New York, New York – Reported by Gurhan Orhan for Elite Traveler, the private jet lifestyle magazine
From my apartment in Greenwich Village in New York, I gaze over the Hudson River at the sunset and watch New Yorkers playing on the river, exercising along the Hudson River Park, and living their urbane, accelerated New York lives. But from my apartment in Istanbul I see the sun rise and then set across the Marmara Sea – the gateway to the other most exciting city in the world.
Together with my wife and partner, Fiona, and my dog, Tipsy, I go to Istanbul every other month, trading the skyscrapers of Manhattan for the minarets of Istanbul. Although I am Turkish by birth, I consider myself a New Yorker, so when I go to Istanbul it is with both the familiar intimacy of a local and the excited curiosity of a visitor. And showing off Istanbul to visitors is one of the greatest pleasures that Fiona and I share. The city is rich with contradiction and contrast: Europe and Asia, old and new, secular and religious, traditional and modern, advanced and lagging. There is something magical about this city that straddles two continents – a metaphor for the experience that awaits visitors to my very special other home.
Any visit to Istanbul starts with the glistening drive from the airport along the seashore to the old city, the historical center of the city. My eyes are torn between the beauty of the sea view as the Marmara feeds into the Bosphorus, and the mosaic of bright tulips, roses and blossoms that decorate the roadside.
As you pass through the ancient city walls history greets you and the ancient mosques, palaces, and markets of Sultanahmet remind us that Istanbul has been a world capital for centuries. Most tourists spend the bulk of their time in this old part of the city, and with good reason, as here are some of the iconic images that define Istanbul. For me, however, the old city is not just the must-see sites of Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia or the Grand Bazaar. One of my favorite places is the underground cisterns built by the Romans between the third and fourth centuries and now a haunting cavern of dimly lit columns creating seemingly endless corridors reflected in still waters.
Another place I never tire of visiting is the Mosaic Church or the Kariye. The incredible mosaics in this old church glow with golden shards…so of course I love them…and next door is one of my favorite restaurants, Asitane, which offers fine Ottoman Palace cuisine under trees in their spacious backyard.
But Istanbul is not just Sultanahmet and to experience more it is necessary to cross the Golden Horn to what is now known as the “new city.” Here the Levantine past of Istanbul is exemplified in the gorgeous Art Nouveau architecture on and around the main street called Istiklal Cadessi. There is a buzz in the air in this part of town and the mood is contagious. The outdoor terrace at the famous Pera Palace hotel [now a Jumeirah property] has great gin & tonics, befitting its Anglophile past. (Yes, this is where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express!) And the very best view in Istanbul in our opinion is the rooftop bar at the Marmara Pera Hotel just across the road. We drag everyone to that one small outpost in the sky to watch the sun set over Sultanahmet. It is truly one of our most treasured sights.
Come evening, Istiklal turns into a promenade of fun, its side streets overflowing with outdoor restaurant patrons. Sometimes it seems that no one in Istanbul is home, so busy is this pedestrian magnet.
Istanbul is famous for its vibrant nightlife. Music has always been a passion of mine and in Istanbul my ears are filled with roaming gypsy ballads, Turkish pop and international everything. I have seen some of the best concerts during summers there – Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Madonna, Joan Baez, Chick Corea, Youssou N’Dour and Eartha Kitt to name a few. And Fiona and I have spent many nights in small bars humming with rock, jazz and blues. Before becoming a jeweler I owned rock bars and nightclubs and so I am very particular as to my night haunts: My favorite these days is near Galata Tower at the end of Istiklal – the small, bare brick, no-longer-smoky hole in the wall Nardis.
Oscar Wilde cited Turkish food as one of the three great cuisines of the world and the city abounds in eateries. Whether it be a local kofte (meatball) joint on a busy back street, a seafood restaurant boasting fish caught right outside their door on the water, or a super sophisticated fine dining establishment perched on the top of an Art Nouveau building overlooking the skyline at dusk, the food in Istanbul is wonderful. My advice to my friends who come here is to be adventurous and let their taste buds explore.
We love to eat fresh grilled sea bass (levrek) served simply with arugula and lemon. Our favorite haunts for fish are Fener (near the Renaissance Polat Hotel near the airport) or for something closer to downtown, Angel (in Baltalimani). For great meat, we frequent Namli Kebap in Levent or Nusr’et in Etiler. And for romance and fine dining we go to Bebek (that’s where I proposed to Fiona!). But best of all, dotting the streets of Pera or Tunel, are hundreds of little gems with great food – and none better than Antiochia with its southeastern Turkish kitchen. Full disclosure: We are especially attached to this tiny place as it is owned by a friend’s brother…but The New York Times reviewers loved it too! (www.antiochiaconcept.com)
Like most Turks, I have a sweet tooth and I am always sorry that most people who visit Istanbul never get past Turkish Delight and miss out on my favorite little treats: Bademli Keskul – a creamy dessert, and Badem Ezmesi – ground almond balls (the original and the best at Meșhur Bebek Badem Ezmesi).
Istanbul’s art scene bounces off the walls with energy. One of my best friends is a well-known Turkish artist who lived in NY for years before returning to Istanbul – Ipek Duben. As the grand dame of the art scene, she fosters up-and-coming artists and gives us the inside scoop on local openings. The Modern Art Museum is along the Bosphorus (and also has a great restaurant). Bilgi University boasts the fabulous Santral Museum housed in an old electricity generation plant. But my very favorite place to see art is in the emerging artsy area known as Tunel. Here art lives inside the young kids who loiter in the open-air cafés.
Shopping falls into two categories in Istanbul: Touristy and local. Tourists flock to the Grand Bazaar for its 3,000 shops selling everything Turkish, but the locals are fond of buying the same designer brands that you find in NY or Milan. The main shopping malls are incredible: Architecturally you must see Kanyon in Levent, and for people-watching visit Istinye Park. When we shop in Istanbul we try to localize the experience by dabbling in homegrown brands such as Vakko and Beymen. Fiona has always been a devotee of Turkish art and crafts (to be distinguished from “tourist” fare she is quick to remind me!) and she has a great eye. Some of her favorite haunts offer incredibly detailed miniature portraits of Ottoman Sultans (in Ic Bedesten/Grand Bazaar), luscious embroidered fabrics (in the Spice Bazaar) and antique bronze light fittings (Hor Hor). Fiona’s tip for gifts is handmade soaps perfumed with the scents of the Mediterranean – olive, lemon, lavender – from Kaftan, or pashmina shawls in every hue and pattern found at Osmanli Pashmina.
Whenever someone comes to Istanbul there is the quandary as to where to stay. Çiragan Palace Hotel is the epitome of classic hotels housed in the old Ottoman Palace on the edge of the Bosphorus. But the more recently opened Four Seasons Hotel, also on the Bosphorus, is simply magnificent and may be my new favorite. A bunch of boutique hotels have opened in recent years and of them, you can’t beat the Witt Hotel in Cihangir near Istiklal (we send our NY staff there) or The House Hotels in a few great locations around the city (try The House mint lemonade!). And since drinking is a long tradition in Turkey I would be remiss in only mentioning lemonade… the infamous raki drink – an aniseed aperitif – while ever popular with Turks, now has competition from the increasingly good Turkish wines and over-the-top cocktails from the plethora of cocktail bars all over town. And with that, as we say in Turkey, “şerefe” – cheers – and enjoy your time in the other greatest city of the world!