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Destination of the Week: Istanbul

by on May 4, 2012 · 25 comments

in Destination of the Week

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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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  • JMSL

    “You could also consider using Avios on American Airlines to avoid BA’s fuel fees and taxes, and then adding on an intra-Europe flight from London.”

    Wait, is this right? I was under the impression that transatlantic flights on AA still incurred big surcharges when booking with Avios.

    Also, I believe Turkish also flies to IST direct from Washington Dulles.

  • Matt

    what a nice written article about Istanbul. Have been there in last january and wanna add something might be helpful top any folks that might wanna visit there soon.There’s a cheaper way to go Taksim (city centre) You can take Havatas shuttles for only 10 Lira (around 6 $) and it departs every half an hour from airport. Also if you folks would like to see other beautiful cities in Turkey, I would highly suggest looking at http://www.ucucak.com for searching low cost domestic carriers. Domestic flight tickets can be found under 50 $ each way between Istanbul to any city in Turkey. Enjoy your stay :)

  • The Points Guy

    Thanks for the heads up – it was a typo – meant to recommend using AA miles to get to Europe and then use Avios to travel around since AA doesn’t allow stopovers.

  • dec

    Don’t forget the public Bosporus ferry trip from Eminonou – goes all the way up to the mouth of the Black Sea and is a much better ride than the private boats, cheaper, too. You can go up and disembark, climb to the top of the hill for a great view and return on a later ferry. At Eminonou, facing the Golden Horn, this iskele would be to the far left.

    You also mentioned hopping over to Asia on the ferry. Best cheap thrill in Istanbul is to sit on the outside of the Eminonou – Kadikoy ferry for one of the best views of the Old City. Kadikoy is a bustling area to enjoy for a taste of the real life of an Istanbulu.

  • JimLTravels

    Great post. I am headed to Istanbul this summer. You just saved me a lot of research. Do you want to do one on Budapest also?

  • Mark

    For your “Getting There” section – - Delta also has daily non-stop flights to and from New York (JFK).

  • Andre LaPlume

    Enter Budapest into the search box at the upper right. Brian has already posted a lot on the city.

  • wln

    Agree with JMSL. TK 7 & 8 are daily nonstop IST-IAD service.

  • The Points Guy

    Thanks we added the daily IAD flight.

  • The Points Guy

    Thanks for the comment, we added it from the timetable!

  • HighlandsDenver

    I stayed at the Sheraton Maslak- it is a little far out like the article says. But if you are looking to save points, it’s not a bad place, because you can walk to the metro in 10 minutes and be in taksim in 20.

  • CincyWorldTraveler

    I spent about 35-40 weeks over 6 years of visits to Istanbul working on an IT project. Most of my nights were at the Hilton (the normal one, which is great if you get a good rate. Otherwise it is overpriced. I spent many times on the Exec lounge balcony. Pool is nice but may close early for the frequent wedding parties. BTW, Park SA Hilton is a bit of a downgrade), Conrad (love the eating breakfast in the lounge – amazing view), Grand Hyatt (nice rooms and best pool, in the style of ‘ruins’), and Swissotel ‘Bosphorus’. It’s a fantastic city. Having been there in all the months, I would say that May, June, and September are my favorite (May is the best because all the flowers are still in bloom and the heat of summer has not hit yet). Late spring and summer are great because of all the outdoor dining options. I love Sunset and Ulus 29 restaurants (int’l food – they are right next to each other up on the hill overlooking Bosphorus bridge #2), Lacivert (fresh fish restaurant underneath bridge #1 on the Asian side, next to the water), Vogue (int’l – in Besiktas), Banyan (Asian restaurant on top of a historic building in Ortokoy on the European side – there are also numerous other good places to eat in that area), Haci Baba (Turkish – Taksim) and Sahan (Turkish – numerous locations, Vega location with a pool on the Asian side is the best). Reina is a great outdoor night club right on the Bosphorus – tip: get there early to have dinner at one of the restaurants, then stay and party the night away.

  • Dearmegzz

    The business class lounge for Turkish Airlines is beautiful–great food, showers, comfortable chairs, a pool table and a lounge with huge reclining chairs and a giant TV.

  • Nikolaos

    Eric, you went to Istanbul the wrong week!!! The Euroleague Final4 is next weekend!! ;)

    Packing my suitcases for IST, i found your review very helpful!!!

  • Rihanjavid

    Check out turkey travel planner.com great website written by the original lonely planet author. he has everything you could hope for and more, include suggested itineraries highlights, etc…

  • hollis

    Great post! You got almost everything right EXCEPT… the Yerebatan/Basilica Cistern you mentioned is not adjacent to the Blue Blue Mosque but is closer to Aya Sofia. WELL worth a visit! (And if you’ve got to be suctioned into one of the aggressive, touristy restaurants in that vicinity, Pudding Shop is probably your best choice.) Many travelers think the Sultanahmet action is in the Hippodrome plaza in *front* of Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, but if you walk around the side of Aya Sofia to the back you will be rewarded with a magnificently restored Ottoman-era neighborhood with a bevy of charming shops, galleries, restaurants, and boutique hotels.

    Although I understand your focus on major hotels who participate in points programs, there are many (much much) cheaper options available to travelers who are willing to do a little research. And, in this prosperous city of 15 million, there are a zillion restaurants at all price points. I’d feel remiss if I didn’t point your readers to the over-the-top elegant Sunday brunch (or daily tea service) at Ciragan Palace (now part of the Kempinski Hotel almost next door to Dolmabache Palace) and the historic menu recreations at Matbah, in the Sultanahmet neighborhood near Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia.) TripAdvisor contains other useful reviews by fellow travelers. Visitors can also pick up an English-language version of Time Out Istanbul and other similar publications, including the free Where magazines in many hotel rooms and lobbies.

  • Asdfasdfasdasd

    Which hotel does Sarah Ferguson like?

  • Gpapadop

    Yes, there are so many non chain hotels that is really really difficult to choose!

    Anyone has any specific recommendations for me who is going in IST for 3 nights(two full days) next month traveling alone. I want a hotel with a great location (walk to the major sites or w/ convenient public transit), easy/fast way to airport (early 8 am flight!), free wifi, reasonable price. I checked out the chain hotels; I would rather save my points for family vacations!

    Does any hotel centrally located offer airport shuttle? I doubt it.

    The Best Western has several centrally located hotels. Any that should be avoided? I see Amber at 101 euros, Plus President at 129 euros, Antea Palace at 89 euros, Empire Palace at 139.

    Any comments appreciated.

  • hollis

    I used to take AA to Istanbul (sometimes on points) but they no longer fly there. THY is one of the highest rated airlines in the world for service, and they participate in Miles and Smiles, so they are probably the best way to get there non-stop form major US cities. I have grown addicted to their Comfort Class – not that much more expensive than most sub-classes of coach, and much more comfortable! We’ve taken Pegasus, Atlas Jet and Izair for intra-Turkey flights, and they were all fine as far as service goes. Don’t know much about their points structure, however.

  • CincyWorldTraveler

    Besides my numerous business trips, I did a personal trip on an organized tour to Western Turkey in 2006. For the last night in Istanbul, the company booked us at the 4* Aziyade Hotel, which was in the Sultanahmet area within walking distance of the major sights. I believe that it had free wi-fi and airport transfers. The room was clean and OK (ask for a high floor). While the hotel isn’t like the luxury hotels that I mentioned in my previous post, it was serviceable and comparable to a good Best Western in the US. Their web site is http://www.aziyadehotel.com. I just checked Tripadvisor and it is rated 4 out of 5.

    What I would do: if you don’t mind chains and your company has good corporate rates with them, pick one of the luxury hotels mentioned in this blog post that are near the Taksim area (Hilton, Hyatt, Intercontinental, etc.). The Taksim area is very lively and walkable, all kinds of shops, restaurants, bars, and the Galatasaray hamam. To get to Sultanahmet, just walk to the Taksim funicular, take it down to the tram station, then hop on the tram to Sultanahmet. Don’t forget to visit Dolmabahce Palace, which is on the Bosphorus near the luxury hotels. This palace is one of the most opulent in Europe, featuring a crystal staircase and several huge crystal chandeliers. It was built in the late 1800s so it has some modern conveniences like the then-new telephone. It was used by the Ottomans until the empire fell, then occupied by Ataturk (he spent his last days there and you can see the bedroom where he died).

  • Gpapadop

    Thanks for the info CincyWorldTraveler,

    The Aziyade hotel looks fine & will take into consideration. Still learning quite a bit for my trip!

  • Musealt

    I just spent 3 days in Istanbul on my own, staying at the Evsen hotel … The room was small but central, had 3 great, top rated restaurants on the same block, free wi-fi, and pre-arranged airport shuttle was 15 lira. The hotel might offer you a more expensive option, but ask for the shuttle instead. They can arrange that for you. It’s in the old district with walking distance to everything, including easy transit. I loved my short stay, including a last minute day excursion to Cappedocia.
    My hotel rate was $80 and included a nondescript breakfast. Hotel staff very friendly and helpful.

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