You could probably make a decent dent in Proust’s oeuvre in the time you’ll spend stuck in traffic during a week in Istanbul. Vehicles may chug at an infuriatingly slow pace through the heat and haze, but if you abandon your taxi in Taksim Square and make your way on foot through Beyoglu, you’ll find giddy changes afoot in the fields of food, fashion and art. While tourists still queue, shoeless, at the doors of the Blue Mosque, and play hide-and-seek with touts in the Grand Bazaar, the most interesting parts of town are across the water, away from the domes of the old city of Sultanahmet.
This is a city that makes you feel — less than four hours after sipping English breakfast tea on your flight — that you’ve been transported somewhere far, far from home. The turrets of mosques pierce the skyline, and at midday the muezzin’s amplified call to prayer wails across every stray cat-filled street and alleyway. Ladies who lunch peruse fancily packaged Turkish delight in the Anouska Hempel-designed Lokum Istanbul store and talk excitedly about the largest-ever branch of Soho House, due to open in the city next summer. Later, visiting film stars make their way from their lavishly appointed suites at the Park Hyatt Istanbul Maçka Palas down to the Gucci outlet in the lobby and then up to the cocktail bar on the pool terrace. Later still, the gay clubs near Taksim Square will pulse to techno and Euro pop, carrying on into the early hours.
Yes, the tides are turning in Istanbul and there’s never been a better time to visit.
The best way to experience the new face of Istanbul is on foot. Nisantasi is the city’s own Knightsbridge. The House Café here is where locals don shades and grab a pavement table to people-watch. The service can be slow, but the spiced porridge is superb and it’s a splendid place to pose.
Make your way through Cihangir’s dreamy, rickety little enclaves of bohemia. New cafes and stores open every week, with no sign of global corporates muscling in. Afternoons pass lazily in clouds of shisha smoke, plates of mezze and hours of idle conversation.
Istanbul Modern is 21st-century Turkey’s gargantuan, hugely impressive contemporary art museum. Inhabited since prehistoric times, this is a city that’s clearly justified in devoting several square miles of gallery space to the past. But its modern stance on all things visual is just as inspiring. For those who feel like they’ve seen one crowd-pleasing piece of pop art too many, and who find the crazed, creche-like atmosphere of the UK’s Tate Modern off-putting, Istanbul Modern is a breath of very fresh air on the banks of the Bosphorus. The space is slick in the extreme, with arresting details: there are bullet holes in the glass entrance to the downstairs photography galleries. Compared with similarly glamorous spaces in New York and Paris, it’s tranquil, with tolerable, low-density foot traffic, while the work in the permanent collections — from blazing neons to thickly daubed figurative oils — is exciting and unfamiliar. Go downstairs for Richard Wentworth’s striking False Ceiling installation — the artist has hung hundreds of books, all at precisely the same level, a few inches above head-height.
“Have you been to SALT?” asks Tarik M Bayazit, co-owner — with his partner, Sava Ertunc — of the city’s most celebrated and established design-focused ‘it’ restaurant, Changa. “If you liked Istanbul Modern, you’ll love SALT. It’s the new big thing,” he adds. There are, in fact, two branches of SALT, but the one in Galata is the one to visit. It’s a short walk down a very steep hill from historic landmark, Galata Tower, in a converted bank. The hallways still have that cool marble sheen that temples of international finance once indulged in. It houses ever-changing exhibitions, and there’s a very handsome cafe with views out over the water to the mosques of Sultanahmet. But the room most worth visiting is the research centre — a tour de force of modern library design. There are whitewashed mezzanine pillars; an elegant, monochrome patterned floor; black metal powder-coated shelves and some very snazzy bits of furniture. There’s also an old British-built bank vault in the centre of the room. It’s an oasis of clean lines and visual tranquillity in a part of town crackling with a hundred or more electrical appliance stores, ironmongers, and vendors of heavy-duty machinery.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Autoban — the design house run by Seyhan Özdemir and Sefer Çağlar — has redefined Turkish style. The design gurus recently moved their store to a new space opposite the W Istanbul Hotel, immediately creating a high-design shopping district. Their creations, from Müzedechanga restaurant to the exquisite detailing of The House Hotel, have made them the superstars of Turkish design. Only Rifat Özbek — who’s moved from fashion design into soft furnishings under the brand name Yastik — shares similar international reach. Özbek’s Istanbul boutique, around the corner from The House Hotel Nisantasi and Park Hyatt Istanbul Maçka Palas, displays brightly coloured, strongly graphic cushions on shelves as if they were Louboutin heels; his wealthy customers buy them by the dozen.
Wind your way from Galata Tower, along Serdar-i Ekrem and visit some of the small independent boutiques that have opened here. While Turkish men seem reluctant to venture out of their conservative comfort zone, the womenswear from the likes of Bahar Korçan and Aida Pekin is fresh and offbeat. There’s a vibrant design scene around these streets, with quirky little cafes to match. While Nisantasi has been colonised by French fashion colossus LVMH, Galata is defined by its decaying grand buildings and stencilled graffiti.
One of the most interesting up-and-coming areas is Karaköy. As well as new watering holes, there are boutiques: Atölye 11 was opened recently by interior designers Burcu and Levent Çipiloğlu and houses stacks of brightly coloured, modern soft furnishings, adorned with motifs adapted from traditional Anatolian carpets. It’s unique, very pretty and more likely to live in harmony with your sofa than anything from the Grand Bazaar will.
One essential cultural jaunt for the modern visitor to Istanbul is the Sakip Sabanci Museum — not so much for the art, but for the aforementioned Müzedechanga: sibling to restaurateurs Tarik and Sava’s more centrally located Changa. While effectively just another cafe in just another museum, the food — along with the interior design — might just be the best in the city. Light and innovative dishes — including celeriac with pear and tangerine, octopus with black olives and capers, and spicy sausage with pistachio, humus and rocket — are served in a glass box of a space with arguably the most ravishing modern wooden furniture in all of Europe. Tarik wanted a look that was a mix of ‘mid-century modern Scandic with elements of the traditional Turkish home style of the 1960s’, which is precisely the aesthetic that Autoban, the Istanbul-based designers he commissioned, specialise in.
Elsewhere, Turkey’s most famous winery, Corvus, has a bar and small-plate restaurant, Corvus Wine & Bite, across the road from Autoban’s new store — perfect for a post-spree lunch and a glass of full-bodied Syrah, resplendent with the aroma of strawberry jam and sourdough. Autoban also had a hand in the design of Münferit, the sleek mezze restaurant (the beef cheek and the black cous cous with calamari are marvels) that remains the default dining room for the fashion crowd— no surprise, given owner Ferit Sarper is married to Autoban’s Seyhan Özdemir.
The Antakayan restaurant in the city, meanwhile, Antiochia Concept, is in a small alley in Beyoglu, directly opposite Autoban’s studio. “I didn’t know Jale before the New York Times wrote about us on the same page,” says celebrity chef Murat Bozok, sitting at a table next to Antiochia Concept’s owner Jale Balci, herself something of a household name, with a bestselling cookbook and her own line of soaps and olive oils. Murat runs the ultra-fine dining restaurant Mimolett, where he creates contemporary, artful European cuisine — waiters ferry a procession of tiny, beautiful dishes around the room, softly lit by a vast, dimmed chandelier. It’s a memorable, romantic experience, very much a special occasion destination. Antiochia, on the other hand, is a stark and simple cafe where the kitchen turns out small plates drenched in pomegranate molasses. “This is totally different to my cooking,” says Murat, “but I love it.” For simple, modern fare, it’s extraordinary: the chargrilled minced meat kebab with onion and tomato, wrapped in spicy flat bread, is one of the most wonderful things a carnivore will ever eat. For pudding, skip Antiochia’s perfectly capable dessert options, head to one of the ornate Turkish delight shops nearby, and order the lokum with clotted cream. It’s impossibly delicious. There’s nothing new about it, but sometimes you can’t beat the classics.
The sleekest and newest face of the international chains is the Park Hyatt Istanbul Maçka Palas, set in a historic building with a very appealing style. The terrace pool isn’t vast, but on scorching days it’s a great spot to take a break from sightseeing.
If you’re looking for the quintessential modern Turkish boutique hotel, then the four House Hotels are where to bed down. The Galatasaray branch mixes modernity with the grand features of a 19th-century mansion close to Taksim Square, while the Nisantasi property is stacked in sleek taupe, Autoban-designed layers above Prada’s flagship store. The restaurant and library area in the reception is one of the most photographed interiors in Turkey and the beds are a sculptural delight — trust me, you’ll want one.
Autoban’s (and indeed the House Hotel’s) retro-tinged look has had no shortage of imitators. The recently opened Georges Hotel — a chic bolt hole on Galata’s coolest street — has light fittings that look like they’ve been lifted from Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, beautifully restored ceilings and acres of bare brick. It also has beds and bathrooms echoing some of Autoban’s most recognisable work.
“This is the most popular place for an aperitif right now,” says Antony Doucet, one of the directors of the House Hotel chain, and co-author of the Louis Vuitton guide to the city. “This whole district is really happening. It’s quieter tonight, but last Friday you couldn’t even see the bar. After this, everyone will head to Münferit for dinner.”
We are in Bej, in Karaköy — part restaurant, part bar and part fancy stationery store. Despite some of the most punishing wine taxes in Europe, the fizz flows and there’s lively banter among Istanbul’s more fashionable cliques.
The rowdiest kind of fun in Istanbul can be had around the bars and clubs peppering the alleyways close to Taksim Square. Stroll along Balo Sokak, off Istiklal Caddesi, and every other doorway offers a new opportunity to party. For some of the most wonderful nighttime views of the city, Mikla Restaurant is the place to go. This determinedly 21st-century fine dining restaurant and cocktail bar has been going for years but remains as good as ever. It was one of the first places to reflect flash, west-of-the-Bosphorus sensibilities. Start with a G&T on the open-air terrace, watch the skyline light up, and then have the tasting menu, which takes you from raw grouper to warm raspberry soup via sardine crisp with lemon and some wonderful beef.
There are two main airports: Sabiha Gökçen is in Asia, 24 miles from Beyoglu. Atatürk International, in Europe, is less than 13 miles from the main tourist areas.
Turkish Airlines flies from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester to Atatürk. British Airways flies between Heathrow and Atatürk. EasyJet flies from Luton to Gökçen. www.turkishairlines.com www.ba.com www.easyjet.com
Average flight time: 3h40m.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful but insist on the meter being used. Be aware too that some drivers parked in Taksim Square will offer to drive you for an inflated set fare, and the traffic in general can be so bad it’s often quicker to walk. There’s an extensive bus system, but no bus lanes. The fastest public transport is offered by the Metro and tram network. The Zeytinburnu-Sultanahmet tram is a useful tourist link. Tokens are available from machines at most stops. www.iett.gov.tr
Ferries are an efficient way to cross the Bosphorus and to reach a variety of destinations.
When to go
Spring and autumn can see the occasional heavy shower but it’s usually bright and warm. Summer can be ferociously hot and winter can be bitterly cold. Many restaurants without terraces close in summer.
Need to know
Visas: UK residents require a multiple-entry visa, valid for 90 days, which can be bought at the point of entry for £10.
Currency: Turkish Lira (TRY).
£1 = 2.89TRY.
International dial code:
Asian side: 00 90 216.
European side: 00 90 212.
Time difference: GMT +2.
Corvus Wine & Bite. www.corvus.com.tr
Münferit. T: 00 90 212 252 50 67.
Antiochia Concept. www.antiochiaconcept.com
Mikla Restaurant. www.miklarestaurant.com
Bej. T: 0212 251 7195.
Witt Magazine. Excellent online city guide. www.wittistanbul.com/witt-magazine
Wallpaper* City Guide Istanbul. RRP: £5.95. www.phaidon.com
Insight Guide Select: Istanbul. RRP: £9.99.
How to do it
British Airways offers three-night breaks, including return flights from Heathrow, from £237 per person (staying at the two-star Tayhan Hotel) to £698, staying at the Istanbul EDITION. www.ba.com
Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)