Destinations

Finding Istanbul

A first-time visitor explores the timeless city’s singular culture.

MOST READ TRAVEL

Stays

The Power of Paradise

The Four Seasons Resort Lanai cultivates the potency of the tiny island’s...

Stays

Our Favorite Stays of the Year

Our editors’ picks for the most restful, memorable, and invigorating hotel...

Stays

Sublime Stays in Los Cabos and Todos Santos

Escape the crowds of Mexico’s Baja peninsula at these one-of-a-kind properties.

ISTANBUL: A CITY where you can live in Asia and catch dinner there, and work in Europe and have dessert there — all without ever leaving the urban limits. It’s a city that feels simultaneously hip, fresh, and ancient — where time feels compressed. It’s the liger of cities — part lion, part tiger — and like a liger, it is bigger than either of its parents, the biggest feline around. Not just Asian or European, but its own special breed.

My journey begins in midair. From my first sip of Turkish coffee to the sumptuous grilled lamb dripping with cacik (cucumber yogurt), I understand why Turkish Airlines has been awarded Best Airline in Business Class for several years running. I am considering designing an award for the flight myself: “Best way for a tired mom to feel like Sophia Loren at 36,000 feet.”

Upon arrival at Istanbul International Airport, the energy hits me like an Ottoman marching band. Istanbul was historically the center of trade from the Black Sea to the Aegean, and has been a converging point of cultures since the Byzantine era. The emergence of this massive airport hub carries on this legacy, exchanging merchant ships for brilliantly designed runways and elevated design. I pass a trio of chic women in Technicolor hijabs — a blur of attars and silk; in front of me is a German family who all look like they’re keynote speakers at an equestrian summit, and behind me a pair of Bulgarian backpackers smell of vision quest and patchouli. I’m already at the crossroads of the world and I haven’t even left the airport terminal.

MOST READ TRAVEL

Guides

The Hidden Gems of Paris

A Parisian’s guide to the best hotels, restaurants, and out-of-the-way shopping...

Stays

Sublime Stays in Los Cabos and Todos Santos

Escape the crowds of Mexico’s Baja peninsula at these one-of-a-kind properties.

Guides

Where to Stay, Eat, and Shop in Los Angeles

A New Yorker’s take on iconic hotels, the best new eats, and hidden-gem boutiques...

Istanbul is home to two Four Seasons hotels; one in the historic Sultanahmet district, the other on the European shores of the Bosphorus strait, overlooking the Asian side of the city. By the time I arrive at the Bosphorus property, I am humming with excitement; even so I nearly fall prey to the (in)famous mattress. Happily, my curiosity prevails over fatigue, which means I soon find myself floating in the spa pool fit for the Ottoman palace the hotel once was.

My bathing reverie nearly makes me miss dinner. At Mikla, a Turkish-Scandi restaurant located on the rooftop of The Marmara Pera hotel in the Beyoglu neighborhood, I sit next to my host, Emily Morrison. A former finance executive from New Orleans, she first traveled to Istanbul in 2019. Disillusioned with her finance job and having recently completed “The Artist’s Way” (a sort of spiritual handbook for unlocking one’s creative identity), she found herself restless for a shift. A spontaneous visit with her husband led to repeat visits as she fell in love with the culture, the people, and the craftsmanship she found in the Grand Bazaar. She developed relationships with Turkish artisans, with whom she eventually collaborated to create her own clothing and home goods brand called Elysian. Having spent approximately seven hours in the city, listening to her, I already grasp how someone might reorient their life around this place.

After dinner we walk to a nearby bar that turns out, delightfully, to be a gay club. The dynamism of the youth culture in the city crackles; the median age of Turkey’s population is 33.1 (compared to 43.9 across Europe). I soon realize two things: I’ve completely sweat through my Marni trench coat, and I am far older than I have ever been. I make my way back to my room and try out that enticing mattress.

The next morning I wander through the charming Balat neighborhood, where colorful houses and narrow cobblestone streets share space with hip cafes and artist studios. As I sit and have my 400th Turkish coffee and snack on lokum (aka Turkish delight), I wonder, if I lived here, which of the two dozen cats in my immediate vicinity would I call my own. I learn that the preponderance of cats in port towns come from the ships that would use them to protect their cargo from rats on board. Once docked, the cats would be released into the city and their descendants are the felines we associate with islands and port towns today. I always just thought they were there for the fish, but it turns out, even the cats are ancient.


Advertisement


My afternoon is spent gazing upwards, taking in the grandeur of the Blue Mosque, mesmerized by the over 20,000 hand-painted ceramic Iznik tiles that swath the ceiling. Though my visit misses the annual Tulip Festival in April (when the city is blanketed in over 30 million tulips), the Iznik tiles use the flower as a primary motif. Despite Holland’s terrific marketing, tulips actually originated in Turkey and Central Asia. Mystic Islamic culture celebrates the tulip in full bloom as a symbol of humility, seen as bowing down to God. I will never not picture this prayer when looking at my neighbor’s spring garden again. (Similarly, the very low doorways in buildings throughout the city are designed to dictate a bowed entrance, head down; the architecture itself demands deference.) The best part of my day is spent at the Hurrem Sultan Hamami. The Turkish hammam is a truly egalitarian experience, available for all walks of life. Following a celestial steam and an invigorating, rigorous scrub, I emerge feeling like a baby-faced sultan.

My next day is devoted to the bazaars. As festive and enticing as the iconic pictures depict, the Spice Bazaar is filled with a heaping bounty of brightly hued teas, freshly made lokum in many flavors, and of course, mountains of spices. The Grand Bazaar, about a 20-minute walk from the Spice Bazaar, is a true showstopper. With over 4,000 shops along 61 streets, I could devote a week to exploring the coolest mall I’ve ever been to and still crave more time. Here, I meet up with Emily Morrison again and learn how she first connected with her textile and ceramics collaborators for Elysian. Turkey is a matriarchal culture in many ways. Morrison was not gaining traction in her relationships with artisans until she returned on a visit accompanied by her mother-in-law. The artisans were eventually swayed by the older maternal figure, whom they dubbed “PatMom”(her name is Pat). I took home a tea set painted with the phrase “Heaven lies beneath the feet of your mother” in Turkish, a gift for my children as a general reminder (and occasional threat).

That evening’s dinner is at Aheste, where I share modern Turkish mezes with several of the artisans whose work I saw at the Bazaar. Over vine leaves with cashew cream and lavender zucchini in a chic, rustic private dining room, I realize for them, the collaboration starts with friendship, not the other way around.

On my final day in Istanbul, I visit the traditional shoemaker’s studio that produces Elysian’s footwear. After selecting my own silk ikat fabric, I watch it be made right before my eyes into custom Turkish slides. The superior materials and handcrafted methods used in the layers of the shoe’s footbed make it such that Elysian gets orders from nurses to wear at work who might otherwise be wearing Crocs. I later wear these slides everywhere, from the beach to yoga to dinner with friends.

Back at the airport, gazing down from the glassed-in second level to the main atrium below and its trill of travelers, it lands on me that I am leaving — and I don’t want to. It’s not often that I find myself daydreaming of relocating after only a few days’ immersion. Istanbul contains the incredible duality of East and West, youthful and ancient, glamorous and clamorous. If heaven is truly under mother’s foot, my kids should be busy learning Turkish in time for our next family adventure.

A Guide to 72 Hours in Istanbul

When faced with only a few days in one of the world’s most vibrant cities, we asked Emily Morrison, founder of Elysian, to curate a hit list for our writer to experience of her favorite places and things to do in Istanbul.

Travel

  • Sea Song Tours

    Our charismatic tour guide (Jenk!) felt more like my most clever friend, who happened to be a shrewd historian. Sea Song made my packed itinerary seamless.

  • Turkish Airlines

    Their business-class service is widely awarded, and the menu is thoughtful and delicious. Plus, the Versace-filled amenity bag is a luxe touch.

  • Sea Song Tours

    Our charismatic tour guide (Jenk!) felt more like my most clever friend, who happened to be a shrewd historian. Sea Song made my packed itinerary seamless.

  • Turkish Airlines

    Their business-class service is widely awarded, and the menu is thoughtful and delicious. Plus, the Versace-filled amenity bag is a luxe touch.

Stay

  • Soho House Istanbul

    In a former American embassy, the restaurant, rooftop bar, and common spaces stand in cool contrast to the hotel rooms, which are in an adjacent contemporary building with a rooftop pool.

  • Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus

    Housed in a former Ottoman palace, the outdoor courtyards and Bosphorus promenade are only matched by the basement-level spa, pool, and salon.

  • Soho House Istanbul

    In a former American embassy, the restaurant, rooftop bar, and common spaces stand in cool contrast to the hotel rooms, which are in an adjacent contemporary building with a rooftop pool.

Visit

  • Balat Neighborhood

    With the feel of a historic European city, the area boasts excellent people-watching at the newer hip cafes.

  • Blue Mosque

    The more than 20,000 Iznik tiles covering all surfaces are a true marvel.

  • Hagia Sophia

    The Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Christian church in the sixth century, converted into a mosque in the fifteenth century, secularized into a museum in 1935, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and (in a controversial decision by President Erdogan) converted back into a mosque in 2020. Most fascinating to me are the curtains that hang at various points throughout the ceilings, covering the Christian iconography in the mosaics. As Oz would attest, nothing is more interesting to a viewer than that which is hidden.

  • Balat Neighborhood

    With the feel of a historic European city, the area boasts excellent people-watching at the newer hip cafes.

  • Hagia Sophia

    The Hagia Sophia was originally built as a Christian church in the sixth century, converted into a mosque in the fifteenth century, secularized into a museum in 1935, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, and (in a controversial decision by President Erdogan) converted back into a mosque in 2020. Most fascinating to me are the curtains that hang at various points throughout the ceilings, covering the Christian iconography in the mosaics. As Oz would attest, nothing is more interesting to a viewer than that which is hidden.

  • Blue Mosque

    The more than 20,000 Iznik tiles covering all surfaces are a true marvel.

Shop

  • Spice Bazaar

    The historical Egyptian Spice Bazaar is great for gifts and mystical souvenirs. I buy perfumed oils, nuts, Turkish delight (they air pack the fresh selections on the spot for you), and sleep-inducing floral tea.

  • Orient Handmade Carpets

    Get lost among 13 floors of carpets. They graciously rolled out a $1 million carpet for me to see, which took five weavers over five years to produce. When given a chance to sit at the silk loom myself, I discovered I might produce an irregular silk coaster in approximately 15 years’ time.

  • Grand Bazaar

    About a 15-minute walk from the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar is epic, with more than 4,000 vendors over 61 streets. You’ll find incredible vintage jewelry vendors, textiles, traditional ceramics, apparel, and more.

  • Spice Bazaar

    The historical Egyptian Spice Bazaar is great for gifts and mystical souvenirs. I buy perfumed oils, nuts, Turkish delight (they air pack the fresh selections on the spot for you), and sleep-inducing floral tea.

  • Grand Bazaar

    About a 15-minute walk from the Spice Bazaar, the Grand Bazaar is epic, with more than 4,000 vendors over 61 streets. You’ll find incredible vintage jewelry vendors, textiles, traditional ceramics, apparel, and more.

  • Orient Handmade Carpets

    Get lost among 13 floors of carpets. They graciously rolled out a $1 million carpet for me to see, which took five weavers over five years to produce. When given a chance to sit at the silk loom myself, I discovered I might produce an irregular silk coaster in approximately 15 years’ time.

Eat

  • Mikla

    Turkish-Scandi cuisine served in an upscale rooftop setting with perhaps the best views overlooking the city.

  • Bebek Balikci

    After a sunset Bosphorus cruise, my final meal was spent dining on fresh fish, oysters, and caviar served on the chic waterfront. I had been told the Asian side of the city was somewhat like New Jersey to the European side’s Manhattan. But, with all due respect to Jersey, this area felt far more Budapest than Hoboken.

  • Aheste

    Here you can enjoy modern Turkish mezes in a romantic, contemporary-meets-ancient atmosphere in the Beyoglu neighborhood.

  • Aslan

    A fast, no-frills, delicious lunch spot featuring traditional Turkish fare, located within a five-minute walk of the Grand Bazaar.

  • Mikla

    Turkish-Scandi cuisine served in an upscale rooftop setting with perhaps the best views overlooking the city.

  • Aheste

    Here you can enjoy modern Turkish mezes in a romantic, contemporary-meets-ancient atmosphere in the Beyoglu neighborhood.

  • Bebek Balikci

    After a sunset Bosphorus cruise, my final meal was spent dining on fresh fish, oysters, and caviar served on the chic waterfront. I had been told the Asian side of the city was somewhat like New Jersey to the European side’s Manhattan. But, with all due respect to Jersey, this area felt far more Budapest than Hoboken.

  • Aslan

    A fast, no-frills, delicious lunch spot featuring traditional Turkish fare, located within a five-minute walk of the Grand Bazaar.

Experience

  • Hurrem Sultan Hamami

    Come for the exquisite design, stay for the invigorating process of removing all the outer layers of your skin. Built in the sixteenth century, closed in 1910, and used as an overflow for Turkish prisoners in the interim, the space was eventually restored over three years (reopening in 2011). The multitiered lounge’s intricately carved wood paneling and the dramatic marble bathing areas literally took my breath away.

  • Hurrem Sultan Hamami

    Come for the exquisite design, stay for the invigorating process of removing all the outer layers of your skin. Built in the sixteenth century, closed in 1910, and used as an overflow for Turkish prisoners in the interim, the space was eventually restored over three years (reopening in 2011). The multitiered lounge’s intricately carved wood paneling and the dramatic marble bathing areas literally took my breath away.


AMERICAN EXPRESS® CARD MEMBER ACCESS

Book Travel with American Express

Whether you’re planning a weekend staycation or the trip of a lifetime, you can plan your entire trip through American Express Travel. Plus, make the most of your journey with travel benefits and more. Learn more.

Explore More
Our Contributors

Ivy Elrod Writer

Ivy Elrod is a multidisciplinary creative living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her writing has most recently been published in the new Playgirl Magazine. She is also an actress and a playwright, and was once the youngest Rockette at Radio City. She is now principal designer and founder of Wilder, an experiential showroom and contemporary design firm.

Ekin Özbiçer Photographer

Ekin Özbiçer is a photographer from Istanbul. Her work mainly revolves around finding and curating a continuity of often whimsical images, exploring aesthetics of mainstream culture and documenting relationships between architecture, environment, social structures, and the individual. She is currently working on “Auto-Orientalism,” a series documenting her native Turkey.

',
Newsletter

Let’s Keep in Touch

Subscribe to our newsletter

You’re no longer on our newsletter list, but you can resubscribe anytime.