Istanbul – a destination so beautiful and loved by many, with many great memories to bring home after each visit. Enjoy the sights, the people, the food and the life. We invite you to visit Istanbul, the largest city of Turkey which was once Constantinople, the capital of Byzantine and Ottoman empires. And make sure you travel in style as well.
This was my second visit to Istanbul last year. In July, I was also in Istanbul for the Istanbul Shopping Festival and visited a couple of shopping malls. Read about that here.
Fly Turkish Airlines
Turkish Airlines flies daily between Singapore Changi Airport and Istanbul Ataturk Airport. It flies its B777-300ER with a two-class configuration in Business Class and Economy Class. If you are going to be travelling in style, fly in Business Class and enjoy the Turkish hospitality from the time you depart from home.
Whilst seats are in a 2-3-2 configuration, couples should pick the paired seats by the windows. All business class seats have an ottoman with storage space which is not a common these days. You can keep your items or small bag in the ottoman even for takeoff or landing. That’s pretty much the only storage space that you get.
The seats stretch out into a flat bed and your feet can rest on the ottoman. This also means that the seats are not tapered and your feet will have lots of space. Comfort and sleep are vital for a 10 hr 50 min flight that departs late at night both ways and I managed to get some rest on board.
Bedroom slippers come in a bag for you to store your shoes. It is customary that owners of Anatolian houses provide guests slippers for their comfort. Turkish Airlines wants its guests to feel at home during the journey. Bentley or Porsche Design branded amenity kits supplied by Formia are given out to Business Class passengers. Both kits contain a tube of body lotion, lip balm, shoe horn, hairbrush, eye mask, dental set, ear plugs, socks and stickers to be woken up for meals or not to be disturbed.
Dining onboard Turkish Airlines is an experience. The airline has a chef onboard to help plate the dishes before the food is pushed out in a serving cart that displays the different options. The salt and pepper shakers are absolutely adorable. And that battery operated candlelight is a nice touch.
By the way, Business Class customers enjoy free wi-fi onboard. You just need to key in your Surname and Seat Number when you are to the wi-fi onboard.
TK55 departs Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 1 at 11.35 pm and lands in Istanbul Ataturk Airport at 5.25 am. TK54 departs Istanbul Airport (IST) at 2 am and arrives in Singapore Changi Airport Terminal 1 (SIN) at 5.50 pm
THINGS TO DO IN ISTANBUL
Sail the Bosphorus
Hire a private yacht and sail the Bosphorus Strait. The Bosphorus is a busy strait yet it offers stunning views and exceptional sunsets. This natural canal bridges two continents of Asia and Europe.
In both instances when I was in Istanbul last year, I got onto a boat and enjoyed the view. Not once was I tired of the cruise. It seems a cruise is absolutely compulsory for every visit to Istanbul.
Sip a glass of champagne while admiring the views. Look out for the seagulls that occasionally fly above you and hear their mesmerising calls almost sounding like a warm welcome. You will sail under many bridges. There are three suspension bridges spanning the Bosphorus Strait in Istanbul. The Bosphorus Bridge which is officially known as the 15 July Martyrs Bridge connects Ortaköy (in Europe) and Beylerbeyi (in Asia) alongside Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge and Yavuz Sultan Selim Bridge.
Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque)
If it is your first time visiting Istanbul, then you have to visit the Blue Mosque which is known officially as the Sultan Ahmet Camii. This historic mosque is a popular tourist site and continues to function as a mosque to date. Enter the mosque from the Hippodrome on the west side. Entrance into the mosque is free of charge.
Prayers at the mosque happen five times a day with the first call to prayer at sunrise and the last one at nightfall. The mosque is closed for 90 minutes at each prayer time so avoid visiting during this time especially midday prayers on Fridays. Also, do not visit within a half hour after the ezan has chanted from the Mosque’s minarets.
Footwear is not allowed in the mosque. You will be given plastic bags to store your shoes. Carry this with you at all times until you exit the mosque. Women will have to cover their heads when entering a mosque. These are provided at the entrance if you do not have your own scarf. Men and women should avoid shorts and short skirts & sleeveless tops respectively.
When you are inside any mosque, remember that this is still a place of worship. Be respectful and no flash photography and stay silent.
This mosque is one of the two mosques in Turkey with six minarets. The other one is the Sabanci Mosque in Adana. Four minarets stand at the corners of the Blue Mosque. Each has three balconies with stalactite corbels, while the two others at the end of the forecourt only have two balconies.
The interior of the mosque is lined with over 20,000 handmade ceramic tiles from Iznik City in over fifty different tulip designs. The tiles at the lower levels bear traditional designs. The designs become flamboyant with representing flowers, fruit and cypresses at the gallery level. The higher levels of the Mosque’s interior is painted blue. Over 200 stained glass windows admit natural light. Each of the semi-domes in the mosque has 14 windows and the central dome has 28. Most of these windows have been replaced by modern versions.
The facade of the forecourt was built in the same manner as that of the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, except for the addition of turrets on the corner domes. The court is about as large as the mosque itself. There is a central hexagonal fountain in the middle.
Haga Sofia Museum
The Hagia Sophia Museum is located on the opposite end from the Blue Mosque. Once used as a church for 916 years, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque following the conquest of Istanbul by Fatih Sultan Mehmed. In 1935, it was converted into a museum and has been opened every day to visitors. The museum opens daily at 9 am and closes at 5 pm during the winter (30 October to 15 April) and 7 pm during summer (15 April to 30 October). There is an entrance fee of 40 Turkish Liras.
The museum is undergoing restoration works so look out for scaffolding inside. But it is all worth the visit. Climb the ramp up to the upper levels of the museum and
Topkapi Palace was constructed in 1460 and completed in 1478. The Palace was built upon on 700,000sqm of land. In the 15th century, it served as the main residence and administrative headquarters of the Ottoman sultans. It was also the educational and art centre of the Empire for nearly 400 years since Mehmed The Conqueror until Sultan Abdulmecid. When Turkey was established as a Republic, Topkapi Palace was transformed into a very large museum on 400,000 sqm.
The Main Gate (pictured above) is located on the Hagia Sophia side with four courtyards. The first courtyard features Hagia-Irene Church, once an Armoury; and the outer service buildings such as the mint, oven and hospital.
A second courtyard was the Divan Square (square of justice). This was a ceremonial courtyard. Entrance to the Harem as well as the Dormitory of the Halberdiers with Tresses were also located in this courtyard.
The third courtyard (Enderun – Inner Palace) was the section that the Palace Aghas were educated and assigned to high ranks of the State. It was also where the Sultan accepted viziers and ambassadors in the Hall of Audience, The Treasury of Enderun (Conqueror’s Pavilion), Privy Room (Chamber of the sultan) and the Aghas’ Mosque.
The museum features a variety of collections. I found the Arms and Weapons; Chinese and Japanese Porcelains, Imperial Treasury and clocks rather interesting. Explore the Privy Room in the Inner Courtyard and check out the Pavilion of the Holy Mantle and Holy Relics. Here you can learn more about religious objects sent to the Ottoman sultans including the Holy Mantle of the Prophet, the hair from the Prophet’s beard, the reliquary in which was kept the Prophet’s tooth that was broken during the Battle of Uhud, and the footprints, letters, bow and sword of the Prophet.
Entrance into Topkapi Palace is ticketed.
The German Fountain monument was dedicated to the second visit of the Prussian King and German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898. It was presented in the name of Turkish-German friendship, extending its function of being a fountain with its political meaning and content.
The German Fountain is located on Sultanahmet Square and is a short walk to the Basilica Cistern. Explore Sultanahmet Square and order some bites from the corn sellers or sesame seed covered ring shaped breads from Simit sellers. It is bustling here.
The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici)
The Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) is the largest of several hundreds of ancient cisterns that are underground in the city of Istanbul. This cistern is located 150m southwest of Hagia Sophia on the historical peninsula of Sarayburnu. It was built in the sixth century during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527 – 565).
The 336 marble columns, each measuring 9m high, rising from the water level in this underground cistern is the reason why the 140m long x 70m wide Basilica Cistern was nicknamed the Sunken Palace by the public. A 55 step stairway from ground level leads you down the cistern. The cistern is 9,800 square metres and has the capacity of 100,000 tonnes of water storage.
Two Medusa heads are used as plinths in the southwestern part of the Cistern.
The Grand Bazaar
The city is also perfect for shopping. The Grand Bazaar, Turkey’s oldest bazaar is located here in Istanbul. This is one huge ‘shopping mall’ offering a much more traditional shopping experience.
The Grand Bazaar is a 556-year old bazaar. It is the world’s oldest and largest covered market with over 20 entrances. Peruse the many stores under the high arching ceilings and be prepared to bargain for a good deal. Shop indoors on over 55 covered streets with over 4,000 stores can take at least half a day.
Ottomamano sells handmade scarves and shawls in all kinds of materials from cotton to silk or pashmina to shatoosh. It has been in the bazaar since 1983 and has gotten quite a number of famous celebrities visiting the store. So drop by to take a look.
Interesting finds at the Grand Bazaar include handmade silk, Turkish copper, ceramics, foodstuff, textile, Hammam items, lamps or carpets. Take your time to explore and do not be pressured into making any purchases. The store owners can be very convincing so be forewarned you may be buying more than you actually need. Bring home a mosaic lamp or traditional Turkish tea sets.
Gold and jewellery are plenty here. Be spoilt for choice as there are many Jewellery stores in here. All of which promise to make you look better.
Amaze by Neon Tours are the local experts at creating luxury itineraries. They can help you plan itineraries for you during your visit.
WINE & DINE IN TURKEY
Turkish cuisine is surprising, in my opinion. You have the healthy starters of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes that the Turkish people are absolutely proud of. The greens are plenty in every meal, even during breakfast at times. From Pies to kebabs to Dolmas (a stuffed vegetable dish) or Börek, a rolled savoury pastry filled with minced meat or spinach and cheese and served as puffs. There is something to fit possibly any palate.
Fine dining and elegantly presented food that are both pretty and absolutely appetising are also available. A visit to Nicole restaurant at Tomtom Suites is one such example. More of this further down the article.
Meatballs and sausages are popular in Turkish cuisine. I love how the flavours from a juicy Turkish meatball can make you yearn for more. Köfte kebabs are balls or patties of minced or ground meat made with fresh parsley, onions, garlic and spices. I have had many variations of Beef and Lamb koftas during my time in Turkey. Koftas can be eaten with yoghurt and spiced flat bread or with rice.
Fun fact: Swedish meatballs originated from Turkey. King Charles XII brought home the recipe from Turkey in the early 18th century.
Sucuk, a dry and spicy sausage, is another local delight that you should try. Sucuk (pronounced as soojook) contains ground meat with spices such as fenugreek, cumin, sumac, garlic, salt and red pepper. They are contained in a sausage casing and dried for several weeks. You can pick up vacuum-sealed frozen Sucuk from the deli or supermarket to bring home. I know because I bought one for a Turkish friend back in Asia who was missing food from home.
Olives and olive oil are produced throughout Anatolia. It isn’t surprising to find stores selling a wide range of pickled olives. Remember to buy some home.
We had dinner at Hotel Les Ottomans by the Bosphorus Straits on the last few days before heading home. And the friendships and bonds we made with friends and the locals over the days of travelling through Istanbul and Cappadocia also ensured that our tummies were always full. This was no different at our group dinner together, almost sort of like a formal farewell dinner. But there was always space for desserts, even if it were a plate of seven desserts and sweets.
The Turkish people must really like their sweets because there are just so many. Turkish delights come in many forms. One word of caution. They can become cloyingly sweet. Have them with a cup of hot Turkish Tea or Coffee to wash down the sugars. I rather have a glass of Pomegranate juice, which is readily available throughout Istanbul.
Quench Your Thirst
Turkish Tea is always good after a great meal or especially during the colder season. But I always find it a challenge holding the glass because there is no handle. But I got used to it.
Turkish Coffee is made from boiling finely ground coffee beans and sugar in a cezve pot. The fine powder settles in your cup so don’t drink up every single drop or you may choke. But it is nice to kickstart the day with Turkish Cofee.
Turkish wine is underrated. Turkey’s first commercial winery was established in 1925 by the country’s first president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Some 60 grape varieties are commercially cultivated.
Luxury Boutique Hotel Accommodation With Small Luxury Hotels
Stay at the Tomtom Suites
Tomtom Suites is located in a quiet yet appealing neighbourhood of the historical Galata and Pera area with its foundations anchored on a hilly terrain. Its warm residential facade faces the Italian Consulate and if you walk a few steps to the top of the hill, you get to the Russian consulate. Security is tight in this neighbourhood where no one bothers you.
Galata Tower is just 556m away while Taksim Square is 1km away. Other nearby attractions include Topkapi Palace (1.9km), Hagia Sophia (2.3km), Grand Bazaar (2.2km) or Basilica Cistern (2.4km). Atatürk International Airport is 14.9km away.
Except for the visitors to the Italian Consulate applying for visas or other consular matters and the occasional change of security personnel, the road tends to be quiet. And did I mention that the sky is absolutely gorgeous during sunrise. Almost a purplish pink kind of beautiful.
This building was once home for French nuns and some well known Levantine families. The building was built in 1901 as the Soeurs Garde-Malades Apartment, where there had once been an outbuilding of the French Palace, reserved for the Franciscan nuns. The neighbourhood went through a major revamp at the beginning of the 2000s. Today it has become the city’s cultural, artistic, entertainment and gourmet centre. The building was restored to preserve its authenticity.
Tomtom Suites is an all-suite luxury hotel under Small Luxury Hotels of the World. I stayed in one of the five classic suites which are around 40 to 45 sqm large with a view of the courtyard. A very comfortable king size bed ensures you get a good nights rest.
Wooden flooring and high ceilings with ample light from outside through the windows in the suite helps to make the suite a comfortable home to stay in. Two pairs of good-quality thick bedroom slippers are provided for your comfort.
There is a small work desk. You really shouldn’t be doing any work when you visit Istanbul. A one seater sofa is positioned in front of the television.
The bathrooms feature carrera marble and are floor heated, perfect for the colder months. A separate jacuzzi bath and rain shower give you the option to soak and relax if you wanted or just take a quick shower in the morning. L’occitane toiletries and bath products are provided.
Breakfast on the top level of the hotel is a must. You get spectacular views of the old town, Prince Islands and beyond from here.
Nicole, the hotel’s only rooftop restaurant serves up contemporary Mediterranean fine dining for dinner only from Tuesdays to Saturdays with a view of the Old Town, Prince Islands and beyond. The name of the restaurant is inspired from Agnes Marthe Nicole who healed many patients in this historic building.
Order from a set menu with the option of wine pairing.
The kitchen is helmed by Chef Aylin Yazicioğlu with an impressive background from Galatasaray Lisesi, Boğaziçi Üniversitesi, Cambridge MPhil Sociology, Ecole Cordon Bleu Paris, Chocolaterie Jean-Charles Rochoux Paris, Gastroloft İstanbul, Hispania Restaurant * Barselona, Restaurant Alain Senderens ** Paris, Patisserie Stéphane Glacier (MOF 2000) Paris and Couvert Couvert * Leuven.
Stay and Visit the Spa at Hotel Les Ottomans
What was once a seaside mansion of a reputable “Hattat” known by the name Muhsinzade in the 1970s was burnt down in 1933 and had to be rebuilt according to its original appearance. When it became Hotel Les Ottomans, the owner Ahu Aysal Kermoglu took into consideration how Muhsinzade would want his mansion to look at the present time. The hotel was also decorated based on the Feng Shui concept with the Ottoman hospitality and tradition in mind.
Hotel Les Ottomans’ ten suites are designed uniquely. One suite has an Ottoman tent while another has a bed head displaying the fineness of calligraphy. All suites are equipped with an AMX remote control system, wireless internet, iPad, printer and fax machine.
The Nurbanu Sultan Suite 101
The Nurbanu Sultan Suite 101 was my room for a night. It was also connected to Hürrem Sultan Suite 110, a 146 sqm suite) via a corridor. The bedroom was separated by a handmade iron screen and curtains and had its own plasma television. A bathrobe with my name sewn on was left on the bed together with a pair of bedroom slippers.
This 69sqm suite had a seating area the size of the bed area. It had a working desk, a minibar and a separate plasma television. Look out the windows, you get a view of the outdoor pool and lounge area.
With a suite this huge, it is no surprise the bathroom was going to be opulent and equally luxurious. It was spacious with a Jacuzzi and a walk in-shower and Hermes amenities.
Hotel Les Ottomans has two reception halls – Sultan Meryem (146sqm) and Sultan Nigar (88sqm). Both halls can be used together or separately.
Caudalie Vinothérapie Spa at Hotel Les Ottomans offers its signature Sky domed Turkish bath. The turkish bath here is a less vigorous and painful experience compared to the traditional public Turkish baths. Here, the bath is made more relaxing in a spa treatment. This private room is perfect if you are shy and rather not have your bath together with other guests.
After your treatments, spend some quiet time in the relaxation room on the heated stone chairs while enjoying a refreshment.