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It took three and a half decades, but I finally made it to Istanbul.
What was I waiting for, given how easily and often I travel around the globe? Well, at 19, in all my wisdom I decided — under the influence of Jitterbug Perfume and its tales of harems and kings and concubines — that Istanbul was a place to see only when I was truly, madly, deeply in love with the person I would love forever. A person who was nowhere on the horizon in those late teenage years.
“That’s cute,” my mother said at the time, “and ridiculous.”
She had a point. But that high-minded, literary first impression left me convinced that Istanbul — a city of sweeping romance, history, and intrigue — was not to be taken lightly.
And now, having finally visited, I have to say I was right on the money.
This is a city to experience in big, grand style.
So that’s what I did.
When Beauty Overwhelms
My husband (he of truly/madly/deeply) and I landed at Istanbul airport, a facility at once impressive, efficient, and entertaining — the same of which can be said for emerging aviation juggernaut Turkish Airlines. We spent our first nights in the vibrant Karaköy neighborhood in the Beyoğlu area, which sits on the Golden Horn, the waterway that pours into the Bosphorus, across from Sultanahmet, the neighborhood that’s home to the attractions that help make Istanbul the most visited city in the world. (This is only the first dispatch I’ll be writing about my trip.)
It would be hard to say which palace or mosque complex in Sultanahmet deserves the prize for most impressive, but it sure would be an engaging aesthetic battle.
Consider the contenders:
Get your cameras ready, because you’ll run out of storage space before you run out of things to photograph at Süleymaniye Mosque, a breathtaking complex of domes, minarets, gold-painted inscriptions, tiles, stained glass, and tombs built by architect Mimar Sinan in 1550 for Süleyman I the Magnificent.
You’ll need another camera entirely to capture Topkapi Palace— tiles! gold! marble! jewels! thrones! Consider the mere names of the attractions herein: Gate of Felicity, Imperial Treasury, Courtyard of the Eunuchs, Passage of Concubines, Apartments of the Queen Mother, Baths of the Sultan. If these walls could talk, we’d all be blushing. They can’t, so instead we’ll spend hours with mouths agape, wandering through courtyards and harem, admiring the handiwork and artistry that abounds at every turn.
For all the wonders I saw above ground, I was not expecting what I found below: Basilica Cistern. Built by Byzantine emperor Justinian I in the 6th century and the largest of many cisterns designed to deliver water to the city, it can hold 80,000 tons of water (the mind reels) and is supported by hundreds of marble columns. Visitors walk through the space along a platform; modern sculptures have been placed in the water underfoot.
The lines to get into Hagia Sophia are ridiculous, easily several hours long. They were much shorter at the end of the day, but because it’s an active mosque, we were ushered out when services began. Originally built as an Eastern Orthodox church in 360 A.D., it was converted into a mosque in the 1400s and overtly Christian details like images of Jesus and Mary were covered or painted over. (Some remain, and I had fun spotting stray angels lingering overhead.) In 1935, the mosque was converted into a museum, and in 2020 it became a mosque again. As of a few months ago, only Muslims are allowed into the prayer room on the ground floor; non-Muslims can only visit a designated area on the second floor.
And therein lies a metaphor for Istanbul in a nutshell — centuries of back-and-forth clashes between Christian, Muslim, and secular forces. The more things change…
In fact, Hagia Sophia could use a spruce up to fix the peeling paint that detracts from its splendor. Not so the Blue Mosque, which reopened in May 2023 after a nine-year renovation and is more stunning than ever.
Can you handle one more beautiful mosque, more walls of elaborate blue Iznik tiles? Of course you can. Rustem Pasha Mosque is an absolute gem — small, stunning, and practically empty when we visited.
Battling the Bazaar
Word to the wise: Do not go into the Grand Bazaar if you have no self control around gorgeous objects. You’ll go broke, to say nothing for the excess baggage fees you’ll incur getting all those suzanis, kaftans, and tea cups home. Better to head into the warren — more than 4,000 shops along 66 streets and 21 entrances — with a strategic plan of attack.
Yazzma is the place for colorful, embroidered textiles for the home. Suzanis and ikats, folded floor to ceiling, a sea of tablecloths, tote bags, slippers, cushions, bedspreads, and more. Ask for Ibrahim.
For five generations, Iznik Works has been selling pottery, ceramics, and tiles made with techniques dating back to the 8th century, with an emphasis on traditional Iznik styles. Vases, bowls, cups, decorative objects, plates. Settle in with a cup of tea offered by Ismail, and prepare to redecorate your dining room.
The most interesting work I saw was at Nick’s, a tiny, jam-packed shop down a tight alley where artist Nick Merdenyan hand-paints florals, symbols of the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), and calligraphed messages of peace onto dried leaves. His business card reads “Missionary Leaves of Tolerance and Peace,” and right now he may be busier than ever. (Note that the website linked is the one listed on his business card. It wasn’t working when we last checked, but it’s worth refreshing the page.)
“Need” is a relative concept when we’re talking about jewelry, but I had recently lost a gold hoop earring, and was glad to buy a new pair from Sümbül Karaagaç, the only woman jeweler in the bazaar at her shop, Sara Jewellery (Kalpakçilar Cadessi, #17). If she doesn’t have what you’re looking for, Adem Kurtulmuş at Liebe Jewels next door (#19) probably will.
Silk kaftans? Hand embroidered scarves? Cashmere shawls? Step right up: Ilyas Aksu at Cashmere House and Kaftan House is your man.
Stock up on boxes of baklava, candy floss, and Turkish delight at HazerBaba in the Spice Bazaar, and you’ll be the hit at dinner parties for months to come.
We spent the first few nights at The Bank Hotel, a Design Hotel that makes its home in the former headquarters of the First Central Bank of the Ottoman Empire, which traces its roots back to 1867. Sixteen architecture students had a hand in the renovation that began in 2010, from the old vaults in the basement (now a private dining room and wine cellar) to The Bank Roof Bar (high marks for views, cocktails, and snacks). The 62-room hotel occupies two buildings and is lovely, centrally located, and exceedingly comfortable. High ceilings, hand-painted with floral and geometric patterns, make for generously proportioned rooms, while architectural and design elements, like marble columns and a palette of mossy greens and earthy ochres, lend a warmth to all the spaces, and especially the lobby, where breakfast and drinks are served. Historic artifacts like old cash registers and framed stock certificates keep the building’s history alive, while its sustainability policies ensure a bright future.
After visiting all those royal sites — I haven’t even mentioned Dolmabahçe Palace because I’m trying to keep this tight, but wow — I wanted to experience living in Ottoman majesty, and the only way to do that is at Çırağan Palace Kempinski. We stayed in a two-floor suite overlooking the Bosphorus in the historic Mansion building. (The bathroom was bigger than my first Manhattan apartment.) I felt dizzy as I explored the grounds — so many marble columns, chandeliers, overstuffed sofas, swimming pools, gardens, and ballrooms. An excellent exhibition tells the colorful history of the palace; you’ll find it in the passageway linking the mansion to the newer hotel building, which has just undergone a top-to-bottom makeover. The staff were attentive and kind, indulging us more than anyone deserves. How indulgent? They let me visit the hamam that is closed off to anyone who isn’t, you know, a president or Oprah.
The Peninsula Istanbul opened in 2023 in Galataport, the new development along the Bosphorus that includes retail, dining, Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture, and the world’s first underground cruise ship terminal. The hotel, spread across four buildings, three from the early 1900s, has killer views of the Golden Horn and Sultanahmet and a private dock for guest use (so glam). The spa is notable, but the star is the mosaic-tiled indoor pool, whose overhead domes, when reflected in the water, look like nazars, the traditional amulets that protect against the evil eye.
We didn’t have a single bad meal in Istanbul. We started on a high note at Sofyali, a taverna-style restaurant where waiters come to the table with a tray spilling with meze. You get to select as much as you want. More, please.
We found a similar vibe — ustling, old-school — on the second floor of the Spice Market at Pandeli, which has been serving börek, köfte, kebabı, and more to locals and dignitaries since 1901.
Continuing the “see food, eat food” theme: At contemporary bistro Karaköy Lokantasi, gleaming display cases packed with salads, marinated vegetables, and spreads are the first thing diners see. I walked over with my waiter, pointed at way too many things, and left feeling stuffed like a grape leaf and very, very happy.
Our foodiest meal was a Efendy, a loft-like, plant-filled restaurant with an open kitchen. Chef and owner Somer Sivrioğlu does a modern interpretation of traditional Anatolian cuisine, all creatively and minimally plated. I particularly liked tarama with pomelo served on a bed of rocks. The restaurant deserves the global acclaim it receives.
A Royal Treatment
I’ve had my fair share of hamam experiences, but none quite like that at Kiliç Ali Paşa Hamam, where I felt like being washed in a cloud. After checking in and stripping down, I was escorted to a seat in a round communal room entirely made of marble and was tended to by a nice woman who repeatedly covered me in bubbles and scrubbed and buffed me from head to toe until I felt like silk. Easily a highlight of my week. The late 1550s bathhouse designed by Sinan (there he is again) was originally built for Ottoman sailors and is now open daily: women only from 8 a.m.-4 p.m., men from 4:45 until 11:30 p.m. Reservations recommended.
My Grand Vizier
Every great sultan had a grand vizier, his head of state and most trusted advisor. I found mine in Güzin Sapmaz. From the moment she greeted us at Istanbul airport, she was invaluable. Officially our tour guide, she quickly took on the role of teacher, instigator, co-conspirator, and, in short order, friend. Considering that her guiding services had been arranged for us for the duration of our trip through Türkiye — with no input from us, I might add — and that a ten-day blind date is an absolute recipe for disaster, we lucked out. Güzin is a superstar — flexible about changing established plans on the fly, fearless when confronted with my unrealistically long to-do list. Whip smart, funny, and fun, she’s a font of thoughtful and thought-provoking insights and stories, always ready for another hand of cards (she taught us pişti, the Turkish game we still play), and equipped with an appetite as big as ours. (She specializes in gastronomy tours.) How smart is she? Well, while I like to think my husband and I are inquisitive and engaged travelers, I am aware there’s a fine line between curious and badgering. It took ten days of traveling around Türkiye for us to ask a question Güzin couldn’t immediately answer. In a word, she made our trip.
Logistics: You can book Guzin’s services directly by contacting her at email@example.com, or you can request her through the fixers listed below. As for tipping, 50 USD or euros per day is a good rate for private guides. Dollars and euros are preferable to (read: more stable than) Turkish lira.
If you want help arranging a trip to Istanbul or all around Türkiye, these are the local fixers I know and recommend.
Ziya Gökmen at Travel Refinery made all the arrangements for my ten-day trip around Türkiye to Istanbul, Ephesus, Cappadocia — drivers, itinerary, reservations, flights, and, best of all, Guzin. Specializing in travel around Türkiye and Greece, their sail around the Turkish Riviera in a luxury gullet sounds especially tempting as I type this on a frigid day in New York City.
In addition to arranging full trip itineraries and guides like Guzin, Istanbul Tour Studio also offers daily tours and excursions (rowing on the Bosphorus, foodie tours, street photography walks) at very reasonable rates. Company founder Sinan Sökmen and his journalist wife Seda Domaniç co-wrote Monday to Sunday Istanbul, an outstanding guide brimming with creative and engaging things to do as well as interviews with Istanbulites — the book makes for an outstanding souvenir. (In full disclosure, Seda is a good friend.)
Eda Sökmen, Sinan’s sister, has her own excellent company, Istanbulite, offering complete bespoke trip planning and tours (birdwatching, sailing, paper marbling). She booked our dinner at Sofyali, and they treated us like visiting friends when we walked in.
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