It’s late afternoon and I’m travelling by private yacht to my hotel. To my left, water taxis are ferrying people in and out of the city, bypassing rush-hour traffic. Ahead, the setting sun is casting the perfect light on a neighbourhood of waterfront estates. No, I’m not on the canals of Venice overlooking the Rialto—I’m headed for Istanbul, nestled on the ancient Bosphorus channel, which marks the boundary between Europe and Asia. Aside from its proximity to Greece—where I honeymooned 10 years ago—I admit I didn’t know much about Turkey as a travel destination. But after the numerous #wanderlust posts on my social-media feeds highlighting the old-meets-new-world charm of Istanbul—which was the fifth-most-hashtagged city in the world in 2016—I knew I had to go. Here’s my Instagram-worthy highlight reel.
Best chance for a celebrity selfie: I receive star treatment (fresh flowers for the room and a jasmine-scented warm cloth) when I arrive at my hotel, the Çiragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul. It’s a fitting gesture given that the boutique property, located in the leafy Besiktas district, is beloved by actual and Hollywood royalty. Photos of princes and princesses embellish the lobby walls along with snapshots of A-listers. Also worth noting: Madonna and Oprah have both stayed in the Sultan suite (price tag: $45,000 a night). The view from my (slightly smaller) suite serves up lavish scenery like manicured grounds and an infinity pool.
Insider tip: Stroll over to the Imperial Palace—a separate building with 11 executive suites, including the Sultan suite—and take in the palatial terrace. You’ll likely share your selfie space with newly engaged couples, but the Bosphorus views are worth it.
Best spot for a flat-lay shot: If there is one thing Turks know how to do, other than hammam, it’s eat. On the menu? Always mezze. It’s the starter course (which, tbh, feels more like the main), and it’s made up of sharing dishes like hummus and muhammara. (The latter is a dip made from roasted red peppers and walnuts.) The standout meal in a sea of many is at Neolokal, an Anatolian fusion eatery that’s housed in a former Ottoman bank. This place is putting Istanbul on the foodie map. Case in point: While there, I spy legendary British food writer Nigel Slater interviewing the chef, Maksut Askar. His photogenic dishes are based on traditional food from his youth but done with an artful twist.
Insider tip: For an incredible meal with an equally incredible view, make a dinner reservation at Mürver. This resto uses different fire methods to cook local seasonal food. Request a table on the lavender-scented balcony overlooking the river.
Best spot for a no-filter pic: Instagram tourism is alive and well in Cappadocia, a.k.a. the land of hot-air balloons. Tourists decked out with DSLRs and even ball gowns descend on the central-Turkey destination (just over an hour’s flight from Istanbul with Turkish Airlines) for good reasons: a flawless selfie backdrop, jaw-dropping views of the country from a sky full of giant balloons and a glass of champagne when you land.
Insider tip: It can get chilly up in the air. It’s best to wear long pants and bring a jacket or a cashmere wrap. And skip the stilettos.
Best place to achieve decor goals: Like the city itself, the Istanbul shopping experience also manages to be both traditional and forward-thinking. Forget the image of busy street markets brimming with stalls, smells and music and replace it with mall-like interiors stocked with local goods. (No Céline here, sorry.) The Grand Bazaar and Spice Market are must-stops for colourful mezze dishes, hammam towels, carpets and a riot of spices.
Insider tip: Small businesses are where the unique finds are. Make the trip to Sevan Bicakci for one-off jewels (Barneys New York carries this line), and don’t miss Zen Ceramics, which gives Anthropologie a run for its artisanal money.
Best time to just put your phone away already: No Istanbul trip is complete without a visit to an authentic hammam, or Turkish bath. I head to Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, a 400-year-old spa that was restored in 2012. Inside, I immediately feel more relaxed—until I head through the white marbled entryway to the baths. I’m wearing only a thin towel and disposable underwear, but my attendant has no time for my North American modesty. She whips off my towel, wraps it around my waist and points toward a warm marble slab that I’m to lie down on. The washers, as they’re called, use techniques passed down through generations to cleanse, exfoliate and massage, a treatment that leaves skin baby soft, albeit with an ego blow—memories of my dry skin peeling off like fuzz from a peach will haunt me forever.
Insider tip: You’ll inevitably fall in love with the feeling of being scrubbed like you’re six years old again and want to recreate it at home. Good news: Duru, the soap they use, is inexpensive and readily available at local grocery stores.
The practical details: Turkish Airlines delivers luxury-travel gold with perks like inflight chefs (in whites!) in business class and private check-in at Istanbul Atatürk Airport (so civilized). Arrive early for the ace lounge situation, where the food stations are restaurant-worthy, massages are doled out like mints and the restrooms are spalike.
Safe travels: Recent headlines around safety in Turkey have caused the sales of visitor visas to plummet, but being an informed traveller versus staying home seems like the smarter option. Before booking any overseas flight, scan for safety advisories. It’s also a good idea to register your trip with the government of Canada, which provides important travel updates and emergency notifications. Go to travel.gc.ca for more info.
This article first appeared in the March 2018 issue of ELLE Canada.
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