Istanbul is a city of contrasts. Ancient and modern, palatial but also rag-a-muffin, steeped in history, tradition, yet innovative. It all works together somehow, creating an eclectic place unlike anywhere else.
History buffs will think they’ve died and gone to heaven. The Hippodrome was one of the largest chariot race grounds of the Byzantine Empire. You can see the Egyptian Obelisk, Serpentine Column, and Constantine Column which remain from the original Hippodrome. Step inside the Sultan Ahmed (Blue Mosque) built in 1616 and you’ll marvel at the striking blue Iznik Tiles covering the walls. The Basilica Cistern was constructed in 532 AD to hold water for the Great Palace. The underground site is surreal with its 336 columns, including two featuring the head of Medusa on their bases. The 600-year-old Grand Bazaar and Spice Market is a must-see. Also stop by St. Sophia Church of the Divine Wisdom.
Keep the historic vibe going in Turkey’s largest city that has more than 15 million people. Treat yourself royally and stay at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski. It’s noted for having Istanbul’s most luxurious terraces and some of the best pastries and Turkish coffee in town. For a traditional Turkish lunch, go to Karakoy Lokantasi. Start with appetizers like Yaprak Ciger, (fried lamb liver) or Sigara Boregi, (filo dough pastry with feta cheese). If you want a traditional breakfast, the spot is Namli Gurme Karakoy.
There are plenty of museums to stimulate your mind and senses. Put at the top of your list Pera Museum and Istanbul Modern Museum.
As much as Istanbul is about tradition, it’s contemporary. Nisantasi is a trendy residential and shopping district. You’ll find names like Prada and Cartier among others. There’s also a lot of buzz about Karakoy. It’s an emerging mecca of food, culture, galleries and boutique hotels. Take your time to uncover hidden treasures—chic shops nestled in historic building. Karakoy Gulluoglu is touted as the most famous baklava establishment in the city. Baklava is layered filo dough filled with pistachios and syrup and a must-eat in Istanbul. You don’t want to miss the Ortakoy neighborhood’s many religious structures, art galleries, cafes, bars and restaurants.
The Bosphorus is the narrow strait of water separating the Asian and European continents. Take a cruise and feast your eyes on palaces, restored Ottoman villas, and waterside homes of Istanbul’s power brokers. If you want to dine on the Bosphorus, there’s Eftalya, a seafood restaurant near the Arnavutkoy Pier. It’s touted for the seasonal local fish, think sea-to-table and creative use of herbs.
Or if you want to venture further, get off your boat Bebek, which is in between Arnavutkoy and Rumeli fortress. There are small forests and a mansion. Dine at Lucca, one of the most popular bistros in the Bebek district. Lucca is legendary for creative cocktails, whiting fish tacos, tapas, artichoke squash and more. Late night the restaurant turns into a lounge where you can hear jazz, funk and house music. The coastal village is a favorite of locals. You’ll fall in love with it too.
You can’t go home without pampering yourself at a Turkish bath (hammam). Way back when, a Turkish bath meant a sauna and steam, full body wash and sometimes a massage. Now though, you enjoy a selection of spa treatments as well, during your steam/sauna ritual.