A Quick Guide to Istanbul, Turkey
Istanbul is both in Asia and in Europe—how perfect does that sound? Throw in a flourishing economy and a new dedication to modern art and you’ve got one of the world’s most happening cities built on the remains of one of history’s most glorious empires.
Istanbul is hot. While the rest of Europe continues to sink deeper and deeper into depression, the Turks are busy attending art openings at private galleries, chugging raki on sundrenched rooftops and stocking up on handmade crafts with contemporary twists. For us Bangkokians, Istanbul is sexy for another reason, and this one is very practical. Turkish Airlines flies newish planes to every corner of Europe, and Istanbul makes for a much more exciting stopover than Dubai or Qatar. So even if your plan was to check out London or Paris, or you’re headed to a meeting in Berlin, Istanbul is just about the most pleasant way we can think of to break up that long flight. Not that Istanbul isn’t a destination in its own right. As well as being a contrast of old and new, the city is also right at the point where the European continent meets Asia. This heady mix means one second you’re watching an old man sipping coffee in a café that could be in an old street in Lisbon, the next you’re walking past crumbling wooden houses that look like Russian dachas, and finally the call to prayer rings out, reaffirming the city’s Arabic heritage.
The Ottoman Empire was the world’s wealthiest and most powerful for centuries (mostly during the 15th to 17th centuries). As a result, the city is dotted with elegant wooden villas, domed mosques and minarets reaching for the sky. How many you can take in depends on your passion for the intricacies of Islamic art and Byzantine architecture. The good news is that the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sofya are all within a very short walk of each other, in an area called Sultanahmet. (Just grab any free tourist map and off you go.) More importantly, Istanbul is the perfect city to get lost in, as charming streets abound. If that’s too daunting, make sure you at least stroll down Sogukcesme Sokagi, a row of perfectly restored wooden homes behind Topkapi Palace.
Istanbul has seen some healthy competition between its art patrons of late. The result is a string of new art galleries of very high quality. The most impressive is Istanbul Modern (Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi. Liman Isetmeleri Sahasi. Antrepo 4, Karakoy. 212-243-3767). This former warehouse designed by Italian architect Monica Bonvicini devotes several thousand square meters to contemporary Turkish artists—and sweeping views of the Bosphorus.
In 2006, Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in literature, and he has now sold over 11 million books in 60 languages. His latest novel, The Museum of Innocence, inspired him to create an actual museum by the same name (Cukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgic Cikmazi 2) crammed with small objects like old movie tickets, sepia photographs and household goods. It doesn’t sound like much but it comes together as a touching portrait of the Istanbul of yesterday—and it just opened this Spring.
Nothing like strolling through a beautiful city to work up a thirst. One of the most stunning backdrops for your shot of arak liqueur is the Blue Mosque, whose colors famously shift as the sun sets. There’s a whole row of hotels with terraces on Ticarethane Sokak, such as Hotel Nomade Terrace Bar (212-513-8172). To oversee the old town (Sultanahmet), you’ll need to cross the Golden Horn inlet and find a rooftop bar in Beyoglu, like the one at Anemon Galata (212-293-2343), right by the Galata Tower, whose views sweep over the tower itself, the Golden Horn and the Old City. If you’ve got a third evening in town, we’d recommend catching the ferry from Eminonu to Uskudar. Not only is it a great ride but you’ll find tea houses there to smoke a nargile (shisha) pipe while the Bosphorus and the city are gradually shrouded in darkness. (At the pier, simply go right towards Semsi Pasa Mosque, the cafés are just after the mosque.)
The Grand Bazaar’s architecture is stunning. But when it comes to shopping, the amount of stuff in there can be intimidating and the sales tactics can be very aggressive. In fact, it’s not a very good place to look for trinkets to take home unless you’re a tough-as-nails bargainer. And if you’re serious about buying a genuine Turkish rug, they cost tens of thousands of baht! Still game? Sisko Osman (Zincirli Han 15, 212-528-3458, www.siskoosman.com) are well respected and, at the very least, the shop is in a lovely part of the bazaar that you should absolutely see.
For something more modern (and a lot less overwhelming), check out the boutiques in Beyoglu. Start with the Tunel area, just next to the funicular. Apart from all the cool places in that hip enclave, we also stumbled on Hic, a contemporary crafts store in a residential street (Luleci Hendek Sokak 35, Tophane Galata, www.hiccrafts.com). Again, don’t expect Chatuchak prices.
In the old town, we recommend Balikci Sabahattin (Seyit Hasan Koyu Sokak 1, 212-458-1824). Although its starched tablecloths and well-heeled guests say special occasion, the prices are not too bad given that you’re dining under the trees by an old Ottoman mansion. The food is incredibly fresh, simply prepared seafood and some excellent mezze. Do book ahead, though.
Still in the old town, there’s a homey bistro that gets kebabs, that quintessential Turkish specialty, just right. Of course, Ziya Sark Sofrasi (Alemdar Caddesi 28, 212-512-7750) also has a wide selection of super fresh mezzes (small plate appetizers) to go with those grilled meats.
After your bazaar shopping, hit up Hamdi Et Lokantasi (Klacin Sokak 17, 212-528-0390). The views of the Golden Horn are amazing but do book ahead for a terrace seat. Here, too, the food is a mix of perfectly executed kebabs and flavorful mezzes.
In Beyoglu, by the Istanbul Modern Museum, you should drop by Fasuli Lokantalari (Iskele Caddesi 10-12, 212-243-6580). We love the old school bistro vibe and uniformed waiters. The hearty Anatolian-style beans cooked in butter and meat are not exactly light, but it’s a nice change from all those kebabs.
Park Hyatt Istanbul Macka Palas. This 1922 Art Deco building by Italian architect Giulio Mongeri saw its interiors revamped by New York Design firm Gern Kronick + Valcarel. It’s a combination of last century opulence—dark parquet floors, 19th century chandeliers—and 21st century design—giant skywindows and a hammam-inspired spa. From €255 (B9,915). Tesvikiye, Bronz Soka 4, Sisli. 212-315-1234. www.istanbul.park.hyatt.com
Garden House. This old house has plenty of charm thanks to its wooden façade and inner courtyard. It’s also located in the historical center of town, within walking distance of all the major sites. The sea is nearby, too, and it’s is a great spot to watch Turks chill in the evening. Lovely, clean rooms and an excellent breakfast buffet complete the picture. (We stayed here.) From B5,500. Kucuk Ayosofya Mahallesi Sehit Mehmet Pasa 11-13. www.gardenhouseistanbul.com
This summer, Thai nationals still had to apply for a visa to Turkey. That’s over now (for stays of up to 30 days), so just book that ticket and board that plane. Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairlines.com) flies direct from Suvarnabhumi Airport to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, from €880 (B35,000).
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