I sipped on a martini as the setting sun streaked Sultanahmet pink and gold. From restaurant Mikla’s vertigo-inducing roof terrace, I gazed out across a skyline of minarets and skyscrapers, as lounge music competed with the muezzin from a nearby mosque.
Istanbul has been attracting visitors for centuries. The only capital city to span two continents, it’s long been a beguiling mix of Eastern tradition, European style and sophistication; the ancient and the modern. Now celebrity chefs, opulent bars, a thriving contemporary art scene and some of the world’s finest shopping are complementing its time-honoured attractions.
Sultanahmet is the historic heart of old Istanbul and the showcase of its Ottoman and Byzantine roots. Some of the city’s most iconic sights are here: Topkapi Palace, home of the Sultans, with its ornate tiling and atmospheric harem; Hagia Sophia, which began life as a church, before becoming a mosque and finally a stunning museum, and the Blue Mosque and its intricately painted domed ceiling.
The city was always a hub of trade and the Grand Bazaar, the city’s original mall, was built in 1461. Around 4,000 shops jostle for position along its chaotic warren of alleyways, selling everything from ceramics to leather, slippers to carpets— whether you’re looking for the exotic or mundane, antique or kitsch, you’ll find it here. At the Adiyanman Bazaar, sumptuous fabrics are piled floor-to-ceiling; while Dhoku, opened in 1989 by a third-generation Turkish rug maker, stocks one-of-a- kind contemporary pieces, either hand woven on looms in Anatolia or created by blending antique kilims. I wandered past glittering gold and precious stones, exotic unguents and richly embroidered kaftans, and realised that it could occupy me for days if I let it.
The area between the Grand Bazaar and the busy waterfront at Eminönü, where ferries ply back and forth across the Bosphorus Strait to the Asian shore, teems with people during the day. Set back from the water is the Egyptian Bazaar, or Spice Market, and as I explored its passageways, I was bathed in aromas from the mounds of herbs and spices on display—cumin, cardamom and cinnamon, as well as saffron, the spice worth more than gold.
I couldn’t leave without trying lokum—Turkish delight—and the best in town is from Haci Bekir. Established in 1777, the shop was named after its owner and is still run by the fifth generation of the same family. I tasted sugar-dusted, tangy lemon and creamy vanilla before choosing a box of sweet- scented rose-flavoured morsels.
The perfect antidote to a hard day’s sightseeing is a visit to a hamam, or Turkish bath. One of the most beautifully restored is the 16th-century Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamami, between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. I lay on a heated marble slab surrounded by plumes of steam, before being energetically scrubbed, soaped and massaged into a state of utter relaxation, emerging with baby-soft skin.
But there’s more to the city than Sultanahmet. To the north, the Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn, the body of water that separates old and new Istanbul. In the early part of the 20th century, Beyoglu, the area stretching between Taksim Square and Tünel was called Pera meaning ‘oppositeshore’, and nicknamed ‘Little Europe’ after the many European embassies that were housed in its extravagant buildings.
It reflects Istanbul’s dualism perfectly, from a 15th-century Whirling Dervish monastery to the contemporary art at Arter. The bars of the Çiçek Pasaji, a glass-roofed Rococo arcade that was built in the mid-19th century as a bazaar, resonate with traditional Turkish music, or fasil, while at sleek rooftop bars like NuTeras, DJs spins ambient tunes.
I joined the throng strolling along its most famous avenue, Istiklal Caddesi, before escaping into the Pera Palace Hotel, built to house the first passengers from the Orient Express. It was time for afternoon tea and underneath the magnificent domed ceiling of the Kubbeli Saloon, a table was laden with tempting cakes from the hotel’s own patisserie. I could easily imagine Agatha Christie plotting murder over a cucumber sandwich, Greta Garbo lounging on a silk brocade chaise longue, and Ernest Hemingway downing whisky in the Orient Bar.
Opposite the hotel, the small and convivial Meze by Lemon Tree serves up made-for-sharing meze with a contemporary twist. As I tucked in to sublime hibesh from Eastern Turkey and pickled yellow cherries, I had to remember to leave room for the hot meze, such as monkfish stew with red-wine gravy and feta cheese, or hummus served south-eastern style—hot with sliced pastirma, or cured beef.
In upscale Nis ̧antas ̧i, the city’s most obviously European area, the streets are packed with designer boutiques and stylish restaurants populated with business people and perfectly groomed ladies-who-lunch. It became a residential neighbourhood in 1853 when the Sultan moved his court from Topkapi to nearby Dolmabahçe Palace, but after Turkish independence in 1923, the new elite replaced the Ottoman old guard.
The Art Nouveau buildings along Abdi Ipekçi Caddesi are still considered among the city’s most covetable addresses. Prada, Chanel and Hermès rub shoulders with high-end Turkish designers, such as Arzu Kaprol and Gönül Paksoy, who creates hand-dyed, hand-sewn and one-of-a-kind pieces from exquisite vintage textiles. I window-shopped for unique objet d’art at Armaggan, fabulous gems at Sevan Biçakçi and fashion at V2K, the hipper outpost of the high-end Vakko store.
Çukurcuma’s steep streets were once home to Greek, Armenian and Levantine communities. Its elegant townhouses had slowly fallen into disrepair but a recent gentrification hasn’t destroyed its cosmopolitan feel. I lost myself along its narrow alleyways, dipping in and out of the fascinating array of vintage shops stocking everything from Ottoman- era knick-knacks to 1960s kitsch, as well as eye-wateringly expensive silk carpets and kilims at A La Turca, a fascinating museum of an antique shop.
The evening was balmy and I dined al fresco at Münferit. Turkish design duo Autoban may have given it a vintage aesthetic, with marble-top tables, smoked-glass mirrors and wood panelling, but this meyhane, or tavern, is thoroughly modern. I tasted dishes such as white cheese baked with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil and squid ink couscous topped with sprigs of grilled calamari, and washed them down with some thrice-distilled Beylerbyi Raki, Turkey’s potent anise-flavoured spirit.
One of the highlights of the Four Seasons at the Bosphorus is its sweeping waterfront terrace, with acres of white marble and views over the strait, where I indulged in a waterside breakfast while watching everything from ferries to mega- yachts sail past; and cocktails in the evening when the twinkling lights were just as glittering as the crowd.
Further along the European shore, Ortaköy—middle village in Turkish—is one of the city’s prettiest neighbourhoods, where a stunning neo-Baroque mosque sits next to the neon lights of the Bosphorus Bridge and small fishing boats bob in the harbour as if in time to the beat from super-club, Anjelique. Its squares and cobbled streets heave with people at weekends and I whiled away an afternoon browsing among the street stalls piled high with colourful faux Ottoman jewellery, hand-tooled leather and ornate metalware.
Back at Mikla, the creative tasting menu reflects chef Mehmet Gürs’ Turkish-Scandinavian roots. Dubbed the Godfather of New Anatolian cuisine, I feasted on crispy sardines, tender lamb shank and Anatolian cheese and honey, all paired with fine Turkish wine, and only distracted from my plate by the show-stopping views.
Brimming with history, atmosphere and romance, and forever on the move, Istanbul really does have it all.