Istanbul is hot. While the rest of Europe continues to sink deeper and deeper into depression, the Turks are busy attending art openings at private galleries, chugging raki on sun-drenched rooftops and stocking up on handmade crafts with contemporary twists. Istanbul is also sexy for another reason, and this one is very practical. Turkish Airlines flies newish planes to every corner of Europe, and Istanbul makes for a much more exciting stopover than Dubai or Qatar. So even if your plan was to check out London or Paris, or you’re headed to a meeting in Berlin, Istanbul is just about the most pleasant way we can think of to break up that long flight. Not that Istanbul isn’t a destination in its own right. As well as being a contrast of old and new, the city is also right at the point where the European continent meets Asia. This heady mix means one second you’re watching an old man sipping coffee in a café that could be in an old street in Lisbon, the next you’re walking past crumbling wooden houses that look like Russian dachas, and finally the call to prayer rings out, reaffirming the city’s Arabic heritage.
The Ottoman Empire was the world’s wealthiest and most powerful for centuries (mostly during the 15th to 17th centuries). As a result, the city is dotted with elegant wooden villas, domed mosques and minarets reaching for the sky. How many you can take in depends on your passion for the intricacies of Islamic art and Byzantine architecture. The good news is that the Blue Mosque, the Topkapi Palace and the Aya Sofya are all within a very short walk of each other, in an area called Sultanahmet. (Just grab any free tourist map and off you go.) More importantly, Istanbul is the perfect city to get lost in, as charming streets abound. If that’s too daunting, make sure you at least stroll down Soğukçeşme Sokağı, a row of perfectly restored wooden homes behind Topkapi Palace.
Istanbul has seen some healthy competition between its art patrons of late. The result is a string of new art galleries of very high quality. The most impressive is Istanbul Modern (Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi, Liman İşletmeleri Sahasi, Antrepo 4, Karakoy, +90 212 334-7300). This former warehouse designed by Italian architect Monica Bonvicini devotes several thousand square meters to contemporary Turkish artists—and sweeping views of the Bosphorus.In 2006, Orhan Pamuk won the Nobel Prize in literature, and he has now sold over 11 million books in 60 languages. His latest novel, The Museum of Innocence (Çukurcuma Caddesi, Dalgıç Çıkmazı 2, +90 212 252-9738), inspired him to create an actual museum by the same name crammed with small objects like old movie tickets, sepia photographs and household goods. It doesn’t sound like much but it comes together as a touching portrait of the Istanbul of yesterday.
There’s nothing like strolling through a beautiful city to work up a thirst. One of the most stunning backdrops for your shot of arak liqueur is the Blue Mosque, whose colors famously shift as the sun sets. There’s a whole row of hotels with terrace bars on Ticarethane Sokak, such as Istanbul Hotel Nomade (Divanyolu Caddesi, Ticarethane Sokak 15, +90 212 513-8172). To oversee the old town (Sultanahmet), you’ll need to cross the Golden Horn inlet and find a rooftop bar in Beyoğlu, like the one at Anemon Galata (Bereketzade Mahallesi Büyükhendek Caddesi Kuledibim, +90 212 293-2343), right by the Galata Tower, whose views sweep over the tower itself, the Golden Horn and the Old City. If you’ve got a third evening in town, we’d recommend catching the ferry from Eminönü to Üsküdar. Not only is it a great ride but you’ll find tea houses there to smoke a nargile (shisha) pipe while the Bosphorus and the city are gradually shrouded in darkness. (At the pier, simply go right towards Şemsi Pasa Mosque; the cafés are just after the mosque.)
The Grand Bazaar’s architecture is stunning. But when it comes to shopping, the amount of stuff in there can be intimidating and the sales tactics can be very aggressive. In fact, it’s not a very good place to look for trinkets to take home unless you’re a toughas-nails bargainer. And if you’re serious about buying a genuine Turkish rug, they cost hundreds to more than a thousand in Singapore dollars! Still game? Sisko Osman (Zincirli Han 15, +90 212 528-3458) are well respected and, at the very least, the shop is in a lovely part of the bazaar that you should absolutely see.For something more modern (and a lot less overwhelming), check out the boutiques in Beyoğlu. Start with the Tunel area, just next to the funicular. Apart from all the cool places in that hip enclave, we also stumbled on Hic (Haci Mimi Mah, Luleci Hendek Sokak 35, Tophane Galata, +90 212 251-9973), a contemporary crafts store in a residential street.
In the old town, we recommend Balikci Sabahattin (Seyit Hasan Koyu Sokak 1, +90 212 458-1824). Although its starched tablecloths and well-heeled guests say special occasion, the prices are not too bad given that you’re dining under the trees by an old Ottoman mansion. The food is incredibly fresh, simply prepared seafood and some excellent mezze (small plate appetizers). Do book ahead, though. Still in the old town, there’s a homey bistro that gets kebabs, that quintessential Turkish specialty, just right. Of course, Ziya Sark Sofrasi (Alemdar Caddesi 28, +90 212 512-7750) also has a wide selection of super fresh mezzes to go with those grilled meats.After your bazaar shopping, hit up Hamdi Et Lokantasi (Klacin Sokak 17, +90 212 528-0390). The views of the Golden Horn are amazing but do book ahead for a terrace seat. Here, too, the food is a mix of well-executed kebabs and flavorful mezzes.In Beyoğlu, by the Istanbul Modern museum, you should drop by Fasuli Lokantalari (Iskele Caddesi 10-12, +90 212 243-6580). We love the old-school bistro vibe and uniformed waiters. The hearty Anatolian-style beans cooked in butter and meat are not exactly light, but it’s a nice change from all those kebabs.
Singapore passport holders don’t need a visa for travel up to 90 days. Turkish Airlines flies direct from Changi Airport to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, from €1,550 (S$2,490) return and Singapore Airlines flies the same route for S$1,743 return.
Where to Stay
Housed in a 1922 Art Deco building by Italian architect Giulio Mongeri, this hotel saw its interiors revamped by New York Design firm Gerner Kronick + Valcarel. It’s a combination of last century opulence—dark parquet floors, 19th century chandeliers—and 21st century design—giant sky windows and a hammam-inspired spa. Rates start at €255 (S$410).
This old house has plenty of charm thanks to its wooden façade and inner courtyard. Located in the historical center of town, within walking distance of all the major sites, the sea is nearby, too, and it’s a great spot to watch Turks chill in the evening. Lovely, clean rooms and an excellent breakfast buffet complete the picture. Rates start at €137 (S$220).