01.09.10

The Breathtaking Mosques of Istanbul

Our intrepid travel columnist hits the road again, taking a rapturous boat trip down the Bosphorus, touring cavernous houses of worship, and surviving the most terrifying bathhouse in Turkey.

If you crave a short-haul flight that yields a long-haul destination, consider Istanbul. This venerable city boasts the unique accolade of having one foot in both Europe and Asia, and the majesty befitting the former capital city of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin, and Ottoman empires. As with any sought-after locale, Istanbul has played host to multiple epic battles, and its history reads like a crazy quilt of religion, culture, and government. This background has given the Turks a real passion for their history, and they take every occasion to brag about it to visitors. “Did you know that at 70,000 square meters Topkapi Palace is the biggest in the world, and that 22 sultans have lived there?” one excitable local informed me.

The city’s hills resemble San Francisco’s, but its traffic is pure Los Angeles.

The city has long been larger than life. In the 17th century, the Ottomans decided they wanted something bigger than the city’s then-largest mosque, Hagia Sophia, because it was built by the Greeks. So they built Sultanahmet Camii, the famous Blue Mosque, beginning in 1609. Once they realized they couldn’t make it any bigger, they simply added more minarets, bringing the total to an unprecedented six. (One minaret means the mosque has been built by the public; two, by a prince; four, by a sultan or emperor; and six apparently means you want to beat the Greeks.) Perhaps my favorite fact about Istanbul is that the world’s biggest chandelier—a whopping four tons of it—resides at Dolmabahce Palace.

The city’s hills resemble San Francisco’s, but its traffic is pure Los Angeles. Luckily, public transport (the tram) is brilliantly efficient, cost-effective, and blissfully above ground. The food is wonderful and you cannot go wrong—just point at any delicious-looking mezze. I found the Turks, when not espousing facts and figures, to be generally welcoming of tourists, if not altogether prepared. I was surprised at how few people in the hospitality business spoke—or even understood—English, but rest assured that whether they can communicate with you or not, they’re going to want to haggle over prices. Be assertive.

Stay

As savvy travellers do, I read everything before deciding on a hotel, and ultimately settled on Witt Istanbul Suites as my boutique of choice on this trip. The reviews were off the charts, so imagine my surprise when I turned onto a dismal-looking side street to find a non-descript building nowhere near being "on the Bosphorus." This is it? I thought. Despite a few things that really don't work (ineffective concierge, no kitchen), the 17 rooms here are surprisingly large and beautifully designed, with state-of-the-art showers, clever kitchenettes, comfy beds, and a distinctive flair. Breakfast is included either in your room or downstairs, which is a nice touch. And what I didn’t expect to recommend is the Witt’s proximity to the tram, which comes in very, very handy. On the whole, a well-priced option that wins more than it loses. Rooms are roughly $200 per night.

Witt Istanbul Suites
Defterdar Yokusu No. 26
Cihangir 90 212 393 7900

To be right in the action, stay in Sultanahmet in the old town. It isn’t peaceful, but you avoid the traffic by walking places. (No small consideration: Istanbul is a city of 13 million, 60 percent of whom live on the more-residential Asia side, and an astounding 2 million commuters travel to the more-commercial European side each day.) The Four Seasons Sultanahmet (rooms from about $300) is perfectly acceptable, if a touch bland—you could be in Cleveland, the building is so unremarkable. Across the street, the 20-room Seven Hills Hotel and Restaurant lacks the glamour of The Four Seasons, but the service is fabulous. Definitely have a drink at their rooftop restaurant, which offers perfect panoramas.

The Four Seasons Sultanahmet
Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1
Sultanahmet-Eminönü
90 212 402 3000

Seven Hills Hotel and Restaurant
Tevkifhane Sokak No. 8/A
Sultanahmet
90 212 516 9497

In the plush but terribly inconvenient new town, you have a few luxury choices. I’d go for The Four Seasons Bosphorus (yes, there are two of them). It’s refined, elegant, and offers arguably the best accoutrements in Istanbul, notably its spa, restaurants, and concierge. Not surprisingly, rooms are costly, starting at around $400. Also, be mindful of the famous Ciragan Palace Kempinksi— a great place for tea, but not a place to stay unless you’re in a position to pay $4,000 to stay in the palace. Les Ottomans clocks in at an only slightly less absurd $1,000 per night. This place is quite a schlep, but in the summer it’s breathtaking. (In the winter, it feels silly to pay all that money when you’re not even using the pool.)

Four Seasons Bosphorus
Çırağan Cad. No. 28
Beşiktaş
90 212 381 4000

Ciragan Palace Kempinksi
Ciragan Caddesi No. 32
Beşiktaş
90 212 326 4646

Les Ottomans Muallim
Naci Cad. No. 68
Kurucesme
90 212 359 1500

Do

Your first stop should be Kapalıçarşı, or the Grand Bazaar. With 4,000 shops, it is the largest souk in the world. It’s cleaner than you’d expect, and you can find some interesting jewelry, rugs, leather, as well as run-of-the-mill knockoff Prada bags. Everyone you know will give you names of shops to visit, but don’t even bother taking them—the maze is far too confusing to navigate that way. Instead, bring some cash and just start bargaining. Open 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day except Sundays.

Grand Bazaar

As you’d expect, Istanbul has quite an array of sites to visit. This land, after all, has been the subject of wars since the first settlement in the 13th century B.C. (Can you feel the stats coming on?) I’m told that there are 20 synagogues, 125 churches, and 2,800 mosques. In other words, visit a mosque. The most famous, by far, is Sultanahmet Camii, or the Blue Mosque. Bite the bullet; wait on line; ladies, cover your heads with a scarf; and remember to wear nice socks—there’s a strict no-shoes policy inside. If you hit it right, you can be in and out in 30 minutes, which is all you’ll need. Check prayer times before you go—the mosque closes a few times a day for services.

Blue Mosque
0212 518 1330

If it’s a nice day, you can take a trip up and down the Bosphorus, which will likely include a stop on the Asia side of Istanbul, which most people don’t visit. The best way to go about this is to go to the front of Hagia Sophia Mosque around midday and look for the guys offering private boat tours, which are terrific and half the typical cost. They depart every day around 1 p.m., and groups are split up into common languages. It should cost you roughly $30 per person for 3 hours.

Lastly, see some contemporary art at the Istanbul Modern. It’s chic and offers good water-watching from the cafe. (Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. Adults around $5.) Or, for an older perspective, visit Kariye Museum in the Chora Church; the frescoes and Byzantine mosaics were hidden under plaster for 500 years and the remarkable New Testament scenes were only uncovered in the 1950s. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., closed Wednesdays.

Istanbul Modern
90 212 334 7300 

Eat

Lebiderya offers the kind of hidden glamour you don’t often find in Istanbul. You enter a decrepit building, walk up a flight of stairs, hop on an elevator, and behold! A fabulous restaurant. The vibe and people are funky, the view is stunning, and the food delicious.

Kumbaraci Yokusu No. 57
Tunel Beyoglu
90 212 293 4989

For dining with a beautiful view of the Galata Bridge, try a kebab and a mountain of mezze from Hamdi. There are countless floors in this place; be sure to book the top balcony.

Tahmis Cad KalcIn Sok No.17
Eminonu
90 212 528 0390 

Avoid

One of the worst experiences of my life was a visit to Galatasaray Hamami in Beyoglu. My ambition was simple: to try a typical Turkish bath. There are three historic ones in town: Galatasaray, Cemberlitas, and Aga, and all concierges will advise you to visit them. I went in with an open mind. When you arrive, men and women are split up, and you pay for the service in advance. I chose the most elaborate: a supposedly hour-long Pasha that set me back roughly $100. Three hours later, I emerged so upset I could barely speak. You enter the building and are walked up to what looks like a run-down orphanage. You’re advised to leave your clothes inside and wrap yourself in a small sheet. You’re then escorted back downstairs, where you enter a room through a closed door. Nothing can prepare you for what happens next. Immediately, your sheet is snatched away, and you’re left standing like an abandoned sheep in a bright room filled with naked strangers. You’re then gesticulated at wildly by the ladies who work there, then yanked down into a sitting position. There I waited, nakedly, for an eternity. Nude women—fat and skinny, young and old—were laid out on hot slabs and violently scrubbed and soaped. This part took nearly two hours, and by the time I escaped I could barely breathe. A massage is offered and you are, again, left naked on a dingy table where oil is thrown on you. Just typing this gives me goosebumps. Preserve your dignity and skip this experience. I left with bruises to my pelvis and my ego.

As if the offense of my Turkish spa wasn’t enough, I made the mistake of trying Ulus 29 after a recommendation. For a start, it was impossible to find and two of my cab drivers gave up while en route. Once we arrived, we were happy to see a trendy and seemingly fun restaurant. Within minutes, it became clear that everything was entirely put on and both the clientele and servers seemed like faux versions of the real thing. The average dish—we’re talking basic shrimp—cost the equivalent of $110, which outraged me. The service was shabby, the food unremarkable, and the whole experience exorbitantly overpriced.

Jolie Hunt travels on her own dime for more than half of the year. She is the global head of public relations for Thomson Reuters, appointed April 2008. Prior to that she served as global director of corporate and business affairs for IBM Corporation. She was the director of PR for the Financial Times. She lives between New York and London.