Istanbul offers the perfect blend of history, food and fun.
It has been two decades since I last set foot in Istanbul, yet the city remains unchanged – chaotic, congested and a culture clash of east meets west. Yet, as the only city in the world to bridge two continents, Turkey’s largest city (population 15.84 million) is steeped in history, making it the ideal short break for GCC residents looking to escape the desert.
I was a backpacker on a budget when I last traversed the Bosphorus Strait that cuts Istanbul in two with a vast swathe of water separating the older European side from its cosmopolitan Asian counterpart. I may now be much older (and hopefully wiser), but the charming city for which I have such nostalgic memories has evolved, exploding into a busy metropolis where bustling markets, fragrant shisha cafes and historical attractions vie for the attention of visitors.
As we career around the Besiktas district, renowned for disruptive traffic, the confluence of cultures and influences is evident. Istanbul feels alive and I’m ready to revisit this Turkish delight.
Hello, Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul
On the European side of the city, I check into the Shangri-La Bosporous Istanbul, a luxe property conveniently located on the banks of the Bosphorus river that offers the ideal base for exploration in a bustling yet beautiful part of the city.
Known for building stunning hotels in spectacular locations (Shangri-La Dubai overlooks Burj Khalifa whilst Shangri-La London is located inside the sky-piercing Shard), Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul takes over a charming 1930s waterfront tobacco house that was renovated into a hotel in 2013. The grand entrance has floral blooms, a sweeping staircase, gilded golden elevators and sparkling chandeliers. As a brand known for unrivalled luxury, I’m immediately hit with a sense of old-world grandeur. It’s a far cry from the $5-a-night Sultanahmet youth hostel that was my humble abode on my last visit.
Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul is not only an excellent base for exploration but also a place you will want to savour and enjoy. Boasting luxurious accommodations, Europe’s first Chi, The Spa and four restaurants and bars, you could easily spend a day enjoying the enchanting retreat that draws on influences of East and West without setting foot outside. Moreover, the property ensures everything is done with a sense of occasion to create long-lasting memories, whether that be the world’s only baklava butler who is on hand to offer a sweet afternoon pick-me-up or the ceremonial presentation of bittersweet Turkish coffee upon a golden stand with sugary cubes of Turkish delight.
Overlooking the Strait and the 15th of July Martyrs Bridge, my Premier Bosphorus Room on the hotel’s second floor is a serene sanctuary accentuated by soothing cool tones and inspired by palatial Ottoman glamour and Asian design elements. Featuring a large marble-clad master bathroom with a rain shower and bathtub, mirror-embedded television and heated floors, I find myself almost lost in the stature of the room. The living area features a plump king-sized bed (hello 300-thread count bed linens), a pillow menu and 40-inch LCD satellite television, in addition to a full-sized writing desk and Nespresso machine (a winning combination for an editor on a deadline).
Istanbul is a city of 23,000 restaurants that boasts everything from Michelin marvels such as TURK Fatih Tutak to international favourites like ZUMA. My culinary exploration involved dining on juicy lamb kebabs in a 1,500-year-old underground water cistern at The Sarnıç Restaurant to modern meat mastery at the İstinye Park location of Nusr-Et Steakhouse (#SaltBae).
However, during 72 hours of constant eating, it was the options laid out by the culinary team at Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul that I will remember most fondly. A chilly morning breakfast on a private yacht found me cruising along the Bosphorus while sipping hot apple tea. The backdrop of towering mosque minarets, outstretched suspension bridges, grand summer houses and decaying palaces made for the perfect backdrop for a traditional Turkish breakfast of sujuk sausages and simit bread (a Turkish pretzel) drizzled with fresh-from-the-comb honey and Kaymak (clotted cream).
Back at the hotel, the multi-faceted IST TOO restaurant offered more than your average all-day-dining spot. In addition to a fantastic selection of Turkish delicacies and an appealing wine list, guests can indulge international fare such as pizza, pastas and a sensational sushi selection.
Having dined at Shangri-La’s signature restaurant in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai, I can attest that Shang Palace in Istanbul has elevated the Chinese dining experience. Seated inside the private dining room, textured walls and bulbous light fittings create an alluring ambience to complement a Lazy Susan laden with dim sum, Peking duck and crisp beef.
Whether you’re a fashionista, foodie or culture vulture, Istanbul offers plenty of appeal as it sprawls out across seven hills and two continents. At the Raşit Bağzıbağlı boutique, I’m introduced to the charming designer who specialises in ladies’ couture and bridal wear and is at the forefront of Turkey’s emerging fashion scene.
Hours later, I’m underground at the subterranean Basilica Cistern. The old water storage system for the city has been transformed into a museum where art installations emerge from the waters (think: everything from jellyfish to the snake-headed Medusa), and a collection of colonnades rise skywards illuminated in fiery hues of red and yellow. It’s crowded, hot and humid and reminiscent of the climatic finale of the Tom Hanks starring Inferno, which incidentally was filmed here in 2016.
Escaping a passing rain shower beneath the grand dome of Hagia Sophia, a building that has served as a cathedral, museum and mosque during its 1,500-year tenure, I can’t help but admire the kinetic city with its collision of cultures and storied history.
My final hours are spent wandering the warren of streets that form the Grand Bazaar, where 61 covered streets and over 4,000 shops assault the senses. Here, you can purchase everything from fragrant spices and knock-off Yeezys to cheese, honey, coffee, clothes and lokum. It’s no wonder this shopping paradise frequented by locals and tourists has a reputation as one of the world’s most visited destinations.
Like the coffee, my time in Istanbul may have been short but sweet, but the changing seasons only heightened my adoration for the city. With Shangri-La Bosphorus, Istanbul firmly anchoring my stay amidst the chaos of Istanbul, I can think of nowhere better for an enchanting retreat in the capital of empires.
GO: Visit www.shangri-la.com for reservations and more information.