Where East Meets West: The Best of Istanbul, Turkey

Istanbul has been a sprawling, cosmopolitan city and a vital commercial center since the days when it was called Byzantium. Istanbul’s exciting art biennale this fall is just one of many reasons to visit the Turkish city, a captivating blend of old and new. Bridging Asia and Europe, Istanbul is both a culturally modern Western city and a traditional Eastern city. Trendy hotels, boutiques and restaurants rub shoulders with historic mosques and the famous Grand Bazaar. It is a fascinating city for a weekend.

Where to stay

Launched in September 2021, the Mandarin Oriental was one of the most anticipated hotel openings last year and it is certainly impressive from its super chic exterior to its stunning location, right on the shore of the Bosphorus. The 100 spacious rooms and suites are elegant, well-equipped and most importantly, most offer stunning views of the Bosphorus.

Located along the coast, away from the city center, it is the ideal oasis to relax after a long day of sightseeing. The spa offering is superb with three pools, including a large indoor pool, Turkish baths, and a fitness center with excellent wellness programs that Mandarin Oriental hotels are known for. The spa also has several small boutiques, including one with a range of resort goods from Turkish luxury lifestyle brand Kutnia. The food and drink offering is also excellent with Novikov as its signature restaurant, a casual bar and lobby lounge with waterside terrace, and a pool bar in a garden oasis. Nearby are two public parks, pedestrian walkways and the protected pine forest of Naile Sultan.

To see and do

The Blue Mosque (called Sultanahmet Camii in Turkish) is a must see. Known as the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles on the walls, it was built between 1609 and 1616, during the reign of Ahmed I who is buried there.

Nearby, Aya Sofya commissioned by the great Byzantine emperor Justinian was consecrated as a church in 537, converted into a mosque by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453 and declared a museum by Atatürk in 1935. Under President Erdogan it became a mosque again, still possible to visit but with restrictions for women.

A guided city tour is highly recommended as Istanbul can be a bit overwhelming. If you are staying at the Mandarin Oriental, the concierge can arrange a city tour with the brilliant Gencay Ucok, of Axis Mundi Travel. Gencay, a former chef and restaurateur went way beyond what a normal tour guide would do by taking us to special places to shop, see and eat.

An essential visit for history and culture buffs is a stop at the Pera Palace Hotel, an Art Nouveau gem opened in 1895 to accommodate passengers of the Orient Express, including famous guests like Ernest Hemingway, Greta Garbo and Agatha Christie who had a favorite place. in the hotel – room 411 – which now bears his name. Room 101 has been a museum for the city’s liberator, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk since 1981. He stayed there several times between December 1915 and October 1917. The room includes his personal items of interest like ebony chairs, oriental rugs exotic and a rare black silk prayer. rug. And don’t miss Europe’s first electric lift in a hotel, still intact.

The Pera Museum, a private museum showing Turkish art, gives a good overview. It has three permanent collections, “Orientalist Paintings”, “Anatolian Weights and Measures” and “Kütahya Tiles and Ceramics”.

A visit to the Turkish bath is a must, especially after hours of sightseeing. The baths are of course single-sex. A good choice for women is the Hürrem Sultan Hamam between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Designed in 1556 by Mimar Sinan, the chief architect of the Ottoman Empire for Hürrem Sultan (Roxelana), the wife of Suleiman the Magnificent. Hammam treatments range from a 30-minute treatment for 55 euros to a lavish 110-minute treatment for 185 euros.

Or buy

Turkish artisans are known for their expert counterfeits of designer handbags and many levels of quality are on display in the famous Grand Bazaar in historic downtown Istanbul. Even if you’re not looking for a handbag, this is a must-have on any visit to Istanbul. Dating back to Byzantine times, the market is a maze of stalls selling jewellery, silk and traditional brassware and of course rugs.

Skip the rug vendors in the bazaar and head to Nakkaş, for a history lesson on how Turkish handcrafted rugs are made. It’s a real marvel, putting up for sale incredible historical rugs. The showroom’s vast and varied collection includes more than 20,000 rugs and kilims, including antique rugs. In addition to exclusively hand-woven classic rugs, the collection also includes modern designs created with traditional weaving techniques. Exquisite rugs made by artisan women from different regions of Turkey take up to 7 months to create. Vintage rugs include some hundreds of years old. The oldest dates back to 1600 and costs around $1.7 million.

For a unique gift, visit jeweler Janset Bilgin who creates in her on-site workshop, using old coins (some are even Roman) and semi-precious stones. Also on sale in this lovely boutique are beautiful leather handbags with fabric straps hand-woven by Anatolian artisans.

Kutnia in the Nisanstasi region offers beautiful women’s clothing and homewares created from Kutnu, a Turkish artisan striped silk and cotton fabric. Centerpieces include beautiful silk blouses, dresses, skirts and trousers made from Kutnu fabric. Cushions and bed linen are also on display.

Where to eat

Take the ferry across the Bosphorus to the Asian side, stroll the cobbled streets, see interesting independent art galleries and wall art, and have a meal. Our Gencay guide recommended Kadı Nimet Balıkcılık as his favorite place to eat fish in this city. In the heart of the Kadıköy food market (Asian side), it is a fish market with an adjoining restaurant. Simple, fun and delicious fish and meze.

Just opposite the Blue Mosque is another Istanbul landmark, the Pudding Shop, which served as a meeting place and message center for late 1950s backpackers, including some famous ones like the President Bill Clinton. Today the restaurant is a typical Turkish fast food restaurant, but a better choice for a meal is next door at Meshur Sultanahmet Koftecisi if you want to try an excellent range of kebabs and delicious pitas.

Istanbul’s endless variety is why it’s worth visiting. Museums, churches, palaces, grand mosques, bazaars are countless and a sunset over the glorious Bosphorus is unbeatable.