With its terracotta-tiled roofs and minaret-spiked hills, Istanbul will flatter even the most amateur of photographers. But it is the sounds of the city that stick with a first-time visitor: the chants of street vendors peddling their fresh bread, the honk of commuter ferries criss-crossing the Bosphorus, the daily calls to prayer that echo from more than 3,000 mosques. To go beyond any prescribed itinerary, we’ve spoken to five intrepid travelers – leaders in the fields of architecture, cuisine, art direction, literature and fashion – who have been influenced by this cultural hub. Here, we map out their unforgettable experiences and favourite destinations for an inspiring day in Istanbul.
Nature and architecture coexist harmoniously in Istanbul
For more than a decade, an unassuming parking garage has hosted the Feriköy Organic Market, where fruits and vegetables (and olive oil, and hot stuffed crepes) spill out from hundreds of stalls. Each Saturday, one of the hottest names working in today’s global culinary arts scene, Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Aylin Yazıcıoğlu, treks over to find inspiration for her rotating tasting menus. As the owner of Nicole restaurant in nearby Beyoğlu, Yazıcıoğlu has shopped for food around the world but has yet to find a place where her instincts instruct her ingredient choices so profoundly. “I buy what’s available, letting it impose a rhythm on my cuisine.”
City view from the Fairmont Quasar Presidential Suite
After loading up on groceries, Yazıcıoğlu ducks into the courtyard of Hazzopulo Pasaji arcade, where she can enjoy another treat – all to herself. “In Istanbul, a glass of traditional tea is a beautiful moment of comfort for me before going back to work,” she says. The Fairmont Quasar Istanbul, just a short walk from the Organic Market, also has a classic tea parlour. Gorgeous herringbone floors and a stunning geometric ceiling make it a lovely place to linger over a tea service of almond macaroons and tasty flatbread with Thracian goat cheese. The hotel’s spectacular restaurant, Aila, also has a menu and decor scheme that are thoroughly inspired by Turkey’s past and present. In fact, Aila houses its very own Spice Library, where 103 jars of seasoning are beautifully displayed.
The Ortaköy neighbourhood at sunrise
The traditional and the modern meet at the nearby Ortaköy Mosque, built in the Baroque style out of pink mosaics and white stone. The Bosphorus Bridge – the colossal steel suspension bridge that connects Europe with Asia – soars right behind it. This area is one of the most photographed places in Turkey, attracting image-makers like Daniel MacKinnon, an award-winning creative director from Toronto who has explored the city several times for photo shoots and ad campaigns (from Glow magazine to CoverGirl). He deems it “an Instagrammer’s dream destination, which offers travelers a history lesson in Turkish design with every step,” and it inspired him to launch his travel website, Jetlegs.net. “I was intent on telling people about what I saw – my experience in Istanbul pushed me to talk about the old world in a new way.”
Every time he visits, MacKinnon is struck by Istanbul’s arts and crafts culture and the countless vendors at the Grand Bazaar who present their wares with pride. “Whether it’s soaps, rugs or cookware, you’re seeing things made as they would be in the Ottoman Empire,” he says.
A collection of handmade lanterns at the Grand Bazaar
Acclaimed British crime writer Barbara Nadel had a rather unconventional introduction to the Grand Bazaar when she first visited, as a teenager, more than 30 years ago: “I was lowered down into a cistern underneath the Bazaar by a policeman,” she says. “I had a torch [flashlight] in my mouth so that I could see the fabulous, vast, beautifully constructed space around me.” The city and its dark, unexplored places made an impression, and she not only returns several times a year, she has also set 15 of her 19 popular thrillers with her go-to protagonist, Inspector Ikmen, in Istanbul. When it comes to lunch, however, Nadel prefers to stay above ground, making a beeline for the Spice Bazaar, which she describes as “a riot of colour and aroma.”
A breathtaking view of Büyükada
To ditch the crowds, travel 20 kilometres southeast of Istanbul to Büyükada. Once a Byzantine place of exile for royal relatives who might threaten an emperor’s power, it’s now home to a few thousand residents, along with pine forests and lovely, rugged beaches. The island is a favourite haunt of Melkan Gürsel, the celebrated Turkish architect who designed Istanbul Modern, the country’s first modern art museum, and restored Beyazıt State Library. “Büyükada is a stone’s throw away from the mainland, yet miles apart in terms of character,” Gürsel says.
The interior of the Hagia Sophia
Built as a 6th-century Byzantine church, transformed a millennium later into an Ottoman mosque, and now operating as a museum, Hagia Sophia is a non-negotiable stop for any visitor. But locals drift back to the landmark as well. Gürsel is struck by “the sheer volume and space, the patterns and layers, how they overlap – the magic lies in the fact that the monumental scale of the building does not intimidate but empower.” Internationally renowned couture fashion designer Arzu Kaprol has long looked to architecture to find inspiration for her collections. She cites Hagia Sophia as a particularly formative place: “Its form, space and detailed ornaments capture the nature of Istanbul, the city that has truly shaped my sense of style.”
Rice pudding at Basta Street Food Bar
For a night out with pals, Kaprol opts for 5 Cocktails & More, a very pretty (and well-stocked) bar back in Beyoğlu. “I adore the friendly atmosphere,” she says, “and my favourite cocktail is the Pink Alexander.” Or you could end your day with a little more to eat, since food connects the people of Istanbul as forcefully as the Bosphorus does. Aylin Yazıcıoğlu is partial to Basta Street Food Bar in Kadiköy. “Kaan Sakarya was my partner at Nicole,” she says. “I would easily make the journey to Basta just for their famous pastries and rice pudding, even if I’m not hungry.”
But you will be. Istanbul works up an appetite.
Written By: Danielle Groen
Photos: Liz Seabrook (street scene); Luke Michael (trees and temples); Jovo Jovanovic/Stocksy (Feriköy Organic Market); Luke Michael (Ortaköy); Oleg Breslavtsev (lanterns); Luke Michael (Büyükada); Borislav Zhuykov (Turkish delight); Roy Johnson/Alamy (Hagia Sophia); Marzena Romanowska (Basta Street Food Bar)