Straddling Asia and Europe, the cosmopolitan, 14 million people strong city of Istanbul is one of the most fascinating in the world. After all, where else can you brag about being in two continents on the same day? Guided by Amaze by Neon Tours, a bespoke luxury travel planner in Istanbul, we visited the Turkish capital to bring you our top 10 things to do:
1. Check into Tomtom Suites
Located in the upscale, consulate district of Istanbul, Tomtom Suites is a former convent turned luxury boutique hotel with just 20 beautifully appointed suites. Although the building is over a century old, the SLH hotel (part of Small Luxury Hotels Of The World) is chic, modern and intimate with solid wood flooring, Carrera marble bathrooms and colourful artworks displayed.
Spread across four floors, the hotel serves an amazing breakfast spread every morning at the rooftop Terrace Bar, complete with panoramic, sunny views over the Bosphorus. By night, the top floor converts into the hotel’s renowned fine dining restaurant, Nicole, where in-house chef Aylin impresses with an East-meets-West, Turkish-inspired multi-course menu.
2. Try some Turkish delights
You can’t visit Turkey without trying their local specialties, and the Spice Bazaar is the perfect place to start. Colourful, vibrant and packed with local spices and delicacies (including all kinds of Turkish delight and sinfully sweet baklava in all shapes and sizes), it’s an all-sensory experience that you’ll want to bring home.
Outside of the Spice Bazaar, settle into one of the many coffee shops like Hafiz Mustafa for a taste of Turkish coffee. It’s especially potent because it’s unfiltered, and the grounds are often used for fortune-telling—simply turn the cup upside down onto the saucer and wait for it to cool, and see what the sediments tell you.
3. Haggle to your heart’s content at the Grand Bazaar
Prepare to get lost in what’s considered to be the oldest shopping mall in the world—the Grand Bazaar. Here, you can practice your haggling skills in over 4,000 shops across 61 streets, although we wouldn’t recommend spending more than a few hours doing so.
Many shops sell the same things (whether it’s carpets, bowls, jewellery, or backgammon sets), making it the perfect place to pick up souvenirs—but you’d be better be serious before putting out an offer, or risk being chased out by an angry shop owner.
4. Get a taste of history
Make time to see all the major sights in Istanbul, including Hagia Sophia, the former Byzantine church and mosque with uncovered mosaics of Biblical scenes (bonus points if you spot its resident cat and internet celebrity, Gli).
Next, visit the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern located just a few minutes from each other, and spend a few hours exploring the grand Topkapı Palace, the first and most famous of the Ottoman Sultans’ residences built in 1465 and used for over 400 years.
The arms museum, which covers 1,300 years of weaponry, is particularly impressive, as is the sacred relics room that houses Moses’s staff and Muhammad’s footprint.
5. Explores antiques in the Çukurcuma district
Go treasure hunting in the lively district of Çukurcuma, an area lined with antique shops, interior designers and vintage shops.
There you’ll find the multi-talented Oytun Berktan, a ridiculously good-looking interior designer/artist/painter/opera singer who’ll not only invite you into his cosy showroom, but give you a private performance of his opera repertoire while playing the piano, if you're lucky (seriously, what can’t this man do?).
6. Take a cruise along the Bosphorus
See both the European and Asian sides of Istanbul from the water by taking a private yacht along the Bosphorus. With covered and outdoor areas to enjoy the view, and complimentary tea and fruit, you'll pass many palaces, fortresses, mansions and bridges that are located along the shores of the city.
A two-hour cruise is an ample time to see most of the sights, and we recommend taking the boat out in the late afternoon to enjoy the sunset as you cruise back into town.
7. Stay like a celeb at Les Ottomans
Experience opulence done right at Les Ottomans Hotel, another gorgeous SLH hotel located further from the city right on the Bosphorus strait.
With a guest list that includes Paris Hilton, Jennifer Lopez and Kevin Costner, the stylish hotel is dripping in decadence with Ottoman-styled interiors, an outdoor bar/restaurant frequented by high society and a Caudalie Vinothérapie® Spa with its own gym and pilates studio.
8. Enjoy a night out at Ortakoy
Mix with the cool kids at one of Istanbul’s hippest neighbourhoods, Ortakoy, which is located right at the base of the first Bosphorus bridge on the European side.
An area peppered with cafes, restaurants, nightclubs and small shops that’s located in the middle of a mosque, church and synagogue, the former resort village for Ottoman dignitaries is now packed with a mix of young Turkish locals and tourists.
9. Get scrubbed down at a Turkish hammam
No trip to Turkey is complete without a visit to a local bathhouse, or hammam. The ritual of public bathing, steaming and massage go way back to the 14th century and are now available in both traditional and modern forms in Istanbul.
While traditional forms can be somewhat rough (especially with the body scrubs), many hotel spas now offer their own versions of hammam with a slightly gentler, more relaxing approach. The treatment will have you foamed, scrubbed and massaged while lying on a heated marble slab, and instead of getting rinsed off with steady water pressure from a shower head, warm water is splashed over your body to wash all tensions away.
10. Check out the Turkish Airlines airport lounge
Before heading home, be sure to arrive at the airport early to enjoy the Turkish Airlines airport lounge, which is a serious contender for being the best airport lounge in the world.
With luggage lockers, a pool table, piano, massages, a cinema, miniature race car track, kid’s corner, and plenty of delicious Turkish and international food and drink, the only downside is the (very real) risk of missing your flight.
Turkish Airlines flies direct to Istanbul from Asia's major cities including Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
Special thanks to Small Luxury Hotels of the World, Amaze by Neon Tours and Turkish Airlines