tawny parquet floors, bed made up with Italian cotton sheets, and sliding doors leading to a small private balcony with a view over the Bosphorus. (Truth be told, unless you get one of the nine rooms with a water view, you are likely to spend your time in a state of frustration and disappointment.) The bath came with Philippe Starck fixtures, a single vanity, a separate tub and shower and Acqua di Parma toiletries.
The hotel's principal amenity is an excellent restaurant serving an appealing mix of Mediterranean dishes (zucchini-flower fritters stuffed with goat cheese) and updated Turkish classics (braised lamb shank with orzo pasta and porcini mushrooms). On a sunny day, sitting at one of the tables overlooking the Bosphorus is pure bliss.
Because of its location, A'jia is not a practical address from which to explore the classic sights of Istanbul, unless you have a car and driver at your disposal, or are willing to spend a lot of time in taxis. However, no part of Istanbul is without interest. For example, just five minutes away by boat, on the opposite side of the Bosphorus, stands the dramatic crenellated fortress of Rumelihisari, built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452 while he was laying siege to Constantinople. Not only is this a remarkably imposing and historically fascinating structure, in summer it also provides a stage for a series of open-air concerts.
A'jia is very pleasant little hotel with comfortable, well-equipped rooms and friendly service.
A'JIA 89 Waterfront Deluxe Room, $320; Bosphorus Deluxe Room, $385. Ahmet Rasim Pasa Yalisi, Cubuklu Cad. 27, Kanlica, Istanbul. Tel. (90) 216-413-9300.
Les Ottomans : By far the most opulent of the smaller hotels on the Bosphorus is Les Ottomans, situated on the European shore just over a mile upstream from the Bosphorus Bridge (and virtually opposite Sumahan on the Water). The original yali was known as the Muhsinzade Pasha mansion and was inhabited by the same family from 1790 until 1929. Badly damaged by fire in 1933, it was not fully rebuilt until 2006, when it was transformed into an astonishingly lavish boutique hotel. (The property was designed by Zeynep Fadillioùglu, a cousin of well-known international fashion designer Rifat Ozbek.)
Although there is much to admire about Les Ottomans, we also have some serious reservations. Chief among these is the breathtaking expense of the 10 suites, the cheapest of which costs more than $1,000 a night. Only three suites offer full Bosphorus views, and these range from $2,300 to $3,870. Six suites have so-called “garden views,” which in some instances means they overlook the busy (and noisy) shore road. Essentially, Les Ottomans seeks to attract the high-society, supermodel, movie-star market. Which, alas, leaves humble folk like us feeling a little out of place!
However, it is ever our policy to give credit where credit is due, and some aspects of the hotel are quite remarkable. For example, the restaurant Su Yani 29 serves delicious international and Turkish cuisine and has a sublime terrace shaded by huge white umbrellas at the edge of the Bosphorus. The interior of the restaurant is equally lovely, with tall windows overlooking the water, a dramatic painted ceiling and a huge fireplace. And the exquisite Kavmahal wine room provides private-dining facilities for parties of up to 12 people. In the basement, the 2,400-square-foot Caudalie Vinothérapie spa—generally rated the best in Istanbul—has an astonishing marble hammam with a star-painted dome. And the guest rooms are every bit as lavish as you might imagine, with gold paintwork, richly patterned silks, walls covered with Venetian velvet, crystal chandeliers and fine antiques. The baths are fit for one of the more self-indulgent Ottoman sultans!
The hotel has three boats available for charter: Mahuu, a six-person speedboat; Les Ottomans, a 55-foot traditional wooden craft, suitable for cruising the Bosphorus; and Ma Biche, an elegant 110-foot motor yacht with five cabins and six crew, which is ideal for voyaging farther afield into the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean islands.
LES OTTOMANS 93 Suite (garden view), from $1,030; Suite (partial Bosphorus view), $1,290; Suite (full Bosphorus view), from $2,320. Muallim Naci Cad. 68, Kurucesme, Beyoùglu, Istanbul. Tel. (90) 212-359-1500.
W Istanbul : We have never been fans of the Starwood Hotel Group's self-consciously hip “W” hotel brand, but we allowed ourselves to be swayed by the recommendations of friends in Istanbul, plus several effusive reviews in the mainstream travel press, and checked in for a night. On arrival, we immediately realized that we had made a serious mistake. The 134-room W Istanbul is located in the convenient Beşiktaş neighborhood, immediately behind the enormous Dolmabahçe Palace that fronts a long stretch of the European shore of the Bosphorus. Although the property occupies several handsome old Ottoman row houses, none of their exterior charm has been preserved inside. Indeed, the hotel's low-lit lobby looked like the entrance to a discotheque, with misbegotten faux-harem décor that reminded us of a Las Vegas casino steakhouse —with service to match.
Our “Fabulous” room was anything but, and came with a crumpled candy wrapper under the desk, a maddeningly complicated telephone and a blizzard of irritating hang cards urging us to “get wired,” “relax” and “seek bliss.” We found the Arabic-themed, jewel-tone décor to be cloying, and also didn't appreciate a €15 fee for Internet access. The comfortable bed came with goose-down pillows, and the bath was well-designed, with two contemporary sinks posed on a marble counter, and a large stall shower. However, the room was surprisingly worn for such a new hotel—it opened in May 2008—with drapes that had been pulled out of their glider and a terrace door that wouldn't shut properly.
The hotel's amenities include a restaurant/bar and a small gym, but frankly, we can't think of a single reason anyone would be happy staying here. Adding insult to injury, after carefully explaining to the concierge that we love Turkish food, he booked us at Mimolett, a new restaurant he raved about, which turned out to serve expensive and unremarkable French food.
W ISTANBUL 74 Fabulous Room, from $380. Suleyman Seba Cad. 22, Akaretler, Besiktas, Istanbul. Tel. (90) 212-381-2121.
Park Hyatt Istanbul – Maçka Palas : Just a few blocks away, the 90-room Park Hyatt is housed within the Maçka Palas, the former Italian ambassador's residence, a handsome 1922 art deco building. The hotel overlooks Maçka Park in the chic Nisantasi neighborhood, the equivalent of New York's Upper East Side or London's Knightsbridge. An insight offered by a Turkish friend explains much of the appeal of this well-run boutique property. “Istanbulers would no more dream of staying in a hotel in Sultanahmet (the tourist-heavy district where Topkapi Palace and the Blue Mosque are located) than most Londoners would want to check in to a place next to the Tower of London.”
On our arrival, a smiling doorman immediately dealt with our luggage and then ushered us through the soaring skylit lobby, which also features a circular wine bar that is a popular rendezvous for affluent locals. In common with many Park Hyatts, the guest rooms have soothing color schemes in bronze, celadon and ivory, which seem to have been inspired by Asian ceramics. Our bright and spacious Park Spa King room featured a pine floor, a chaise longue and side chair, a large desk with all of the expected electronics, and a very comfortable bed with a dark wood headboard and perfect reading lights. (All the lights, including the pretty Ottoman chandelier, were easily operated from panels on either side of the bed.)
The walls were decorated with striking black-and-white photos, prints of classic images taken by Ara Güler, a celebrated Turkish photojournalist now in his 80s and known as “the eye of Istanbul.” The ingeniously designed and very stylish walnut-paneled bath featured a heated limestone floor, double vanities and a “wet room” with a deep freestanding soaking tub and a walk-in shower that doubled as a steam room. The high-quality toiletries came from well-known French perfumer Blaise Mautin.
Amenities at the Park Hyatt include a glamorous 60-foot rooftop swimming pool that is a delight during the scorching summer months, a fitness center and an exceptional spa. Since we enjoy Turkish food, we doubted that we would eat at The Prime, an American-style steakhouse that is the hotel's signature restaurant, but one rainy night, a Caesar salad and a good rib eye turned out to be just the ticket.
All told, the Park Hyatt is worth considering as an alternative to the extremely expensive palace hotels on the Bosphorus or their competitors around Taksim Square. In a city as tumultuous as Istanbul, we also found that we liked being based in such a peaceful neighborhood.
PARK HYATT ISTANBUL 90 Park Spa King, $555; Park Suite King, $785. Bronz Sokak 4, Tesvikiye, Istanbul. Tel. (90) 212-315-1234.
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