Have to admit, feeling a bit blue, because I have left my heart in Istanbul where I spent Easter weekend and which has shot to the top of my list of favourite places in the world. I’ve attached my itinerary and addresses just in case you are thinking of going. I took my kids with me (aged 16, 14 and 11) and so only scratched the surface of what is one of the liveliest cities I’ve ever visited. Apart from dinner, we didn’t get anywhere near the nightlife, which I have heard is really fun. So I am treating this trip as a recce for the next trip which I promise myself will be as soon as I can get back there.
Left on an unfeasibly early Easyjet flight (6am) on Friday and arrived, blinking in the sunshine after a four hour flight (it’s at the limit of sensible flying time for a weekend break). The city is huge. 12.8 million inhabitants and I reckon they were all out on Good Friday because the streets were heaving, although every guide book I have read says traffic is notoriously bad. A cunning plan to get shot of the airport early by travelling only with hand luggage was foiled by a snaking queue to buy the obligatory entry visa. By the time we found out hotel, the Radisson Blu on the Bosphorus in a pretty area called Ortakoy, it was already 3pm.
From the riverside hotel terrace the view is the bijou baroque Ortakoy mosque and the wedding-cake-ornate Dolmbaghe Palace, with the Topkapi, Agia Sophia and Blue Mosque in the distance. The skyline is a mass of undulating domes and elegant minarets. But with the first day almost gone and nothing done panic set in. Decided to throw money at the problem and take a river taxi to Topkapi. 75 Turkish lire later, we were closer but still a tram ride away. English is not a common second language here so I felt I deserved a medal by the time I navigated the public transport system and made it to Agia Sophia (which had just closed at 4pm). Dashed to Topkapi (which was about to close at 4.30pm) and settled for the Blue Mosque, which is one of the most staggeringly beautiful interiors I have ever seen: vast, tiled dome, empty floor space and a huge wheel of twinkling lights just above head height.
Out of there it was starting to rain and we picked our way though the Arasta Bazaar where I wish I had bought the embroidered slippers that I promised myself I’d come back for. What’s hot in Istanbul is cotton, textiles, silver and spices. We had a plan to visit the Grand Bazaar the next day which I thought might better those slippers. Bad idea. Arasta is a relatively quiet market but with some real gems. I hesitated. I lost.
We just had time to squeeze in the Yerbatan Sarnici before dinner which I am so glad I did. Big WOW factor: it’s a huge underground water system built by the Romans in 600AD. It stretches into the darkness: a vaulted cavern supported by hundreds of massive marble columns.You walk on gantries over water filled with over fed fish. And you have to make it around because there are two massive Medusa heads guaranteed to grant good luck to all who whisper their wishes.
After that we had an hour to get us to the Sabhattin fish restaurant that Hussein Chalayan had recommended for dinner. Luckily the Four Seasons was on the way, so we stopped in for a cocktail. The Sultanahmet Four Seasons was once the notorious prison in the movie Midnight Express. It’s 30 years old and still one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. For that alone, and the fact that by now we all looked really scruffy, I thought I’d never be able to go in. But bless those Four Seasons staff, they are so friendly. We were settled in puffy armchairs with drinks in hand in seconds. Sabhattin turned out to be just around the corner and we settled into Mezze and fish in a place that hasn’t change much since the 50’s. Istanbul Mad Men: gorgeous. Just don’t let them seat you outside in the plastic tent extension. Nothing chic about that.
It was all a bit overwhelming and I was reminded that several people said, if you don’t know the city make sure you have a guide. Thank goodness we had the help of Aytul Akel the next day. With charming efficiency she whisked us through the Grand Bazaar. This was one of the highlights of our trip: a vast space with high painted ceilings and endless shops selling, gold and silver jewellery, leathers, slippers, fabrics, artefacts, ceramics. There’s also a load of tatty fakes, which we steered a path around. And you have to bargain for everything, which is not easy when English is a remote language but with Aytul’s help I did brilliantly on a silver ring that moulds itself over the knuckle and the length of my entire finger (vaguely Shaun Leane but only £45) and a cuff that is a fair approximation of the £30,000 diamond studded real thing from the 1920’s that I will never be able to afford but is perfectly do-able at £70 in marquesite. And from a little vintage clothes shop called Ozer, I chose a printed table cloth.
We spent ages watching men screaming into mobile phones at the Gold exchange corner before pushing down a packed street full of shops selling everything from girl’s bridal trousseau and boys circumcision outfits to handheld sewing machines. In the Egyptian (Spice) Bazaar we sampled nuts and dried fruit and dried meat on every stall and bought pomegranate and rose tea, before delicious doner kebab lunch at Pandeli, (another Hussein Chalayan recommendation) a restaurant that has been there since 1901. After lunch we squeezed ourselves into the tiniest upstairs table at Gulluoglu to sample their insanely delicious baklava for desert (I never liked it: but served like they do it with whipped cream….delicious).
It was all fuel for an afternoon of walking and window-shopping: over the Galata bridge with Istanbul men fishing over the side and wives drinking coffee in the cafes underneath. Then a stroll from the Galata Tower to the Tunel area, think Turkish Hoxton. The Tunel area is connected to Taksim Sq by a pedestrian St callked Isklal Cad which is terrifyingly busy but worth the walk as there are pretty arcades worth exploring, like Cicek Pasaji that in the 1920’s used to be a flower market and is now an Art Deco dream, lined with cafes; and Sahne Sok which is still a fish market.
Quick tea at 360….an unexpectedly super chic restaurant with a spectacular city view on the 8th floor of a really unremarkable apartment building. Then just enough time for a quick sprint to Nisantasi…the Knightsbridge of Istanbul with everything from MaxMara to Marc Jacobs. You really don’t need to go to Istanbul to see that, but I was determined to find my friend Rifat Ozbek’s shop. The former British Fashion Designer of the year collects textiles and fabrics on his travels and turns then into fab throw and floor cushions. If we’d made it before closing time, I’d have blown my baggage allowance. But another reason to go back. Dinner that night was supposed to be on another chic rooftop eatery, Mikla, but it was miles away, so we caved and settled for the nearby House Café, a small chain of really easy going restaurants with great pizzas, salads and fab cakes.
Day three was monument day. We warmed up with a stroll around our neighbouring square to get a look at the bijou beautiful Ortakoy Mosque, then headed straight to town for the Topkapi Palace and Agia Sophia. We could easily have spent an entire day here. The Topkapi Palace is huge and the highlights are the treasury (eye-popping jewels, boiled egg sized diamonds, emeralds like walnuts and sapphires the size of boiled sweets) and the harem (unbelievably beautiful maximalist interiors). Be sensible about the queues. Some people seem to live for them and the queue for the three rooms of the Topkapi Treasury snaked forever. We skipped the first of the three rooms and went straight to the second. From the books I looked at afterwards I don’t think we missed too much.
On the way back to Ortakoy, we stopped at the Ciraghan Palace Hotel for a cocktail. It was the Sultan’s riverside residence up until the 1920’s, so there is nothing understated about it except the service (which is spoiling) and the pool (an infinity pool that looks like it pours into the Bosphorus and for which you can buy day passes if you have the time and fancy a sybaritic chill out day.) Apparently there is also one of the most luxurious hammams in town in the spa here. I’ve added that to the list of things I promise myself the next time.
The Radisson Blu Hotel On The Bosphorus, Ciragan Cadesi 46, Ortakoy. Tel 0090212 310 1500 (www.radissonblu.com)
River Taxi: our hotel called one but you can also call Jeff Taxi on 0535 843 5295
The Blue Mosque, Meydani Sok.
The Arasta Bazaar (it’s near the Blue Mosque but if you can’t find it follow signs to the mosaic museum)
The Yerebatan Cisterni: Yerebatan Cadesi. (www.yerebatan.com)
The Four Seasons at Sultanahmet, Tevkifhane Sok.1, Sultanahmet. Tel 0090212 4023000
Balikci Sabhattin Restaurant, Cankurtaran, Sultanahmet. Tel 0090212 458 1824)
The Grand Bazaar and The Egyptian Bazaar (both closed on Sundays)
Pandeli Restaurant, Spice Market Ho.1. Tel 0090212 5273909
Gulluoglu Backlava, Spice Market, No.88 Eminonu. Tel 0090212 5285181
360 Restaurant, Istiklal Cadesi, Misir Apt No 163 (8th floor). Tel 0090212 2511042/43 (www.360istanbul.com)
Cicek Pasaji (for coffee/snack/cocktail)
Sahne Sok (fish market)
Yastik by Rifat Ozbek, Sarayik Sok, Olcay Apt. No:13/1 Teşvikiye, Şişli. Tel: 0212 240 87 31
House Café, Atiye Sokak, 10.
Ortakoy Mosque, Ortakoy Square, Besiktas.
Topkapi Palace (Treasury and Harem)
Ciragan Palace Hotel, Ciragan Cad 32, Besiktas, 0090212 326 4646 (www.ciraganpalacesuites.com)
More Hussein Chalayan recommendations that I’ve heard amazing things about and I wish we’d had time for:
Mikla Restaurant, Marmara Pera Hotel, Mesrutiyet Cad 167/185, Beyoglu. Tel 0090212 2935656
Ulus 29 Restaurant, Adnan Saygun Cad/ Ulus Parki 1, Ulus 0090212 265 6181 (www.group-29.com)
Kordon Restaurant (on the Asian side of the Bosphorus), Sulmahan Hotel, Kuleli Cad 51, Cengelkoy. Tel 0090216 321 0473 (www.kordonbalik.com)
The Dolmabahce Palace (Baccarat staircase anyone?) Dolmabahce Cad, Besiktas. 0090212 236 9000
- Paula Reed