Thinking of booking an Istanbul city break?
Returning to Turkey for a luxury weekend in Istanbul was high on my list. It is a perfect city break destination, or the perfect base for a longer holiday in Turkey.
For those of you who know me well, it is no secret that in my previous life (as a marketing director for a multinational company), I had a bit of fun and many opportunities to enjoy an Istanbul city break.
How to get to Istanbul from London
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). I had pre booked a driver with Blacklane 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 – and do not forget that you cannot buy your visa on arrival as before. Make sure you apply for an e-visa online as soon as you can – and do not leave it til the very last minute like I have on a recent trip to Gocek. This way, you will ensure that you will have a great Istanbul city break or holiday.
Istanbul City Break: Thursday Evening
On this very long weekend, which fell between the traditional definition of a city break or a real holiday in Istanbul, 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 and 4th nights. Originally a jail, 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 – in Los Angeles, Miami and London, just to name a few.
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.
Istanbul City Break: Friday
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. We were starting out day on 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.
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!
Istanbul City Break: Saturday
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, two landmarks you need to visit on any Istanbul city break. 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.
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. An Istanbul city break with some breaks, as they say.
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 wonderful. 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, 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 lovely, 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, a must on any Istanbul city break.
I had had a few before, and they are very interesting – a bit hurts, but the other bits do not hurt at all. 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.
I have kept in touch over the years with many colleagues from around the world, and Ozge was my favourite person in Istanbul. 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. Honestly, I did not want to go anywhere else, except to try the hotel bar once we headed back.
Istanbul City Break: Sunday
Our Sunday was short but very sweet. We had odd flight times, and we had to leave the hotel at around noon, in order to make it on time to the airport.
So we slept late, enjoyed another nutritious Turkish breakfast at the Four Seasons and just relaxed. We tried to walk outside but that proved a bit slippery, so we stayed in our room. And wondered what we could be doing if the sun was shinning, as this pool was calling my name.
But our Blacklane driver was also waiting for us, which meant we got to the airport in time.
Our Istanbul city break was nothing short of magic. It is a fantastic city, very pleasant to the eye but with serious traffic issues. Everything runs in some sort of organised chaos, and that gives it its charm. We look forward to returning again and not wait another 6 years.
Thinking of booking an Istanbul holiday? It is surely Mrs. O approved. And if you fancy a bit of beach, you will love Gocek.
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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.