Sheathed In Splendor & Grandeur

The city that separates Asia from Europe stretches out gallantly over the Bosphorus. Istanbul has been the capital for a trio of robust empires: The Roman, Byzantine and later the Ottoman. Each, branding the city with its individual influence.
Text by Francesca Cruz | May 19, 2018 | Lifestyle

Istanbul is a city that desirously embraces the ancient and the modern world; if it were ruled by an astrological sign, it would be Pisces. Think Elizabeth Taylor: mysterious, wistful, a temptress that longs for her lover. And as Taylor played the part of the powerful seductress Cleopatra on film who (according to Plutarch) sailed into Turkey in a barge with “gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beating time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps”, she brought Marc Anthony, and almost all of Rome, to their knees. You expect a level of pomp, circumstance and pageantry in a land once home to some of the most powerful sovereignties that ever ruled, and with a backdrop that can only be described as pure magic.
The skyline is bejeweled with mosques, palaces, minarets, cathedrals and sleek skyscrapers, with the Bosphorus still a main artery for maritime trade. One of the best views of the city is from the Intercontinental Hotel located in the modern city center known as Taksim. The second you walk into the lavish lobby with its spiral golden staircase and Greek white columns, it feels like you’ve stepped onto a Hollywood soundstage. Between the spacious, elegant rooms, the modern amenities and the world-famous spa, this respite certainly puts a capital F in five-star. For Turkish and Ottoman cuisine, make sure to dine at the hotel’s sophisticated Saffron Restaurant, with views of the city below.
Another wonderful restaurant with postcard-worthy views of the area is located in the Besiktas district of Istanbul. Named by Zagat as one of the best restaurants in the world, Vogue promotes local artists by displaying their art throughout its open spaces. Combining classic Turkish gastronomy with continental fare and sushi, the grilled octopus here is as divine as the vistas from your table.
When I was ready to venture out for some real adventure, I settled for the Turkey City Tour, owned and operated by Mahmut Karatekin, to assist in the exploring. Istanbul is a city lush in history with so many things to experience that it’s worth venturing off with an individual that can guide you. By the end of the adventure, my guide was not just my teacher, but a fast friend…and that’s part of the enchantment of Istanbul.
Places that are a must on any itinerary include the Ayasofya or the Hagia Sophia, one of the most visited monuments in the world. Constructed during the Byzantine Empire and originally a basilica, it was turned into a mosque during the Ottoman invasion. Its massive dome is a sight to behold; the combination of Byzantine frescos and Ottoman influences share space in harmony, and today it stands as a museum. Nearby, The Basilica Cistern, constructed in the 6th Century and then abandoned, was once the source of water storage for the entire city. You don’t want to miss the upside-down head of Medusa that forms the bottom of one of the columns.
As I started to discover other parts of the city, I opted for a hotel with a more provincial feel to it and moved to the boutique Hotel Nowy Efendi in Sultanahmet. Cozy, tranquil and with an accommodating staff, it’s just an 8-minute walk to the famed Grand Bazaar. Another boutique hotel option just a 5-minute stroll from the bazaar, and also within Sultanahmet, is Hotel Lady Diana. It was named after the late Princess Diana, once a dear friend of the owner. The hotel is known for treating all guests as visiting royalty.
The Grand Bazaar is the oldest and largest bazaar in the world — it’s sure to induce ADD even if you don’t have it, but in a good way. There are sooooo many shinny objects to see — from incense sticks, to oils, spices, a menagerie of glass laps, Turkish treats and delicate artisan creations. And, oh my heavens, there are also plenty of delicious Turkish treats to satiate even the hungriest of travelers. If you’re going to bring something back as a souvenir, opt for local candy or tea.
The adventure continues at Topkapi Palace, home to generations of sultans and their harams. A verdant courtyard leads to the main entrance where the sultans’ treasures are kept. Prepare yourself for an awe-inspiring view of the Sea Of Marmara, Bosphorus and the Golden Horn via the palace. You can also stroll through Gulhane Park and stop at the terrace that overlooks the water for some black tea before heading to the Istanbul Archaeology Museums, just steps away. It houses ancient artifacts, classical statuary and an exhibition tracing the country’s history. Its crème de la crème is the sarcophagus of Alexander The Great. Cleopatra’s brother, Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, thinking it would bring him luck, traveled everywhere he went with it.
Built in 1348, Galata Tower once formed part of a sub-city belonging to the Genoese that stretched right down to the Bosphorus. You can get a fantastic bird’s eye view of the city from the balcony at the top of the tower. From here, about a 40-minute walk, 15-minute taxi drive or Uber ride, (yes, you can use Uber in Istanbul) takes you to the 17th-Century Blue Mosque. The exterior of this famed structure is actually a greyish hue, but once you step inside — everyone is asked to slip off their shoes and women must cover their heads with a veil handed to them at the entrance — the ceiling is a pastel sky blue and truly breathtaking. Don’t forget to pop in to the tiny mosque on the corner complex. It houses the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I, the man whom the mosque and the neighborhood are named after.
One thing that can’t be overlooked is experiencing a hamam (a Turkish bath). I stopped first at the W Hotel for some lunch, located in the historic Akaretler Row Houses, an upscale neighborhood with wonderful cafés, shops and art galleries. This is a great respite to stay for the business-minded. The lunch options are seemingly endless and served tapas-style with delicious Turkish traditions melding harmoniously with contemporary flare. For the hamam, you can opt to go over-the-top splurge or traditional. Either is a great choice, depending on your mood. The Suleymaniye Hamam has been operating since 1550. The service includes being bathed by a masseuse while in a sauna followed by a massage, all for about $30.
When it comes down to it, traveling to Istanbul is as fantastical as one could possibly read about in stories that involve life-altering voyages and exotic wanderlusting. You’ll find history, culture and modern comforts happily coexisting with the old world. It’s easy to gather why Cleopatra, Marc Anthony and Alexander The Great were so enamored by this great land that’s unlike anywhere else on Earth.