Istanbul

Overview

From Andrew Harper

Straddling the Bosphorus strait between the Black and Marmara seas, Istanbul is also the historic threshold between Europe and Asia. Turkey’s largest city is a grand, chaotic, ancient and modern conglomeration of paradoxes that blends the features of both continents but retains a flavor uniquely its own.

Istanbul has served as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. Its landscape is a palimpsest of these successive reigns. The Hagia Sophia, built as a church by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, was converted to a mosque in the 15th century. Today, it’s a museum, and its marble pillars, lavish mosaics and soaring dome remain a high-water mark of Byzantine architecture and an emblem of this city’s religious and cultural status. Just opposite, the Blue Mosque (above) mirrors some of the Byzantine elements of Sophia’s majesty and blends them with traditional Islamic design. The Topkapi Palace was home to generations of Ottoman emperors; its linked courts display treasures of the kingdom.

Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is a covered labyrinth of thousands of shops offering everything from rugs to rice. The city’s numerous Turkish baths, or hammams, provide relaxing rest stops for ritualized series of steaming and massage. Istanbul’s myriad nightclubs and restaurants provide the city with a 21st-century layer of indulgence and sophistication, while its rich array of museums, alongside living ruins and royal palaces, keep the past alive.

Hotels

All recommended hotels in Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey
A'jia Hotel
A'jia Hotel

Ten-room, six-suite hotel set in a romantic 19th-century mansion on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, 40 minutes by taxi from the city center.

Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul
Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul

Stylish 313-room hotel incorporating the restored palace of the last Ottoman sultans, on the shores of the Bosphorus.

Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet
Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet

Refined 65-room boutique hotel in the heart of the old city, a short stroll from Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus
Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus

Restored 19th-century palace converted to house 170 bright and airy guest rooms and suites, a quarter of which have views across the sea to the shoreline of Asia.

Hotel Les Ottomans
Hotel Les Ottomans

Romantic 10-suite hotel in 1790s mansion with sublime Bosphorus views, 30 minutes from city center. Opulent accommodations combine Ottoman décor with modern amenities.

Park Hyatt Istanbul - Macka Palas
Park Hyatt Istanbul - Macka Palas

Boutique hotel in the Maçka Palas, a 1922 art deco building in the chic Nisantasi neighborhood. The 90 rooms offer baths with limestone floors and walk-in showers.

Pera Palace Hotel guestroom
Pera Palace Hotel

Storied 115-room grande dame hotel in arty Beyo ̆glu district, wonderfully refurbished to preserve period ambience. Grand public rooms are furnished with magnificent Ottoman and European antiques.

Sumahan On The Water
Sumahan On The Water

Attractive 24-room hotel (11 rooms, 13 suites) in a three-story former raki distillery at the water’s edge on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus. Individually decorated rooms, most with fireplaces, provide water views.

Dining

All recommended restaurants in Turkey

Asitane

This light, airy restaurant with a beautiful terrace is felicitously located next to one of Istanbul’s great but relatively unsung sights, the Kariye Museum, a former church with the finest Byzantine mosaics in the world. The kitchen is dedicated to preserving the recipes of the Ottoman Empire. I enjoyed a wonderful variation on dolmas, the grape leaves stuffed with a mix of rice, minced sour cherries, onions and pine nuts cooked in cinnamon-infused olive oil. For my main course, I opted for kirde kebap, sautéed diced lamb and vegetables served on flatbread with yogurt.

Kariye Camii Sokak 6
Istanbul
Turkey
US$60
CHANGA
Istanbul’s restaurants are becoming more interesting, with chefs embracing new techniques and ingredients and blending them with the rich traditions of the Turkish kitchen. One of the most notable practitioners is New Zealand chef Peter Gordon, whose restaurant is ensconced on four floors of a 103-year-old townhouse. It offers innovations such as a glass ceiling above the kitchen through which guests can watch Gordon create dishes such as a starter of grilled octopus with a spicy sauce of red miso and nori, and a main course of slow-cooked beef cheeks with Turkish noodles, goat yogurt and a tangy gremolata sauce.
Siraseviler Caddesi 47
Istanbul
Turkey
US$75
HAMDI

With a prime location near the bustling Spice Bazaar and a wonderful view over the Bosphorus, this busy restaurant is a great place to sample some of the kebabs that are a classic of the southeastern Turkish kitchen. The fistikli kebab (ground lamb with pistachios) is especially delicious.

Tahmis Caddesi Kalçin Sokak No. 17, Eminönü
Istanbul
Turkey
US$45
HUNKAR 1950

LocatedinstylishNişantaşi,thisrestaurantspecializesinOttoman cooking and recalls the days when the empire spread from Bulgaria to Tunisia. Recommended dishes include yellow lentil soup with croutons and lemon; baked stuffed eggplant and stuffed cabbage rolls; hünkar be ̆gendi (“the sultan’s delight”), a rich lamb stew with eggplant purée; and lamb shanks with orzo in a light tomato sauce.

Mim Kemal Oke Caddesi 21, Nişantaşi
Istanbul 34367
Turkey
US$60
KHORASANI
Just a short walk from the Hagia Sophia, this excellent restaurant is known for its kebabs, and more. Secure a streetside table and begin with a small selection of mezzes — eggplant salad, hummus and spicy little lentil balls. From among the appealing main courses, consider the outstanding grilled lamb ribs, juicy and rich with flavor and served with grilled tomatoes and peppers.
Divanyolu Caddesi, Ticarethane Sokak 39/41
Istanbul
Turkey
US$55
ULUS 29
This romantic hillside restaurant has stunning views of both bridges over the Bosphorus and is one of the most stylish (and expensive) in Istanbul. Order the Turkish dishes, including standouts such as grilled octopus with white bean and tomato salad, and lamb fillet with smoked eggplant, in preference to the more modish fusion offerings on the menu. It also has one of the best lists of Turkish wines in Istanbul.
Yol SK 1
Istanbul 34660
Turkey
US$90