In Istanbul, history and tradition are piled
layer upon layer. Stately palaces, mosques and cathedrals lie beside chaotic
bazaars, steaming hamams and poky nargile (hookah) joints.
Constantinople sits easily with ancient Byzantium, but emerging on top of
them is a new stratum: Istanbul the cool.
In the past decade, development has
transformed ghetto-like no-go zones into hip and vibrant neighbourhoods
whose stylish clientele spill out into the streets, eating and drinking
until the small hours. Clubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, shops, hotels and
galleries are springing up at an explosive pace.
If you go to Istanbul expecting belly dancers, you might be surprised to
find yourself watching the sunrise at a nightclub on the Bosphorus; if you
imagine a diet of greasy kebabs, you'll be stunned at the range of haute
cuisine options fusing traditional Turkish food with cutting-edge
international styles. And if your idea of shacking up in Istanbul is a
second-rate pension, you'll be amazed at the range of chic, sassy and
downright sexy boutique hotels you can stay at.
Istanbul will be a European Capital of
Culture in 2010 and now that the first low-cost flights there have been
launched by Easyjet, hip weekenders will be flocking to soak up the
excitement. Here's what they need to know:
Istanbul inherited some rich pickings from
its Ottoman ancestry in terms of palaces and mansions, and a great many have
been restored and converted into residences, clubs, restaurants and boutique
hotels. A frontrunner of the genre is the gorgeous A'jia (00 90 216
www.ajiahotel.com), the former 19th-century residence of a governor of
the city. This peaceful and secluded mansion, up the Bosphorus strait on the
Asian shore, is blissfully remote from the city centre. It has 10 deluxe
rooms and six suites, most of which have views out on to the water and some
with private terraces. Prices per night start at around €290 (£196). You can
take a boat from the hotel across to the nightlife on the livelier European
side, or profit from A'jia's own excellent restaurant, which serves
international and Mediterranean cuisine.
For something a little closer to the
action, check out the Sumahan on the Water (00 90 216 422 8000;
www.sumahan.com), with rooms from €170. Also on the Asian side, near the
towering Bosphorus suspension bridge, this hotel is in the old wooden-housed
village of Cengelkoy, next to a site that used to be a distillery that made
raki (an aniseed-flavoured aperitif) in Ottoman times. Some rooms come with
a private hamam (Turkish bath), while guests can use the hotel's boat as a
ferry to the city's main transport hubs.
Facing the Sumahan on the European side is
the spanking new Hotel Les Ottomans (00 90 212 287 1024;
www.lesottomans.com), a high-end phenomenon. Built inside an Ottoman
yali (a luxurious wooden mansion), the interior and 12 luxurious suites
(starting at €1,200) are decked out in lavish Ottoman style. The outdoor
pool has a transparent floor panel that doubles as a spectacular ceiling in
the swish subterranean spas.
Popularly assumed to be Istanbul's finest
digs, the five-star Four Seasons Hotel (00 90 212 638 8200;
www.fourseasons.com/istanbul) in Sultanahmet, with rooms from €290 a
night, inhabits a conversion of another variety.
Set in the grounds of a former prison,
which was functioning for petty criminals until the end of the Seventies,
its range of rooms and suites, gazebo-style restaurant and expertly
manicured gardens are almost worth getting banged up for.
On a more modern note, city slickers might
prefer the new Sofa Hotel (00 90 212 368 1818;
www.thesofahotel.com) in the middle of Istanbul's trendy Nisantasi area.
Nestled among the city's designer shops, including Armani, Gucci (and also
Marks & Spencer), it's a minimalist-chic urban option. Nightly rates start
at around €200.
If your idea of Turkish dining is tucking
into slices of greasy meat carved off a cylindrical spit, ingested on a
pavement after eight pints of beer, then think again: Istanbul is brimming
with stylish restaurants.
The city's smart staple is the multiple
award-winning 360 (00 90 212 251 10 42;
www.360istanbul.com): a glass-walled rooftop extravaganza with a popular
bar and a circular view of the metropolis. The culinary influences hail from
all around the world, and dishes include delicious Lebanese kibbe meatballs
stuffed with walnuts, veal-and-prawn surf and turf or lamb loin confit,
expertly poached in olive oil for five whole hours.
Alternatively, head up the Bosphorus to
Ortakoy, one of outer Istanbul's quaintest villages and hottest nightspots,
and the Banyan Ortakoy (00 90 212 259 9060). Sit on the terrace
beside the tiny banyan trees if the weather's still warm enough and feast on
their Oriental delights while gaping at the stunning view of the neo-Baroque
waterside mosque. Another option in this part of town is Erguvan (00
90 212 327 6075) in the newly built Radisson SAS hotel, also on the
waterfront and perfect if you fancy fresh seafood.
This year's hot-off-the-press destination
is Mikla (00 90 212 293 5656), perched on top of the Marmara Pera
Hotel in the thick of the famous Old Pera neighbourhood. It has views to die
for, food to match (the lamb escalope is a must) and a verdant rooftop bar
complete with swimming pool for those sweltering summer nights. Reservations
are advised at all the restaurants featured here, and meals with wine
average around €50 (£35) a head.
You might be offered endless cups of cay,
the local tea, from ultra-friendly locals by day, but only a concerted
survey of the city's bar circuit by night will reveal what Istanbul really
has to offer in terms of a good bottoms-up. For beer, try the ubiquitous
native brew, Efes. Turkish wines generally have a lot to answer for in the
hangover stakes; however, there is one diamond in the rough and that is the
Sarafin brand, available in red and white varieties in most good restaurants
A fine place to start an evening's jaunt is
at the local favourite Leb-i Derya (00 90 212 293 4989;
www.lebiderya.com), an effortlessly chilled establishment featuring
fantastic views and an extensive cocktail list, including the notorious
Balalaika, Caipirovska and Monday concoctions.
90 212 251 7491) is another venue in Taksim that makes the most of the
city's incredible vistas. In colder weather you can hang out in the stylish
bar area, but join the crowd on the roof to party under the stars in the
Also very popular with Istanbullus is the
Nu Pera (00 90 212 245 5810), an umbrella name for a constellation of
joints housed in the same building. During the summer months, attention is
focused on the rooftop terrace, for which you'll certainly need a
reservation at weekends. But be aware of the door policy: as with many clubs
and bars in the city, men are rarely granted entry if not accompanied or
outnumbered by females, and smart, fashionable dress is essential. There's
also been a recent rise in the number of requests to see passports at the
If you prefer something a little more laid
back, check out Cezayir (00 90 212 245 9980;
www.cezayir-istanbul.com). Housed in a 100-year-old school building,
this chic cafe, bar and restaurant is composed of a number of rooms of
varying levels of noise and energy, with sofas, a dancefloor and great
Travel before the beginning of October and
you'll catch the city's infamous Bosphorus nightclubs: outdoor complexes of
restaurants, bars and dancefloors right on the water, with a refined
clientele who park their yachts alongside the private docks and make their
entrances like royalty. The most prominent of these is the world-class Reina (00 90 212 259 5919), for which you'll need to book ahead if you
want a table, and the female-accessory rule applies to appease the
stony-faced bouncers. Blackk (00 90 212 236 7256;
www.blackk.net) is just across the road, and open year-round. Excelling
in sumptuous decor, it's an eating, drinking and dancing venue with a moody,
dark-leather interior and an open conservatory designed in the most lavish
If serious dancing is your thing, get down
and boogie in an original Seventies disco, Godet (00 90 212 243
8143). This late-night venue on top of the Surmeli Hotel rarely gets going
until well after midnight and has garnered a reputation for its innovative
For live music, head to the number one
concert spot, Babylon (00 90 212 292 7368;
www.babylon-ist.com), an unpretentious and intimate venue which has
hosted scores of international ensembles including The Fall, and Stereolab.
The morning after, you may want to tick off
a few of the classic sights, and for these head to the historical district
of Sultanahmet. Don't miss the
(00 90 212 528 4500), formerly known as the
which was the biggest cathedral in the world for 1,000 years and has a
splendid vast dome, or its giant neighbour, the
Mosque (00 90 212 518 13 19) with its six minarets.
Within walking distance of the two is
(00 90 212 512 0480). Set in the gardens of Gulhane park, the palace is a
network of stunning, perfectly preserved tiled and marbled buildings that
accommodated official events and the private residences of the Sultanate in
the days of the Ottoman Empire.
The Basilica Cistern is an old Roman
well that was used for storing water channelled into the city along an 8km
system of aqueducts from nearby Belgrade forest. Don't just expect a hole in
the ground: the Cistern was used as a set for From Russia With Love and is
the size of a cathedral, with more than 300 supporting columns and 80,000
cubic metres of water.
Grand Bazaar is a shopping
experience par excellence. The giant covered market, the centre of which
dates back to 1461, twists and turns, and can swallow you whole if you're
not careful. Aside from the belly dancing outfits, ornate mirrored caps, and
fake labels, it's worth checking out the selection of pashminas, jewellery,
and leather jackets and handbags.
After the rabble of touts and salesmen at
the Grand Bazaar you might crave a more subdued shopping experience, so hop
on the metro at Taksim Square and go a couple of stops to Istanbul's latest
retail wonder: the Kanyon mall in Levent. This is not your average
enclosed American-style colossus: it's a climate-controlled outdoor complex
in the form of a canyon, with towers and cooling or warming breezes,
depending on the season.
To escape the spending trap, flee the
mainland altogether on a ferry from Eminonu, Kabata or Bostanci ports (www.ido.com.tr)
to one of the four Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The trip
takes an hour-and-a-half at most, and you can disembark at any one of the
relaxing little isles. Buyukada (literally, 'the big island') has, like all
the others, forsaken motorised vehicles (with the exception of the
startlingly numerous emergency services) in favour of bicycles, horses and
donkeys. If you have time, take a ride up the road strewn with prayer
ribbons to St George's Monastery, go for a walk among the trees or just
chill out in one of the cafes in the main village, like the trendy new Gr.ile (00 90 216 382 1630).
Back in the city centre, another
fascinating and less frequented spot is the Galata Mevlevihanesi (00
90 212 245 4141), an old Sufi lodge converted into a museum. If you're there
on a Sunday or the first or last Saturday of the month, buy a ticket for the
Sema ceremony and get dizzy watching the renowned whirling dervishes, who
chant and spin in meditation for up to an hour.
The Istanbul Modern (00 90 212 334
www.istanbulmodern.org) is the city's first institution dedicated to
contemporary art. Situated in a former shipping warehouse by the docks, it
houses a permanent collection of Turkish art from the last century, as well
as an upcoming exhibition of picks from the last Venice Biennale that will
be showing towards the end of 2006.
To experience the best of Bosphorus village
life, travel north along the strait from the museum between the two giant
suspension bridges that connect Europe to Asia, to the buzzing Sunday market
in Ortakoy and the fishing village of Arnavutkoy. One of the best walks in
Istanbul is along the Bosphorus from Arnavutkoy to the old castle at Rumeli Hisari, past scores of fishermen and great fish restaurants,
boats and yachts and a fantastic view of the tankers travelling to and from
the Black Sea, with the glittering backdrop of the Asian continent just
across the water.
My favourite place is also my home:
Cihangir, a section of Beyoglu that's undergone a facelift. I am drawn
by the fact that it is cosmopolitan, multicultural, central, and for
professional reasons, since there are many actors, writers, directors and
producers in the area. There's also a good number of foreigners with flats
The main street has a few very popular
cafes including Leyla, Porte, the excellent fish restaurant Doga Balik and
Miss Pizza. My favourite cafe is Smyrna,
which has kooky decoration. It's the kind of place where you feel like
you'll always bump into someone you know.
Devrim Nas, actor
Earlier this month Easyjet (0905 8210905;
www.easyjet.com) started daily flights from Luton to Istanbul from £47
British Airways (0870 850 9850;
www.ba.com) has three flights a day from Heathrow, from £208. Turkish
Airlines (020 7766 9300;
www.thy.com) has three daily flights from Heathrow and one from Stansted