Hotels worth the splurge
The Four Seasons Bosphorus is the best hotel in Istanbul. I recommend taking the Courtyard rooms or the Palace Courtyard rooms, as they’re a third the price of Bosphorus-view rooms. You can enjoy the views of the water from the hotel’s huge terrace or the restaurant and save a fortune. My travelers receive a full American breakfast, either in their room or in the restaurant, a $100 food and beverage credit, and a one-category upgrade based on availability.
People also love the Park Hyatt. There is no view here, but the rooms are beautiful, and there is a lovely pool on the terrace. The hotel is in the Nisantasi neighborhood, which is one of the chicest areas of Istanbul. My travelers receive breakfast and a space-available upgrade here.
Restaurants the locals love
At Ciya Sofrasi, in Kadikoy, on the Asian side, Chef Musa Dagdeverin is a culinary archaeologist, unearthing long-forgotten Anatolian foods from all over Turkey and preparing them with the finest and freshest ingredients.
Chef Dilara Erbay’s latest restaurant, Datli Maya, is a tiny place that serves what they’re calling “slow fast food.” Everything is delicious. I especially like the pide (Turkish pizza). The restaurant is so small that guests have to use the bathroom at the mosque across the street, but the food is so wonderful that it’s worth it!
Savoy Balikci is a local fish tavern, and my favorite hangout. Have whatever fish is in season—I look forward to winter, when I always have the hamsi (fried anchovies). All the mezes are great, too.
Best brunch spot
Turks take breakfast very seriously—Turkey is probably the only place in the world where you will be invited to someone’s home for breakfast. The next best thing is to have a long, leisurely brunch at Kahve 6. Be sure to try the cilbir, lush pide bread with a layer of spinach and two poached eggs. I also love menemen, a Turkish dish of tomatoes and scrambled eggs. I could write poems about the tomatoes in Turkey.
Meal worth the splurge
The hilltop Sunset Restaurant has views of the Bosphorus as incomparable as its food. Come in good weather so you can sit outside and enjoy the vista along with the white-glove service.
Turkish cuisine is world-class, and there are many dishes you should try, but my absolute favorite is hunkar begendi, which is said to have been a favorite of the sultans. It’s lamb served over an eggplant puree. Delicious! And the best place to have it is at Hunkar in Nisantasi. Also try the simit, a bagel-like bread covered in sesame seeds that is a Turkish staple for snacking. You can find the vendors who sell them everywhere. And, of course the mezes, a myriad of small appetizers, are delicious.
Bosphorus Bridge, Istanbul. Photo courtesy Earl Starkey.
What to See and Do
The Asian side, which has many worthwhile places to see, including the beautiful summer home of the sultans, Beylerbeyi Palace, and the charming little village of Kuzguncuk, nearby; Kadikoy and its teeming markets; Bagdat Caddesi, Turkey’s Fifth Avenue, and Camlica Hill, which has incomparable views of the Bosphorus.
Staying in Sultanahmet. Istanbul’s Old City, Sultanahmet, is no doubt beautiful, but it’s also very touristic and you miss out on the real day-to-day life of Istanbul if you stay there. It’s better to base yourself on the European Side, where the hotels and restaurants are better. (Though it’s a bit confusing, both the Old City and the European side are in Europe, but the European side is called that because the embassies to the Ottoman Empire are located there.)
The Duran Art and Culture House, located within Istanbul University, was donated to the university by the painter Feyhaman Duran and his wife, Güzin, in 1969, and has been serving as a museum since 2001. Only five people at a time are permitted inside the house, which allows for an intimate look into the life and work of the man best known for his portraits of Atatürk (the Republic of Turkey’s beloved first president). The university, which is located next to the Grand Bazaar and dates to the fifteenth century, is a destination in its own right.
I love Istanbul’s parks, which are largely overlooked by visitors. My two favorites:
Emirgan Park, which covers 117 acres and is home to April’s Tulip Festival and three lovely pavilions. The Pink and Yellow pavilions are in the Ottoman style, while the White, now a restaurant, is neoclassical.
Once the imperial gardens of the palace of Sultan Abdulhamit II, Yildiz Park is filled with plants from all over the world and has commanding views of the Bosphorus. A porcelain factory that was established there in the nineteenth century, during the reign of Abdulhamit II, is still in operation today.
Take a ferry across the Sea of Marmara to lush and lovely Buyukada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands. It’s like going back in time: There are no cars, so you tour the island by bicycle or horse-drawn carriage.
A visit to the ancient St. Nicholas Monastery is considered a pilgrimage, but if the hill is too steep, you can rent a donkey to carry you up.
Evil eyes and lanterns and hookah pipes make perfect souvenirs and can be found all over the Grand Bazaar in a wide range of prices. Turkish towels are renowned the world over: Haremlique sells my favorites and also has great linens.
You can’t go wrong at Armaggan, a magnificent store with unique and gorgeous designer items from Turkey.
I bought a carpet on my first trip to Turkey and I still cherish it. My favorite carpet shop is Punto Carpets, which sells wonderful carpets and kilims.
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