Istanbul is a cosmopolis unlike any other—where the remains of former empires, the cultural influences of multi-ethnic communities, and contemporary Turkish identity all exist in delicate harmony. The Turkish megacity, which lifted all COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements upon entry this month, continues to grow with new restaurants, boutique hotels, designer shops, and contemporary art galleries sprouting up in trending neighborhoods on both sides of the strait. Here are the essential things to do in Istanbul, from the traditional to the contemporary and experimental.
Where to eat
A nucleus of gastronomy representative of the endless recipes and traditions of Turkey’s many regions, this is also a palatal playground for celebrity chefs who are redefining Turkish cuisine with a modern verve, inclusive of wine lists that celebrate the newly sprouting boutique vineyards all over the country. A consistently excellent venue for lunch or dinner, locals love to dine on modern interpretations of classic Turkish dishes at Yeni Lokanta, especially the mantı (dumplings filled with meat) which has become rather famous in its own right.
For a more experimental take on the new Turkish kitchen, the tasting menu at TURK is a fascinating journey through Anatolia and its history told through creative dishes that look like works of art. More edible art can be experienced inside the former Ottoman Bank, where Neolokal looks out over the Old City, serving creative dishes inspired by tradition as well as one of the city’s most comprehensive Turkish wine lists.
For the classic rakı, meze, and fresh fish fare that is synonymous with Istanbul, reserve a table at Kıyı, a local institution known for bidding the highest price for the freshest catch at the fish markets. Go to Mahir Lokantası if you’re looking for a no-frills eatery with a daily spread of excellent home-cooked Anatolian dishes and desserts, as well as lahmacun (thin crispy dough with minced meat and herbs) and pide (flatbread loaded with different toppings) fresh from the wood-fired oven upon order.
If you’ve spent a day perusing the sights in Sultanahmet, skip all the touristy restaurants and head to Lokanta 1741 for beyond-par Turkish food served on a lovely terrace with its own cocktail bar. If you’ve ventured to the Asian side of the city to the trendy Moda neighborhood, make sure to try Turkish street food staples reinterpreted by two former fine dining chefs at Basta Street Food Bar, or more experimental recipes accompanied by wine at their newly opened venue, Basta Neobistro.
If you’re in need of a coffee break accompanied by something sweet or savory, spend some time at the minimalist Casa Cooklife, which also publishes an eponymous slow-living magazine. In the evening, get a thorough introduction to the world of Turkish wines at Foxy Nişantaşı, currently the city’s coolest wine bar. As for craft cocktails that interpret local ingredients and culture in a coupe glass, make sure to drop by Fahri Konsolos, touted as the city’s best cocktail bar.
What to do
No Istanbul experience would be complete without first getting thoroughly cleansed and rejuvenated at a Turkish hammam. Two of the very best Turkish baths are the beautifully renovated and modern Kılıç Alı Paşa Hamamı, and the smaller and more private Çukurcuma Hamamı with its flawless marble interior.
If you’ve already taken in the major sights in Sultanahmet, take some time to stroll through the city’s lesser known but equally significant museums. Admire the precious collection of objects from early Anatolian civilizations and the Ottoman Empire in the private Sadberk Hanım Museum, located inside a renovated nineteenth-century villa. Walk along the gardens and terrace overlooking the Bosphorus at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum, a former residence turned private fine arts museum that has exhibited the works of renowned names such as Monet, Picasso, and Rodin.
If your predilections lie in the world of contemporary art, make sure to visit the exhibitions inside the architecturally forward ARTER museum, designed by the London-based Grimshaw Architects. For a nostalgic journey into the past, head to the Ara Güler Museum to admire the iconic black-and-white Istanbul photographs of the famous Turkish-Armenian photojournalist. To learn more about the history of Turkish cinema, visit the Istanbul Cinema Museum inside the iconic and recently renovated Atlas Cinema, which turned a neoclassical mansion into a center of arts and culture in the 1930s. And for more unconventional and unforgettable journeys into Istanbul, such as a curated private sailing or rowing tour on the Bosphorus or Golden Horn, get in touch with Istanbul Tour Studio.
Every Istanbul neighborhood has its own weekly market, but there’s no doubt that the vast and multitudinous Kadıköy Market is the best place to get some serious food shopping done any day of the week. Here you can purchase everything from produce to spices, Turkish cheeses to dried fruits and nuts, fresh fish to offal, and so much more. For gift shopping outside the Grand Bazaar, visit Turkish Modern for beautiful Turkish handicrafts, Homemade Aromaterapi for 100 percent-natural beauty products, and Omar Baban Design for striking and luxurious home goods. Take a little side trip to the hidden courtyard of the historic Arif Paşa Apartment, to find two beautiful boutiques side-by-side: Nauna Linen, with its hand-illustrated textiles, and Touline Ceramics, featuring ceramics all slowly made by hand.
To browse through the latest collections of Istanbul’s most coveted fashion designers, spend some time in the upscale Nişantaşı neighborhood where the city’s most successful names have their ateliers and showrooms. Make sure to visit FEY, the gorgeous women’s clothing and accessories boutique of Fatoş Yalın, Turkey’s first fashion editor. For something edgier, head to Sudi Etuz, a brand created by the new-gen street couture designer Şansım Adalı, known for her bold collections that play with tulle. Another must is the store of young jewelry designer Begum Khan, whose heirloom pieces are inspired by a lush and mystical world of flora and fauna bedecked in ostentatious crystals. For an introduction to Istanbul’s major fashion creators, don’t miss out on Gizia Gate, which brings together the collections of more than thirty of Turkey’s top designers under one roof.
Where to stay in Istanbul
You can find the usual major brands such as the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Ritz Carlton, St. Regis, and Kempinski in Istanbul, but the city also has a few new hotels that have turned historic structures into exceptional accommodations. In the wealthy Sarıyer district, inside two Ottoman-era mansions overlooking the Bosphorus, the Six Senses Kocataş Mansions offer an exclusive stay complete with a luxurious spa and rooms decked out in Belle Epoque furnishings. The former Collège des Frères St. Pierre Elementary School from the nineteenth century is now the very chic Ecole St. Pierre Hotel, with its private courtyard, pizzeria, and room terraces that face the historic Galata Tower.
After a meticulous restoration project, the Adahan mansion, built in 1874 by the Camondo family, is now the luxurious Adahan DeCamondo Pera by the Autograph Collection with an all-day dining rooftop restaurant and cocktail bar overlooking the city. Away from the bustle of Istanbul, the historic Splendid Palace Hotel on Büyükada (the largest of the Prince’s Islands) is something out of a Wes Anderson film, with its red and white interior decorated with palm fronds and elegant furnishings, and its own pool, bar, and restaurant.