Istanbul, which was earlier this year named the best city in Europe by Travel + Leisure readers, is now one of the best places to go in 2024. Editor in chief Jacqui Gifford shares what's new, why the hotel scene rivals Paris, and how to plan your trip.
Come sunset, there is only one place to be in Turkey’s style capital: settled comfortably by the Bosphorus, chilled cocktail in hand.
The sky was turning a blush pink, the seagulls hovering above the water like ivory drones as we took our seats at Gallada, an oasis-like restaurant from chef Fatih Tutak. Opened in July to rave reviews, it crowns one of the four buildings that comprise the new Peninsula Istanbul — itself a much talked-about addition to the Karaköy neighborhood. Ferries, cargo ships, and party boats packed with revelers coursed up and down the strait, where 40,000 vessels traverse the waters annually. Music blasted from the pleasure cruises — an occasional distraction, but one easy enough to forgive. Everyone was ready to shake off the languor of the hot afternoon and welcome in the shade of night.
Soon enough, a steady stream of influencers (executives in crisp shirts, fashion types in the latest Gucci) started to saunter in, and the restaurant was just as humming as the party boats. Our party of three, by contrast, included two bleary-eyed parents and a starving 8-year-old. In addition to Gallada, the 38-year-old Tutak operates Turk, the only Michelin two-starred restaurant in Turkey, and has become something of a celebrity in the food world. We ordered a Heinz variety of Tutak’s signature dishes, which blend Turkish and Asian flavors and take inspiration from the Silk Road. To start: a wood-fired potato pide accompanied by smoked bone marrow butter, and fried eggplant with burnt yogurt, tokat onions, and pepper oil. And multiple orders of crispy beef dumplings, umami bombs dunked in spicy butter and fragrant yogurt. There were lamb kebabs with vinegar onions and grilled Mersin red prawns with a delicate sweetness to balance the savory meat. It all paired beautifully with (ironically enough) the “Hong Kong” cocktail – a heady mix of Sichuan-infused tequila, Sichuan oil, galliano, yuzu, and vanilla. We left at 10 p.m., long past our bedtime; the influencers stayed well into the night, at their epic waterfront perch.
The Bosphorus may physically divide Europe and Asia, but it spiritually unites visitors and locals, who both gravitate to its shore and to its scenery. It gives Istanbul a purpose, a way to gather and evolve. Nowhere is this more evident right now than at the Galataport: a $1.7-billion hub that stretches for three-quarters-of-a-mile along the strait, and includes an underground cruise terminal, shopping area, pedestrian promenade, and art museum.
The Peninsula is the linchpin. Stitched together by three landmark buildings from 1910, 1912, and 1937, plus one addition, the 177-room hotel, which opened in February 2023, quickly turned heads. The crisp service, the walkable location, and the top-tier amenities give it an edge. After touring the Hagia Sophia, we lounged by the serene pool, which overlooks the 1,486-year-old site and other jewels such as the Topkapi Palace. The sprawling, subterranean spa has one of the best private hammams in the city. The intuitive, tablet and touchscreen panel-enabled guest rooms feel residential, cocooning, thanks to Zeynep Fadillioglu, a female interior designer known for her work on Istanbul’s Sakirin Mosque.
The hotel’s shiny new toys are all the more remarkable when you consider that the lobby and atrium, with its art deco flourishes (note the marble water feature, toward the back) once welcomed thousands of cruise ship passengers, starting in 1940. The other two buildings that flank it had past lives, too — the 1912 guest wing, “Rihtim Han,” was once a naval hospital.
“This area is a gift to the city, because this part had been hidden from the public for many years, as it was an official port,” said Arzu Kaprol, a local designer who fashioned most of the trim staff uniforms, using artisans from the Grand Bazaar. “Now with this new structure, the area is being given back to the public. On the weekends we are witnessing thousands of people enjoying the waterfront, freely.”
Kaprol’s caftan-packed shop can be discovered five minutes away on foot, in the Paket Postanesi: an airy domed building from 1911 that served as a customs office, passenger lounge, and post office. Compared to the sensory overload of the Grand Bazaar, a maze if there ever was one, it’s an excellent place to browse, unhurried. The boutique Juju Mood offers charms, bangles, stylish amulets; Atelier Rebul, a heritage cosmetics company dating to 1895, specializes in luxurious candles and fragrances. At the nearby Tophane-İ Amire Culture and Art Center, “Golden Opulence,” an exhibition celebrating 500 years of Turkish craft, fashion, and technique, sponsored by fashion house Beymen, runs from December 6-15, with plans to travel across the country.
Another center for Turkish heritage and culture is the Renzo Piano-designed Istanbul Modern, a five-story structure opened in June. The old museum was housed in a not-so-attractive customs warehouse, demolished as part of the Galataport rehabilitation. (For several years, the Modern was moved to temporary housing in Beyoğlu). Piano, for this latest iteration, took inspiration from the Bosphorus, creating sight lines to the water on the upper floors and a reflecting pool on the rooftop. The compact, welcoming museum focuses on Turkish contemporary art, with photography being a standout: a current exhibition includes 22 oversize photos from filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The Restaurant Modern, with its sweeping waterfront terrace, makes the whole experience even more approachable.
“[The Galataport] was built not just for tourists,” explained Sinan Sökmen, the founder of Istanbul Tour Studio, a luxury travel agency. “Everyone goes with a different purpose. I go for eats and drinks; some go shopping.” Sökmen, who has been a guide for 15 years, now arranges bespoke experiences, including rowing along the Golden Horn and street photography tours. He worked in the port in 2014, when it was basically “desolate.” He told me that he was excited to see this era of “adaptation and renovation,” noting that the 86-year-old MSFAU Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture, which reopened in 2020, is another welcome change to the area. “The city is certainly old, there is nothing much we can do about that,” Sökmen added with a smile. “But all these clashes and contrasts make it special.”
Istanbul’s luxury hotel scene, one could argue, now rivals London or Paris. Up the coast, Çirağan Kempinski Palace, a 17th-century sultan’s residence and longtime society darling, just got a glow up. There are two new restaurants (the waterside Akdeniz by Esra Muslu is a highlight) while the rooms nod to Ottoman history with touches that are subtle, not too showy (think Cintemani-patterned headboards, marble-inlaid furniture). In Beşiktaş, the two-year-old Mandarin Oriental, Bosphorus, draws a well-traveled international crowd, with on-point contemporary rooms and a Michelin-approved outpost of Hakkasan. The four-year-old Six Senses Koçtaş Mansions in residential Sariyer is more boutique, with just 43 jewel-box-like rooms spread across two 19th-century homes once owned by a minister of justice. The Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet, voted by Travel + Leisure readers as the best hotel in the world, reemerged in 2022 after a two-year renovation. It is housed in a former jail; for all its on-trend glitz and glamor, there are still prisoners’ etchings in the walls, giving guests a surprising, tangible connection to the past.
Meanwhile, rumors are swirling that an Orient Express hotel will come to Karaköy, not too far from the Peninsula – how very Agatha Christie. Indeed: for all the polished hotels, the modern art, the Michelin-caliber restaurants, Istanbul still can feel like a throwback to another, simpler time. Up early one morning, I peered out our hotel room window and saw several fishermen standing with their rods at the ready, passing time with ease. Friends sat casually chatting on benches to start their day, as I suspect they might have done a century ago — or even long before that.
How to Plan a Trip to Istanbul
T+L A-lister Jonathan Adler can book Istanbul and a wider Turkey itinerary. He also highly recommends booking a VIP arrival service and IGA Pass at Istanbul Airport, a world-class facility opened in 2018. “It will truly help, as you are whisked away by buggy saving the very long walks,” said Adler. “Shopping is also an experience here, so do come early to enjoy." Contact Jonathan Alder at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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