The bell of the historic tram rings as it tries to urge hundreds of pedestrians out of the way; the delectable smells from food vendors on the street below infiltrate the senses; mellow lounge beats blend with the distant call to prayer from the minarets on the horizon. Sipping a cocktail on one of the many rooftop bars in the ancient district of Beyoğlu, Istanbul, it is safe to say your impression is both one of contradictions, and one-of-a-kind synthesis.
As our conception of luxury moves further away from objects towards experiences, how we synthesise these unique contradictions in culture – scale and intimacy, spectacle and conversation – become unforgettable moments. Our desire for unique experiences is stronger than ever.
Equal parts invigorating and dizzying, Istanbul has an abundance of them. Rest assured, your head will be spinning with (Turkish) delight once back on the plane, but undoubtedly, it’s worth every moment. For the one in the know, the historic capital offers a contemporary haven for the culture-seeking, discerning individual.
Why not check into the newly designed Soho House Istanbul: a 19th-century Genoese palazzo complete with frescoed walls and Corinthian columns. With 87 rooms and two rooftop pools overlooking the Bosphorus, an aromatic Turkish coffee from its award-winning Cecconi’s restaurant will certainly rejuvenate you for the day ahead, if it’s Turkish-tiled rainforest showers haven’t already.
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.