Returning to Turkey for a luxury weekend in Istanbul was high on my list, very high indeed, and it was the first of my Autumn 2014 destinations. For those of you who know me well, it is no secret that in my previous life (as a marketing director for a big multinational company), I had a bit of fun in Istanbul. A lot of fun indeed, but since multiple trips in 2007 and 2008, we had not had an opportunity to return to Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city as a couple and reminisce away. Whilst eating wonderful Turkish food of course.
We arrived at Ataturk Airport very late on a Thursday night (and a little hint, for those of you who also fly BA regularly – Istanbul counts as medium haul and you clock in 160 tier points in Club Europe for under £500, which is like Christmas arriving early). I had pre booked a driver with Blacklane Limousines as a) I had heard great things about them, b) getting a taxi at the airport is a nightmare and get ready for the mayhem of people everywhere and c) there was a huge price difference for the same standard of car if booked directly with the hotel (at least twice the price).
Arriving at Istanbul is always an interesting experience – from getting the visa on arrival (which has different prices according to the currency you hold – and beware, just for fun, they do not take Turkish lira, only Pounds, Dollars or Euros, I kid you not), to getting the luggage and then exiting the airport. That in itself will wake you up if you were feeling a tad sleepy like I was – but we knew very good things awaited.
On this very long weekend, we were to be based at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, but due to the hotel being busy, we agreed to move over to its new Bosphorus location on the 3rd night. Originally a jail (oops), it has been converted to a little haven of luxury, keeping very much in touch in terms of style and decor with its location. I have stayed at many Four Seasons before, and have to say, this was one of the most special of all.
We got to our room past 1am and were planning to go straight to bed, but were surprised with the most delicious welcome amenity, which featured not only a model of Istanbul’s most iconic bridge, but it came with a lot of bites and Turkish wine, which was even better than I last remembered it. So it would be fair to say we slept very well at our lovely suite. You can read my review of the Four Seasons Istanbul at Sultanahmet here.
After a little over 7 hours sleep (needs must) and a spectacular traditional Turkish breakfast at the hotel (where I discovered that the man I love the most in the world and have known for almost 10 years has an obsession with honeycomb, which I never knew), we were met at the hotel by the Luxury Istanbul team who were to be our guides for the following two days. I love being shown around not as part of a larger group, with our own driver and someone who knows the city very well. We also had Ugur, the founder of the company as a bonus for the morning, who had designed a special itinerary for us (based on the time we had available, our personal interests and the weather, as they would for any client).
The weather forecast was looking quite horrendous for the upcoming 3 days, and Ugur decided we should move things around and start with our private Bosphorus cruise on a yacht as the sun was shining (and that was not to happen again during our stay). Hakan, our guide and a 2-man crew also joined us, and fair to say, we loved it.
We went all the way to the Bosphorus bridge and returned to the port, clocking in quite a few landmarks on the way. The boat was very comfortable and spacious, and would be perfect for a group of friends visiting the city.
Once we got back into the city, I had a special stop to make in Nisantaci – and that would be to visit the showroom of one of the country’s up and coming jewellery designers, the lovely Melie, who is one of the approved gold sellers of Love Gold, a global initiative run by the World Gold Council. This obviously meant a great excuse for shopping, and you can read all about it in this article.
By this time, we had the choice to stop for lunch, or take advantage of the time and hit one of Istanbul’s landmarks, Topkaki Palace whilst the world had lunch. You know me and crowds, so it was a very obvious choice. Hakan had obviously organised our day, and had pre-bought the entrance tickets, which meant no queues (and believe me, there were quite a few). It was really nice to just take the time and walk around the palace, and get some interesting information about it, without it being too much, if you see what I mean. Hakan understood how much detail we wanted, and made the whole experience very enjoyable.
After the visit, we made a quick stop for lunch, to a very simple restaurant which Hakan loved and we had lovely food and recharged our phones, which was absolutely necessary at this stage. We carried on the sightseeing, and made our way to Hagia Sophia, which is a great architectural beauty and an important monument both for Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Once a church, later a mosque, and now a museum, meaning it is open for visitors at all times, it is a must see for first time and seasoned visitors. It has been many years since we last visited and we were very keen to go back.
No rest for the wicked, and before we knew it, it was almost 5pm – so we asked our driver to drop us off by the Galata Tower (more or less), where we were to meet Murat Guneri, our Istanbul Flytographer.
We picked a nice bar to wait for Murat and kept our fingers crossed for the rain not to begin, and let’s put it this way: we were half successful.
A couple of months ago, I was at home and managed to watch a re-run of Anthony Bourdain’s trip to Istanbul – the food he was eating, and the places where he was eating it at, really made me book the tickets and return to the city. One of the things he did was to eat mussels (with a rice stuffing and lemon) on the street. I am not one for street food, and my mother would absolutely kill me if she knew I had warmish seafood from a random place (this will be a true test to see if she really reads this blog. Watch this space). But I tell you what, they were delicious and so was the pomegranate juice from another stall.
I vaguely remember the Galata area, and we picked it on purpose as we would not necessarily cover it during the rest of the weekend (one of the advantages of getting to know locals), and we enjoyed the narrow cobbled streets and very cool shops, which lived side by side with more traditional establishments. I have always found Istanbul very trendy (which surprised me on my first visit in 2007), and was glad to see the trend continuing.
Getting a taxi back to the hotel so we could change into dry clothes and get ready for dinner was nothing short of a miracle. Cities like Istanbul definitely need Uber coming in and putting things right. Because it was raining, we were asked for double the fare, but once we realised we were talking about £10, we just caved and got in. I hate it that it is still 2014 and things like these happen (hence why I am such a Uber fan).
Dinner took place at Hamdi, which is quite an Istanbul institution – not because it is fancy, but because it is as traditionally Turkish as you can get, plus the views. It was recommended by a colleague of Mr. O, and we were quite happy with the choice available. After watching Anthony Bourdain, I wanted some ‘real food’ one night, and some very fancy food the other night. Dinner for two with wine was around 80 Euros.
We made our way back to the hotel, and enjoyed a lovely evening at the bar, with a nice dirty martini and got some decent sleep that night. Because we really needed it!
By 10.30 am and after another epic breakfast, we were ready to meet Hakan again and we had one thing in mind: visit the Blue Mosque properly and hit the Grand Bazaar. We did drive to the Blue Mosque and attempted to walk around, but the rain was relentless. The queue to get in was also ridiculous so we decided to leave it until next time we got back to town.
There was only one thing to do: keep dry and we decided that the bazaars were just what we needed. We were driven to the Spice Bazaar, which is not too far from where we had dinner the previous night, and literally just walked around. Hakan helped us understand the types of spices and what not, and we also found some honeycomb (remember, my husband’s favourite thing in the world which he never mentioned).
Hakan was keen to do some shopping himself, so we walked with him to the vendor where he usually gets his spices from. We got a bit overexcited and bought some to bring home (vacuum packed of course, but now very difficult to guess which is which, and something I need to figure out soon as I really want to use them). We also got a whole Turkish delight experience and actually bought way too many to bring home with us. Word of advice, don’t buy the ones made with sugar. We went for the handmade type, made with honey and everything pistachio, and although they were 3 times the price of the regular stuff, it was absolutely worth the money. There are none left, and all our friends who got to try it absolutely adored it.
We also ventured into the Grand Bazaar, literally just to walk around and get dry. There wasn’t much else we could do, and to be honest, it was fine by me.
We bought a couple of bowls and a scarf or two, but literally stayed away from the gold, as I had learned the day before that you really do not know what you are getting, so it is pretty much pointless. Having Hakan with us certainly made things easier and it was bittersweet to say goodbye to him at the end of the morning. We had a great time with him, thought the experience was outstanding, and were also very impressed with the driver service who was always waiting for us whenever we needed it. Very good coordination and I could not recommend Luxury Istanbul enough.
Before we knew it, and a bit later than usual due to the overload of Turkish delights (we did eat like 10 each, I kid you not, but purely in the name of research), we made our way back to the hotel, where we were to check out and hand the luggage to the hotel, who would transfer it over to the other Four Seasons. However, we had made lunch reservations at a fantastic fish restaurant nearby, and decided to travel with the luggage.
Lunch took place at Balakci Sabahattin, which was absolutely incredible. We started with the meze, and even ordered the stuffing of the street mussels just to see what it was like. Yummy. The grilled red mullets were out of this world and I would certainly go back. Lunch for two with wine, around 120 Euros.
After lunch, we made our way to the Four Seasons Bosphorus, which opened recently, and offered a completely different experience – much more modern and with incredible views, but sadly, due to the rain, we could not enjoy most of what the hotel had to offer.
Our room, which was on the main palace building, was amazing, but we could hardly see the views as the rain did not stop.
We had the whole afternoon ahead, and there was only one thing that interested me: the spa. And not for a regular massage, I was really looking forward to be scrubbed within an inch of my life and lose several layers of skin – this is what happens when you have a traditional Hammam experience.
I had had a few before, and they are very interesting – a bit hurts, but the other bits do not hurt at all, and the Four Seasons version of it, in outstanding facilities was the best I ever had – it lasted 90 minutes and cost around £150 per person.
There is a lot of water involved, a lot of washing, moisturising and a bit of massaging too. It is a fantastic experience and for obvious reasons, I could not take my phone in with me.
We spent the whole afternoon at the spa, and after a stop at the hairdressers (located next to it, who blow dried my hair in 8 minutes), we got ready for dinner which was one of the most exciting parts of the weekend.
I have kept in touch over the years with many colleagues from around the world, and Ozge was my favourite person in Istanbul – she was lovely, uber professional, I loved her clothes and she always helped me when I needed her. We have kept in touch thanks to Facebook and seeing her again was certainly special.
Needless to say I had her pre-approve all my Istanbul choices as she did on every trip I took to the city. I knew dinner would be somewhere fab, and her choice, Vogue, obviously did not disappoint.
As the weather was so poor, and the place was quite lively, we ended up staying there all night as traffic was horrendous and honestly, I did not want to go anywhere else, except to try the hotel bar once we headed back.
Our Sunday was short but very sweet. We had some odd flight times, and we had to leave the hotel at around 12 noon, in order to make it on time to the airport (which is always a bit of a Russian roulette situation).
So we slept late, enjoyed another amazing Turkish breakfast at the Four Seasons and just relaxed. We tried to walk by the Bosphorus with an umbrella but that proved a bit slippery, so we just enjoyed the views from our room. And wondered what we could be doing if the sun was shinning, as this pool was calling my name.
But our Blacklane Limousine driver was also waiting for us, which meant we got to the airport in time, and with a bit of luck, could even indulge in some tax-free shopping. Which would be rude not to.
Our weekend in Istanbul was nothing short of magic. It is a fantastic city, very pleasant to the eye, with serious traffic issues, but which city with 18 million inhabitants does not? Everything runs in some sort of organised chaos, and that gives it its charm. The people and the food are what makes it extra special and we look forward to returning again, and not wait another 6 years, this time around.
Disclaimer and Fact Box: a huge thank you to Four Seasons, Luxury Istanbul, Blacklane Limousines and Flytographer, who have hosted us on this trip. We had a fantastic experience with all companies and if you read this blog regularly, you know Mrs. O never lies.
See: a private yacht cruise on the Bosphorus costs from €249/hour (min. of 2 hours), but takes 12 passengers. See Luxury Istanbul‘s website for more details. A one-day private guided tour, with driver, costs from €115 per person per day (based on two sharing).
Remember: a photoshoot with Flytographer costs $250 for a 30-minute shoot and $350 for a one-hour shoot.
Arrive: a business class transfer from the airport to our hotel (assuming a BMW 5-series car), costs €65 each way with Blacklane Limousines