If Turkiye is the crown that unites east and west, Istanbul is its crown jewel
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Whether the starting point for a tour of Turkiye is a pre- or post-cruise excursion or a pit stop between flights, as part of Turkish Airlines’ program of stopover, Istanbul never fails to delight.
Straddling two continents at the confluence of three waterways (Bosphorus, Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn), the vibrant megalopolis of 15 million captivates with its combination of old world mystique and modern power.
The bustling Bosphorus, half a mile at its narrowest point, is one of the world’s busiest sea passages, with more than 40,000 ships passing through annually. East and West sit side by side here: Asia on one shore, Europe on the other. There is no place like this in the world. And even the shortest stay offers a wide variety of Turkish delight.
Editor’s note: The Canadian government has changed the name of Turkey to the official Turkish spelling Turkiye.
five pm Check in
For an unforgettable getaway, choose Istanbul’s iconic Çiragan Palace Kempinski Hotel. Located right on the Bosphorus, the ornate ancient palace adorns Istanbul’s bustling Besiktas neighborhood. While the modern hotel offers a variety of room options, a stay in one of the 11 palace suites in the original historic portion of the property is a unique experience.
The luxurious two-story suites feel like private apartments, complete with butler and helipad. This is the stuff of fantasy and a highly coveted wedding venue. “Many girls dream of having their wedding at The Palace,” says Cansu Bas, the hotel’s marketing manager.
Among the room’s many amenities is a personalized ‘Soap Service’ cart, deployed by your butler who uses a ceremonial sword to cut chunks of handmade soap from huge blocks.
6 p.m. But first, spa
With soap now in mind, head to the hammam at the hotel’s Sanitas Spa. The authentic bathing ritual, an essential part of Turkish culture, consists of a vigorous scrub from head to toe with a loofah, followed by soap suds thrown from a cone-shaped towel resembling a piping bag, and then a complete head and body massage.
Lie down on the marble slab in the middle of the steamy room, succumb to scrubbing, and then float like bubbles. After sipping tea and savoring Turkish delight in the relaxation lounge, you will feel revitalized.
8 p.m. Sup like a sultan
End the night at Tugra, the fine dining restaurant on the first floor of the palace. Enjoy the authentic Ottoman experience overlooking the Bosphorus in the high-ceilinged room or on the terrace. The crock pot beef entrecote casserole is wonderful, it opens right at the table.
10 a.m. Retail Therapy
Step into the chaos of the Grand Bazaar with its endless imitations of designers and enthusiastic shopkeepers who make a sport of haggling.
Or head to Galataport to find luxury boutiques showcasing local designers, high-end international brands, galleries and fine dining, all housed in the old post office. Part of a $1.7 billion dollar mega-project that has revitalized 1.2km of waterfront in the Karaköy neighborhood, the resort is the city’s newest shopping and dining destination; center of culture, art and design; and cruise port.
The impressive 29,000-square-foot underground terminal uses a world-first hatch system that lifts the sidewalk when a ship docks, revealing ramps that descend to customs and security, while allowing the waterfront to remain open to the public. Completing the project are a 177-room Peninsula hotel and the gleaming new Istanbul Museum of Modern Art designed by Renzo Piano.
14:00 Cultural route
Also gleaming is the new Ataturk Cultural Center, AKM, at the top of the hill in Taksim Square. The venue, which reopened in 2021 after a 13-year reconstruction, combines a concert hall, theater, cinema, library, museum, art gallery and restaurants under one roof.
At its center, the opera house is an impressive spherical auditorium consisting of more than 15,000 handmade dark red ceramic tiles.
16:00 Stunning views
Cross Taksim Square and stroll down Istiklal Street to the iconic Galata Tower. Dominating the skyline since 1348, when it was built as the tallest structure in the city, the 62-meter tower offers the best panoramic views of the city. Note: An elevator quickly takes you to all nine floors, but getting out requires going down the spiral stairs of the old watchtower.
7 pm Nomadic food
Dine overlooking the Bosphorus at the Alaf restaurant in the lively Kurucesme neighbourhood. Billed as a nomadic dining experience, this is traditional Anatolian street food. (The word Alaf, with roots in Kurdish and other cultures in the Anatolian region, means burning amber fire, a nod to the open-air roof-top restaurant’s wood-fired oven.) Here chef Deniz Temel, who did an internship at NOMA in Copenhagen, shows his touch on the region’s dishes. The yogurt rests on fermented pine needles; sea bass is drizzled with sumac syrup; raw salad rinsed with fresh cheese and pistachios. And the Turkish dumplings will have you planning a return visit.
11 a.m. Morning prayers
No trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to Hagia Sophia, one of the most popular sites in Turkiye. The massive architectural wonder, originally built as a Christian cathedral in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 6th century, was converted from a monument to a mosque in 2020. The call to prayer now rings from its minarets five times a day.
12:00 Hearty lunch
Stop at Matbah for lunch, royal palace style. The airy and light space with retractable roof is located next to Hagia Sophia inside the Ottoman Hotel Imperial. Unique seasonal menus are recreated here from century-old recipes by chefs who have scoured the imperial archives and consulted historians from the palace library and the cooks’ guild about dishes once served at the court of the Ottoman Empire. from the kitchen of the Sultan’s Palace. The dates written next to each dish indicate the earliest written source from which the recipe was taken.
14:00 visit to the palace
Then visit the Sultan’s royal kitchen at nearby Topkapi Palace. Perched like a citadel atop a promontory overlooking the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn, this was the imperial residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years. Now one of the largest palace museums in the world, it is a highlight of any visit. Step through the gate of the sultanate to enter another world: the bustle of the city replaced by the tranquility of lush courtyards dotted with leafy trees and flowing fountains. The 173-acre sanctuary is a collection of jewelry and textiles, Ottoman, Baroque and Neoclassical architecture, and Rococo decoration.
Tip: Buy the Istanbul VIP Combo Ticket to skip the lines with priority access to both Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace. Note: The Harem requires a separate ticket.
The writer traveled as a guest of Turkish Airlines and Go Turkiye, who did not review or approve this article prior to publication.
If you go
Turkish Airlines now operates nonstop flights between Vancouver and Istanbul three times a week. As part of its Stopover Free Hotel Service, passengers with a stopover in Istanbul can stay in some of the city’s hotels for free. Business class passengers receive two days of free accommodation in a five-star hotel; those who fly economy class get a day in a four-star.