Now is the time to visit Istanbul
Here are 3 reasons to visit, 7 ways to do it terror-free and the story of a wedding and a Veep!
Istanbul (aka Constantinople) is one of my favourite cities on the planet and I have had the opportunity to explore it on various occasions.
I’ve done Istanbul as a kid, single, as a couple and as a parent - on business, on pleasure, on bachelorette, on baby-moon, on Greek Orthodox Easter, on Ramadan, for food and leisure, in spring and summer, in the 90s, on ‘record Prada & Louis Vuitton sales’ year, in low and high waters (aka bombs and all that jazz), on the European and Asian side.
While there are only two reasons left for me to keep doing Istanbul -my beloved friends in the city and the food- this time was different.
One of my favourite couples on earth was tying the knot and there was no way I’d miss this! Besides, Istanbul in the winter? That was a first.
While the wedding was approaching -mid January- I admit there was some electricity in the air; back-to-back terrorism acts, Russian planes dropping, ISIS and Paris on the background weren’t helping.
But then again, I am a numbers gal and statistics were on our side (the way I see it, it’s as much dangerous as to visit Big Ben in London).
So, let’s be honest: Istanbul with less people, low hotel prices, low lira and high security? Sounds like the deal of a lifetime.
And it was!
A half full Aegean Airlines plane from Athens, an empty Istanbul airport and low traffic in the city. If you have been to Istanbul before, I presume your face now looks something like this:
I cannot recall a single time it took me less than 30 minutes to pass through passport control, which these days looks more like this:
As for traffic? It took us less than an hour to reach the Conrad Hotel Bosphorus in Besiktas, a ride that’s usually a bit less than 2 hours from the airport.
Was it the recent incident in Sultanahmet square? The drop in international tourist arrivals? Was it the snow (oh yes, there was snow too!)?
This is how we reach Reason No. 1: Low traffic.
You move faster everywhere - in fact we moved so fast that the bride arrived in church before even the priests! (I did mention there was a wedding, didn't I?).
So, there we were in beautifully renovated Conrad Hotel Bosphorus. But wait! Guards? Dogs?
Are we shooting House of Cards?
Is Frank Underwood in town?
Is Jack Bauer running a new round of ‘24’?
We had just arrived to what -clearly- was the safest spot in the city.
What we didn’t know was that Joe Biden (aka Barack Obama’s veep) was heading our way.
And this explained a set up out of Hollywood. That was a whole different set of experience and sightseeing than I was expecting. It was bizarrely entertaining!
But, besides the hotel, apparently the major sightseeing spots like the Grand Bazaar and of course the Sultanahmet square of Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, where the recent terrorism incident took place, were fully guarded and almost empty!
Goodbye long queues and loud crowds. My friends were right. It was the perfect time to be in town and a great chance to move around (which, as per Reason no.1, was as good as it gets).
So, here you have it. Reason no.2: High Security.
Reason no.3: Low hotel prices.
Yes. This is easy to cross check yourself. Prices of fabulous hotels in Istanbul have dropped considerably after the recent events. So, whether you want the uber-safe Conrad, the majestic Four Seasons or Kempinski Ciragan Palace, the hip W, the romantic Les Ottomans, the Asian-side jewel Sumahan or even the glam Soho House, now you can get the deal of a lifetime!
Once you’re there, here are a 7 ideas to explore the city, carefree
1. Follow the guards.
That is ‘go where you would normally stay away’; the Sultanahmet, the Grand Bazaar are guarded like the White House. This, combined with low traffic/less people is a jack pot!
2. Do it like a local.
When it comes to food -my major concern- while I would normally go for the kebab or fish, this time I did Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant inside Zorlu Center (which also accommodates perfectly kids) topped with gelato from Eataly (which is a worthy rival of the original New York version).
Zorlu center also hosts a notable Performing Arts Center where you can catch a show (albeit in Turkish! the productions are good!).
Did you miss the bazaar and spice market? If you were aiming for glassware (traditional pots, glasses etc) Istinye Park has great choices for China and house-stuff shopping, the kind that I would bring back to my mum (this is what I bought, for me -not mum!):
Also, the dried fruit and nut guy in the ground floor is a darling. Yet again, I smuggled kilos of pistachios, dates and mulberries in my suitcase.
The malls work out quite well on cold days and have plenty things to offer, stroll-wise and food-wise, but if you aim for clothes' shopping, I m sorry to say but Istanbul is not the place to be.
Don’t take me wrong: window shopping is fabulous, but shopping is ridiculously expensive (due to inflation); unless you aim for stylish Turkish brands, such as Vakko.
Need an off-the-beaten track turkish bath option? Try the Kılıç Ali Paşa Hamamı for a traditional treatment or the pampering hammam option of Hotel Les Ottomans. By the end of it, you’ll feel so clean and refreshed, you’ll want to come back in town just for that.
4. Stroll neighbourhoods off-the-beaten track
Karakoy neighbourhood was the definite winner of this visit. There’s so much going on, it’s hard to experience in one visit alone. In fact, Karakoy used to be -and partly still remains- the dodgiest of neighbourhoods; but with all the hip cafes, restaurants and bars opening up, the dodgy part adds to the excitement. Start with a stroll or keep it for later, for digestive purposes (!) but either way, don’t miss dinner at Karakoy Locantasi.
It’s not only beautiful inside, but it’s fun with all the cold and hot mezze accompanying the raki and music! Following dinner, strolls for fun graffiti selfies and a drink are highly recommended. I want to go back to the Ferahfeza. Besides it’s beautiful set up, I loved the adventure part of it, which basically sums up to: ‘we entered the lobby of an office building, we took the elevator, we went up, door opens, amazing bar appears - cheers!’
My favourite section. I could write endless pages praising Turkish food and the city’s diverse and remarkable gastronomic scene, but this time the winner was this dodgy (at first sight) hole:
Ali Ocakbasi in Karakoy. If no one warns you about this place, the first impression is that you’ve been tricked and someone is trying to mug you. Once you’re off the dodgy alley and inside the building, take the elevator (trust me!). The restaurant on the top floor is beautiful, with mind-blowing kebab, meats and stunning view. I am going back!
I also tried Cecconi's Istanbul which was excellent (if you're in a non-kebab mood and seek for a posh Istanbul option), but I m going back in the summer; must be way better!
Once we were done with all the wondering and eating (and managed to squeeze into our clothes), the wedding day arrived! Destination: the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
Jackpot: It was snowing. It couldn’t get more romantic, more serene, more moving. Still, even without the snow, I highly recommend a visit if you seek for sightseeing off the very centre. I only hope you get lucky and bump into a wedding or a baptism...
Note: Here's how the couple was welcomed in the church (headless bride wearing stunning Herve Leger! wink wink!)
Following the wedding, love was in the air! We arrived at the Four Seasons Hotel hungry and jolly and what followed was a gastronomic extravaganza (special praise to the pastry chef! sorry, no pic - I focused on eating everything).
I always considered Istanbul as a romantic destination, but snow takes it to a whole different level … I just can’t stop loving this place!
Güle güle Istanbul! Teşekkür ederim
Raising my glass to the couple... may your journey in life be fun and adventurous, theTravelPorter way!
ps: While I was there I used Hotel Momcierge for babysitting and City Transfers Istanbul and loved both services and only mention them here because they may come handy to you. Probably it's a good time to mention that everything I have mentioned and posted here are purely, solely and utterly my personal opinions and experiences and none was sponsored in any form or way...