It was with great anticipation (and little preparation) that I boarded my Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul last week. Such little preparation that only on the plane did I realise I needed a visa for entry which is easily obtainable online on: https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/. Thankfully that can be obtained at the airport. The last time I was there was on a trip with my parents back in 1978, so I guess it hardly counts!
Aracari’s Founder Shares her Trip to Istanbul Experience
I was there to participate in a conference for a couple of days, and decided to stay on when the conference ended to visit a bit of Istanbul. To my delight, a dear friend of mine and one of my favourite culture connoisseur travel companions enthusiastically decided to join me, so that made the visit much more interesting, pleasant and entertaining.
After checking the Globalista report and various travel specialists in my circles, we decided that despite the existence in Istanbul of marvelous 5-star branded, deluxe properties with gorgeous views of the Bosphorus, our style (and budget) was much better matched to the small and characterful boutique hotels in Istanbul. Istanbul is huge, and there are advantages and disadvantages to staying in different neighbourhoods.
There is the Sultanahmed, or old city, where the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, The Grand Bazaar and Topkapi Palace are located; there is Beyoğlu and Nişantaşi, the areas where the posh Istanbulers hang out; there is the classic seafront area where many of the 5-star hotels are located where you can afford amazing views; there is Beşiktaş, the up-and-coming seafront area, which is fabulous if you are into running; and there is Ḉukurcuma, the bohemian/antique/artsy area with its steep narrow streets and eccentric cafes and stores. The latter is what we chose, and the hotel, the House Hotel Galatasaray, housed in an old, elegant 1890’s mansion, definitely suited us. With its intimate and personal service, rooftop breakfast room and lounge with gorgeous views and spacious guest rooms with high ceilings, it was definitely our cup of tea. Having said that, we concluded that in Istanbul and the world over, hotels like this are mainly for couples or for people who are very close. In this case, the hotel only has double beds, and the shower was a spaceship-type capsule within the bedroom. The choice of this hotel for people who have difficulties with their knees would bring about a disaster, since the 10 rooms are on 5 floors, and there is no lift! For us it was perfect, and we both decided we would go back to it or one of its sister hotels when we go back to Istanbul one day.
As travel specialist, and authentic experience provider I am always seeking that sort of “insider experience” that is so necessary and fulfilling especially in a large, chaotic but culturally fascinating city that is Istanbul. Venturing on your own is daunting, even for my travel companion who has intermediate knowledge of Turkish. Especially if you arrive to the riots ensuing the tragic events at the Mine of Soma, which occurred the afternoon we arrived.
We felt so lucky when we found a card in our room with the pictures and brief bio of our attractive “Best Friends in Town”. We were instantly sold on the concept of having “local friends”, and Erk fulfilled all our expectations, showing us “his” Istanbul with charm, knowledge and flair. With Erk we took trams and buses and travelled on foot, went to excellent shops upon our request in and outside the Grand Bazaar and lunched at a very smart, very central but totally off the tourist track restaurant inside a chic shopping gallery near the Grand Bazaar. He told us about his family, life in Istanbul , the role of women in Turkey, sociopolitical issues, etc. Erk and his relatively newly established company, “Locally Istanbul” (www.locallyistanbul.com), are a must when visiting this city.
He recommended that after our “must see” visits of Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, we go for sunset drinks atop a strategically located but ugly high rise hotel: the Marmara Palace. The views were stunning and the Mojito prices sky-high, but we didn’t care. We had Istanbul at our feet. Nearby is the Pera Palace hotel, a must-see for its sumptuous nineteenth-century interiors. Travellers on the Orient Express were carried here in sedan chairs from the train station by the Galata bridge.
The next day, we had the wonderful services of Tuba, a top specialist guide booked through Style, a referral- only luxury DMC in Istanbul. It wasn’t cheap, but it was great. We visited the small, private Sabanci Museum, focussing on Islamic Art and Caligraphy and located in the posh waterfront suburb of Bebe, which is worth a visit. We also had an in-depth tour of the Topkapi Palace, focussing on the wonderful Iznik tile design.
The day’s visits were skillfully timed, well-designed according to our request to have an emphasis on Islamic art and enthusiastically delivered by Tuba, whose deep and comprehensive knowledge was impressive.
A sunset cruise along the sea of Marmara onto the Bosphorous is definitely a must. We did it, but the experts point out that it is always best to go just for drinks and to avoid dinners on board, which can be a gastronomic disappointment (and I can vouch for that).
On my Turkish Airline flight back home only four days later, I felt like I had been away for at least two weeks or longer, and felt re-energised and much more knowledgeable and open to the world around me. This is what travel does to you.