From centuries old sites to rooftops with Bosphorus views and design-conscious hotels and eateries, editor of Carl Goes city guides Sasha Arms explores Istanbul’s thriving city life and locally-adored neighbourhoods.

With its mind-boggling history, unexampled geography and swarming streets, Istanbul is a city like no other. While many sites and relics in the city date back hundreds if not thousands of years, the city enjoys its status as being the only one in the world that straddles two continents, and locals nonchalantly refer to neighbourhoods as being either in Asia or Europe. Bisecting Asian and European Istanbul is the Bosphorus Strait that connects the Marmara and Black Seas; a remarkable expanse of water with a boating scene as thriving as the landed parts of the city.

Turkish Coffee (Sasha Arms)

Turkish Coffee (Sasha Arms)

With a population of more than 14 million, modern day Istanbul has a high-spirited and zealous feeling. When the bustle of the streets gets too much, time is spent sipping apple tea and thick sweet coffee. The nectarous scent of nargile pipes fills the air, while kaleidoscopic glass lamps glint in the sun and the atmospheric sound of the call to prayer from the city’s 3,000 mosques drifts along the alleyways. This provides the backdrop to an increasingly creative community setting up quirky businesses and design-conscious ventures, placing Istanbul as a city breezily connecting time-honoured traditions with visionary edge. There’s no other place quite like Istanbul.

Central Beyoğlu

Galata Tower (Sasha Arms)

Galata Tower (Sasha Arms)

The central part of the neighbourhood of Beyoğlu is a centre of nightlife and arts in the city, as well as being a diplomatic centre with a number of foreign embassies. The famous Istiklal Street is a hub of activity, with shoppers and the nostalgic tramline whizzing along by day, and revellers enjoying the street and nearby bars by night. The Galata Mevlevihanesi whirling dervish hall opens its doors once a day to allow visitors to watch the traditional Sufi practice, while the cone-topped Galata Tower is nearby, which offers great views of the city as well as a café/restaurant inside. Another must-visit spot in the area is the Museum of Innocence by the Turkish Nobel-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Going hand-in-hand with Pamuk’s novel of the same name, the museum and audio tour is a multi-sensory literary-rooted experience that takes visitors to another time and place. It’s just how museums should be, and Pamuk’s museum manifesto in the lobby details this in no uncertain terms.

For a place to stay in the area, look no further than i’zaz lofts. With just four lofts available, staying at i’zaz lofts gives the feeling of having your own apartment in the city. The New York inspired spot has a spiral staircase running from top to bottom and carefully designed spaces to stay in. Without a doubt, the pièce de résistance of i’zaz lofts is the indoor-outdoor rooftop room. Comfy seats and a fully equipped kitchen makes it the ideal spot for quiet evenings of eating and drinking.

i’zaz lofts Rooftop (Sasha Arms)

i’zaz lofts Rooftop (Sasha Arms)

Dining out in Beyoğlu brings an abundance of options. A stone’s throw from the i’zaz lofts is the pedestrianised Nevizade Street, with people spilling out of the bars and restaurants onto pavement outside. Krependeki Imroz is one that offers traditional Turkish mezze and you can choose from a huge tray of dishes so you can see what you’re getting before you buy. The nearby Limonlu Bahçe (Lemon Garden) is a hidden-away courtyard spot loved by locals. For a modern twist on Turkish food, Yeni Lokanta is a great option. Iznik tiles, green low slung pendant lights and walls lined with jars of pickling onions sets the mood for the food to come. The mezze selections bring together the best of the restaurant’s offerings, including bulgur salad with sour cherries, shrimp-stuffed zucchini flowers and Yeni Lokanta’s speciality, aubergine dumplings. Post-meal teas are ideally accompanied with the restaurant’s fig baklava: served like samosas with the most delicious cream.

Whirling Dervish (Sasha Arms)

Whirling Dervish (Sasha Arms)

For a splash-out meal in Beyoğlu, the rooftop Nicole is the place to go. The elegant interior has Bosphorus views and the menu blends French inspiration with Turkish and local produce. Diners choose one of two tasting menus, which include dishes like tomato, pistachio and nectarine salad, octopus with mood-filled smoky sauces, and lamb sucuk with harissa and hummus. It’s the ideal spot for a gastronomic journey in pristine surroundings.

Karaköy

Antique Shop (Sasha Arms)

Antique Shop (Sasha Arms)

This emerging neighbourhood, also in the Beyoğlu district, is one of the most historic parts of the city, that’s becoming increasingly popular with Istanbul’s hipster generation. Tiny side streets are filled with trendsetting Antipodean-styled coffee shops, and art and antique shops like Karaköy Junk. It’s tempting to stay in Karaköy’s trendy bubble, but this neighbourhood is ideally located to reach Istanbul’s Old Town too.

Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Background (Sasha Arms)

Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in Background (Sasha Arms)

Wandering across the Galata Bridge and the gorgeous smells from the restaurants clinging to its underbelly, takes you to all the famous spots of old Istanbul. The striking Topkapı Palace was the residence of Ottoman sultans from the 1400s to the 1800s and has an assortment of rooms and relics to explore, from the harem to the Imperial Treasury. The dramatic Hagia Sophia dates back to 537 and has been a Christian basilica and imperial mosque over the years. The scale of the shadowy interior is monumental and the remaining religious markings a powerful reminder of times past. The subterranean Basilica Cistern nearby was built in the 6th century and is the largest of hundreds of ancient cisterns lying underneath the city. Also nearby is the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque) with its six minarets. Visitors are welcome in between prayer times: remember to dress modestly. For shopping sprees and a good bit of haggling, the Grand Bazaar is the place to go in Istanbul.

Grand Bazaar (Sasha Arms)

Grand Bazaar (Sasha Arms)

By far the most original hotel back in Karaköy is the industrial-chic SuB Karaköy. Rooms are carefully designed with exposed concrete, rounded metallic bedsteads, mismatched pendant lights and steel clad bathroom cabins. Space for guests extends from the comfortable city crash pads into the downstairs chill-out room, where a hearty breakfast is laid out in the mornings and like-minded people chill out during free afternoons alongside the amiable staff.

Hummus at neolokal (Sasha Arms)

Hummus at neolokal (Sasha Arms)

Dining options in Karaköy are at the forefront of Istanbul’s foodie scene. neolokal by talented chef Maksut Aşkar is top of the list. Found inside SALT Galata, the former Imperial Ottoman bank headquarters, neolokal offers quintessential Istanbul views over the Galata Bridge and old town. Blending traditional Anatolian food with a modern passion for local produce, neolokal offers a treat-filled dining experience. Homely dishes include the likes of Aşkar’s hummus, a family recipe presented like a garden with fresh herbs on top, and freshly baked sour dough. The five or seven course tasting menus, with optional wine pairings from Turkish vineyards, are the ideal way to get the true flavour of Aşkar’s genius.

After a day in the old town, another must-visit restaurant is Asitane, tucked away in the neighbourhood of Edirnekapi. The restaurant has painstakingly studied the ledgers of Istanbul’s palace kitchens and the memoirs of diplomats to recreate old Ottoman dishes. Delicacies on the menu include almond soup, baked melon stuffed with mincemeat, rice and nuts, and chicken stew flavoured with cinnamon.

Ortaköy

For a little respite from the bustle of Beyoğlu, Ortaköy in the Besiktas district of the city is the ideal spot. Found in the shadows of the Bosphorus Bridge, this sweet neighbourhood was previously a fishing village, and is all about life by the waterside. A smattering of cafés and restaurants surround a square by the water, making it the ideal spot for people-watching and enjoying the peaceful café culture.

View of Old Town from the Radisson Blu (Sasha Arms)

View of Old Town from the Radisson Blu (Sasha Arms)

The Radisson Blu Bosphorus Hotel occupies an enviable position on the water; the business suites even have small terraces with idyllic views over the Bosphorus and the old town beyond. It’s the most tranquil and striking spot we found in the whole city. Guests also have access to an impressive hot and cold breakfast buffet, including fresh tea leaves to concoct your own tea creations. Seating is on the terrace by the Bosphorus, making it the ideal way to start the day.

You can’t visit Turkey without enjoying a hammam experience, and the Radisson Blu Bosphorus Hotel has hammam facilities in its basement wellness area. Resident hammam master Ayken performed our hammam treatment in the steamy marble room over the course of a couple of hours. We were scrubbed, stretched and splashed with hot and cold water, and by the end, felt like new and improved versions of ourselves.

There are various dining options in and around Ortaköy. Sunset Grill and Bar is a glamourous hilltop restaurant above the neighbourhood, favoured by Istanbul’s suited, booted, rich and famous. Privileged views over the Bosphorus and suspension bridge go side-by-side with the extensive menu blending Turkish, Mediterranean and Japanese flavours. The eclectic menu includes the likes of pepper and prawn tempura, Dragon rolls offering crunch and spice, huge rib eye steaks and delicate red snapper with saffron risotto.

The Four Seasons Bosphorus also offers a refined dining experience, this time right by the water. The Italian inspired menu offers an original take on bruschetta — topped with baby calamari — as well as fresh fish such as grilled wild seabass. As the sun goes down, waterside fire-lit beacons creates an elegant and exclusive mood, making it the ideal spot to wend away an evening.

Çengelköy

Dinner at Four Seasons (Sasha Arms)

Dinner at Four Seasons (Sasha Arms)

For those wishing to stay on the Asian side of Istanbul, Çengelköy is a vibrant waterside neighbourhood in the Üsküdar district of the city. Peppered with old Ottoman mansions, pretty seafood restaurants and seating areas by the water, Çengelköy has a feeling of the local about it. Sumahan on the Water is a boutique design hotel built inside a 19th century suma factory — suma is the spirit used to make the locally-loved raki. The hotel is one of the few places in Istanbul that offers a true slice of peace. Rooms come with views of the water and binoculars to help guests become truly acquainted with life on the water. The cosy hotel terrace is the perfect spot to eat a traditional Turkish breakfast, wend away afternoons with a Bosphorus breeze and watch the sunset in the evening. For those who don’t want to go far for dinner, the hotel’s restaurant, Tapasuma, attracts Istanbulites and visitors from across the city. The Turkish and Mediterranean menu offers hot and cold tapas dishes, such as creamy aubergine salad, and grilled calamari — served un-breaded and un-sliced.

View from Sumahan on the Water (Sasha Arms)

View from Sumahan on the Water (Sasha Arms)

For those who want to venture away from the tranquillity of Sumahan on the Water, guests can take advantage of free boat services throughout the day. Those wishing to spend a day in the city can catch the boat to Kabataş, a thriving ferry stop where the old town is just a few stops away by tram. It’s also next door to the Dolmabahçe Palace, Istanbul’s most opulent palace. In the evening, Sumahan boats go across the water to Kuruçeşme, a popular stop for yachters. As the sun sets, cafés there fill up with locals and visitors playing games, drinking tea and smoking nargile.

***

Turkey’s leading airline Pegasus recently launched flights from London Gatwick to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen, offering six flights a week; from £89.99 one-way including taxes and charges. Pegasus connects London Gatwick to a total of 45 destinations in Turkey and beyond. Pegasus also flies twice a day to Istanbul from Stansted connecting guests onto 53 destinations.

Find out more about Sasha Arms at: www.sashaarms.com

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Topkapı Palace (Sasha Arms)

Topkapı Palace (Sasha Arms)


Fly.com Expert Tips


How To Get There: Istanbul has two international airports: Istanbul Atatürk Airport (IST) and Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (SAW). If you’re flying from the U.S., you’ll be flying into Atatürk and Turkish Airlines offers nonstop service to from Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York JFK and San Francisco. Atatürk, located 15 miles west of downtwn, is served by over 50 international airlines including Air Canada, SWISS, Lufthansa and more. Gökçen, located a little over 20 miles southeast of the city, is served by European and Middle Eastern Airlines including Norwegian Air Shuttle, Qatar Airways, Turkish and more. Information regarding area transportation is available here.
Best Time To Visit: Fall is by far one of the best times to visit Istanbul. The summer holiday crowds will be gone, the airfare and hotel rates are lower, and the daytime temperature is in the low-60s to mid-70s range, although it can get nippy at night. If you’re budget  conscious, the months of December and January will have even lower airfare and hotel.

Sample Fares: Calendars display lowest roundtrip fares over the next 90 days to Istanbul from:

* All fares are roundtrip including all taxes and are accurate at time of publication. For updated pricing, conduct a new search on Fly.com.


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Featured Image: Old Town, Istanbul (Sasha Arms)

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