Istanbul tantalises with awe-inspiring sights, sensory pleasures and a sense of adventure.
As you coast along the Dolmabahaçe and Beylerbeyi palaces, keep an eye out for picturesque mosques, fortresses, 19th-century mansions and the sultans’ storybook-style hunting lodges.
Even for the most seasoned globetrotter, Istanbul delivers an element of surprise, be it an experience, dish or hidden find encountered for the first time. Whether you favour mosque hopping, browsing boutiques or sampling meze, Turkey’s cultural and financial heart offers the perfect blend of mystical tradition and contemporary indulgence.
Number One Stunners
Of course, some of the most famous attractions are simply not to be missed. Among them is the iconic Hagia Sophia , once a church, eventually converted into a mosque, and today one of the world’s most magnificent museums. Built in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian, one could easily while away the hours admiring splendid Byzantine mosaics.
Another of Istanbul’s best-loved monuments, the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) is a sight to behold, with six towering minarets and 260 windows illuminating a vast chamber embellished with 20,000 Iznik tiles. Although more humble in size, the Süleymaniye Mosque is perhaps even more majestic, showcasing the genius of Mimar Saran, chief Ottoman architect and civil engineer to the sultans.
Aside from sightseeing, Istanbul’s appeal lies in authentic local experiences. One of the most memorable was the hammam, or Turkish bath, at Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul. Opened in May 2013, the lavish 186-room hotel located on the European side of the Bosphorus Strait overlooks the city’s domes and green hills, providing the plushest of oases.
There’s no better place than CHI, The Spa to experience the traditional hammam. The treatment incorporates an invigorating body scrub using a kese mitt and natural soap, followed by a decadent foam massage to relax the muscles, mind and soul, and finishing with a soothing hair wash – possibly the most pampered you’ll ever feel.
Difficult as it may be to leave the warm cocoon of bubbles, there’s plenty more of the city to see. A mere 15-minute walk away is the charming Ortaköy neighbourhood, a cosmopolitan village populated by Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews during the Ottoman era. Today, the lively spot is home to art galleries, bars and restaurants. It’s popular for weekend family brunches followed by a stroll along the promenade, with open-air markets selling quirky knick-knacks and heaped servings of baked potatoes.
Pleasure of Treasure
For more upmarket retail therapy, the exclusive Nişantaşı shopping area in the Şişli district is also close to the hotel, with international designer labels flanked by elegant, ancient architecture and chic cafés. Istiklal Avenue, the city’s most famous pedestrian street, houses a plethora of boutiques, cinemas, pubs, live music, patisseries and eateries, and is as brilliant for people watching as it is for shopping.
For the quintessential Istanbul shopping experience, nothing beats the spirited Grand Bazaar, the world’s largest and oldest of its kind. Situated in the heart of town and resembling a giant labyrinth, the cavern offers more than 60 lanes and 5,000 shops filled with jewellery, ceramics, carpets, embroidery, spices and antiques. If in need of bargaining respite, there are several reputable cafés in which to take refuge; nothing perks you up quite like Turkish coffee and baklava.
Once adequately fuelled, a trip to the Spice Bazaar provides the ultimate sensory roller coaster. Take in the heady aroma of spices, the rainbow of impressively oversized dried fruit, the exhilarating buzz of the place and the delectable chewy sweetness of the Turkish Delight that demands to be sampled.
Last but not least
Should you have more time to explore, head to Topkapi Palace, the imperial residence of Ottoman sultans and a fascinating showcase of Turkish architecture boasting ostentatious collections of porcelain, fabrics, jewellery, calligraphy and precious treasures that once belonged to sultans and their court, now minded by armed guards of the Turkish military. A setting for state occasions and royal entertainment, the stately palace complex contained its own mosque, hospital and bakeries.
The Istanbul Archaeology Museums, situated in the outer gardens of the palace, are also worth a visit. If you only see one of the group’s three museums, the Archaeology Museum is by far the most impressive, with a large collection of Turkish, Hellenistic and Roman artefacts, including the ornate Alexander Sarcophagus, believed to have been prepared for Alexander the Great.
Once statues and tomb chambers have been satisfactorily scoured, the day’s final exploit takes place in Eminönü, where the mouth of the Bosphorus opens into the Marmara Sea, the best place to board a sunset cruise. While some last a full day, the 90-minute option suits visitors pressed for time, beginning at the Galata Bridge ferry docks and southern shores of the Golden Horn for enthralling vistas of the magical metropolis. As you coast along the Dolmabahaçe and Beylerbeyi palaces, keep an eye out for picturesque mosques, fortresses, 19th-century mansions and the sultans’ storybook-style hunting lodges. Gazing across the majestic strait linking Europe and Asia, it’s the only time you’ll literally experience the best of both worlds.