An Invitation to Enticing Istanbul

One of the world’s greatest cities, Istanbul is a place so colorful, interesting, and inviting, that once travelers visit Turkey’s most populous city, they will want to return time and time again. Indeed, this was my fifth time visiting this ancient city, once the helm of both the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and already I’m plotting my return. With history at every turn, it is easy to get waylaid, refuel with Tahini cake or Baklava, then stop for Turkish coffee, and get waylaid some more. English is widely spoken, and more importantly, Turkish hospitality is an art form making travel here especially pleasant.

Of course, Istanbul though is not just for history buffs. There is culture and art galore, great hotels, Turkish baths, spas and salons, an incredible restaurant scene, and for those interested in retail therapy ­– spices, rugs, and jewelry – one could easily be awarded a gold medal as shopping here is practically an Olympic level sport. Fortunately, there are also plenty of luggage shops so bringing home one’s newly acquired treasures is easy.

The Bed

The  Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul is, as its name indicates, in an enviable location with glorious views right on the Bosphorus, in Istanbul’s centrally located Besiktas district. As a result, taking ferries anywhere a snap. It’s also next door to Istanbul’s Naval Museum containing both military and maritime pieces in its large collection. The Shangri-La is also a stone’s throw from the magnificent, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical-style Dolmabahçe Palace boasting 285 rooms, 68 bathrooms – yes, 68 ­– and the world’s largest Bohemian crystal chandelier.

The Shangri-La’s large, though very welcoming lobby has an immense, waterfall-like crystal chandelier, signature floral arrangements, elegant European period furnishings and beautiful Asian art reflecting the brand’s own coupling of east and west along with that of Istanbul’s location straddling Europe and Asia. It’s pretty much a perfect marriage.

Lovely Bosphorus-facing rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows to admire the sea and is terrific for serious people watching as ferries move locals and travelers from one side to the other. Beautiful blue swirl carpets on guest room levels remind guests the sea is near. Rooms have white marble credenzas, luxurious beds and bedding with high-count sheets, and gorgeous dark marble bathrooms with deep soaking tubs, separate large shower and L’Occitane products.

After sightseeing or stealth shopping, one can burn off some calories at the hotel’s state-of-the art fitness center or relax at Chi Spa, an oasis of calm amid the bustling metropolis. A full spa menu is complemented by a Turkish marble hammam, and an indoor swimming pool fit for royalty. One of the many pleasures at this Shangri-La is sitting on the terrace of ISTOO Restaurant where wonderful breakfasts are served and that overlooks seafaring life on the mighty Bosphorus.

The Meals

One of the most remarkable dinners, both for location in a grand Ottoman Imperial Palace, and for a culinary feast, was  Tugra Restaurant at Ciragan Palace Kempinksi Hotel. Under the direction of impossibly talented Chef Emre Inanir, his creative skill, cultural sensitivity and utilisation of the freshest ingredients made for culinary perfection.

The mezzes were mouthwatering, elements of the Zahter salad were no doubt in the ground that morning, and the grilled sea bass was divine. The lamb shank with pomegranate molasses was the best I’ve eaten anywhere (sorry Granny), and all were paired with fine Turkish wines. Though I had no room, the signature petit-fours quickly disappeared and the phyllo pastry Antep pistachio Katmer nearly had me jumping for joy. Chef Inanir’s name is one to remember.

If you are in the Sultanhamet area and seeking a casual meal, Kybele Hotel has a lovely outdoor patio restaurant with good mezzes, grilled meats, and excellent halvah ice cream. Not far from Galata Bridge,  Naif Restaurant in Istanbul’s lively and hip Karaköy section has tasty mixed mezzes, kebabs, a rooftop terrace, and on several weekends, belly dancing.

After several Mediterranean meals, our cravings for Cantonese cuisine were satiated at Shangri-La’s Shang Palace. The Lo-Hei salmon sashimi with peanut-tahini dressing was almost too pretty to eat, and their signature Peking duck was delectably tender. We enjoyed “gong bao” prawns, and dry-braised hand pulled noodles which one of the chefs pulled tableside. Tea was delightfully served in an acrobatic dance, do-not-try-this-at-home fashion by a very brave waiter.

The Finds

Istanbul does not rest on its historical laurels. It’s modernizing at breakneck speed to include a new mega international airport (IST). While modernly futuristic and itself a shopping mecca, this $12 billion airport is truly enormous – in fact it’s the world’s largest – and requires extra time once at the airport given its size. It’s also much further outside the city than Ataturk airport was, and Istanbul’s traffic is a known beast. At noon on a weekday my taxi took 90-minutes; however, midday on a weekend, it took “just” 60-minutes. There’s also the new Galata Port, Istanbul’s new cruise port on the Bosphorus in the city’s heart. Here dozens of restaurants, cafés, high-end retail shops vie for attention. The immense and gracefully futuristic, delayed but hopefully soon-to-be open new Museum of Modern Art is also located here.

Every time I’m in Istanbul, I stop at the Haghia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom, one of the world’s most remarkable architectural feats. Converted into a mosque in 1453 and a museum since 1934, it’s a lasting testament to religious faith. The magnificent Blue Mosque with its Iznik tiles is just across the square.

A good respite from the crowds is a stroll through nearby Gülhane Park, once the exterior yard of Topkapi Palace during the Ottoman Empire. However, for a true respite, head to Hurrem Sultan Hamami for a massage and Ottoman hamam experience, or up the street to Cagaloglu Hamami for a similar experience. Istanbul also has excellent hair salons for both men and women. For women, I liked Alper Damdalen, in Sultanhamet (walk-in or call only 90 507 450 00 27). Several Europeans had flown in for hair extensions while I was there, so skilled are their technicians. Though I had only a wash and blow out, it was one of the best I’ve had anywhere.

Nuru-Osmaniye Caddesi is a pleasant pedestrian street with an abundance of cafés and fine jewelry stores. However, if you are seeking something truly special, pop into Arte Diore Jewelers with Istanbul boutiques at the Shangri-La and Galata Port. Here there are significant, high-end pieces several by designers Tanju Cermikli, his sister Oya, and Baris Kos, who create limited edition, certificate pieces for various royal families, as well as gorgeous creative pieces for the rest of us mere mortals.

The Grand Bazaar is quite an experience and must be visited at least once, but I prefer the less crowded Spice Market and surrounding outdoor streets for many of the same items found at the Grand Bazaar. If in need of sugar once you’re done shopping, several ice cream shops engage in hilarious comedy routines as customers attempt to complete their purchases. One of the best was on Caddesi Divanyolu.

The Lessons Learned

As Edmondo De Amicis once said, “Istanbul, a universal beauty where poet and archeologist, diplomat and merchant, princess and sailor, northerner and westerner, screams with the same admiration. The whole world thinks that this city is the most beautiful place on earth.” That may in fact be the gospel truth. Happy travels!

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