Turkey is a delight, and I'm not talking about just the famous candy of similar name. Vibrant and historic at the same time, it is aiming to join the European Union soon, modernizing its structure and cleaning up its act in every sense of the word. Turkey is even getting richer, as was evident when Forbes magazine released its list of billionaires recently. Turkey came in 8th in nations boasting such lucky people, with 21, in fact.
The country has certainly improved in its tourism infrastructure over the years that I have been visiting, with sleek new hotels, imposing airports, improved public transport, and cleaner and more westernized facilities in general. This is a place at once exotic (think mosques, minarets and monthly dances of the Whirling Dervishes) and secure (as in a working democracy, an educated population and near self sufficiency in food, among other values).
Certainly, Istanbul is safe, with police everywhere, and security procedures at important museums, even at hotel entrances. At the Ritz Carlton, vehicles get scrutinized with undercarriage mirrors before entering the driveway, and guests on entering the door, for instance. A militantly secular country since the Ataturk revolution in 1923, Turkey is a nation that puts its faith in a civil society, one that has worked reasonably well for the past 80 years.
In addition to the usual Top Five, Six or Ten must-see sights in Istanbul, there is now an addition, opened just last year. Featured on a History Channel special recently is the magnificent cistern beneath the Nakkas Carpet Shop (tel. 90 212 516 52 22; www.nakkasrug.com; Nakilbent Sokak 33, Sultanahmet) just down the hill from the Blue Mosque. When the owner of Nakkas decided to rebuild, his crew discovered a sixth-century Byzantine cistern below the property, and instead of covering it over, as has been done so many times in the city over the past centuries, he decided to restore the cistern and open it to public view. High, narrow and long, it is now completely dry, with arched columns setting off a few reproductions of modern paintings. While the salesmen in the shop never mention the place, as seeing it would take some of your time away from their wares, you should ask while shopping there to look at it and have them turn on the lights for you. I was there for two hours before learning of its availability by chance. The entrance is off the main lobby in the far right corner. Nakkas also has a jewelry store and features ceramics and books.
As for the Top Five or whatever, you must be sure to see these: Topkapi Palace Museum (began in 1462, home of Turkish sultans for centuries), St. Sophia (the former sixth-century church and mosque, now a museum), the Blue Mosque (17th century), the Grand Bazaar (15th century), and the Hippodrome, dating back to Roman times third-century). Add to the list as you please, with plenty of sights, as Istanbul was, after all, the capital of two of the world's most famous empires, the Byzantine and the Ottoman.
If you want Istanbul's most luxurious hotel with a business orientation, consider the Ritz Carlton (tel. 800/241-3333; www.ritzcarlton.com; Suzer Plaza, Elmadag). Not only is it relatively nearer the towering new business buildings of the city's Levent financial district, but it is also a destination in its own right, with a fabulous spa, outstanding cuisine, marvelous service, and elegant yet comfy rooms. It has 244 rooms, with double room rates starting from €195 (about $234).
Closer to the center of tourist action is the luxurious Four Seasons (tel. 800/819-5053; www.fourseasons.com; Tevkifhane Sokak 1, Sultanahmet), built inside an old prison and just down the hill from the Hagia Sophia (St. Sophia), the formerchurch/mosque that is now a museum. Also you are just steps away from the Topkapi Palace Museum. The Four Seasons has 65 gorgeous rooms, many with views of either the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia. There is a fine restaurant in the courtyard and, everywhere, impeccable service. Rack room rates for doubles start at $340.
If it's atmosphere you crave, try the Pera Palas (tel. 90 212 251 45 60; www.perapalas.com; Mesrutiyet Caddesi 98/100), where Mata Hari and Agatha Christie stayed, the latter writing parts of Murder on the Orient Express when not gazing out over the Golden Horn. 145 rooms, restaurant, bar, pastry shop. Double rooms from about $250.
Seek out fresh and mostly local seafood while here, including sea bass, blue fish, red mullet, turbot, calamari, lobster and shrimp, some right from the Sea of Marmara. Turkish wines are surprisingly good, a red favorite of mine being the Doluca Karma Gamay-Bogazkere 2001, as served on Turkish Airlines, for instance.
In the past few years, the Kumkapi area has become a restaurant destination in its own right, aglow at night with the lights of several dozen eating places, lined up on a main street about three blocks long, many specializing in seafood. Located at the base of the Topkapi Palace and just beneath the Grand Bazaar, and reached under the rail tracks from the coastal road linking the Golden Horn with the airport (Caddessi Kennedy ch), this gentrified neighborhood gives up its choices easily. Just walk along, checking out the menus on display outside each spot, and make your selection. There are also little variety food stores, at least one bakery with gorgeous goodies, a wine store, and the like, as well.
I enjoyed sea bass as the main course in Yelken Fish Restaurant (tel. 90 212 517 22 55; www.kumkapimeyhaneleri.com) at Ordekli Bakkal Sokak 13. A four-course meal with a whole sea bass or blue fish, for instance, runs NTL 45 (about US$35). The appetizer was delicately fried calamari, and the other courses included a fresh salad and a fig/walnut dried dessert. A four-piece band played Turkish and western melodies. The restroom was old Turkish, however, not Western.
The best dining view in Istanbul may be from the Konyali Restaurant, located inside the Topkapi Palace Museum, looking out at the Bosphorus and Asia, also with views across the Golden Horn to the Beyoglu district of Istanbul. Part of a 108-year-old chain, the Konyali has a glassed-in restaurant and an outdoor cafeteria next door. Rooms in the palace itself are reserved for catered functions right now. Dine alfresco from the cafeteria and you get a "veal ham sandwich" for NTL 9 (about US$7), for instance, and grilled kebabs scorched right there on the terrace before your eyes.
Indoors, there is a fairly pedestrian menu where the fresh salads are the best choice. At NTL 9 each (US$7), choose from seasonal, shepherd's or eggplant salads. Lamb kebab runs NTL 24 (about US$19), baklava dessert NTL 11 (about US$9).
Best of all, choose a modest restaurant, among those ubiquitous ones, most of them impeccably clean, such as two near the Nakkas Carpet Store, just downhill from the Hippodrome and the Blue Mosque. Doy-Doy (tel. 90 212 517 15 88; Sifa Hamami Sokak 13, Sultanhamet), a favorite of young travelers, has roof garden views of the Blue Mosque along with breakfast, lunch or dinner. Featured are pizza, kebabs, lamb chops, dolma, moussaka and more, with a chicken kebab costing NTL 7(about US$5.50).
A few doors away and slightly uphill as well as upscale (white tablecloths), is Bukhara 93 (tel. 90 212 518 15 11; Nakilbent Sokak 15/A, Sultanhamet), with an even wider variety of kebabs and pizzas. Typical prices: chicken kebab or vegetarian kebab for YTL 9 (about US$7).
To combine nightlife with dining out, consider the Maiden's Tower, known by Westerners as the Tower of Leander, a tiny lighthouse rock just off the Asian coast, which boasts marvelous views of Istanbul by day or night. The seafood here is marginally better than the lamb, but vegetables above all are delicious, from salads to several versions of eggplant. The cost per person for a five-course dinner is around NTL 45 (US$35), which includes round-trip boat fare from near the Dolmabahce Palace. Much better than the so-so food is the musical group Leandros, whose six members play and sing everything from operatic arias (think Carmen) to golden oldies (Maria from West Side Story) and Beatles tunes. At the candlelit dinner, definitely for couples, some of the female guests were moved to get up and dance at times, their men folk fiddling with their cell phones. I suggest lunchtime for better views from the top floors (ask for window tables or just walk up to the top of the lighthouse between courses). This is the same Leander mentioned in classical literature by such giants as Ovid, Christopher Marlowe and Lord Byron, the original tower on this rock dating back to the sixth-century B.C.
A leader among American tour operators specializing in Turkey is Troy Tours (tel. 800/748-6878; www.troytours.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), which offers guaranteed departure escorted tours of 10 and 14 days to that nation, as well as pre and post cruise packages in Istanbul. Also part of their offerings are private shore excursions in Istanbul and Ephesus, and two or three day mini packages of Istanbul, Cappadocia, Kusadasi (Ephesus), Antalya and Bodrum, as well as yacht and gulet charters, individual trips, and special interest group travel. They are located at 6033 W. Century Blvd. (895), Los Angeles CA 90045.
Visa Fee: You can get a visa on landing at the Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, costing at time of writing only $20 (it was once as high as $100).
Guide: If you want a personal escort around Istanbul and area, you could not do better than Erkal Aykac, an official guide who freelances. He is highly literate, articulate and forthcoming with what I felt were honest answers to all my questions about contemporary Istanbul. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Share your travel ideas about visiting this ancient country at the Turkey Message Board.