Istanbul is an incredibly diverse city. Formerly known as Constantinople, it is the largest city in Turkey and the country’s economic, cultural and historic centre. Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia across the Bosphorus strait, literally cutting the city in two, one side West, the other East. 

    Founded as Byzantion by Megarian colonists in the 7th century BC and renamed by Constantine the Great first as Nova Roma during the official dedication of the city as the new Roman capital in 330 AD which he soon afterwards changed to Constantinople.

    The city grew in size and influence, becoming a beacon of the Silk Road and one of the most important cities in history. It served as an imperial capital for almost sixteen centuries, during the Roman/Byzantine (330–1204), Latin (1204–1261), Byzantine (1261–1453), and Ottoman (1453–1922) empires. 

    Its history is rich and full of religious significance…

    Hagia Sophia. Photo by Christophe Meneboeuf.

    Constantinople was instrumental in the advancement of Christianity during Roman and Byzantine times, hosting four of the first seven ecumenical councils, before its transformation to an Islamic stronghold following the fall of Constantinople in 1453 AD. Much of its ancient history is still evident, but beyond that, visitors find a vibrant city, modern and dynamic. Istanbul has always drawn attention as a unique visual backdrop for international filmmakers thanks to its cultural and historical significance. In fact, three Bond movies used Istanbul as a location: From Russia with love, The world is not enough, and most recently, Skyfall.

    For this trip we stayed at the Shangri-La Bosphorus, a truly luxurious hotel, where no detail is left to chance. Located on the European shores of the Bosphorus strait, the building dates back to the 1930s, an enchanting retreat that draws on influences from East and West. The location is great, just a 15-minute walk from the iconic Dolmabahçe Palace. 

    My beautifully appointed room over-looked the Bosphorus, which is a view to behold. The décor is modern with soothing cool tones, inspired by palatial Ottoman glamour and Asian design elements. The large marble-clad master bathroom featured a rain shower and a bathtub, mirror-embedded television and heated floors. Obviously, the room was completed with every amenity you could think of. The promise of a delectable dinner led me downstairs, to the elegant Shang palace, the culinary pride of Shangri-La. We were served an array of exquisitely prepared traditional Cantonese delicacies, among them crispy Szechuan beef, shredded duck salad, dim sum and hand-pulled noodles – which I had been taught to make in a crash course that same afternoon – served with sliced beef soup and a whole Peking Duck.

    After such a meal, I went out like a light and woke up the next day ready to explore the city. Our tour started at the Serefiye Cistern, one of the oldest water structures in the historic peninsula of Istanbul, dating back almost 1,600 years. Built on an area of 24 to 40 meters on the edges and reaching as high as 11 meters, there are 45 sail-vaults and 32 columns inside the Şerefiye Cistern. 

    All of the Corinthian decorations with impost blocks were made of Marmara Island marble and specific to the Cistern. The column tops are decorated with acanthus (bear’s-paw) leaves. The interior walls of the monument are covered with waterproof plaster while the corners are curved to withstand water pressure. The walls are about 2.5 meters thick.

    Our next stop was the wonderful Hagia Sophia, the seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and a principal setting for Byzantine imperial ceremonies, such as coronations. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985. Its history is rich and full of religious significance. Constructed three times on the same location, it is the world’s largest cathedral.  Its sheer beauty with its magnificent play on space, light and colour provokes the believer.  It poses on the first hill of Istanbul surrounded by the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn.   

    We followed our visit with a delightful lunch at Deraliye Ottoman Cuisine, a fabulous restaurant by renown restaurateur Necati Yilmaz, famous for their work on Ottoman Imperial Palace kitchen archives, adapting old recipes to present day. Our next adventure was a cruise across the Bosphorus cruise on a private yacht. This natural division of the Anatolian and European sides of the city is speckled with beautiful historic mansions on its shores – known as Yalilar. From the water, we could also appreciate the stunning view of the Dolmabahce Palace, the Rumeli and Anadolu Fortresses and the two Bosphorus bridges. 

    Of course we couldn’t leave the Grand Bazaar without visiting the rooftops where the famous motorcycle scene of Skyfall were filmed…

    – Lavinia Dickson-Robinson

    After a brief turnaround at the Shangri-La we headed to the Sunset Grill and Bar. Located at Ulus Park overlooking the Bosphorus, it’s one of the city’s best examples of fine-dining since 1994. A member of the Chaine des Rotisseurs since 1999, Chef Fabrice Canelle has been its Director of Culinary Innovation since 2015, delighting guests with its fusion of Mediterranean food and sushi.   

    The following day we set off to the Grand Bazaar, one of the largest and oldest covered bazaars in the world. It spans 61 streets and hosts 4,000 shops as well as a mosque, post office and even bank branches, making kind of a city within the city. After browsing many lanes and shops we visited master of calligraphy Nick Merdenyan, a tradesman here since 1968. He breaks off the faded leaves of Dieffenbachia and Caladium plants, then stores them for two years before they can be used for his work. The results are true samples of artistry, which cover his storefront like a forest of love with calligraphy for Islam, Judaism, Christianity and even Buddhism. Of course we couldn’t leave the Grand Bazaar without visiting the rooftops where the famous motorcycle scene of Skyfall were filmed, which by the way have amazing views of Istanbul, all the way to Hagia Sophia.

    Deraliye elma dolması.

    Then off to the Spice Bazaar Misir Çarşisi (literally meaning Egyptian Market). Apparently it was built with money paid by duty from Egyptian imports. Our visit culminated in a lunch at Pandeli, which has been an institution in Istanbul since it opened its doors in 1901. The restaurant is set in a domed, Iznik-tiled dining room above the market and it is a favourite not just among foreign visitors but also among the locals.

    We spent the rest of the afternoon walking through the bohemian neighbourhood of Istanbul, full of antique shops and art galleries. As we wandered down one of its winding alleys, we stumbled across a remarkable four-storey 19th century townhouse, owned by an Erkal Aksoy, who happened to be, 

    as we found out, was an expert and enthusiast.  He had created this emporium to resemble a private Ottoman residence filled to the brim with beautiful possessions.     On our last day, we went to the elegant Dolmabahce, one of the most magnificent and symbolic structures of the Ottomans changing identity in the 19th century. In 1843, Sultan Abdul Mecit wanted to rebuilt the image of his Empire emulating the European style. 

    Steamed scallops and Vermicelli with Minced Garlic…

    – Shangri La Shang Palace.

    He employed Armenian architects Garabet and Nikogos Balyan to build this new palace, Dolmabahce Sarayl, which was completed in 1856.  With its 285 rooms and 43 reception halls, its lavish decoration in gold and crystal, it could rival Versailles. 

    As if we had not been spoilt enough we were all pampered with a traditional Turkish Bath and massage at CHI, the Shangri-La’s renowed Spa, which is inspired by traditional Asian healing philosophies, with treatments based upon the principles of restoring balance and harmony to mind and body. CHI offers some of the most indulgent private spa suites in Istanbul as well as customized massages and a wide range of organic products. 

    Sadly, it was time to leave for the airport, but not before a full-blown High Tea in the Presidential Suite overlooking a twinkling night-time view of the Bosphorus  nocturnal vista. Unforgettable.

    More information and reservations:

    For more information and reservations:
    British Airways flies directly to Istanbul twice daily from Heathrow.
    Return tickets including taxes, fees and charges start at £132 (no luggage)
    and £65 (with luggage) in World Traveller and at £335 in Club Europe

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