The international art world has been raving about the explosion of galleries and world-class museums in the nearby areas of Tophane and Karakoy, once home to dockyards – and with good reason. Teeming with cafés, bars and private galleries, they are a stone’s throw from the waterfront Istanbul Modern Museum of Contemporary Art. After exploring its extensive collection, the breezy terrace of the museum restaurant is perfect for lunch against a backdrop of stunning panoramic views of the harbour. Culture aficionados won’t be disappointed if they coincide their visit with the annual Istanbul Biennale or Art International Istanbul: the city’s September art fair fast becoming as well-known as Frieze or Art Basel.
For the literature enthusiast, these modern urban delights common to many cosmopolitan cities by no means overwhelm the historic, vertiginous streets that Nobel Laureate author Orhan Pamuk brings to life in his novels about Istanbul. Woven into the each other, the old and new come together everywhere – the Turkish barbers, teahouses and bakers who always used to say hello are still here, as are the Byzantine churches and Ottoman bathhouses.
Similarly, a spot of shopping around the area could take you anywhere from the traditional Güllüoglu for the best baklava you’re ever tasted, to independent fashion boutique Atelier 55, where you can browse couture whilst sipping at the in-store espresso bar. Any architecture lover would doubtless by now look to take a break at the Kilic Ali Pasha hamam, a renovated 16th-century Turkish bathhouse designed by Suleiman the Magnificent’s chief architect Mimar Sinan. An authentic Turkish spa ritual in the domed, marble room, and you are sure to feel rejuvenated for the evening.
Although rooftop restaurants with superb views and modern cuisines that fuse East and West are aplenty in Istanbul, the beauty of a truly unforgettable experience often lies in cultivating moments where you feel like you are in on a secret: a local in a culture not your own. If the kebab is the culinary heartland of Turkey, Istanbul is its “Vatican City”, so to speak – easily an independent culinary state for its uniquely more Mediterranean, Greek and Balkan fusions. Try an authentic “raki-balik” meal by the waterfront: literally meaning “raki and fish”, they last for hours and include mezzes like calamari tempura and aromatic rice-stuffed mussels; a main of seabass; and the aniseed-flavoured alcoholic drink raki (much like Greek ouzo) that flows as long as the conversation lasts. If your night is still young, the celebrity-studded nightclub Reina is a short ride away, or an intimate jazz club in the bohemian Cihangir area may be to your tastes.
With its rich history balanced by a thriving young art, culture and design scene, don’t miss the chance to experience a weekend in Istanbul. See under The Sybarite: Experiences for details.