Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey, straddles two continents – Europe and Asia, either side of the Bosphorus Strait. The postcard scenes of grand mosques are impressive, but Turkish hospitality means you don’t have to feel like a tourist. The city also has a great nocturnal scene, from cocktail bars to atmospheric raki taverns. For all its scale, the Ottoman-era capital can get the little things just right – and that goes for places to stay. Check out where to stay in Istanbul like a local.
With its faux-Doric columns and look-at-me gold and marble interiors, White House Hotel certainly has a whiff of presidential posturing about it. Rooms have further fun with ostentation, displaying gold-brushed cornices, crystal chandeliers and throne-like red-velvet furniture. But for all the neophile stylings, the location – in Sultanahmet district, bang on the Byzantine promontory – is timeless. Within an easy wander you’ll find the major sights, from the Hagia Sophia to the Blue Mosque, and Topkapi Palace to the sixth-century Basilica Cistern made famous in the 1963 Bond movie From Russia With Love. There’s a fine rooftop terrace at the hotel, too.
You won’t miss this one from the street; huge 3D suitcases adorn the facade, while pillars between the windows are built to suggest the spines of giant books. The 18 uniquely decorated rooms are dedicated to famous literary figures – real and fictional – from Cervantes to Hemingway. Scandi-sleek furniture, along with a monochrome palette lifted by splashes of colour, keeps the hip ambience bubbling and when you step out, you’re in photogenic Sultanahmet, historic heart of Istanbul, all chestnut vendors and grilled-sweetcorn stands, in case you missed breakfast.
Protruding like an enormous pencil above the Beyoglu district’s rooftops, the Galata Tower is a veritable city icon, placing the area around it among the best places to stay in Istanbul. It’s all across the Golden Horn waterway from touristy Sultanahmet, a more ‘real’ Istanbul, of fashion boutiques and cocktail haunts. Hotel Bankerhan is a great address: as hip as a handlebar moustache with its polished concrete, exposed pipes and reclaimed-wood floorboards. Not that it’s too cool for comfort: rooms have substance as well as style, with large beds draped in wool throws, atmospheric lighting and calm pastel colour schemes. It’s the perfect nest after you’re worn out from wandering Galata’s steep cobbled streets, slung low with shopping bags.
Back in Sultanahmet, this is one of the best places to stay in Istanbul for sightseers: the Grand Bazaar is a near-neighbour, ditto the Spice Bazaar, for caviar and bags of delicious fresh white mulberries to snack on as you explore. Pruva Hotel offers cool, contemporary lodgings, spiked with the occasional rustic contrast (check out the tree-trunk coffee tables). You’ll sleep easy in whichever of the 16 rooms you choose, amid gold, cream and chocolate tones and attractive designer furnishings. There’s a decent buffet breakfast laid on – fill up before you head out, guidebook at the ready.
There are just two suites to choose from here, and only the one-bedroom Deluxe Apartment has a balcony terrace overlooking the Old City’s red roofs, with slivers of the blue Bosphorus Strait glinting through the gaps. But the Dublex (which sleeps seven) has interiors that are just as modern and charming, gilded with traditional touches such as framed miniatures of jama (long shirts), Ottoman-style tiles and rugs. And, needless to say, you’re just steps from the Blue Mosque – a perfect starting point for your first ambles in the landmark-peppered Sultanahmet district.
OK, you have to visit the nearby sister hotels for restaurant dining, but the buffet breakfast at this Sultanahmet stalwart could easily fill you up for the day. There’s plenty to do in the area, but factor in romantic downtime in your room, too. If you can, book a Deluxe. It doesn’t have the outdoor space of Luxury Terrace rooms but you’re missing nothing as those terraces are overlooked and have no views. Deluxes also have significantly bigger bathrooms than City Rooms, and these make morning ablutions more like an opulent spa experience with their lavish blue-and-gold tiles.
If you don’t mind bunking up with fellow travellers, the dorm rooms here are unusually charming, with large kilim-style rugs, privacy curtains around each bed, and the reassurance of an electronic storage locker. If you’re romantically à deux, you’re in luck: the 10 private guest rooms are every bit as appealing, with exposed-brick walls and (in ensuites) gorgeously tiled walk-in showers. You’re practically in the shadow of the Blue Mosque here, too, although you can sightsee without moving an inch at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which turns out appetising kebabs, salads and sea bass.
Everyone visiting Istanbul needs to experience a city ferry at some stage – and the best excuse is staying on the Anatolian side of the city, across the broad Bosphorus Strait from Sultanahmet. You’ll be gliding back and forth daily. We like Kadiköy, which has grown over the years into a young and upbeat district of wine-houses, bars and al fresco cafes. Here, Moda Drei has both rooms and dorms. If the latter suggest malodorous backpacker crashpads, picture instead steel-framed bunk beds, wall-mounted reading lights, a sleep-inducing dark palette and dazzlingly clean bathrooms. You’ll be so at home this side of the city, perhaps you won’t need those ferries so much, after all.
You could easily mistake the entrance to this five-star stunner for one of the city’s more elaborate mosques, so intricate is the stonework on the façade, the carving on the massive wooden front doors. But it’s the interiors, particularly the ensuite bathrooms, that really impress. From the hamam-style polished brass taps and pipes, to the dazzling jewel-hued shower tiles and pearl-inlaid accessories drawers, Ajwa is a visual feast. With top-floor Zeferan Restaurant turning out rice-rich Turkish dishes, and sweet things on sale in the mezzanine-level Sukkari Patisserie, you don’t need to venture out for lunch or dinner. But it would be a shame not to have a fish dinner or two at local Sultanahmet favorite Balikci Sabahattin, sitting outside in spring, under the lanterns.
There’s a lot more to Istanbul than the mosques and sunset-silhouetted minarets of Sultanahmet. North across the waters of the Golden Horn is the European hub of 19th-century Constantinople with its embassies and ornate italianate apartments, its low-lit tavernas and theatres. Not far from central Taksim Square, Joy Suites is perfectly placed for exploring all of this: a boutique apart-hotel of whites, greys and blacks, with compact bathrooms and kitchenettes, and beds soft enough to invite a swan dive. For a taste of hip Istanbul, taxi to nearby Bomonti district, where galleries, antiques markets and Manhattan-worthy restaurants cluster about a once-derelict Swiss-owned brewery.
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