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Sleep: Istanbul

The allure of Istanbul is found not only in its skyline of mosques and minarets, but also in its restaurant, design, fashion and cultural scene. Tap into the world’s only city to straddle two continents, from the Old Town with its quaint old houses, to Sultanahmet where you’ll find the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, and the pulsating quarter of Beyoglu

Sleep: Istanbul
Image: Gradiva Hotel

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Karaköy

Squaring off against the Old Town at the foot of the Galata Bridge, feisty Karaköy is Istanbul’s most up-and-coming neighbourhood. Here you’ll find fantastic restaurants, art galleries and boutiques in amongst hardware stalls and fishermen’s barbecue stands. It’s technically part of Beyoglu, but Karaköy has a distinctive personality — and its hill-free, waterside position makes it a good compromise between Pera and Sultanahmet.

We recommend: Sub Hotel
As hotel themes go, ‘iron’ — a nod to Karaköy’s shipyards and harbour, three blocks away — is an odd one. But while Sub Hotel certainly has industrial starkness — dark walls, specially commissioned iron beds and sliding, ferry-style bathroom doors — it’s softened by cosy touches, like brightly reupholstered antique chairs, double-headed showers and Ottoman caricatures over the improbably comfortable beds. The result is a love letter to Karaköy — the furniture was either built locally or foraged from nearby antique shops; the rotating art exhibits come from local galleries; and the outgoing staff are enthusiastic ambassadors for the area. And if you’re wondering why everyone is so nice, you need to know that the owner claims to have a novel way of selecting potential employees: she hugs them. The breakfast spread is a highlight — a smorgasboard of Turkish food, mostly organic and all displaying its provenance on little maps — right down to where they get the berries for the jam. This summer, they’re planning a mini roof garden, where guests will be able to pick their own tomatoes and bring them down to breakfast.
Rooms: Doubles from €109 (£90), B&B. subistanbul.com

Best for families: Portus House
A stylish fusion of hotel, hostel and serviced apartments just a block from the Bosphorus, Portus occupies a dinky art noveau building on central Mumhane Caddesi. A steep staircase leads to the well-equipped kitchen; above, the 10 bedrooms (some with shared bathroom), pop with bright colours and fun touches, such as gingham curtains and trompe l’oeil (optical illusion) wallpaper. By connecting family rooms you can have an entire wing to yourself.
Rooms: Doubles from €89 (£74), B&B. portushouse.com

Best for party animals: Gradiva Hotel
Don’t stay at Gradiva if you’re after an early night — its two bars are both popular with the locals. Zelda Zonk has a roof terrace and spectacular 360-degree views (the music here goes on till 4am, at least), while Nublu is a subterranean jazz venue twinned with its Manhattan namesake. There’s a design feel to the 30 rooms — all white glass walls with wooden ‘tree of life’ accents — and, while small, Superior rooms overlook the Bosphorus and Karaköy tram station, below.
Rooms: Doubles from €55 (£46), B&B. gradivahotels.com

Beyoglu

Separated from the Old Town by the Golden Horn and the Galata Bridge is Beyoglu, famed for its shopping, dining and nightlife. Like Old Town, the large area is composed of several smaller districts, including pretty Galata, with its 14th-century tower, and upmarket Pera. Pedestrianised shopping boulevard Istiklal Caddesi acts as Beyoglu’s spine, with tiny streets and alleys spilling steeply down the hill on either side — the location for many hotels. An underground funicular connects Istiklal with the Galata Bridge.

We recommend: Tomtom Suites
Impeccable service? Check. Enormous rooms? Check. Heated bathroom floors, a pillow menu, whirlpool baths? Check. Plus the fourth-floor lounge (with retractable roof) has calf-to-ceiling windows on three sides, taking in the Bosphorus, Sultanahmet and even the Princes’ Islands. An all-suite hotel converted from a 19th-century convent, Tomtom has been thoroughly modernised; the lofty ceilings, arching windows and pared-back luxury the only clues to its modest past. Even the smallest of the 20 suites is huge, with colourful rugs over floorboards and bright paintings by local artists keeping it cosy. Each hamam-style, marble-clad bathroom, meanwhile, houses a whirlpool bath and spacious shower. Located on a pedestrianised street, this is a blissfully quiet spot — a rarity in Istanbul. And while the staff don’t speak great English, their service is phenomenal — check in with a damaged suitcase, for example, and they’re likely to repair it on the spot.
Rooms: Doubles from €170 (£140), B&B. tomtomsuites.com

Best for atmosphere: Pera Palace Hotel
Opened in 1892 to cater to the Orient Express’s guests, Istanbul’s most famous dame is back to her former glory after a recent £20m revamp and takeover by Jumeirah. The 115 rooms are traditional (if a little staid), but the public areas are sublime, from the Anouska Hempel-designed patisserie to the glass-domed Kubbeli Saloon Tea Lounge. Silver platters in the restaurant and the original lift, still creaking its way to the bedrooms, are momentos of the hotel’s golden age.
Rooms: Doubles from €240 (£199), room only. jumeirah.com

Best for couples: The House Hotel Galatasaray
An all-suite hotel set in a six-storey mansion below Istiklal Caddesi. Original features like lofty ceilings, double doors, wall mouldings and parquet floors are paired with minimalist furniture — see-through wardrobes, racy in-room shower cubicles — for a striking blend of classic and modern. Ignore the semi-subterranean mini suites — upgrades are reasonable and the higher room categories are large and sun-soaked.
Rooms: Doubles from €80 (£66), B&B. thehousehotel.com

Old Town

Most visitors have one place in mind when they come to Istanbul: Sultanahmet, where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia and the Topkapi Palace line up on a hill above the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. Nearly all the famous Byzantine and Ottoman sights are here or down the hill in neighbouring Sirkeci and Eminönü, so the advantages of staying here are obvious. That said, nearly all shops and restaurants are touristy, so savvy travellers head across the Galata Bridge to Beyoglu for dinner.

We recommend: Hotel Empress Zoe
There couldn’t be a more fitting location for Hotel Empress Zoe than below Sultanahmet’s archaeological park, in the shadow of Hagia Sophia. What looks, from the outside, like a slightly ramshackle house — drowning in wisteria, next to a ruined 15th-century Turkish bathhouse — opens out into a warren of rooms spread among four Ottoman townhouses, surrounding a courtyard filled with palm and plum trees. There are 26 rooms, each different — some with knockout views of the Sea of Marmara, others, hamam-style bathrooms with under-floor heating. Most are traditional in style, some are more contemporary, but the whole place is stuffed with antiques — from chunks of ancient columns in the lobby to Ottoman basins in many of the rooms. The atmosphere here is very much of a home, rather than a hotel — right down to the three resident cats, often to be found snoozing in the breakfast room. Don’t expect white-glove service or turndown — the non-uniformed staff are far too down-to-earth for that.
Rooms: Doubles from €120 (£99), B&B. emzoe.com

Best for local sights: Sirkeci Mansion
Its location, next to Topkapi Palace, may be tourist central, but Sirkeci Mansion is all about locals’ Istanbul — hence the almost daily, free walking tours around lesser-visited sights. Other freebies include cooking lessons and sessions in the hotel hamam. The rather generic rooms won’t win any design awards, but the friendly service has made Sirkeci Mansion a byword for hospitality, plus there’s a roof terrace overlooking Gülhane Park.
Rooms: Doubles from €150 (£124), B&B. sirkecimansion.com

Best all-rounder: Hotel Amira
This boutique hotel, which opened four years ago at the foot of the Blue Mosque’s hill, is converted from two houses, joined by a snazzy, fourth-floor bridge. As well as a basement hamam and roof terrace, all 32 stylish rooms have boutique amenities like iPod docks and double-glazing, while the basement restaurant lays on afternoon tea with pastries and Turkish delight.
Rooms: Doubles from €109 (£90), B&B. hotelamira.com

Asian Side

When you’re in the only city in the world to bridge two continents, it’d be criminal not to visit the Asian side, tantalisingly close across the Bosphorus Strait. While it’s not culturally different to the European side, there’s a more laid-back feel to Asian Istanbul; maybe it’s the wooden Ottoman houses, but its enclaves feel more like villages than city suburbs. Regular ferry services make crossing the Bosphorus quick and easy. Note that while Istanbul hotel rates generally fluctuate a lot seasonally, prices for hotels on the Bosphorus can triple in summer.

We recommend: Sumahan On The Water
The skeleton of a ruined alcohol factory, just a short distance upstream from the Bosphorus Bridge, has been transformed into this strikingly sleek, modern retreat, whose 24 rooms — named after villages around Istanbul — all look out onto the Bosphorus, which tickles the lawn just yards away.The magical views are the main attraction here, with simple, high-ceilinged guest rooms focused around large windows. Most rooms have fireplaces; many even have bathroom windows overlooking the Bosphorus from the shower. On site are two restaurants, a hamam and even a lawnside lighthouse, while bustling Çengelköy is just beyond the front door. If you want to get out and explore, catch a free ride in the hotel’s wooden houseboat, which ferries guests to the European side in style.
Rooms: Doubles from €125 (£103), B&B. sumahan.com

Best for views: Bosphorus Palace
At this neo-Ottoman mansion in the shadow of Bosphorus Bridge, the walls are striped mint-green, and ceilings frescoed. It’s a quirky atmosphere, but artfully done — the 14 rooms are beautifully belle époque, all but the Superior category (and one Standard room) have Bosphorus views, and a few, plus the lounge and glass-floored restaurant, are even cantilevered out over the water.
Rooms: Doubles from €115 (£95), B&B. bosphoruspalace.com

Best for budget: The Moda Apart
This 19th-century wooden house — part B&B, part private rental — is located in the heart of Kadıköy, an easy ferry ride from Eminonu, near Sultanahmet. Located above the owner’s upmarket kebab restaurant, which provides guests with a traditional Turkish breakfast every day, the simply furnished rooms are all en suite with a kitchenette — handy if you fancy raiding the local markets. There’s also a shared sitting room.
Rooms: Doubles from 140TL (£40), B&B. modaapart.com

 

Published in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)