Destination of the Week: Istanbul

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The imposing exterior of the Blue Mosque, one of Istanbul’s most-visited landmarks.

TPG managing editor Eric spent the week in Istanbul, and takes us along to the only city in the world that spans two continents for this week’s Destination of the Week: Istanbul.

Istanbul has captured the imaginations of travelers for millennia. With humble origins as a fishing village, the city eventually became the capital of not one, but two of the world’s greatest empires, and today continues to fascinate visitors from all over the globe with its heady mix of ancient sights and cosmopolitan pleasures.

The magnificent central dome of the Blue Mosque.

Sightseeing
Istanbul has thousands of years worth of history, so plan on spending a couple days exploring the sights of the Sultanahment district (the old city) and seeing famous buildings like the ancient Hagia Sophia, which was the largest church in the world for 1,000 years and contained untold wealth, the enormous Blue Mosque whose dome seems to float on air, and the sprawling complex of Topkapi Palace where the Ottoman emperors ruled over lands as vast as Alexander’s for over 400 years.

The entrance gate to Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman emperors for over 400 years.

Be sure to make a quick stop at the cavernous underground Basilica Cistern adjacent to the Blue Mosque for a creepy-cool look at how the city provisioned its water resources long ago. The Suleymaniye Mosque is another huge landmark and makes a good stop, as do the views from the Galata Tower across the Galata Bridge from Sultanahment. Nearby, you can also indulge in the old Turkish custom of hamam, and have your travel aches and pains scrubbed and massaged away (or beaten out of you by a huge Turkish man!) at Galatasaray Hamami.

The graceful Bosphorus Bridge at dusk.

Spend an afternoon wandering the alleys of Ortakoy having some fresh food from the vendors and looking at trinkets before taking a sunny hour-long boat cruise along the Bosphorus. If you have time, catch a ferry across the straight to the Asian side to have a look at the European city from there.

Eating
The food scene is a great reason to visit Turkey—not only is the cuisine distinctly Mediterranean, with plenty of restaurants serving delicious mezze small plates, but chefs in the city are starting to play with the foodie culture and design all-new kinds of Ottoman-style dishes.

Traditional Turkish pide flatbread at Kircecegi.

Be sure to spend at least one evening dining on fresh fish down on the water, like at Bebek Balikci near the Mehmet Bridge. Sunset is another popular spot, as is Ulus 29. Venge in Etiler is great for Turkish kebab, while Karakoy Lokantasi in Karakoy is the spot to hit for simple but authentic food. While you’re out sightseeing in Sultanahment, stop by Nar Lokantasi near the Grand Bazaar or Sultanahmet Koftecisi for kofte, lentil soup and white beans (that’s all they’ve served since 1920!).

For a taste of something a little more upscale and innovative, try Topaz in Beyoglu/Taksim for a worldly take on Ottoman cuisine and a list of excellent Turkish wines to accompany views of the Bosphorus Bridge twinkling at night, or hang out with the glitterati partying it up at Reina.

The view at dinnertime from a table at Topaz.

Shopping
Of course, no visit to Istanbul would be complete without a stop (and a whole day, probably) at the Grand Bazaar, where vendors sell everything from intricate carpets to carved soap to gold jewelry, but be sure to stop by the old Spice Market for a truly special and somewhat less touristy experience. For a more modern take, try the shops of Nisantasi, where the world’s major fashion brands are all represented.

GETTING THERE
In olden days, you could only get to Istanbul by ship along the Bosphorus, or by taking the famous Orient-Express train from Paris. Nowadays, the city’s gleaming, newish, Ataturk Airport, about a half-hour from the city center by car (taxis are about 60 Turkish Lire, or about $35) welcomes flights from all over the world. Keep in mind, Americans have to pay a $20 visa fee for entry.

Turkish Airlines is part of Star Alliance, so you can use your United and US Airways miles on the airline, and operates direct flights from Chicago (daily), Los Angeles (daily), Washington Dulles (daily) and New York (3x daily).

SkyTeam flyers can fly non-stop daily from New York JFK, or use their Delta miles to book tickets either on Air France via Paris or KLM via Amsterdam, both of which usually have pretty good availability, even at lower mileage requirement levels, and without some of the huge fees other European airlines levy.

HOTELS
As a city of nearly 15 million people, Istanbul has hotels galore, so there are great opportunities to earn and burn points on your stay.

Club Carlson
There are actually three, and soon to be five Radisson Blu properties in Istanbul. One is on the Asia side of the Bosphorus, another is out by the airport and there are planned openings in Sisli, not terribly close to the action, at Pera near the Golden Horn. For now, your best bet is…

The Radisson Blu Bosphorus sits right along the strait in Ortakoy.

Radisson Blu Bosphorus Hotel: This hotel is a showstopper in the tony waterside neighborhood of Ortakoy, right in the shadow of the Bosphorus Bridge’s elegant span. It has 120 rooms and suites starting at about 300 square feet, most of which have at least partial water views. Standard room amenities include complimentary bottled water, free high-speed internet, the ability to confirm room type, bedding and smoking preference beforehand and entrance to the hotel’s Beauty and Wellness Center. Rooms are decorated in a light palate of crisp white linens with floral accents, blond wood and pale green furniture. On the dining and drinking side, the hotel is home to StarBoard Restaurant and Terrace Bar for alfresco eats alongside the Bosphorus, Cruise Lounge Bar for cocktails and small bites and Zuma for izakaya-style Japanese. Rates in May start at 350 euros or 50,000 Gold points.

Hilton
Hilton Istanbul: This sprawling building was Turkey’s first five-star hotel, and is something of an Istanbul landmark since it’s been around for decades. Guest rooms start at 430 square feet and are decorated in a fairly bland “soothing” palette, but have balconies with views of the city and the Bosphorus and standard touches like LCD TVs, armchairs with ottomans, work desks and high-speed internet available. There’s a 24-hour gym and a pool, and several restaurants including the Bosphorus Terrace for a Turkish-themed buffet, Dragon for Chinese food, Al Bushra Restaurant & Bar for Lebanese cuisine, a lobby bar and restaurant, the Veranda Grille & Bar for casual meals in the summer, and the Pool Café. Rates in May start at $265 or 40,000 HHonors points since this is a Category 6 property.

A King Guest Room at the Hilton Istanbul.

Conrad Istanbul: This is more of a business hotel located near Ortakoy, but still pretty central in the grand scheme of things. Rooms here are arranged suite-style with little parlor sitting areas, and many have views over the Bosphorus and the old city. Rooms also all seem to include access to the Club Lounge for complimentary food and drinks throughout the day. There’s  an on-property fitness club, three tennis courts and two pools. The hotel’s Monet and Meze restaurants serve Mediterranean cuisine while the Monet Lobby Lounge and Patisseries is for fine pastries and coffee. Rates start at $365 in May.  This is a Category 6 hotel requiring 40,000 HHonors points.

The Hilton ParkSA hotel is also quite central (Category 5, 35,000 HHonors), and there are two Double Tree properties, one in the historic district of Sultanahmet (Category 6, 40,000 HHonors) and another across the Bosphorus in the Asian side’s up-and-coming Kadikoy neighborhood (Category 5, 35,000 HHonors).

The Grand Hyatt Istanbul’s lovely pool area.

Hyatt
Grand Hyatt Istanbul: Like many of the other majors on this list, the Grand Hyatt is near central Taksim square and an easy commute to the old city’s sights (as long as you don’t get stuck in traffic!) as well as to more up-and-coming neighborhoods like Ortakoy. It has 360 rooms and suites starting at over 400 square feet and with high-speed WiFi access, small separate sitting areas, marble baths and 32-inch flatscreens. The hotel also has an on-site spa called Gaia Spa & Fitness where guests can enjoy modern spa treatments and traditional hamam rituals. The hotel’s restaurants include the Mezzanine Restaurant and Bar, the Library Bar and Gazebo Poolside Restaurant. Rates in May start at $255 or 15,000 Gold Passport points because this is a Category 4 hotel.

There is also a Park Hyatt, but rather than tell you about it here, you can read TPG’s full review of it from his stay last December in which he talks about the standard 42-inch flatscreens, ergonomic work areas, high-speed WiFi and upscale location in the Nisantasi neighborhood. Rates there in May start at $395 or 18,000 Gold Passport points because this is a Category 5 property.

Marriott
There are five properties within this group in Istanbul. Let’s talk about two of them, and we’ll mention the other three.

An uber-cool room at the buzzy Edition Istanbul.

Edition Istanbul: This hotel, which generated a huge amount of buzz when it opened last year, is a joint venture between Marriott and hotelier extraordinaire Ian Schrager, and has just 78 blinged-out guest rooms with spacious layouts and standard amenities including free high-speed WiFi, Bang & Olufsen flatscreen LED TV’s, exotic wood accents, all-marble bathrooms with glass-enclosed rainfall showers and separate tubs. It’s located in more of a business district of the city, but an easy taxi ride to Ortakoy and Bosphorus for waterfront dining, though it’s a bit of a hike to the historic center. The hotel has a Cipriani restaurant, the Drawing Room for all-day American-style fare, Gold Bar for coffee, small dishes and hand-crafted cocktails, and the fancy Billionaire Club nightclub underground. The hotel also has a top-rated three-story ESPA with luxe touches like handmade Indian copper flooring, men’s and women’s hamam’s, a hydrotherapy pool, and even a “snow room” where guests can cool off after a sauna or steam. Rates in May start at $375 a night or 30,000 Marriott Rewards (30,000 PointSavers) because this is a Category 6 property.

A Deluxe Bosphorus View King room at the Ritz-Carlton.

Ritz-Carlton Istanbul: This hotel is located in an easily spotted glass tower near the heart of town in the Taksim Square area, a short taxi ride from the old city as well as districts north and west such as Ortakoy. Rooms are spacious (they start at 450 square feet) and kitted out generously with high-threadcount linens, plush armchairs, big work desks, flatscreen TV’s, high-speed WiFi access and enormous marble bathrooms with separate WC’s, walk-in showers and soaking tubs, all stocked with Bulgari products. There’s also twice-daily maid service. The hotel’s main restaurant is Cintemani for contemporary Mediterranean, the RC Bar serving the largest collection of single-malt whiskies in Istanbul, and the Lobby Lounge for light bites and afternoon tea. The hotel will also soon be opening a new venue called Bleu for nouvelle cuisine and market-driven cocktails. The hotel’s spa is based on a traditional Turkish hammam and has nine treatment rooms and signature services using Laveda products. There’s also a Club Lounge for those on the Club Levels or who purchase an upgrade, and access includes free in-room internet, and three meals a day, as well as cocktails, beer and wine in the evening. Rates in May start at $480 per night. This is a Ritz-Carlton Tier 3 property requiring 50,000 points for a free night.

The Renaissance Istanbul will be opening in September 2012 between Taksim and Levent, pretty close to the old city, by the airport is a Courtyard Marriott (Category 3, 15,000 Marriott Rewards points), but there’s also a Marriott (Category 5, 25,000 Marriott Rewards points) in the business district of Atasehir near Kadikoy on the Asian side.

The towering Ceylan Intercontinental Istanbul.

Priority Club
Ceylan Intercontinental Istanbul: Also located near Taksim opposite Sultanahmet’s distinctive skyline, and close to most of the major tourist attractions, this hotel stands tall in the midst of the city. Its rooms almost all have a view of the Bosphorus and range above 320 square feet with at least limited complimentary internet, large work desks, 32-inch LCD TV’s and top-shelf linens. Guests can upgrade their stay (in any room) by purchasing club access for a premium, which includes entry to the Club InterCon and its amenities including breakfast, snacks and canapés. The hotel has a Spa InterContinental with a mix of traditional and Turkish spa experiences, and a couple restaurants including City Lights with spectacular views of the city, and Safran, for classic Ottoman cuisines and live music. Rates here start at $385 a night in May or 50,000 Priority Club points.

IHG operates 9 other properties in the area including a Crowne Plaza and a Holiday Inn near the old city.

Starwood
There are four Starwood properties in the city, but by far the most exciting is the…

The W Istanbul took over a historic row of houses and converted them into a hotel.

W Istanbul: The W Istanbul isn’t more than a couple years old, but this property took over a historic architectural street in Istanbul called the Akaretler Row Houses  and gave it the W treatment including posh all-new rooms with sleek, minimalistic yet colorful furniture, interesting and odd lighting effects, and that signature too-cool service. Rooms come with 32-inch flatscreens, iPod docks, surround-sound systems, DVD players, oversize leather desks, WiFi access (for 15 euros a day!), W Signature beds and Bliss bathroom products. The hotel has a SWEAT fitness center, a day spa, a W Lounge, and SIP for cocktails, OKKA for Turkish dishes, Minyon for avant-garde cuisine.  Rates in May start at $380 a night, 20,000 Starpoints or 8,000 Starpoints + $150 since this is a Category 6 property.

Starwood’s other properties include Le Meridien Istanbul Etiler (Category 5, 12,000 points), the Sheraton Maslak (Category 3, 7,000 points) a ways north of the main city center, and the Sheraton Atakoy (Category 5, 12,000 points) near the airport.

The waterfront terrace at the Four Seasons Bosphorus.

Others
If you want to splurge, either Four Seasons property is a good bet. The one in Sultanahmet is right in the heart of the old city in a former prison and is situated beside monuments like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, while the Bosphorus location is more sedate and has million-dollar views of the strait and the old city.  Next door is perhaps the city’s most famous hotel, the Kempinski Ciragan Palace, which is located in a former palace and occupies a stately and grand spot along the water.

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