SITTING ON THE BALCONY, THE SUN SETTING ACROSS the Golden Horn, behind the ancient landmark of the Galata Tower, overlooking the vast Bosphorus Strait, I watch the oil tankers gliding down from Odessa and the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, pleasure boats bobbing aimlessly and ferries tacking across the vast channel. With Asia in front of you and Europe behind, it is plain to see how Constantinople was one of the world’s greatest cities and the natural capital for an empire that straddled three continents.
Resplendent on the labyrinthine straits of the Bosphorus, with its minarets and palaces, dividing Europe and Asia, Istanbul, formerly known as the Greek colony Byzantium and then as Constantinople, has been the centre of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires since its foundations. In over two millennia of extraordinary history, the city, like a genie, has endured countless incarnations brought on it by its ill-fated or strategically cherished position — foreign invasions, natural and political catastrophes, religious wars, have all deposited layer upon layer of civilisation on the city. Like levels of an archaeological dig, you can peel away and access the strata of culture and history to reveal a vital local culture and the spirit of the Istanbullus. It is best explored through its “archipelago of neighbourhoods”, whether you are exploring the Byzantine monuments, the great land walls of Theodosius, the subterranean basilica cisterns of Justinian and the kaleidoscopic interior of Hagia Sophia —whose “great spherical dome”, wrote Procopius in the sixth century, “seems not to be founded on solid masonry but to be suspended from heaven by a golden chain”—or simply eating and shopping your way through the ancient bazaars and modern meyhanes (taverns) of the east and west.
Appropriately, our Ottoman sojourn began in a neighbourhood which accommodated the Ottoman Central Bank and the Sultan’s Stock Exchange, and which was once the centre of the Ottoman Empire’s banking world. Now the area’s august buildings and old Unesco-protected sites, including the Jewish Museum adjacent to it, are attractive to developers and hoteliers, cultural custodians and artists, and appealing for guests who appreciate these transitional, divergent neighbourhoods. Previously the site of several former banks, Vault Karaköy, The House Hotel ( www.thehousehotel.com ) — a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World — has 63 rooms and suites and is located in the up-and-coming neighbourhood of Karaköy on Bankalar Caddesi (literally “street of bankers”). With views of the Old City and the spice market, it is a convenient launching pad to explore bohemian Beyoglu, historic Sultanahmet and the Galata precinct with both its tower and port. Restored by the award-winning Turkish architect Han Tümertekin, the building structure retains its original features. Its luxurious modern interiors were designed by Sinan Kafadar, who was inspired by the bank vaults that inform the hotel’s name.
There is compelling original Turkish modern art on the walls, a grand piano in the lobby, a beautiful and comprehensive wine cellar and a fully functional restored antique cage elevator to take you to your suite. Because the hotel is so close to Salt Galata and its contemporary art galleries in Karaköy and Beyoglu, it aims to be the meeting place for a number of art events. Through SPOT ( www.spotprojects.com ), founded by Tansa Eksioglu and Zeynep Oz, they collaborate extensively with international art professionals and institutions, including recently hosted events with Christie’s and Phillips de Pury. I especially enjoyed Ayca Telgeren’s three abstractions of Karakoy.
With four edgy yet refined properties in the heart of Istanbul, the dynamic House Hotel group is arguably the place to stay if you are looking for competitive pricing, well appointed rooms and a luxurious, modern interpretation in well-positioned, historic buildings.
More than just a collection of cool properties, the House Hotel brand delivers a truly authentic and hip hotel experience throughout its portfolio. The properties are beautifully designed with thoughtful, modern finishes and artistic flair true to their context; the staff are well turned out and for the light sleepers, the properties are mostly located within walking distance of popular nightlife areas.
The brand started out with a well-known café and branched out to the four hotels in the portfolio now. Their first, in Galatasaray, opened in 2010 in a historic 1890s apartment, followed by Nisantasi, Bosphorus and most recently Vault Karakoy. Renovated by their signature Turkish design collaborator — the international award-winning Autoban Design firm — the buildings all retain their original shuttered façade and feel, with marble staircases and spacious, high-ceilinged rooms and striking freestanding glass showers. Their communal spaces and bars are always inviting and the food fresh, inventive and delicious.
Despite being exhausted after a long flight we decided to head out on our first night. Our concierge booked us a table and pointed up the hill to a small, neat authentic Turkish restaurant, Meze by Lemon Tree. Catering more to tourists than locals, it was exactly what we needed — a range of delicious mezzes you choose at the counter and mains that you order off the (requested English) menu. Being excited, tired, hungry and unaccustomed to eating in this style, we predictably over-ordered.
Mildly drunk on a small bottle of the local Yeni Raki, we ate feta-stuffed peppers, dill-flavoured tjajik (tzatziki), sea bass ceviche with crunchy radishes, a spicy aubergine melanzane dish with yoghurt, a sour gazpacho traditional parsley-type soup, but sadly we had to pass on the famous banana yoghurt dessert.
If you can keep your eyes open, do pop in to the famous Pera Palace Hotel directly across the road — at least to use their stunning period Art Deco bathrooms. You can see the original sedan chair used to carry passengers from the Orient Express at the beautiful Sirkeci Train Station to the hotel, or ask to see the Agatha Christie Room, No 141.
The next day we had arranged to meet our guide Erk Erkaya, co-founder of Locally Istanbul ( www.locallyistanbul.com ), a unique and well-reputed private guiding outfit at the Vault Hotel. We had done our homework and wanted to step out with confidence (and without our iPad) into the real Istanbul, and so decided to shelve the many historical sites such as Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace for a rainy day and do “the stuff not in the guidebooks” with the knowledgeable and energetic Erkaya. He and Umit Aggül are your essential bespoke guides to their city and customise your tour according to your interests, expectations, knowledge and mood. They pride themselves on being hip, young ambassadors in tune with the “today and tomorrow ” of their beloved city — so it is more local cuisine, art galleries, fashion, bars, clubs and music — not professional guides who will drag you through the historical attractions by rote. Erkaya bought us travel cards for the trams, buses and ferries and we jumped on a clean, air-conditioned tram with the locals to the Grand Bazaar. A Byzantine mix of traders, merchants and vendors and every spice and carpet you can imagine, the bazaar was refreshingly heady, organised, clean and accessible. We bargained, shopped and tasted, drank delicious coffee (at 61-63 Ethem Tezcakar Kahveci) and were finally spat out like the pit of a chewed date. We chatted happily down to the old spice market and Sekerci Haci Bekir. Established in 1777, it is the oldest confectionery in the city, and we tasted their famous lokum (Turkish delight), a confection made from starch and sugar, often flavoured with rosewater and lemon, the former giving it a characteristic pale pink colour. Our favourite was cranberry and pistachios, with crunchy fresh green pistachios. The sweet has been produced in Turkey since the 15th century where, originally, honey and molasses were used as sweeteners, and water and flour were the binding agents. The recipe for lokum as we know it today wa s invented and popularised by this same Haci Bekir company during the 19th century and introduced to the West when an unknown Briton became fond of the delicacy during his travels to Istanbul. He purchased casefuls to be shipped back to Britain under the name Turkish delight, where it became a major delicacy in Britain and throughout continental Europe.
After another coffee stop we bought spices from Pinar, where Erkaya’s granny still buys her spices — pure Iranian saffron, cardamom, cinnamon and the ever-popular sumac. We ambled back over the Galata bridge, passing the hopeful fishermen, with the smell of bait and the fish shops redolent, through the winding cobblestone streets to Beyoglu. There we took the lovely old Tunel tramway up the hill with Erkaya constantly explaining the history and context of the different areas and diligently answering our questions. These are tours with different angles and conversations, where Erkaya and Aggül will expose the best-kept secrets of their city, whether from the sidecar of a vintageWorldWar II motorcycle, a private motor launch on the Bosphorus or simply an exciting and informative immersion via tram and ferry rides.
Checking in to the stately Shangri-La Bosphorus (www.shangri-la.com/istanbul/shangrila), you immediately understand you have arrived at a modern-day palace as it is appropriately near the famous Dolmabahce Palace, the former residence of Ottoman sultans in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is also Ataturk’s last resting place, from where he controlled the country — and where all the clocks are still stopped at 9.05am, the time of his death. Unlike Dolmabahce, Istanbul’s first European-styled palace, with its 304 rooms, opulent and excessive with the largest chandelier in the world, and built to belie the military and financial decline of the Ottoman Empire, Shangri-La Bosphorus is vibrant, warm and inviting. Certainly this former 1930s tobacco factory is also plush with gold and crystal, and the guest rooms are the most spacious in Istanbul. It has cavernous ballrooms and wedding venues whose single piece carpets and soaring Murano chandeliers could outdo any bride — and the pricing reflects this — but its refined taste, sheer class and sophistication easily offset this lavishness. Its art (especially the two paintings by Turkish artist Devrim Erbil and the shimmering gold China lacquer craft carving depicting a Bosphorus water scene), chandeliers, glass elevators and delicate Chinese silk paintings are quite something to behold. Add to this the signature Shang Palace Cantonese restaurant, where the noodle demonstration and Kung Fu tea pouring ceremony are entertainment in themselves, the CHI Hammam, a fully equipped health club, heated indoor swimming pool and kids’ pool, and what personable GM Vito Romeo claims are the closest rooms to the Bosphorus, and you don’t really need to leave the hotel at all. Like Ataturk, you simply can command your every wish from the exceptional comfort of your suite — and with staff like this it is entirely possible. After a celebratory evening spent on a Bosphorus cruise, we desperately needed, and were treated to, a breakfast fit for sultans with an array of local cheeses, jams, honey, breads and pastries, fruits and charcuterie, all organically produced, truly showcasing the exceptional harvest of Turkey and supporting local producers. Replenished, we explored the local Besiktas neighbourhood and stopped off for a beer and a snack at a friendly, vine-shaded restaurant.
Paradoxically set in a beautiful old prison building with 65 luxury guest rooms and suites, a large roof terrace and a tranquil courtyard garden, at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet ( www. fourseasonscom/istanbul ) you are inside the walls of this historic city’s oldest district. Once the site of the Byzantine Hippodrome, it then became the ceremonial parade ground of the great Turkish dynasty.
Four Seasons Sultanahmet is the perfect platform for sightseeing, being a few minutes’ stroll from the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia, spice market, Archaeology Museum, Carpet Museum, Topkapi Palace and the labyrinthine underground Basilica Cistern. It also has the best view of the Hagia Sophia at night from the terrace, which you can take in while sipping your favourite sundowner. These are demanding and awe-inspiring historical places of interest in a highly trafficked tourist area, so to be close to your preferred lodgings for sustenance and rest is a real treat, especially in the heat of summer. This is especially if it is such a charming hotel with beautifully decorated, large old rooms, artistic flourishes on the walls and exquisite carpets in the bedrooms and bathrooms, discreet and professional service and that personal Four Seasons touch.
Its sister property, Four Seasons Istanbul at the Bosphorus ( www.fourseasons.com/bosphorus ), is another magically restored former 19th-century Ottoman Palace on the water. The suites and guest rooms are airy and spacious and more modern than Sultanhmet — all with a sea view. Here, luxury Istanbul hotel-room interiors mingle with centuries-old architectural details (the Antoine Ignace Melling print collection of old Istanbul on the walls is worth a visit in itself) as balmy sea breezes give way to panoramic waterfront, garden and city views. Again, this is a Four Seasons signature property with a spectacular pool and outdoor sun bathing area right on the water —which is significantly needed after a long, hot day sightseeing. Its restaurant, Aqua, serves up fine Mediterranean cuisine, with Italian specialities. Its breakfast buffet offers everything from a fresh raw juice bar, and excellent eggs benedict to order, to traditional “handmade in front of you over the coals” flatbreads stuffed with spicy lamb mince — in fact, anything your stomach desires. It has a fully equipped gym, an indoor pool, a 2 100mÇ spa and hammam and a very accomplished concierge — all to be expected from one of the world’s leading hospitality brands.
There are few great cities in the world where you are not only surrounded by water but actually get to spend time on it. So much part of the landscape, history and oeuvre of Istanbul is the Bosphorus Strait — over 35km of ocean linking East with West, Asia with Europe, the Black Sea North and South down to the Sea of Marmara and feeding into the Mediterranean. Here you are continually on, above or close to the water, whether on a ferry ride, crossing a bridge or taking a pleasure cruise, using the expansive and efficient ferry network in favour of the congested roads.
We were picked up at a little dock and putted the few kilometres across to the Asian side in the hotel’s quaint wooden launch to Sumahan on the Water ( www.sumahan.com ). Sumahan is an unassuming, multiaward-winning boutique hotel with no pretension other than being in exactly the right location — in the tranquil, authentic village of Çengelköy, with its wooden houses, fish restaurants, fruit sellers and seaside promenades and out of the clutch of the city yet close enough to observe its goings on — and offering precisely the right product: a subtle blend of luxury minimalist design and personalised attention on a boutique scale. Being at Sumahan on the Asian side for a few nights meant we were free to explore this area and the concierge pointed out some of his local gems all within walking distance — notably the traditional Inciralti restaurant, whose Armenian dish, topik—sautéed onion, pine nuts, blackcurrants wrapped in a paste of chickpeas, potato and sesame oil —was exceptional. Here is a tangible laid-back atmosphere in tranquil, verdant neighbourhoods, less touristy and full of friendly Istanbullus — old men drinking coffee and reading papers, fruit sellers, grannies sweeping and busy moms shepherding kids.
What was once an old Ottoman raki distillery, built in the mid-19th century to produce suma, the unadulterated spirit used to make raki — Sumahan on the Water is a restored modern, minimalist refuge whose 24 suites and rooms, named after villages on the Bosphorus, all have expansive views of the water. With large bay windows and fireplaces, this is exactly where you want to catch up on your reading, writing and digesting after your stay in the city. It is quiet and restful, has a tiny gym and a spa and hammam, and its destination restaurant, Tapasuma ( www.tapasma.com/en ), is the main drawcard for both guests and non-guests. Serving Turkish cuisine with a Mediterranean twist, and only selected Turkish wine, dining is al fresco, with the tide lapping at your feet and the sun setting directly in front of you as waiters dash around with tasty local tapas.
Notable dishes were the whiting fish with coriander sauce and a delicious grilled squid with parsley and black olives, which we smashed with a chilled Sarafina Chardonnay while watching the sun set below the Bosphorus bridge, accompanied by a well-selected jazz compilation. It was a balmy summer’s evening by the time I ordered the Urla Vourla — a delicious blend of 42% Merlot, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% the indigenous, structured Bogazkere and 8% Syrah, all estate-grown in Urla, Izmir, and aged for 10 months in new French oak.
With this I had to pair the tender lamb shank served with bulgur wheat, organic apricots and dates while Melisa had an excellent beef tenderloin, done just right. By the time we finished our meal with delicate baklava and coffees it was past midnight. We had been sitting out there celebrating life for more than four hours and we had finally decided which our favourite colours were among the changing lights on the bridge. Erdi, our waiter, was more than accomplished. It was enough just to sit there, in the magic of light, culture and cuisine, with one another. There is arguably no better way to gaze at Istanbul.
One can be forgiven for seeing in it what Nobel Prizewinning author Orhan Pamuk saw and recorded in his Istanbul: Memories and the City, describing Eyup as “a perfect little village at the end of the Golden Horn” and as “a sort of Turkish Eastern Muslim Disneyland”.He questions what makes everyone love the city so. “Is it its continuing ability to derive full benefit from the West and Westernising Istanbul … because it was unspoiled, a beautiful image of the East?” he asks. To which I have to reply in the affirmative.
Istanbul is increasingly popular to Western travellers, and especially South Africans on an ever-weakening rand, who can now fly direct from Cape Town and Johannesburg on Turkish Airlines, and indirectly via Dubai on Emirates.
Certainly, this is not a sprawling, congested Asian capital such as Saigon, Delhi or for that matter, Moscow, nor is it a stately European capital such as Vienna, London or Paris. It is altogether something unique and yet familiar, and in that there is comfort, joy and popularity.