Merhaba! Istanbul, Turkey is one of the most beautiful and memorable places I have ever had a chance to experience. The city is bustling with culture, good food, history and contemporary hipness.
Turkish Airlines now offers nonstop flights from LA and NY to Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Air France and Lufthansa fly to Istanbul as well, but neither fly direct. If you’re like Messi or Kobe Bryant and can’t wait to get there, then ‘shooting’ through the 13 hour flight from LAX might just be your thing. As Turkish Airlines is a Star Alliance member, you can be earning points with any of the Miles&Smiles programs and use your points to fly with Turkish Airlines. For a full list of the members in the programs, check out the Star Alliance Network.
Getting from place-to-place in Istanbul is easy with the various options available– taxi, dolmus, bus and ferry. The dolmus is a shuttle that waits until all seats are filled from the starting location before it heads off onto its route. The ferry is a great way to go to any of the islands a few miles off the coast. Waving down a taxi is also a good and inexpensive option to move around the neighborhoods within the city.
LODGING AND HOTELS
The top hotels in Turkey flawlessly combine luxury, elegance and comfort. Depending on where in Istanbul you plan to stay, hotel quality varies, as do the prices.
Located in the heart of Istanbul, the Ritz-Carlton encompasses what Istanbul stands for: culture, contemporary grace and unforgettable memories. From family to presidential suites, there are several room options to choose from with historic Ottoman Empire inspired decor. One of the most notable feature of the hotel, is the fine dining experience at the Cintemani restaurant with a fabulous Mediterranean menu.
The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card not only gives card holders a free night at the hotel, but also complimentary airport lounge access in hundreds of airports. The current signup offer for this card is 70,000 bonus points for spending $2,000 in the first three months and includes $100 in credit to be used towards perks like spa treatments or dinner during a two or more night stay at the Ritz.
There are several Hilton options to choose from in Istanbul, including the Double Tree. However, the Hilton Conrad location is the most convenient because of the nearby attractions like Taksim and Dolmabahce. AAA has also given the hotel a 5 star rating. Hilton Conrad suites are spacious and guarantee first-class comfort. For guests that are looking for a workout there are three tennis courts, two swimming pools and a fitness gym.
Hilton HHonors offers several different credit cards including the Surpass Card from American Express for an annual fee of $75. There is a 40,000 HHonors Bonus Points offer after making your first purchase. An additional 20,000 points is available for making $3,000 in purchases within the first three months.
Marriott offers several options for hotels, but the most chic is the Edition Istanbul. The suites are designed modern and chic with imported linen and over-sized LCD flat screen televisions. Edition Istanbul offers a three floor spa, which also includes a couples cabin and a traditional hamam. The hotel is also home to the popular Billionaire’s Nightclub for an evening of cocktails and lounging.
Marriott Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase offers a lucrative deal for hotel savings. For one, it doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees there and there is no annual fee the first year. The credit card also offers a 50,000 point sign up bonus after making $1,000 in purchases in the first three months of enrollment, which can amount to 7 free nights at a Marriott hotel.
Radisson Blu located right on the Bosphorus is a smaller hotel with only 122 rooms and is a showstopper. It offers a Five-Star spa service, relaxing suites and waterfront restaurants. They also offer a 20% discount for reservations that are made 28 days in advance.
Since Radisson is part of a the Club Carlson rewards program which is currently offering 85,000 Bonus Gold Points after spending $2,500 or 50,000 points after the first purchase in the first three months after signing up with the Premier Rewards Visa Credit Card.
The Sheraton-Atakoy is an ultra-modern and swanky hotel. Each room has a modern look with rich and colorful fabrics that also guarantees a million dollar view. Special amenities include tennis courts for guests to enjoy and well as indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, jacuzzi, hamam, gym, running track, and a fitness facility.
As a member of the Starwood Hotels & Resorts group, Sheraton offers the Starwood Preferred American Express card without an annual fee for the first year and $65 thereafter. After spending $5,000 in the first 6 months, cardholders earn 25,000 bonus points which is enough for one free night at any Starwood hotel.
Although the Four Seasons does not offer a loyalty program, they do offer luxury a unique Istanbul experience like no other. Their property is located on the edge of the Bosphorus and includes first class gym amenities, suites, and is even family friendly.
THINGS TO DO
Istanbul is world-famous for having some of the best places to shop. The spectrum of shopping activities ranges from hunting in the bazaars to shopping the high-end Nishan Tash area–akin to Rodeo Drive in LA. Shopping in the bazaars provides a unique (and sometimes wild) experience because of the interactions with merchants. You will have many chances to put your bargaining skills to the test and you can find just about anything you are looking for in the numerous bazaars around the city.
Kapali Charshi (Grand Bazaar): Hunt for exotic spices, unique gifts like Moroccan lanterns, hookahs, jewelry, fabrics and tapestries–all of high quality. Founded in the 14th century and spanning some 31-thousand square meters, the Grand Bazaar is one of the most important and well-known Bazaars in the world. (Side note: On my first visit to the Grand Bazaar I had an encounter with boxer, Mike Tyson. No we didn’t exchange punch-for-punch, but I saw him shopping with his friends while visiting Istanbul for the Formula1 Races) The bazaar is the ultimate gathering ground, aside from the thousands of vendors; it has two mosques, hamams, and several cafes and restaurants, making it a full day adventure.
Nishan Tash – If you feel the need to part with some “Benjamins” and want to do some luxury shopping, then head to Nishan Tash to choose brands from the likes of Louis Vuitton to Bvlgari. This shopping area is where the rich and famous go to indulge in high fashion and European elegance.
Drinking + Eating
Take San Francisco, a bit of London, a dash of Paris add some Turkish culture and viola, you have Taksim. Taksim is the hotspot for nightlife where you will find pubs, coffee houses, art galleries situated within revamped Victorian buildings.
The Dolmabahce outdoor cafe is the absolute best place to have some tea on a warm summer night. Nestled in between the Dolmabahce mosque and palace, the cafe looks out to the Sea of Marmara with a skyline providing unforgettable view of sunsets.
With the numerous cafes and coffee houses open-late throughout the city, there is always somewhere to sit down and relax with a friend or meet new people.
Nergile or hookah is a popular pastime in Istanbul and you will find many outdoor hookah cafes throughout the city.
On the street level of the Galata Tower, is an outdoor hookah cafe that I had stopped by a few times to wind down. The cafe’s uniqueness is attributed to its structure–marble, arena style seating with traditional cushions made out of kilims (oriental rugs) for comfort and historical authenticity.
“Street Food” Must-Haves
Mezes or appetizers are enough to fill you up, but don’t dare stop there–it’s only the beginning! Given that Istanbul is located right off of the Sea of Marmara, you’re going to find seafood everywhere.The Kumpkapi district has plenty of options to indulge your taste buds in with delicious seafood restaurants. The restaurants in Kumpkapi are popular for their fried fish, steamed mussels, crab and shrimp prepared with a Mediterranean flair. I recommend trying the Patara restaurant which includes live music during dinner and is reflection of authentic Istanbul nightlife. Kumkapi Fish Restaurant offers a full list of additional places to eat in the area.
Seafood restaurants in Kumkapi are part of the Turkish nightlife
Typical meze table setup at a Turkish restaurant
Hamams or Turkish baths are well worth the intense and invigorating experience. Quite a scrub could never be felt anywhere else. Attendants exfoliate their bathers with rough loofahs in heated marbled rooms like a sweat lodge. After a session at a hamam you will feel cleansed and rejuvenated with energy to move about the city!
Watch a soccer match! It’s Turkey’s national sport with three intense rival teams, Fenerbahce, Galatasaray and Besiktas. Galatasaray recently constructed a new stadium with an underground subway terminal worth seeing. Just be wary of soccer hooligans; the fans are very passionate of their teams and the games are known to be rowdy.
PLACES TO SEE
Topkapisaray is one of Turkey’s marvels that overlooks the Bosphorus. The palace was home to royal families throughout reign of the Ottoman Empire. Now that the palace is a museum, we had a chance to see the different quarters such as the harem or the hamam (Turkish Bath) covered in mosaics from floor to ceiling.
One of the most fascinating must see features within the walls of Topkapisaray is the Haiga Sophia (Aya Sofia), built during the Byzantine era. it originally served as an orthodox cathedral and was later converted into a mosque. A staple in Istanbul’s city-scape, the Haiga Sophia’s domed structure and pillars is hard to miss. The domed ceilings are covered in whimsical chandeliers and golden mosaics of religious artwork. It no longer serves a religious function and is a popular place for tourist to stop by and admire.
Adalar – The Princess Islands – Of the nine islands, the most popular ones are Heybeliada, Buyukada, Kinaliada and Heybeliada which are also the closest to the coast. The islands are popular summer vacation spots with beach clubs all around, seafood restaurants and shopping. To explore the historic monasteries, buildings and forests on the islands, you must experience a ride on the donkey and buggy! It is an unusual mode of transportation, but cars are not allowed on any of the islands so most people either bike ride or walk to get around town.The best time to visit Istanbul is in the early summer to be able to enjoy all of its jewels. The weather is beautiful and most have not left for their summer homes yet so the city is still bustling with noise, good food and good people. Another thing to keep in mind is that even though Istanbul modern, the culture is more conservative in fashion, speech and interactions between the ladies and gents than in more western cultures.
Thanks for reading the Well Traveled Mile!