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Cool Istanbul

Istanbul, The largest city in Turkey, and for centuries the confluence of East and West, is now just a budget flight away. Vanessa Able, editor of Time Out Istanbul, reveals the smartest places to stay, eat and party.
The Observer


In Istanbul, history and tradition are piled layer upon layer. Stately palaces, mosques and cathedrals lie beside chaotic bazaars, steaming hamams and poky nargile (hookah) joints. Ottoman Constantinople sits easily with ancient Byzantium, but emerging on top of them is a new stratum: Istanbul the cool.

In the past decade, development has transformed ghetto-like no-go zones into hip and vibrant neighbourhoods whose stylish clientele spill out into the streets, eating and drinking until the small hours. Clubs, bars, cafes, restaurants, shops, hotels and galleries are springing up at an explosive pace.

If you go to Istanbul expecting belly dancers, you might be surprised to find yourself watching the sunrise at a nightclub on the Bosphorus; if you imagine a diet of greasy kebabs, you'll be stunned at the range of haute cuisine options fusing traditional Turkish food with cutting-edge international styles. And if your idea of shacking up in Istanbul is a second-rate pension, you'll be amazed at the range of chic, sassy and downright sexy boutique hotels you can stay at.

Istanbul will be a European Capital of Culture in 2010 and now that the first low-cost flights there have been launched by Easyjet, hip weekenders will be flocking to soak up the excitement. Here's what they need to know:

Boutique boltholes

Istanbul inherited some rich pickings from its Ottoman ancestry in terms of palaces and mansions, and a great many have been restored and converted into residences, clubs, restaurants and boutique hotels. A frontrunner of the genre is the gorgeous A'jia (00 90 216 413 9300; www.ajiahotel.com), the former 19th-century residence of a governor of the city. This peaceful and secluded mansion, up the Bosphorus strait on the Asian shore, is blissfully remote from the city centre. It has 10 deluxe rooms and six suites, most of which have views out on to the water and some with private terraces. Prices per night start at around €290 (£196). You can take a boat from the hotel across to the nightlife on the livelier European side, or profit from A'jia's own excellent restaurant, which serves international and Mediterranean cuisine.

For something a little closer to the action, check out the Sumahan on the Water (00 90 216 422 8000; www.sumahan.com), with rooms from €170. Also on the Asian side, near the towering Bosphorus suspension bridge, this hotel is in the old wooden-housed village of Cengelkoy, next to a site that used to be a distillery that made raki (an aniseed-flavoured aperitif) in Ottoman times. Some rooms come with a private hamam (Turkish bath), while guests can use the hotel's boat as a ferry to the city's main transport hubs.

Facing the Sumahan on the European side is the spanking new Hotel Les Ottomans (00 90 212 287 1024; www.lesottomans.com), a high-end phenomenon. Built inside an Ottoman yali (a luxurious wooden mansion), the interior and 12 luxurious suites (starting at €1,200) are decked out in lavish Ottoman style. The outdoor pool has a transparent floor panel that doubles as a spectacular ceiling in the swish subterranean spas.

Popularly assumed to be Istanbul's finest digs, the five-star Four Seasons Hotel (00 90 212 638 8200; www.fourseasons.com/istanbul) in Sultanahmet, with rooms from €290 a night, inhabits a conversion of another variety.

Set in the grounds of a former prison, which was functioning for petty criminals until the end of the Seventies, its range of rooms and suites, gazebo-style restaurant and expertly manicured gardens are almost worth getting banged up for.

On a more modern note, city slickers might prefer the new Sofa Hotel (00 90 212 368 1818; www.thesofahotel.com) in the middle of Istanbul's trendy Nisantasi area. Nestled among the city's designer shops, including Armani, Gucci (and also Marks & Spencer), it's a minimalist-chic urban option. Nightly rates start at around €200.

Chic eats

If your idea of Turkish dining is tucking into slices of greasy meat carved off a cylindrical spit, ingested on a pavement after eight pints of beer, then think again: Istanbul is brimming with stylish restaurants.

The city's smart staple is the multiple award-winning 360 (00 90 212 251 10 42; www.360istanbul.com): a glass-walled rooftop extravaganza with a popular bar and a circular view of the metropolis. The culinary influences hail from all around the world, and dishes include delicious Lebanese kibbe meatballs stuffed with walnuts, veal-and-prawn surf and turf or lamb loin confit, expertly poached in olive oil for five whole hours.

Alternatively, head up the Bosphorus to Ortakoy, one of outer Istanbul's quaintest villages and hottest nightspots, and the Banyan Ortakoy (00 90 212 259 9060). Sit on the terrace beside the tiny banyan trees if the weather's still warm enough and feast on their Oriental delights while gaping at the stunning view of the neo-Baroque waterside mosque. Another option in this part of town is Erguvan (00 90 212 327 6075) in the newly built Radisson SAS hotel, also on the waterfront and perfect if you fancy fresh seafood.

This year's hot-off-the-press destination is Mikla (00 90 212 293 5656), perched on top of the Marmara Pera Hotel in the thick of the famous Old Pera neighbourhood. It has views to die for, food to match (the lamb escalope is a must) and a verdant rooftop bar complete with swimming pool for those sweltering summer nights. Reservations are advised at all the restaurants featured here, and meals with wine average around €50 (£35) a head.

Bar life

You might be offered endless cups of cay, the local tea, from ultra-friendly locals by day, but only a concerted survey of the city's bar circuit by night will reveal what Istanbul really has to offer in terms of a good bottoms-up. For beer, try the ubiquitous native brew, Efes. Turkish wines generally have a lot to answer for in the hangover stakes; however, there is one diamond in the rough and that is the Sarafin brand, available in red and white varieties in most good restaurants and bars.

A fine place to start an evening's jaunt is at the local favourite Leb-i Derya (00 90 212 293 4989; www.lebiderya.com), an effortlessly chilled establishment featuring fantastic views and an extensive cocktail list, including the notorious Balalaika, Caipirovska and Monday concoctions.

Zoe (00 90 212 251 7491) is another venue in Taksim that makes the most of the city's incredible vistas. In colder weather you can hang out in the stylish bar area, but join the crowd on the roof to party under the stars in the summer.

Also very popular with Istanbullus is the Nu Pera (00 90 212 245 5810), an umbrella name for a constellation of joints housed in the same building. During the summer months, attention is focused on the rooftop terrace, for which you'll certainly need a reservation at weekends. But be aware of the door policy: as with many clubs and bars in the city, men are rarely granted entry if not accompanied or outnumbered by females, and smart, fashionable dress is essential. There's also been a recent rise in the number of requests to see passports at the door.

If you prefer something a little more laid back, check out Cezayir (00 90 212 245 9980; www.cezayir-istanbul.com). Housed in a 100-year-old school building, this chic cafe, bar and restaurant is composed of a number of rooms of varying levels of noise and energy, with sofas, a dancefloor and great mojitos.

Club hits

Travel before the beginning of October and you'll catch the city's infamous Bosphorus nightclubs: outdoor complexes of restaurants, bars and dancefloors right on the water, with a refined clientele who park their yachts alongside the private docks and make their entrances like royalty. The most prominent of these is the world-class Reina (00 90 212 259 5919), for which you'll need to book ahead if you want a table, and the female-accessory rule applies to appease the stony-faced bouncers. Blackk (00 90 212 236 7256; www.blackk.net) is just across the road, and open year-round. Excelling in sumptuous decor, it's an eating, drinking and dancing venue with a moody, dark-leather interior and an open conservatory designed in the most lavish rococo upstairs.

If serious dancing is your thing, get down and boogie in an original Seventies disco, Godet (00 90 212 243 8143). This late-night venue on top of the Surmeli Hotel rarely gets going until well after midnight and has garnered a reputation for its innovative DJs.

For live music, head to the number one concert spot, Babylon (00 90 212 292 7368; www.babylon-ist.com), an unpretentious and intimate venue which has hosted scores of international ensembles including The Fall, and Stereolab.

Classic must-sees

The morning after, you may want to tick off a few of the classic sights, and for these head to the historical district of Sultanahmet. Don't miss the Aya Sofya (00 90 212 528 4500), formerly known as the Hagia Sophia, which was the biggest cathedral in the world for 1,000 years and has a splendid vast dome, or its giant neighbour, the Blue Mosque (00 90 212 518 13 19) with its six minarets.

Within walking distance of the two is Topkapi Palace (00 90 212 512 0480). Set in the gardens of Gulhane park, the palace is a network of stunning, perfectly preserved tiled and marbled buildings that accommodated official events and the private residences of the Sultanate in the days of the Ottoman Empire.

The Basilica Cistern is an old Roman well that was used for storing water channelled into the city along an 8km system of aqueducts from nearby Belgrade forest. Don't just expect a hole in the ground: the Cistern was used as a set for From Russia With Love and is the size of a cathedral, with more than 300 supporting columns and 80,000 cubic metres of water.

The Grand Bazaar is a shopping experience par excellence. The giant covered market, the centre of which dates back to 1461, twists and turns, and can swallow you whole if you're not careful. Aside from the belly dancing outfits, ornate mirrored caps, and fake labels, it's worth checking out the selection of pashminas, jewellery, and leather jackets and handbags.

Alternative must-sees

After the rabble of touts and salesmen at the Grand Bazaar you might crave a more subdued shopping experience, so hop on the metro at Taksim Square and go a couple of stops to Istanbul's latest retail wonder: the Kanyon mall in Levent. This is not your average enclosed American-style colossus: it's a climate-controlled outdoor complex in the form of a canyon, with towers and cooling or warming breezes, depending on the season.

To escape the spending trap, flee the mainland altogether on a ferry from Eminonu, Kabata or Bostanci ports (www.ido.com.tr) to one of the four Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. The trip takes an hour-and-a-half at most, and you can disembark at any one of the relaxing little isles. Buyukada (literally, 'the big island') has, like all the others, forsaken motorised vehicles (with the exception of the startlingly numerous emergency services) in favour of bicycles, horses and donkeys. If you have time, take a ride up the road strewn with prayer ribbons to St George's Monastery, go for a walk among the trees or just chill out in one of the cafes in the main village, like the trendy new Gr.ile (00 90 216 382 1630).

Back in the city centre, another fascinating and less frequented spot is the Galata Mevlevihanesi (00 90 212 245 4141), an old Sufi lodge converted into a museum. If you're there on a Sunday or the first or last Saturday of the month, buy a ticket for the Sema ceremony and get dizzy watching the renowned whirling dervishes, who chant and spin in meditation for up to an hour.

The Istanbul Modern (00 90 212 334 7300; www.istanbulmodern.org) is the city's first institution dedicated to contemporary art. Situated in a former shipping warehouse by the docks, it houses a permanent collection of Turkish art from the last century, as well as an upcoming exhibition of picks from the last Venice Biennale that will be showing towards the end of 2006.

To experience the best of Bosphorus village life, travel north along the strait from the museum between the two giant suspension bridges that connect Europe to Asia, to the buzzing Sunday market in Ortakoy and the fishing village of Arnavutkoy. One of the best walks in Istanbul is along the Bosphorus from Arnavutkoy to the old castle at Rumeli Hisari, past scores of fishermen and great fish restaurants, boats and yachts and a fantastic view of the tankers travelling to and from the Black Sea, with the glittering backdrop of the Asian continent just across the water.

Istanbul insider

My favourite place is also my home: Cihangir, a section of Beyoglu that's undergone a facelift. I am drawn by the fact that it is cosmopolitan, multicultural, central, and for professional reasons, since there are many actors, writers, directors and producers in the area. There's also a good number of foreigners with flats here.

The main street has a few very popular cafes including Leyla, Porte, the excellent fish restaurant Doga Balik and Miss Pizza. My favourite cafe is Smyrna, which has kooky decoration. It's the kind of place where you feel like you'll always bump into someone you know.
Devrim Nas, actor

Getting there

Earlier this month Easyjet (0905 8210905; www.easyjet.com) started daily flights from Luton to Istanbul from £47 return.

British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) has three flights a day from Heathrow, from £208. Turkish Airlines (020 7766 9300; www.thy.com) has three daily flights from Heathrow and one from Stansted from £166










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Last modified: 2023-10-28


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