Straddling the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe in a surprising cacophony of contrasts. Old and modern collide in beautiful fashion; tradition and innovation are visible at every turn; spice markets and pastry stalls intertwine with modern skyscrapers; and religion and secularism live together in comfortable harmony.
The port city has always been an important commercial hub along the busy trade route between East and West, but Ataturk International Airport is fuelling the city’s more recent boom thanks to Turkish Airlines, Europe’s fourth largest carrier. The airline flies to 200 destinations around the world and even offers a free city tour to passengers with long layovers.
While plans are underway to build a third international airport for the city, Turkish Airlines has not stopped investing at Ataturk, recently opening an impressive business class lounge outfitted with billiard tables, a cinema, roaming masseurs and a half dozen live cooking stations preparing everything from Turkish coffee to grilled kebabs and fresh pides (Turkish pizza) stuffed with meat and cheese.
Turkish Airlines’ growth mirrors the city’s increasing importance on the business stage. In 2012, Istanbul was ranked seventh worldwide for hosting meetings and conventions, according to the International Congress and Convention Association. In 2011, the city was ranked number one globally by the same organisation for hosting functions of more than 500 people.
Even the staggeringly slow motor traffic is a solid indication of the constant buzz that comes with a strong economy and heavy tourism. Luckily, the city’s metro line is expanding, including a direct link to Ataturk airport, and a new underwater tunnel opening in late 2013 will ease the traffic strain across the Bosphorus Bridge.
The Gezi protests that began on 28 May had little effect on business travel; outside of the Taksim Square area much of the city operated as usual. With the scale of most demonstrations now diminished, leisure travellers are returning to the city as well, with much of the dispute more of a political and legal battle than physical protest.
The city’s newest address is the 186-room Shangri-La, located between the Dolmabahce Palace and the Naval Museum and fronting the Bosphorus in a former 1930s tobacco warehouse. Carefully restored, the six-storey Neoclassical facade is protected and the two towering sycamore trees that stand in the courtyard date back as many as 350 years. Its May 2013 opening introduced the influential Asian brand to the local hotel scene and is quickly drawing the business crowd for delectable Cantonese cuisine at its signature Shang Palace restaurant. Choose a room with floor-to-ceiling Bosphorus views and decor that appears traditional at first glance, but is overtly modern with electronic blinds, Nespresso machines and marble baths with heated floors.
On the banks of the Bosphorus, the legendary 313-room Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul was originally built at the end of the 16th Century and is the only Ottoman imperial palace and hotel in Turkey. The hotel is divided between the restored palace wing where 11 suites are located (Madonna, Bill Clinton and Oprah have all stayed here), and the modern wing where most of the rooms face the water with private balconies. Business-friendly benefits include free wi-fi and large, unique meeting spaces, like the former Sultan’s hammam and palace living areas. The hotel’s new outdoor pavilion with hookah pipes, Le Fumoir, is a popular place to puff and watch the passing ships. Laledan restaurant and patio offers a breakfast buffet of more than 300 items, including local baklava and halva, and a Sunday brunch with its own chocolate room.
If views of monumental Istanbul are paramount, there is no better choice than the 65-room Four Seasons in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. Small and compact, this sophisticated hotel is located in a century-old Turkish prison with Neoclassical design. Reserve a room with views of the Blue Mosque through the shuttered windows and arched doorways, or for an even closer look walk two blocks to Sultanahmet Square where the Hagia Sofia (the Ottoman-style church converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II in the 15th Century) and the Blue Mosque (built by Sultan Ahmet in the 17th Century) dual it off for the top tourist attention. Stick around for the hotel’s new Thursday menu which features unlimited fresh sushi on the hotel’s garden terrace.
The new 44-room boutique House Hotel Nisantasi is in the heart of Nisantasi, the design and fashion district, nestled between the likes of Louis Vuitton and Hugo Boss boutiques. Inside is a trendy lounge interior where guests sip mint-infused cocktails or read fashion magazines in between meetings. Rooms are spacious with platform beds topped with overstuffed mattresses, free wi-fi and espresso machines. Bathrooms feature rainfall showerheads and are stocked with Molton Brown toiletries.
After a stroll along the city’s famed pedestrian street, Istiklal (Independence Avenue), be sure to stop by the Istanbul Culinary Institute, where budding Turkish chefs prepare and host and serve lunch as part of their apprenticeship. If you are lucky, Culinary Institute of America-trained director Hande Bozdogan will be there to explain her philosophy of growing as much as possible on the onsite organic farms and her storied methods of preparing traditional Turkish food. The homemade rose and lavender ice cream alone is fantastic, and many visitors make a point to sign up for the cooking classes taught upstairs.
Despite being open for eight years, Mikla is making all the headlines these days, thanks to its recently introduced menu that blends Anatolian cuisine from Turkey’s central and eastern regions with modern Scandinavian style and presentation. Perched atop the 205-room Marmara Pera hotel in the Beyoglu neighbourhood, the 360-degree views from the rooftop bar and terrace pair well with the tasting menus, which feature dishes such as lamb shank with smoked eggplant and tuzlu (yoghurt), or whole-wheat manti (Turkish dumplings) stuffed with lamb and served with yoghurt, tomato and roasted garlic.
At the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul, Tugra is the place to impress clients or colleagues with chef Sezai Erdogan serving authentic Ottoman cuisine presented on hand-painted plates. Reserve early to secure a table on the terrace at sunset. The champagne cart makes a great first impression with its selection of French vintages, but the menu is the star with everything from a colourful mezze platter to homemade lamb kulbasti (cutlet), the chef’s specialty.
The city’s elite head for Sunset Restaurant, located on a lush hilltop in the Ulus neighbourhood overlooking the Bosphorus Strait and Asian shoreline. The outdoor terrace is popular in warmer months, but transparent glass surrounds the inside dining area year round. The menu leans heavily towards Japanese cuisine, with a lengthy sushi menu and plentiful wasabi or yuzu soy (soy sauce with a citrus zest) accents on many dishes. Juicy rib eye steak, baked sea bass and Turkish lamb with red bell pepper and Swiss chard are also on offer.
One of the more unique eateries in town is Nar, which is situated on the upper levels of the famed Armaggan department store in the Fatih neighbourhood. After perusing the store’s beautifully woven fabrics, hand-blown glass and locally crafted jewellery, diners can tuck into modern Turkish cuisine while surveying the action in the open kitchen. Gourmet specialties include a never-ending mezze display, which pairs well with a glass of Turkish raki (aniseed liquor) and fresh meat and seafood drizzled with all-natural jams and sauces prepared in-house.
Off the clock
The Turkish say that the quieter, greener Asian side is for living and the European side is for partying and business. To kick back, head across the intercontinental Bosphorus Bridge to the Asian side and step into the lovely Kuzguncuk district on your way to Kadikoy Market on Muvakkithane Street. In this neighbourhood, you can see three major religions coexisting. The small Kuzguncuk Mosque, located near the Kuzguncuk boat pier, was built in the 1950s in the courtyard of the Armenian Church Surp Krikor Lusavoric, and they share a wall. Next door is the Bet Yaakov Synagogue. Once at Kadikoy Market, stroll through the stalls of fresh produce, flowers and fish on your way to the three Ciya eateries, located within a stone’s throw of each other. The staff may not speak excellent English, but simply point to what you want and they will weigh it and deliver to your table. Gorge on stuffed meat pides and grilled kofte (meatballs) kebabs paired with delicious and fresh salads and marinated vegetables. This is a prime spot for locals and tourists to naturally intermingle, enjoying delicious Eastern Anatolian cuisine.
Like a local
Soaking in a Turkish bath is a tradition of cleanliness, healing, entertainment and social sharing that has been around for thousands of years. One of the most modern is the Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hammam, decked out in marble from floor to ceiling in the shadows of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. This historical bath has served sultans and noble elite, and now offers the purifying power of water to modern-day bathers in a unique and mystical atmosphere. The ritual begins with an attendant exfoliating your skin with a loofah and washing you squeaky clean. Then comes a bubble-soaked massage while lying on hot marble stones underneath a magnificently arched Ottoman ceiling. Follow that by a soak in the steam room and a cup of scented hot tea, and you will walk out feeling a century younger.
Afterward, head to Mado, the legendary Turkish cafe chain that has dozens of locations all over town and serves decadent pastries and the traditional Anatolian ice cream, maras, famous for its gummy, chewy texture of goat milk and orchid leaves. Opt for the sliced ice cream, which is best enjoyed with a knife and fork due to its tough, chewy texture.
Don’t do this
Turkey is a conservative Muslim country, but Istanbul is surprisingly progressive with people dressing as they wish. Still, visitors should use good judgment when conducting business. Err on the side of conservative clothing especially if meeting in public, and men should wait for a female counterpart to extend her hand in greeting. It is fairly easy to determine if a client prefers a more conservative stance based on their dress, and most Turkish business people are used to working with people from other cultures. When visiting someone’s home, look to see if others have removed their shoes. If so, leave them by the door.