Opulent Istanbul: Redefining The Ancient City With Luxurious Experiences

Ortaköy Mosque

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During the Byzantine era, from 330 AD to 1453, Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) was the center of the most influential commercial, cultural, and military power in Europe. Because of its location, Constantinople was a wealthy city at the center of trade between Asia, Europe, and Africa. For thousands of years, and beyond the fall of Rome, the city maintained a vibrant society rich in the arts, entertainment, and literature. Turkish pleasures from delicious regional cuisine to fine rugs and spices drew visitors from around the globe.

Serving as a sentinel overlooking the Bosphorus Strait, which separates Europe and Asia, Constantinople rose between the glistening blue Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. The city’s strategic location made it one of the most fortified cities in Europe and almost impenetrable by invaders. That was until the son of Murad II, Mehmed the Conqueror, overtook the city on May 29, 1453. Constantinople went from Byzantine influence to Ottoman rule with the Sultan Mehmed II at the helm. The Ottoman invasion brought Persian culture to the city and calligraphy, poetry, mosaic tile work, and architecture were some of the treasures bestowed on the town in the 1400s. It is the spectacular combination of the Byzantine and Ottoman cultures that give Istanbul its distinct beauty.

Boats on the Bosporus Strait

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Getting to Istanbul

Fast-forward to modernity, and Istanbul is reinventing itself as an international gateway for travelers from the four corners of the world. One of the most significant milestones in Turkish and global civil aviation history is the launch of the new Istanbul Airport, which officially opened on April 6, 2019. It is projected to be the world’s busiest international hub by passenger capacity. Recently, Turkish Airlines has created a direct, non-stop flight from SFO to Istanbul.

Turkish Airlines understands the significance of jet-setters from the Bay Area who want to travel the globe. Flying to 258 international and 49 domestic destinations, totaling 307 destinations in 124 countries on five continents, Turkish Airlines flies to more destinations than any other airline in the world.

Bosphorus Bridge

Photo Credit: Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Their award-winning business class has the reputation of being one of the best available for long-haul trips to Europe. Business class passengers enjoy modern full-flat seats with a first-rate entertainment system, free WiFi service, an all wide-body fleet, active noise-cancelling headphones, special amenity kit, welcome drink and dedicated bar, turn-down service and sleeping kit, snack bar, Turkish coffee and Turkish delight service, special menu with gourmet meals served by Flying Chefs, hot towel service, dedicated lavatory, and more. The airline’s fast-track VIP customs line for business class travelers who arrive in Istanbul is a favorite feature among frequent flyers.

Another perk of traveling with Turkish Airlines is their epic business class lounge at the airport in Istanbul. It is one of the largest lounges in the world with entertainment, dining options, open bar, sleeping rooms, showers, and a play area for children.

Other treats for business class travelers include Exclusive Drive, where business-class passengers are picked up on the way to or from the airport (within 35 miles) by a private, chauffeured limo; Istanbul Stopover Service, offering passengers who choose to extend their layover with more than 20 hours of connection time to explore the city of Istanbul (those traveling business class receive two complimentary nights at a five-star hotel in Taksim); and the Istanbul Bosphorus Experience, allowing those who have a stopover of seven or more hours in Istanbul to be accompanied by a guide and tour the beauty of the Bosphorus on a private cruise.

Bronze sculpture “Lavina” by Martin Dawe and wall centerpiece “Dolmabache” by Jean-Francois Rauzier in the Raffles Istanbul lobby

Photo Credit: Raffles Istanbul

Where to Stay: Urban Retreat Vs. Ottoman Opulence

Istanbul is a massive city with over 15 million residents. It is also the cultural center of the country filled with numerous opportunities for indulgent experiences. Two of the top hotels, Raffles and Ciragan Palace Kempinski, are both incredibly luxurious, but very different.

Five years ago, Raffles established a hotel in Istanbul’s city center at the Zorlu Center. It is a superb multi-function center where high fashion, exceptional dining experiences, and live theater unite in one convenient location. This is where haute travelers will find Chanel, Fendi, Bulgari, Dior, Louis Vuitton, and many other favorites. Zorlu Performing Arts Center is a dynamic venue hosting opera, jazz festivals, and theater performances.

Raffles Istanbul hotel is one of the most sophisticated hotels in Turkey. Relatively new, the hotel boasts a list of features from automatic curtains, Bluetooth pairing, and hi-tech electronics throughout. Many of the suites provide butler service, which offers guests personalized attention. Along with the phenomenal service, the hotel is committed to showcasing some of the best artwork available in Turkey. In the entrance, guests are greeted with a fantastical photographic composition that was specifically designed for the lobby lounge as a way to introduce hotel guests to “The dream of Istanbul.”

Raffles Spa Hamam Suite

Photo Credit: Raffles Istanbul

Paris photographer, Jean-Francois Rauzier, traveled to Istanbul to photograph the Dolmabahce Palace. The artist took thousands of photographs from which he created his dream composition. He artfully incorporated details from the interior—such as the palace’s famous staircase with crystal balustrades, as well as the immense chandelier, a gift from Queen Victoria, and the largest Bohemian crystal fixture in the world—and then stitched the details together using digital technology.

For those who enjoy five-star pampering, a visit to the Raffles’ spa is in order. The spa has a dramatic indoor pool where guests are encouraged to relax with poolside service. Offerings include everything from facials to the traditional hammam experience.

It is not just international guests who enjoy Raffles’ hospitality. The hotel has become a favorite meeting place for well-heeled locals who expect impeccable service and world-class cuisine. A favorite is the Sunday Champagne brunch, which has become one of the city’s most popular and tastiest attractions, with live music, themed cooking stations, and unique art lab workshops for young guests.

A view of the Bosphorus and infinity pool at Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Photo Credit: Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Dating back to the 17th century, the only Ottoman imperial palace and hotel on the Bosphorus is Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul. Famous for its superb location and incredible history, the Ciragan Palace is accessible by car, yacht, and helicopter. The property is located on the water and is crowned with a beautiful infinity pool where the rich and famous can enjoy afternoon cocktails surrounded by the splendid beauty of the water, lush lawns, palm trees, and breath-taking views of Istanbul.

The suites in the hotel are located in two separate buildings. The first are in the main building that overlooks the pool. The second location is the actual home of the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Located in the imperial palace are some of the world’s most expensive suites including the Sultan’s Suite which rents for 35,000 euros per night. It is a favorite of celebrities and entertainers visiting Turkey, including Oprah Winfrey and Sting. The bathroom in the Sultan’s Suite is a luxurious dream of carved marble and gold fixtures.

If staying a night in the Sultan’s Suite is not an option, then enjoy dinner at Tugra restaurant, which is located in the imperial palace. The restaurant overlooks the Bosphorus and Istanbul. Guests enjoy dinner by candlelight while the city and water glisten beyond the palace. The restaurant is famous for its Ottoman and Turkish cuisines, and Turkish fusion. It is truly a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience that captures the magnificence of the Ottoman Empire.

A guest room in the Sultan’s Suite

Photo Credit: Raffles Istanbul

Private Tours

Istanbul is a huge city with streets as steep as San Francisco. The traffic can be insane, so hiring a private guide is the best way to experience all that it has to offer. Crystal Concepts is a private tour company located in the heart of the city that can create curated experiences tailored for each visitor. Some of the must-see attractions in Istanbul include the Hippodrome, which was one of the largest chariot race grounds of the Byzantine Empire. The Hippodrome was the heart of Constantinople’s political and sporting life, and the scene of games and riots through 500 years of Ottoman history.

St. Sophia, the church of the Divine Wisdom, is the architectural marvel of Turkey. It was built during Emperor Justinian’s reign (AD 537), and it remained the greatest church in Christendom until the conquest of Constantinople when Sultan Mehmet II converted it into a mosque called Hagia Sophia.  In 1934, Atatürk proclaimed it a museum. The walls of this beautiful piece of architecture are decorated with gorgeous mosaics—many were painted over when the church became a mosque.

With more than 4,000 shops, the Grand Bazaar is the largest and oldest covered bazaar in Turkey. A variety of handicrafts, carpets, antiques, books, copper, ceramics, rare jewels and souvenirs are all sold in small shops next to each other.

The Grand Bazaar

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The Basilica Cistern, which was constructed in 532 AD by Justinian, held the water supply for the Great Palace. Don’t miss the two columns featuring the head of Medusa on their bases.

Discover Nisantasi, which is Istanbul’s trendiest shopping district, as well as the birthplace of the Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. Istanbul’s fashion set flocks to the shops, including Prada, Cartier, and Louis Vuitton. In recent years, many high-end local designers have set up shop in alleys off the main road—perfect destinations for shoppers looking for real, local treasures.

Visit Cukurcuma, which is known for its antique shops and second-hand bookshops. Today, it is reborn as a center for avant-garde culture, attracting a new generation of bohemian residents. Cukurcuma is named after its main street, which also gives its name to the Sinan-designed Cukurcuma Mosque. Until recently a rather run-down area of town, Cukurcuma has been taken over by antique dealers.