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The insider’s city guide to Istanbul, Turkey’s jewel on the Bosphorus

From bustling bazaars and glittering gold mosques to cutting-edge galleries and foodie hotspots, here’s how to city-break in Turkey’s cultural capital

The definitive insider’s city guide to Istanbul

Greeks, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans have – over the millenia – called Istanbul home. All have left their legacy on this sprawling city, where East and West collide in a glorious mishmash of the traditional and the contemporary. From boutique hotels and slick cocktail bars to ancient palaces, colourful bazaars and the best hammam in town, Lucy Scovell – our Istanbul-based writer gives us the insider city guide to the city she calls home.

With its intoxicating mix of Eastern and Western influences, Istanbul is one of the most magical cities in the world. Over the centuries its strategic location has attracted the Greeks, Romans, Venetians and Ottomans, and reminders of their diverse cultures, histories and architectures can be found at every turn. Stroll through the streets and you’ll notice Byzantine relics nestling happily alongside Genoese houses, grand 16th century facades and contemporary skyscrapers. Istanbul has, without doubt, one of the greatest skylines in the world. Enhance your view with a Bosphorus boat trip at dusk when the city basks in a magical, pinkish glow. 

Istanbul: The Definitive City Guide And Best Things To DoPin
Installation view of Monster Chetwynd’s Hybrid Creatures (Snake, Spider, Bat, Crocodile; all 2019) at the Istanbul Biennial, 2019. Photo: Sahir Uğur Eren. Courtesy the artist and Sadie Coles HQ, London

Equally captivating is the contemporary scene. Over the past few years, Istanbul has welcomed cutting-edge galleries, on-trend concept stores and designer boutiques championing traditional Turkish craft. Every September the art glitterati descend for the annual contemporary art fair which coincides with the Istanbul Biennial, a celebration of boundary-breaking art and design. Then there’s Istanbul’s fabulous food scene. Know where to look and you’ll find experimental chefs reimagining traditional Turkish dishes, and sleek restaurants with irresistible interiors and ever-inventive menus. Straddling the Asian and European sides of the Bosporus strait, the city is a sprawling, buzzing, dizzying fusion of East and West. 

What To See

Istanbul is known for many things, but chief is its rich cultural heritage. Historic highlights in the old city centre of Sultanahmet include the Byzantine-era Hagia Sophia, the freshly renovated 1,500-year-old underground Basilica Cistern and wondrous Topkapi Palace, the seat of Ottoman power for 400 years. (You’ll need at least half a day to explore the grandiose buildings and extensive grounds.) The Blue Mosque is equally spectacular, but it’s currently undergoing restoration, so check access in advance. Other big hitters include Galata Tower, first built as a watchtower in 1348, and the ravishing Dolmabahce Palace, situated along the Bosphorus. 

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Yerebatan Basilica Cistern

The city is home to a contemporary scene that’s equally as dazzling. Dotted around Beyoğlu are a cluster of cutting-edge art galleries including Galeri Nev, Gallery Zilberman and Pilevneli, as well as numerous theatres, music venues and performance spaces. Don’t miss the recently renovated cultural hub AKM in Taksim Square. Other arty hotspots include Pilot in Cihangir, Anna Laudel in Gümüşsuyu, Sanatorium in Karaköy and PG Art Gallery in Cukurcuma, which is also home to some of the best vintage shops in town. 

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Anna Laudel Istanbul, Kazancı Yokuşu No.45

When it comes to museums, we recommend a whizz around the National Palaces Paintings Museum and the Meşher exhibition space on Istiklal Street. If you’ve been to Istanbul before, then head to the Sabanci Museum, now home to the celebrated private collection of the Sabanci family as well as one of Istanbul’s finest restaurants. Another highlight is Arter in Dolapdere, a vibrant cultural hub housing works belonging to renowned Turkish art collector Omer Koç.

Where To Stay

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Soho House Istanbul

Nestled in the heart of buzzing Beyoğlu, Soho House Istanbul makes for a stylish base. Set in Palazzo Corpi, the former home of a Genoese merchant, it boasts soaring ceilings, marble staircases, storied frescoes and epic views across the Golden Horn. Rooms are prettily furnished with traditional Turkish accents, and bathrooms feature heavenly rainfall showers. As with all Soho Houses, the perk of staying here is access to the member’s club. Feast in the club restaurant or on the terrace in summer, before heading up to the rooftop bar for a nightcap. On Friday and Saturday nights, the main bar area transforms into a dance floor. Come morning, freshen up with a treatment in the Cowshed spa – the signature moody massage is highly recommended – or a workout with the in-house personal trainers. Afterwards, treat yourself to a killer brunch at Cecconi’s. 

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Soho House Istanbul

A little further north, in Istanbul’s glitziest neighbourhood, The Stay Boulevard Nisantasi is the latest opening from Turkey’s first carbon-neutral independent hotel group The Stay. There are nods to sustainability throughout the minimalist design – expect vegan leather headboards, recycled room keys and bathroom amenities from local perfumier Atelier Rebul. The comfortable-chic rooms come courtesy of Turkish architect Mahmut Anlar and most feature walk-in closets, grand marble bathrooms and clean, simple lines that serve as a calming antidote to the bustle outside. Aesthetes will appreciate the eye-catching artworks dotted around the lobby. A wellness floor and rooftop restaurant are scheduled to open this autumn. Stay tuned.

Where To Eat

Talk of the town is the new Roka Istanbul, serving its authentic Robatayaki cuisine a stone’s throw from the water’s edge in Galataport. The panoramic Bosphorus views make this the perfect spot for dinner à deux, so be sure to book well in advance. Delightful waiters deliver Roka favourites with the perfect balance of professionalism and charm – order the yellowtail sashimi with yuzu-truffle dressing and the Korean spiced lamb cutlets with a side of Roka’s signature baked potato. For pudding, the Hokkaido cheesecake is a must. As for cocktails, opt for the Smokey Mead or Roka’s take on a classic Negroni.

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Roka Istanbul
Istanbul: The Definitive City Guide And Best Things To DoPin
Roka Istanbul terrace

Smelt & Co. demands a pilgrimage to Balat, a quirky residential area best known for its cobbled streets, colourful houses and smattering of vintage shops. The restaurant’s unassuming facade belies its handsome interiors – expect high ceilings, linen curtains and natural woods. Equally seductive is the inventive menu, featuring a range of Turkish fusion dishes and Kombucha-based cocktails. 

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Yeni Lokanta

For a contemporary take on Turkish cuisine, it doesn’t get better than Yeni Lokanta. A favourite of discerning Istanbulites, it oozes sophisticated charm and offers an ever-changing menu packed with gutsy flavour and fresh ingredients. Yeni Lokanta’s star chef Civan Er also oversees a sister restaurant in London’s Soho, Yeni London, where you’ll find his signature dishes made from British ingredients. 

Where To Drink

You can’t move for tea, coffee and cake shops in Istanbul, which can make selecting one a daunting task. For your morning refuel, head to the rooftop terrace at Popstel. It offers big frothy coffees, delicious sweet and savoury croissants and incredible views across the Golden Horn. Tip up before midday to dodge the hordes of Instagrammers.

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The Popstel Istanbul

Enjoy a pre-dinner rosé or raki (a traditional Turkish aperitif) at Bomontiada, a multi-disciplinary arts hub with restaurants and bars arranged around a central courtyard. Nightcaps are best savoured up high: book a table at the rooftop bar of The Georges Hotel for a twinkling cityscape.

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St Georges Hotel

Where To Shop

As one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, the Grand Bazaar has an extraordinary 4000-plus shops, selling a kaleidoscopic range of textiles, ceramics, clothes and jewels. Its bustling centre can quickly feel overwhelming though, so go as early as possible to avoid the crowds. While you’re in the area, pit-stop at the Spice Bazaar, which brims with dried fruits, nuts, Turkish delight and much, much more.

Glitzy Nisantasi is the home of designer shopping in Istanbul. If you’re after luxurious, contemporary Turkish textiles, Kutnia’s range of womenswear and homeware is made from kutnu, the traditional silk and cotton hand woven fabric favoured by the Ottoman court, their sustainable designs characterised by bold, brilliant colours and patterns.

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Istanbul: The Definitive City Guide And Best Things To DoPin
Kutnia

A short walk away is Désolé, a beautifully curated concept store founded by Danish siblings Oliver and Emilie Lassen. And do browse the Istanbul’74 Online Shop, which offers unique collaborations with artists and galleries, as well as a wide range of artisan accessories from Turkey and beyond.

Only In Istanbul

 No trip to Istanbul is complete without a soak in a traditional hammam. Of all the bathhouses in the city, our favourite is Hürrem Sultan Hamami, a 16th century Turkish bath nestled between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. We love the 80-minute Zevk-I Sefa package, comprising a traditional body scrub, relaxing bubble wash and aromatherapy massage. You’ll come out feeling refreshed in mind, body and spirit.

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Hürrem Sultan Hamami

For an easy day trip, head to Princes’ Islands, a cluster of nine car-free islands off the coast of Istanbul. Take the ferry from Eminönü or Kabataş to the main island Büyükada, where you can rent bikes from the main port area. Make your way to the Greek Orthodox monastery for some of the best views on the island (trust us, it’s worth the uphill ride), before lunch and a sea swim at Eskibag Teras Restaurant. Stop for a coffee or a cocktail at the magnificent Splendid Palas Hotel before taking the ferry home.

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Büyükada Island

For a wonderfully romantic experience, hop aboard the Venice Simplon Orient-Express in Istanbul and wend your way to Paris. Over the course of five days, you’ll dine in splendour, breakfast in bed and visit some of the greatest wonders of the world. Encapsulating the glitz and glamour of the 1920s, this is languorous travel at its finest. Bon voyage.

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Venice Simplon Orient-Express

One Final Thing

The traffic in Istanbul is very stop-start, so our best advice is to travel by bus, metro or ferry. Although not overly glamorous, these modes of transport are the most reliable and comfortable the city has to offer. Pick up an Istanbulkart (the city’s equivalent to Oyster) at any metro stop before hopping on. 

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Galataport waterside development

If you’d like to explore quiet corners on foot, make a beeline for the city’s pedestrianised zones such as Istiklal Street or the new Galataport waterside development. For something heartier, walk along the Bosphorus from Ortaköy to Bebek, where you can reward your efforts with lunch at the ever-popular neighbourhood restaurant Lucca

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