A bridge between the East and West, Istanbul is one of the most vibrant and exciting places in the world. Within it lays a number of breathtaking corners, as we discovered when we went walking with Monica Fritz, a fine art photographer and traveller who set up Alternative City Tours to navigate visitors off the beaten path—that is on the rooftops, the backstreets, and even in local homes.
"I wanted to make an alternative to guided tours whereby visitors discover a place accompanied but without having to hear someone shouting facts all the time," she says. "After photographing cities for 40 years, my love for light, different atmospheres, and simple moments inspired me to work in and explore this amazing city. It has many surprises down the back streets and through closed doors. I still find new things every day. A good itinerary is not only visual; it has to be paced and it can include all the senses.”
While there are many many layers to uncover in Istanbul, if you only have a few days and limited storage on your camera, it’s wise to prioritise. We reveal the most picturesque spots, impressive architecture, amazing food, and of course, magical stays that are all a sight for sore eyes.
A fairytale playground of sights
Architecture lovers are in paradise, for Istanbul has an abundance of mosques, churches and towers to explore. “Bosphorus in particular is incredible in that it’s never the same," says Monica. "The colour of the sea, the sunsets, the dolphins and the commutes on the traditional ferries force you to stop and look out to the horizon. It makes living in a city of 18 million liveable."
“Then there are the many different views from the hilltops of Europe and Asia, scenes of the open sea or dense city landscapes,” she continues. “The many colourful neighbourhoods and the beautiful architecture from Byzantine walls to the splendid Ottoman mosques, to the traditional wooden houses and the 20th century elegant Beyoglu art nouveau apartment buildings. The sunsets from the Asian side are spectacular and the call to prayer heard from a rooftop in the old city is unforgettable.”
For a visual spread of modern and contemporary art, spend some time at the Istanbul Modern, which displays the artistic creativity and cultural identity of local and international art worlds. It occupies a stunning temporary space in Beyoğlu until 2021 while a new building is being constructed. Our fave was The Photography Gallery on the fourth floor, presenting the evolution of photography and the impact of art movements on it.
The Grand Bazaar is a huge market filled with everything from gold and diamonds to artificial jewellery, cafes to souvenir shops, and of course, clothes in every variation of colour imaginable. “My favourite corners are the antiques and the silver workshops,” says Monica, as we sip on Salep, a hot creamy winter drink, while admiring an ancient antique shop established in 1865, Epoque. Next to it, Ottoamano contrasts with vivacious shawls and scarves that have seen the likes of Sarah Jessica-Parker to Rob Lowe sneak into, semi-undercover, to get their hands on.
You’ll need an entire afternoon for a trip to the Grand Bazaar, as one of the largest covered markets in the world there are over 4,000 shops to burn Turkish lira at, and between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors daily to dodge.
In between shopping with Monica’s trusted vendors (she’ll even haggle the best deals for you), we were lead into the dark, through secret passageways and even up shabby stairways, onto the glorious rooftops. Away from the crowds downstairs, Monica’s secret corners from above were by far the highlight of our Grand Bazaar experience. “From the rooftops I like to shoot in black and white to accentuate the architecture details,” she says pointing over the tiled roofs that played part in James Bond hit Skyfall.
Istanbul’s food scene is diverse and world famous, with dishes not only a feast for the stomach but for the eyes. "Don’t leave without trying Meze's Turkish appetisers," Monica recommends. "They are the true Istanbul cuisine, coming from the many different cultures that have lived here over the centuries. Also the Hamsi Pilav is a speciality from the Black Sea. The sardines are opened and arranged very carefully and cooked together with a deliciously seasoned rice pine nuts, currants and mint. Not easy to find outside of the home but in the winter months you can find it in Black Sea restaurants."
Hotspot Mürver on the top floor of Novotel Istanbul Bosphorus uses fire cooking methods such as a live open fire and smoking. The menu features seasonal ingredients purchased from local Anatolian producers such as handmade dried and rested meat, Turkish spicy sujuks, and sausages. Start with the amazing Octopus in Ash, share a Lamb 'Trakya Kıvırcık' that’s big enough for two and end with Burnt sütlaç ice cream—you won’t regret it. The place has a massive wine list and the open air terrace overlooks Topkapı Palace and the sea, with a warm and friendly vibe that’s perfect for a casual lunch with friends.
The glorious Sunset Grill & Bar is our choice for a fancy dinner date. Perched up on a hill with the perfect Bosphorus, Bosphorus Bridge and Asian shoreline views, it has for a quarter of a century, served a fashion-conscious crowd (including Bono and Alessandra Ambrosio) with exquisite Turkish and international cuisine and wine. In 1999 Sunset was the first restaurant in Istanbul to add a Sushi Bar for its discerning clientele. Try the mixed sushi platters which are quite possibly the best outside of Japan (and we’ve lived in Japan to know). In terms of mains we have to continue praising the sea offerings—the Grilled Black Cod marinated with miso sauce is sensational. Meat lovers should also give the Yogurt Kebab a whirl.
Sunset’s wine cellar includes everything from Petrus to La Tâche to Château d'Yquem—all acknowledged as some of the finest wines in the world. In all, they offer 530 brands including a large selection of rare and vintage wines from Turkey and abroad. They make for perfect toasting to Istanbul memories under the starlight of the terrace.
A dream stay
While there are many palace-like quarters in Istanbul, our dream stay is the Sofa Hotel in Nışantaşi, Istanbul's trendiest shopping, entertainment, art and culinary district. It has 82 beautifully decorated and spacious rooms designed by Turkish architect Sinan Kafadar, in an atmosphere interwoven with contemporary art. It’s hard to truly love a hotel without a bath tub, and we were delighted that our room at Sofa had one, with sumptuous Molton Brown bath products to lather in, too.
In terms of amenities and services, up on the top floor you’ll find Frankie Istanbul, a fine dining venue boasting skyline views, on the lobby floor and entrance floor sites two café-style restaurants (the lobby floor one is where breakfast is served) and finally there’s the spa, which features relaxation pool, Jacuzzi. Sauna, gym and Turkish bath.
Bliss in a building
There’s no way you can leave Turkey without a Hamam experience (a Turkish bath). Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam is not only the premier place to do it, but also one of the most majestic spa buildings we’ve ever laid eyes on. It was designed and built by Mimar Sinan, the chief Ottoman architect in the 16th century, and located between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. At the time it was an innovation in Turkish bath architecture to have the sections for men and women constructed on the same axis as mirror images of each other.
The Keyf-i Hamam treatment is heaven; a 60-minute package of traditional body scrubbing, relaxing bubble wash ritual, and Judas tree scent oil Aromatherapy massage in the Sultan's Massage Room. You’ll lie on a heated platform while your therapist gets to work, and the aromas are soothing. After that, you’ll enjoy a homemade Ottoman nature cold drink sherbet, a refreshing touch to a wonderful wellbeing experience.