Istanbul, the world’s seventh-biggest city, belies its reputation as a perpetually bustling place to visit. While the Mediterranean summer draws the crowds, the milder spring and autumn offer their own palette of colours and flavours, and the cooler winter is ideal for pipinghot street food.
The Bosphorus, which divides Europe and Asia, has been teeming with vessels for more than 4,000 years. Byzantium (as Istanbul was originally known) was already a flourishing centre of art, science and commerce when the major cities of Europe were little more than barbarian hamlets.
The earliest Anatolian and Trojan fishing boats plied these waters as did Byzantine slavers, Roman galleons, and Venetian and Ottoman traders.
Looking out over the Bosphorus it’s easy to imagine that 4,000 years from now a new breed of futuristic hover-transporters will still be carrying intercontinental commuters between ultra-space-age trade centres on European and Asian shores.
For where to soak in those views, you’re spoilt for choice. A plethora of hotels jostle on the internet to welcome you with their blend of Turkish hospitality, international cuisine and five-star views, such as the elevated Ritz Carlton in upscale Dolmabahçe district, where you can soak in the views and sun at the open-air spa, or the Swissotel, Besiktas, just a few minutes away, where you can wake up to views of minarets, the Golden Horn and the Asian hillside opposite.
Father downstream the Grand Tarabya by Tarabya Bay and the marina juts out of the European headland near the Parisianin spired Jardin De France, which plays host to some of Istanbul’s finest weddings with its charming fairytale atmosphere. Rooms here have floor-to-ceiling glass with views out to the Black Sea, while the Tarabya area named by Sultan Selim II, who was so smitten he built a palace here and called it ‘Tarabiye’, meaning ‘pleasure’ is still famed for its seafood restaurants, as well as intimate bistros and lively nightlife.
For a mix of people-watching and scenic views with a Turkish twist, head to Pierre Loti Hill where the Eyüp Gondola cable car glides riders 384m up from the coast of the Golden Horn. From here, the Pierre Loti Cafe is a bustling year-round favourite, named after a French Naval Officer, Julien Viaud, who wrote novels under the name Pierre Loti, and a glass of Turkish tea or cup of sugary, strong Turkish coffee, with a side serving of the rich, sweet pastry baklava is an ideal pick-me-up.
However, dining with a Bosphorus view is a must, and Istanbul delivers just as many signature culinary delights as it does views. The epitome is arguably the Çırağan Palace Kempinski, a former Ottoman palace built by Sultan Abdülâziz between 1863 and 1867, beautifully renovated in 2007, and the only hotel in Istanbul accessible by car, yacht and helicopter. The opulence doesn’t stop there, as the Çırağan Palace has one of the largest, and most expensive suites in the world, the Sultan’s Suite at around US$35,000 a night. For a taste of the Sultan lifestyle, their al fresco Bosphorous Grill serves up a lavish buffet between 7 and 11 each night, while during the cooler times of the year their Winter Brunch each Sunday is an institution.
Most of the world’s massive cities can feel overpowering due to sheer size and congested traffic, yet even at its busiest Istanbul somehow escapes the curse of more frantic ‘megatropolises’ because of the ageless waterways that carve it into separate, manageable quarters.
The ancient quarter of Sultanahmet, for example, is one of the greatest historical treasure-houses on the planet. Istanbul was recently ranked as the world’s fifth most visited city and an estimated 12 million tourists were drawn to Sultan ahmet to visit such architectural gems as Hagia Sophia Mosque, Blue Mosque, Topkapı Palace and the Grand Bazaar. Despite this, Sultanahmet somehow retains the relaxing atmosphere of a relatively sleepy rural village in comparison with the frenetic pace of life in the modern city that lies on the other side of the Golden Horn.
In summer, Istanbul enjoys sunlight until nine o’clock in the evenings, and a huge population ensures an abundance of affordable street food, meaning that alongside hot bags of freshly roasted chestnuts, visitors can enjoy even obscure culinary specialities without ever leaving the city. A must is the ubiquitous simit, a baked dough ring, dipped in molasses and encrusted with black sesame seeds, and best grabbed fresh from a wood-burning oven or vendors near the ferry port. The other unmissable favourite is balık-ekmek, literally ‘fish-bread’, which are usually better quality in cafes where you can pair them with midye dolma (mussels on the half shell, mixed with spicy rice and lemon), and washed down with a glass of yellow şerbet, an ancient recipe made with an infusion of herbs, fruits, flowers, resins and sometimes honey.
Other warm delights include ‘Turkish pizza’, lahmacun, a piping-hot uncomplicated offering of thin dough topped with a minced meat-onion-red-pepper mixture, a handful of parsley and a twist of lemon. Gözleme, savoury hand-rolled crepes with their origins in Anatolia, are best made to order, with fillings such as white cheese, potatoes, onions and meat, and seasoned with local butter.
Then there’s the evening-time favourites of dilli kaşarlı tost, a grilled cheese sandwich with slivers of beef tongue, and the more adventurous kokoreç, spiced and skewered sheeps intestines served greasy and salty in fresh bread. For a wider flavour choice, then, the nimble baked potato, served up as kumpir, is most popular in the Ortaköy area and, unlike its British counterpart, is served with heaps of toppings. The base starts with fresh butter and grated cheese, which is mashed deep into the insides, then topped off with ingredients as diverse as charred broccolini with garlic-caper sauce, Swiss chard with shiitake butter, or just simply sweetcorn, peas, Russian salad, green olives, black olives and sliced hot dog sausage!
Finally, get up close to the Bosphorus with a ferry ride, hands-down the best way to see Istanbul. Myriad vessels pass along invisible dotted lines tracing their path from port to port, ferrying everything from commuters and tourists, to cargo holds of goods destined for centuries-old trading routes.
Take a dedicated cruise, best taken towards sunset, and served up with audio slices of culture and history that help listeners weave together their own itinerary of places to visit or dwell, or simply take the plunge and hop on and off the passenger boats that crisscross between Asia and Europe all day long. Passenger boats have white bodies and yellow chimneys, representing the bodies and beaks of the ever-present seagulls. Locals say the most romantic place in the city is the deck of a passenger ferry, sharing hot tea and a simit. In this bustling city, keeping it simple often serves up the greatest experiences.
Jakarta to Istanbul
Frequency 7 ﬂights per week
Codeshare route with Turkish Airlines
5 Senses – Sight
Feel the salt spray on your skin as you cruise the Bosphorus from Istanbul to the Black Sea. At only a few dollars for a return journey on a commuter ferry, this trip – zigzagging between the European and Asian shores – must be the best-value intercontinental voyage in the entire world. You can hop on and off as you wish, but even with constant stops to explore, the return journey is easily done as a day trip.