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Your Istanbul Travel Cheat Sheet

Istanbul at Dusk (c) Ritz Carlton Istanbul
Istanbul at Dusk (c) Ritz Carlton Istanbul

Turkey, the site of two wonders of the ancient world, is a present-day marvel – the cradle of many civilizations, the very center of world history and a modern republic which, at times, struggles between embracing the relics of her past and a forward-seeking future. A country of fascinating contrasts, antiquity is juxtaposed with the contemporary, the familiar with the exotic, and sun-swept beaches beckon less than an hour away from snow-capped mountains. Everywhere, however, visitors say they are often treated to the extraordinary warmth of the Turkish people. Istanbul is the most popular 1st stop for those visiting Turkey and it’s a clear winner among people of all nationalities and religions. If  you only have a few days or a long weekend, here’s a quick cheat sheet of the Top Things to Do and See in Istanbul, to soon be followed by the Wonders of The Turkish Coast.

The Bosphorus
The Bosphorus

What to See

In addition to the well known sites of the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, two years ago, Istanbul was rated Travel + Leisure‘s #1 European city to visit, so, to celebrate Staff of the Turkish Cultural Foundation (TCF) compiled a list of the 10 places every visitor to Istanbul must experience which we wanted to share.

  1. Sip the best Turkish coffee at Mandabatmaz
  2. Browse the sustainable, locally-made, high-end contemporary Turkish goods at Armaggan Emporium
  3. Indulge in centuries of Anatolian culinary tradition at NAR Gourmet and NAR Restaurant
  4. Absorb the work of Turkey’s greatest contemporary artists at Istanbul Modern
  5. Hop on a Bosphorus ferry to Kadikoy for people watching and Alinin Dondurmasi’s famous ice cream
  6. Experience the centuries-old tradition of raki and fresh fish at İsmet Baba in Kuzguncuk
  7. Relax in the pleasure of a traditional Turkish hamam bath at Cağaloğlu Hamamı
  8. Shop the collection of critically acclaimed Turkish designer Simay Bülbül
  9. Soak up the sounds of Turkey’s thriving jazz scene at Nardis Jazz Bar
  10. Enjoy cocktails and conversation in Münferit’s quiet garden before returning inside to dance until dawn with locals
Istanbul (c) Ritz Carlton Istanbul
Istanbul (c) Ritz Carlton Istanbul

The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul

A few years ago, we stayed at The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul because we always know we’ll get top-notch service and food, but Istanbul has several fantastic properties that are unique and special (Note: Ciragan Palace). The Ritz is located at one of the most exciting cultural crossroads in the world in a city that bridges the continents of Asia and Europe along the banks of the Bosphorus Strait. From the outside, it may look like another skyscraper, but once inside, international recognition for its commitment to exceptional levels of service becomes clear. You’re not simply told where the Ladies room is located, you’re escorted there, after being offered some warm Turkish sahlep, a delectable sweet warm drink reminiscent of yogurt and cinnamon. The Ritz-Carlton, Istanbul was voted “Best Overseas Business Hotel 2009” by readers of Condé Nast Traveller UK and it’s no surprise. It’s about as stress free as you can get. In addition to 244 rooms and 23 suites, there are 57 Ritz-Carlton Club Level rooms (since I’m obsessed with the Club Level) and The Ritz also offers the award-wining Laveda Spa that includes ten treatment rooms including a not-to-be-missed Turkish Hammam where you will feel transported back in time, dreaming of the days of Suleyman the Magnificient.

Ritz Carlton Couples Hammam
Ritz Carlton Couples Hammam

At the Laveda Spa, the experienced therapists apply the miraculous methods of massage and skin care with Aromatherapy Associates offering all natural plant oils and the high-end line of Carita products. Apart from that a variety of holistic massages like the relaxing “Sultans Royal Six Hands Massage” applied in synchronization by three trained artisans, there are also exclusive body treatments like the “Hot Chocolate Seduction”, “Caviar Therapy”, “Milk & Honey Bath,” or an intoxicating wine therapy called “The Gift of Bacchus,” all infused with natural ingredients.

The Indoor Pool at the Ritz Carlton Istanbul
The Indoor Pool at the Ritz Carlton Istanbul

The indoor pool, the biggest of all indoor hotel pools in the city, is another alternative for more sporty activities or a few lazy laps. You’ll have the feeling of soaking under the Turkish sky when swimming in the mosaic pool as twinkling “stars” on the ceiling illuminate the pool area and highlight the impressive architecture of the Byzantine period of Istanbul.

But perhaps the most stunning section of the Spa is the authentic Turkish Hamam modeled on the 16th century Baths of Roxelana. The Hamam ritual entails a process of complete surrender to scrubbing, washing, and relaxation where you enter a private hamam room and lay a warm slab of marble. Once there, you’re exfoliated and cleansed like a goddess with copious amounts of warm and cool water, followed by a thorough body wash, and a bubble massage where the therapist creates clouds of bubbles with the use of a special towel that surrounds you like a daphine-scented cloud (an exotic flower from Western Asia).

This was, in many ways, the highlight of my luxurious vacation.

Ritz Carlton Cooking
Ritz Carlton Cooking

After our Turkish Hamam, we headed to the Ritz Calrton Istanbul’s Çintemani restaurant for dinner, an exciting autumn menu designed to celebrate local seasonal produce and showcase a unique approach to the culinary traditions of Turkey. Highlights on the autumn five-course degustation menu from then Chef de Cuisine, Ali Ronay (now at Raffles). His menu included Turkish puff pastry with pumpkin and pomegranate, lamb from the Thracian region and Turkish pancakes, while the à la carte menu was a whirlwind journey around the country’s regional flavors from Thracian beef fillet, prawns from Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, tuna and octopus from Dardanelles, veal from Balikesir, and chicken from Bandirma on the Sea of Marmara. The fusion of local flavors and innovative cooking techniques made the dishes so unique and mouth-watering that I can honestly say I’ve never quite tasted food like this before. Prawns were infused with Turkish Raki brandy, Bosporus bonito fish was prepared in traditional tomato and onion ragout, while mullet from Dardanelles was dressed with virgin olive oil from Bodrum. Innovative techniques included lamb prepared à la sous vide (a method of cooking vacuum-packed food in a plastic pouch at a set temperature often in a water bath) and cheesecake created from Aegean curd and seasonal pumpkin.

Now are you hungry to check it out?

Rates from $269/night


Other amazing places to stay in Istanbul:

  • Kempinski Ciragan (truly historic and palatial)
  • The Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul (can’t go wrong with the always solid Four Seasons)
  • Pera Palace (a Jumeirah property so expect proper opulence)
  • Georges Hotel Galata (a unique boutique property with an intimate vibe)
  • Hotel Ibrahim Pasha (another boutique property in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul on a quaint quiet street)
  • The House Hotel Nisantasi (a smaller elegant modern hotel)

Bars and Restaurants to check out:

  • 11:11 (open Wed. – Sat. this hotspot is owned by the son of one of Turkey’s famous singers)
  • Public (where you want to people watch and party)
  • Poseiden (one of the top fish restaurants in Istanbul with classic mezzes & raki in an upmarket terrace atmosphere)
  • Casita (late night peruhi aka. vegetarian Turkish pasta with yoghurt & mint… yum!)

Beauty Along the Bosphorus


Four Seasons Spa & Hammam Bosphorus
Four Seasons Spa & Hammam Bosphorus

Most spa treatments speak to four of the senses, from sight and smell to sound and touch, but when you really think about it, there hasn’t been one blissfully perfect experience that engages all five — until now.

People have always flocked to the Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus for its traditional Turkish hammam treatment, a bathing ritual that activates blood circulation, detoxifies the body and — bonus! — improves the look of your skin. But the decadent new Epicurean Hammam will give you a taste of Istanbul in more ways than one.
Part way through your 25-minute hammam treatment in the hot marble sauna, you’ll be served an olive oil ice cream popsicle to keep you feeling cool and hydrated — just before receiving a luxurious 15-minute foam massage with natural olive oil soap. Next, you’ll be drenched head to toe in a special creamy mixture of strained yogurt and rose water. As the healing yogurt absorbs into your skin, making it look firmer and brighter, a scalp massage will send you even deeper into relaxation.
And at the end of your sensory journey, you’ll rest with a refreshing yogurt with honey to leave just the right taste in your mouth — and ensure you’re feeling good and looking great, inside and out.

So check out Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus  to stimulate your five senses with the exclusive Epicurean Hammam treatment.  Oh, and did we also mention that spa goers voted the Four Seasons Spa & Hammam as their favorite spa in Turkey for three consecutive years in the SpaFinder Wellness Reader’s Choice Awards?

Pair that with your popsicle!

Istanbul: A City of Many Colours

Topkapi Palace
Topkapi Palace

Istanbul: A City of Many Colours

For travellers, Istanbul is so much more than a bargain hunter’s dream. Throughout history, Turkey’s former capital city possessed all the power and status of a cultural and political superpower at the heart of both the extensive Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. These days, Istanbul’s rich cultural heritage is combined with the frenetic activity of a modern, cosmopolitan city. Tourists can explore ancient city walls and traditional mosques and churches by day, and enjoy an exhilarating social scene by night.

Istanbul's Galata Tower
Crusin’ down the Bosphorus in front of Istanbul’s Galata Tower

Some Revision

History buffs will tell you that the city of Istanbul was originally known as Byzantium. Colonised by Greek settlers in approximately 680 BC, the city had a seaside location that soon meant that it became an important centre for trade. This was especially the case for luxury goods such as silks and exotic spices that passed through the city on their route from East to West. Captured by the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus in 196, Byzantium was integrated into the Roman Empire. The city flourished as a centre for arts and culture and quickly became the political capital for the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It was renamed Constantinople (Constantine’s city) under the rule of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, and became an important centre for Christianity; the world’s largest cathedral, the Hagia Sophia – transformed into a mosque, and now into a museum – is still open for tourists to visit in the present day. Economically weakened by the crusades, Constantinople was inevitably conquered by the Turkish nobleman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. The Sultan founded an Islamic dynasty – the Ottoman Empire – lasting over 600 years.

The Grand Bazaar!
The Grand Bazaar!

Modern Istanbul is a cultural melting pot of both Christian and Muslim heritage and architecture. Though Ankara is now the capital of Turkey, Istanbul continues to be an important city for trade and tourism. Sitting at the crossroads of two continents (Europe and Asia), the city is divided by the Bosphorus, a strait of water frequently navigated by ships on a European cruise as well as by trade ships on their way to Asia and the Black Sea.

Enough. Markets!

Now you’ve swatted up on the history, time to get yourself out and about for that authentic Istanbul cultural experience.  If you’ve already checked out the Galata Tower, Rumeli Hisari, Topkapi Palace (where you can also grab a bite to eat and have some Cherry juice… yum!) and the Blue Mosque and still don’t have flagging feet, what better way to get to know the city than by shopping? The Grand Bazaar is just the place to do just this – everything from traditional spices and silks to handbags, shoes, and jewellery, to lamps, shishas, vegetables and sweets are on display and ready for you to buy. Haggle to your heart’s content as there are no fixed prices – those prepared to pay the price tags’ face value are missing out a valuable lesson about Turkish culture, as well a great deal!

Live Music at Arpa Bar
Live Music at Arpa Bar

Now take a break at one of the street cafes or shisha bars offering refreshing mint teas, baked goods just dripping with honey, and real Turkish Delight. Café Meşale just behind the Blue Mosque has live Turkish music and dance performances to accompany your meal.


Nightlife options in Istanbul are just as varied as everything else in the city; from traditional wine bars to Turkish taverns, roof bars to nightclubs, there is a wealth of experiences to be had. The bars, basement jazz cafes, and traditional Turkish venues of the Beyoğlu district provide an easy-going indie atmosphere; everyone is welcome, and will undoubtedly be quizzed as to his or her origin! Rooftop venue Kumbaracı Yokuşu has a mellow atmosphere with music and cocktails that make it the perfect place to start out the night. Follow up this up, perhaps by dropping into Arpa Bar, just a short walk away. If you’re feeling like a touch of glamour, head over to Ortaköy and attempt to get in to The Reina. An upmarket club, it hosts several different restaurants and bars. It’s exclusive, expensive, and there’s a dress-code, but it’s great for celebrity spotting.

Reviving in Istanbul

Witt Istanbul Hotels
Witt Istanbul Hotels
In the old quarter of Cihangir, hotelier Tuncel Toprak built Witt Istanbul because it reminded him of how streets looked in his childhood. The hotel takes its cue from this sentimentality in the custom-made furnishings by local artisans that you see above. Add to that, a familiar sandstone façade and homemade breakfast. It also heeds the future with Ross Lovegrove designed bathroom fixtures in the spacious guestrooms. But that’s not all… move from the old and new with traditional hammam rejuvenation in Tuncel’s favorite place, savoring Turkish cheese from local boutique Antre Gourmet and sipping on the best wines selected by the renowned sommelier of La Cave wine shop.
Rooms from @ $200/night