The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Turkey: Karen Fedorko Sefer of Sea Song.
Karen has lived and worked in Istanbul for more than 20 years and has offices across Turkey. Her local connections—from museum directors to star restaurateurs to powerful hoteliers to the country’s culture ministry—enable her to gain all manner of special access. She can introduce you to shop owners who can show you their special wares not displayed to the public, and create one-of-a-kind experiences. When you’ve got limited time—and who doesn’t?—her intimate knowledge of the country helps you make the smartest use of it, and she is on the ground and on-call to answer questions and fulfill special requests. If you need a cruise shore excursion—say, to Ephesus—she’s the ticket; with her guides, you’ll steer clear of the cruise-ship crowds and see the hidden gems they don’t. If you would like to charter a gulet on the Turkish coast, she’s the expert.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best-value splurge hotels
The Four Seasons Bosphorus has a beautiful terrace where you can enjoy your breakfast in the most magnificent setting. Very few guest rooms have a Bosphorus view; if this is important to you, stay in the palace section. The entry-level Superior and Courtyard room categories are also very nice (both in the courtyard) and a very good value.
The Ciragan Palace Kempinski is the grande dame of Istanbul, a very traditional place with a beautiful location on the Bosphorus. All of the rooms have private balconies overlooking the sea, which is a big plus. The service is top-notch, their Tugra Restaurant is very special (see “Restaurant worth the splurge,” below), and the infinity pool is spectacular.
The St. Regis is located in Nisantisi, a very upscale residential area. The beautiful rooftop terrace is home to the hotel’s Spago restaurant, which has excellent cuisine and incredible views of the city. The spa is wonderful too.
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Penthouse Suite at The Bank Hotel has great views and a great price: At 650 euros, it‘s about 80 percent less expensive than comparable suites at other hotels. Your stay includes breakfast, VAT taxes, and a complimentary dinner on their rooftop restaurant with exceptional views.
Restaurants the locals love
Kosebasi Levent specializes in kebabs—and has now spread from this original outpost to more than a dozen restaurants across the Middle East. Sit on the outside terrace, where you can mingle with locals; order the spicy adana kebap and an ayran, a local drink made with yogurt that is ideal for toning down the heat.
In the trendy Karakoy neighborhood, Karakoy Lokantasi is a small local eatery in a historic building decorated with beautiful turquoise tiles. The menu changes every day, but be sure to order the manti (ravioli stuffed with meat) if it’s on the menu.
For fresh fish dishes, locals love Eftalya Restaurant, an airy spot right on the banks of the Bosphorus. The sea bass or the fish of the day are always sublime, but be sure to order the kalkan if it’s in season.
If your flight into Istanbul arrives very early in the morning, stop at Namli Gurme for a typical traditional Turkish breakfast of many different cheeses, black olives, honey, simit bread, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, kaymak (clotted cream), and the Turkish version of scrambled eggs, called menemen. You must also have a chai (tea) in a typical Turkish glass.
Restaurant worth the splurge
Tugra Restaurant, at the Ciragan Palace Kempinski Hotel, serves a wide array of traditional Ottoman dishes in a romantic setting fit for a sultan (jackets required, of course). For unforgettable views of the Bosphorus and an intimate setting, Karen can reserve one of the three tables on the balcony.
Dish to try
You can’t leave Turkey without trying kebabs, and the place that does them best is Baskose Restaurant, in the Nisantisi neighborhood. Whether you try saslik kebap (lamb with grilled vegetables), patlican kebap (beef with eggplant), or adana kebap (very spicy minced meat), you can’t go wrong. The waiters are lots of fun and create a friendly environment.
What to See and Do
The Rustem Pasa Mosque, on a small side street near the Spice Bazaar, features the most beautiful Iznik tiles in the city. It’s very much off the radar and should be near the top of your list.
The Kilic Ali Pasa Hammam is a 16th-century Turkish bath designed by Mimar Sinan, the master architect of the Ottoman Empire. It is the perfect place to partake of this ancient tradition in a stunning historic setting. Check the schedule before going to the hammam, as men and women are allowed to enter at different times; reservations are suggested. (Hurrem Sultan Hammam, in the Old City, is another 16th-century bath also designed by Mimar Sinan; here, men and women can bathe at the same time in different sections.)
The Odunpazari Modern Museum is a beautiful work of art by Japanese architect Kego Kuma, full of modern art pieces and ongoing exhibitions. It’s a two-hour train ride from Istanbul and makes for the perfect day trip. This being the capital of contemporary art in the Middle East, there are many such private museums scattered throughout Istanbul, including the Istanbul Modern, Arter Istanbul, Elgiz Museum, and SantralIstanbul. Make a quick stop at the Naval Museum to view the magnificently restored sultan’s boats that were used to navigate the Bosphorus Sea; every sultan was in competition to have the most extravagant vessels.
Have dinner in a private four-floor Ottoman mansion once owned by a pasha. After meeting with the current owner (an Ottoman art expert) to admire and learn about his impressive collection of calligraphy, paintings, porcelain, tiles, and carpets, you’ll enjoy a four-course feast in the ornate dining room and see what it felt like to be a ruler during the Ottoman era.
Hagia Irene, the first church to be built in Constantinople. It’s a beautiful church on the grounds of the Topkapi Palace, the acoustics are perfect, and it is never crowded.
The recently excavated Seriye Cistern is now open to the public, but not many people know about it. It is the most beautiful underground cistern in the city and was found completely intact. Right now there is no entrance fee and no crowds, but that won’t last long.
Go for a mojito at the open-air bar of Mikla Restaurant, on the roof of the Marmara Pera Hotel. At nearly 20 stories high, the bar has the best views of the city, stretching all the way to the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. It’s especially magical after dark, when the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and other monuments are all illuminated in high relief against the night sky. Once you see the food, you may be convinced to stay for dinner, designed by acclaimed chef Mehmet Gurs.
For some great people-watching, stroll through the Bebek neighborhood on the Bosphorus. Stop for lunch at the trendy Lucca Restaurant, enjoy some ice cream at a local shop, and sit in a cafe along the water with a cup of tea.
Prime picnic spot
On a private yacht motoring on the Bosphorus. Karen can arrange for you to rent one (with a captain, of course) to cruise from Europe to Asia, taking in the historic mansions and mosques along the way.
Going to shopping malls in Istanbul, as they are generally outside the city center, very crowded, and carry merchandise you can buy at home.
Like any European capital, Istanbul is a year-round destination with plenty to do in every season. In general, though, the weather is most agreeable from April to October. In September, summer vacations are over, kids are back in school, and the sites are not so crowded. Keep your eye out for the dates of the Istanbul Biennale, a world-class contemporary art exhibition, between September and November.
January and February can be cold and rainy, which means that outdoor activities, such as a cruise on the Bosphorus, might not be quite as enjoyable as in other months.
For traffic and route-planning info, download IBB CEP Trafik.
Hareket Saati provides timetables for all of the public transportation in the city.
Get an early start for the best light and to beat the crowds at Galata Tower, set on a hill high above the city. The climb to the top of this ancient 200-foot landmark is rewarded with postcard views of Istanbul’s best side.
Don’t miss a photo on the Galata Bridge with the local fishermen.
Taxi drivers in the tourist areas of Sultanahmet and Taksim Square may take you on a very long and indirect route to your destination to jack up the fare. Always negotiate the rate at the outset or make sure the meter is running.
The evil-eye charms are said to bring good luck and can be found literally everywhere in the city. The Grand Bazaar has the best selection, and hunting for just the right one is half the fun.
Don’t leave Istanbul without a carpet. Orient Handmade Carpets has the best selection located right outside the Grand Bazaar.
Tip 10 to 15 percent in restaurants (bring cash, as they do not like to add the tip to the check). Taxi drivers do not expect a tip but appreciate the gesture.
The new Istanbul Airport is a spectacular addition to the city; when completed in 2025, it will be the largest airport in the world. Because of its size, distances are very long and the walk from the gate to passport control can be up to 30 minutes. With Karen’s VIP Meet & Greet service, you’ll be picked up at the gate with a buggy and whisked to passport control, baggage claim, and your waiting car for $130 per person.
The duty-free area is massive; arrive a bit early for your flight home so you can enjoy it.
U.S. travelers need a visa, which can be obtained via an easy online application.
A scarf to cover your head when visiting mosques.
Comfortable walking shoes, since there are many uneven surfaces throughout the city.
Istanbul is a very sophisticated city, and the evening dress code is casual elegant. You will not be able to enter a restaurant if you are wearing shorts, athletic attire, or flip-flops.