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Istanbul

Mr. Harper's Travel Guide

Straddling the Bosphorus strait between the Black and Marmara seas, Istanbul now has a population of 14 million. Although a modern metropolis, its past is still inescapable. Istanbul is the historic threshold between Europe and Asia. Turkey’s largest city is a grand, chaotic, ancient ...

Straddling the Bosphorus strait between the Black and Marmara seas, Istanbul now has a population of 14 million. Although a modern metropolis, its past is still inescapable. Istanbul is 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. 

Built between A.D. 532 and 537, Hagia Sophia was the largest cathedral in the world until the completion of the Seville Cathedral in 1520. 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 majestic Blue Mosque provides a haven of serenity. It mirrors some of the Byzantine elements of Sophia’s majesty and blends them with traditional Islamic design. 

Home to generations of Ottoman sultans, Topkapi Palace contains an astonishing jewelry collection. 

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.

The best way to encounter Istanbul for the first time is aboard a ship sailing up from the Sea of Marmara, an arrival that gradually unfolds one of the most romantic skylines in the world. 

bird icon Recommended Luxury Hotels in Istanbul

All Andrew Harper-recommended hotels offer impeccable accommodations and high levels of personal service. Only the best of the best make our list, so we rate them on a scale from bird icon 90 to 100.
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Best Restaurants in Istanbul

This romantic hillside restaurant has stunning views of both bridges over the Bosphorus and is one of the most stylish (and expensive) in Istanbul. On our visit, we eschewed the more modish fusion offerings on the menu and ordered the Turkish dishes, which included standouts such as grilled octopus with white bean and tomato salad, and lamb fillet with smoked eggplant. It also has one of the best lists of Turkish wines in the city. 

Adnan Saygun Caddesi Ulus Parki Içi 71/1 Istanbul US$85.

Located in stylish Nişantaşi, this restaurant specializes in Ottoman cooking and recalls the days when the empire spread from the Caspian Sea to Algiers. Recommended dishes include yellow lentil soup with croutons and lemon; baked stuffed eggplant and stuffed cabbage rolls; hünkar beğendi (“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 US$55.

Just a short walk from the Hagia Sophia, this excellent restaurant is known for its kebabs. Secure a streetside table and begin with a small selection of mezzes. From among the appealing main courses, consider the outstanding grilled lamb ribs served with tomatoes and peppers. 

Divanyolu Caddesi Ticarethane Sokak 39/41 Istanbul US$50.

This light, airy restaurant with a beautiful terrace is located next to one of Istanbul’s great but relatively unsung sights: the Kariye Museum (also known as the Chora Museum), a former church with some of the finest Byzantine mosaics in the world. The kitchen is dedicated to preserving the recipes of the Ottoman Empire; I enjoyed the wonderful baked whole calamari stuffed with a blend of rice, pine nuts and currants flavored with cinnamon and fresh mint. For my main course, I opted for minced lamb-and-veal patties that were flavored with anise, cinnamon and pistachio then wrapped in phyllo dough and grilled on charcoal. Closed Wednesday.

Kariye Camii Sokak 6 Istanbul US$60.

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 11 Eminönü Istanbul US$40.
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