A luxury guide to Istanbul: Where to stay, where to eat and what to see and do
Kris Griffiths explores Turkey’s cultural capital ahead of its hosting the UEFA Super Cup, and finds its sporting and historical heritage hard to surpass in this part of the world.
There are only a few cities on Earth that straddle two continents, and they’re mainly on the threshold of Europe and Asia. Istanbul – Turkey’s largest city – is probably the most famous example, as it transcends its exclusive geographical quirk by being a showcase for how two contrasting cultures – East and West – can mingle as one and flourish.
After touching down at the country’s newest (and swankiest) airport – literally called Istanbul New Airport – I had only a couple of days to experience the best of it, and experience it I truly did, in both its newest football stadium and in the historical showpieces throughout the rest of the city. It would start with the best of the latter.
A night at the museum – Hagia Sophia
After checking in at the five-star Marmara Taksim hotel on Taksim Square, my first evening gave me the rare pleasure of a peaceful night tour of what is regarded not only the most spectacular religious building in the city but one of the most important monuments of ancient civilisation across the globe. Many call it the ‘Eighth Wonder’ of the world.
Hagia Sophia means ‘Divine Wisdom’ in Greek (not ‘Saint Sophia’ as is the common mistake), which elucidates its earliest identity as an Orthodox Christian church, built in 537 AD, before it became an Ottoman imperial mosque and finally the important museum it is today.
For anyone awed by cathedrals and major religious buildings, they really don’t come as unique and awe-inspiring as this hybrid edifice, which exhibits to this day both Christian iconography and Islamic features – truly one of a kind.
And to offset all the ancient wonder, there is also the resident Instagram-famous cat ‘Gli’ who lives within its walls and is often happy to emerge for a cameo appearance – Barack Obama notably meeting the celebrity feline during his visit in 2009.
Yachting the Bosphorus
There’s nothing quite like indulging your inner Roman Abramovich of another sunny morning, and with a range of cruise options to choose from here you really can – and should – see in your day (or wind it down at sunset) in true style.
The Bosphorus is the sea channel that naturally separates the two continents, Europe and Asia, connecting the Black Sea in the north with the Sea of Marmara to the south. A slow cruise of its waters is one of the best ways to see both sides of the city in its full glory, from the peaks of Sultanahmet’s tourist sites (incl Hagia Sophia) to the famous Ottoman waterfront mansions.
My sail is punctuated with a stop-off at Maiden’s Tower: the ancient lighthouse that guards the southern end of the strait, and offers even better panoramas from the top of its viewing platform.
It makes sense that Turkey has always chosen to play its football in Europe at both domestic and international levels rather than in Asia, as the country – and Istanbul in particular – is football mad, and deserving of the higher level of competition Europe brings. Few global fans can forget Turkey’s reaching the semi-final of the 2002 World Cup – a benchmark they have striven to re-achieve ever since.
One area of the game in which they are world-beating is stadium design, with Besiktas’ new Vodafone Park – which will host the UEFA Super Cup final between Chelsea and Liverpool on 14th August – leading the way on technological advances.
I visit its virtual reality section where a headset takes you on an imaginary rollercoaster around and over the stadium with 360-degree views of the surrounding city; then the sound-proof room where you can re-live the once record-breaking 142-decibel volume of the Besiktas crowd as recorded by Guinness World Records (louder than a fighter jet at takeoff!).
Finally, entering the hallowed pitch area and a section of the stands with seat-screens so you can rewatch goals and referee decisions as many times as you like – really highlights what top-level football stadia today should look like.
Walking tour of central Istanbul
As with most city centres around the world the best way to explore is by foot, and for anyone into street photography Istanbul is a fertile location on that front.
My tour memorably takes me from the busy streets around the 700-year-old Galata Tower, which dominates the skyline north of the Golden Horn harbour, to the more bohemian Balat: a gentrified district of cobbled streets and vividly-coloured houses, where hip new cafes and art galleries sit alongside old-school street grocers and bric-a-brac shops.
If people-watching is your thing, make sure to explore and hang out in the latter, and if you can brave the queues for the former, you’ll be rewarded with a superlative view of the city atop the tower (unfortunately didn’t have the time for it on this occasion!).
For my Saturday evening entertainment I discover this remarkable social hub in the Bomonti neighbourhood on the European side of the city, sited in what used to be a beer factory.
With its central courtyard surrounded by bars and eateries, and filled during my visit with spectators watching a live musician on a stage setup to the rear, it looks and feels like somewhere straight out of Shoreditch in East London.
The drinking vibe here is relaxed and sociable, and I end up in a bar called ‘Populist’ where the DJ ramps things up with 80s and 90s pop classics while my group chat over cocktails and the local Efes beer, before eventually taking to the ‘dance floor’ which is basically everywhere between the tables!
Also loved the old Volkswagen van parked up inside as a quirky furnishing – really wasn’t expecting to find somewhere like this in Istanbul.
The next day, feeling a bit worse for wear, it’s time to visit one of the city’s most visited historical attractions.
Built between 1472 and 1478, Topkapi was the home of the sultans and the centre of Ottoman power for 400 years, and remains the subject of more colourful stories than most museums in this part of the world put together.
A tour of the palace’s grand pavilions, opulent treasury and sprawling harem provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of those who lived here through centuries past, before the resident sultans and courtiers moved on to the more ostentatious European-style palaces built on the shores of the Bosphorus.
Another deluge of fantastic photo opportunities to be had throughout the complex, particularly on the balustraded terrace overlooking the blue strait.
Based heavily on grilled meats and fish, alongside fresh vegetables, breads and dips, Turkey’s national cuisine is as nutritious as it is delicious, and you won’t find many better showcases for it than here in Istanbul.
My weekend embraced visits to Murver, a new restaurant on the top floor of the Novotel Bosphorus with another gorgeous view of the peninsula; then lunch at Sahrap, opened by the eponymous celebrity cook Sahrap Soysal in the upmarket Pera district; and finally Kilimanjaro in the trendy Bomontiada, housed atmospherically in an old beer factory building and overlooking the buzzy central courtyard. In each restaurant the food and wine (and beer in the latter) were flawless.
If anything attracts me back to the city to experience a longer stay, this memorably healthy cuisine would be near the top of the list, if not top!
As with Istanbul itself, it is that real sense of tradition and authenticity within a modern and liberal setting which is one of its biggest trump cards, and one that leaves you hankering for more.
Kris was a guest of the Turkish Culture & Tourism Board, flying with Turkish Airlines who run a daily service from Heathrow and Manchester to Istanbul New Airport; and stayed at the five-star Marmara Taksim hotel on Taksim Square, with outdoor swimming pool and rooms overlooking the Istanbul cityscape, including Besiktas stadium and the Bosphorus. For further information on all aspects of visiting go to goturkeytourism.com or hometurkey.com/en