It’s no surprise that Istanbul is such a popular travel destination given its rich history as a center for world trade and a reputation as a cultural hub. Turkey’s largest city has made itself known as the meeting place for East and West, nestled between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara in the country’s northwest side.
“from the ancient architecture and monumental mosques to its vibrant scene of contemporary art, Istanbul has certainly earned its place as a regional – perhaps international – artistic center.”
Formerly the Ottoman Empire, Constantinople, and Byzantium, the transcontinental port has been credited for its integral role throughout history connecting Europe and Asia through trade with its strategic position along the Silk Road. The influences of the countless cultures that passed through (and some who stayed, like the Greeks, Persians, Romans, and Ottomans, to name a few) can be seen everywhere you turn in this city that merges the old with the new; from the ancient architecture and monumental mosques to its vibrant scene of contemporary art, Istanbul has certainly earned its place as a regional – perhaps international – artistic center. Not to mention Turkey’s favorite town has some of the best shopping in the world, breathtaking views, and delightful cuisine. Here’s how to get the most out of the overflowing cultural metropolis that is Istanbul (it’s not hard):
You’ll feel right at home at Witt Istanbul Hotel in Cihangir (Jee-HANH-gear), an intimate and trendy community that seems to avoid the usual tourist traffic. Unpack and stay a while; the boutique hotel boasts 18 unbelievably spacious rooms that provide just as much comfort as a loft apartment, if not more. If it’s too hard to see the Galata Tower or the Bosphorus from your bedroom terrace, try the roof-top permaculture garden, a model of sustainable urban architecture with a cozy sitting area alongside edible herbs and flowers. Relax in the Witt’s retro-modern design while you enjoy a complementary breakfast – including traditional Turkish fare made from local, organic ingredients – delivered straight to your door.
It would be nearly impossible to visit – and appreciate – every landmark the city has to offer. Some of Istanbul’s most charming features can’t be found on a guided tour or in a glass museum case; if you really want to immerse yourself in local life, just walk down the street. While you’re still in Cihangir, take a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood chock-full of friendly cafes, trendy boutiques, and a rogue kitten population. Though it’s hard to go wrong with the wide array of local eateries, try brunch Gracho Café; you’ll feel right at home as you watch your meal being cooked in this cozy restaurant with a view of the Bosphorus. Unwind with a glass of raki, the city’s favorite anise-based spirit, at a popular wine shop known as La Cave.
Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar attracts more than a quarter of a million visitors daily – and for good reason. An important trading center since 1461, the traditional souk sprawls across 60 streets and comprises more than 5,000 shops as one of the oldest and largest covered markets in the world. You could spend an entire day exploring the endless stalls of Turkish ceramics, textiles, jewelry, and spices or sneak into the two bedestens (domed vaults that also date back to the 15th century) for more valuable items and antiques like furniture and copperware. This is the ultimate place to find authentic souveneirs – just be wary of stalls that cater to tourists and opportunistic locals who may try to overcharge. If the excitement of the bustling marketplace becomes overwhelming, head to Kara Mehmet Kebap Salonu for a bite and a break with the locals. This hidden gem has an authentic menu of expertly-grilled kebabs and a künefe (a local dessert) that’s to die for. It’s out-of-the way location in Cebeci Han, a secluded open air courtyard within the maze of the Bazaar, makes it a great escape and a genuine snapshot of city life – but you may need to ask for directions.
You don’t have to do much to get a good look at Istanbul’s art scene, but it’s worth a visit to the Istanbul Modern, an excellent contemporary art museum that showcases the city’s extensive artistic influence (not to mention it’s a mere walk away from the hotel). Tour the permanent collection, a wide variety of works from the 20th century to now, which traces the history of contemporary Turkish visual art and its social, political, and cultural impacts to date. When you grow tired of looking at the man-made, stop for a view of the old city and scenic Bosphorus waterfront at the minimal dining room on the museum’s second floor. Call ahead to book a table on the terrace where you can enjoy a wide selection of drinks, salads, and even homemade pasta.
Stop by in the fall for the Istanbul Biennale, a tradition that since 1987 has attracted the attention of artists all over the world, considered one of the most prestigious biennales next to Venice, Sao Paolo, and Sydney. The exhibition encourages a dialogue between artist and audience with a selection of conferences, discussions, and workshops organized within the conceptual scope. They have even begun a Design Biennale to highlight “the importance of design for production, economy, cultural interaction and quality of life.”