1. What’s the best time of year to visit?
Istanbul and its coasts to the West are popular year-round destinations. Choosing when to visit depends largely on seasonal conditions; winters can be quite frigid, while summers tend to be smolderingly hot. And when you add humidity to the mix, those extremes can get quite uncomfortable. I think the Spring months of March and April, as well as October, are ideal to visit Turkey; the temps are moderate, the coastal haunts still swimmable, airfare and hotel room rates more affordable, and the lines in front of favorite destinations have trickled to almost none.
2. Where can visitors go to learn more about Istanbul’s intricate history?
Since Istanbul enjoys one of the most protracted and contested histories of any world cities, picking a single resource from which to learn its entire past is difficult. And since new facts about Istanbul’s legacy are being unveiled as I write this, I think it’s best to just pick a light, easy-to-carry tome like Istanbul: The Imperial City, written by John Freely — the penultimate Istanbul aficionado. Online, accomplished tour guide Burak Sansal’s exhaustive Website, All About Turkey, is the definitive destination to not only find out about Istanbul’s past, but also Turkey’s.
3. What do you consider the top three places to stay on a budget?
In Sultanahmet, Hotel Empress Zoe, a fully renovated mid-15th-century bathhouse boasting loads of historical charm with its ancient walls and barrel Byzantine vaulted passages, offers unique B&B accommodations chockfull of intricate frescoes, traditional Anatolian furnishings, and even some with hammam-like marbled bathrooms. You’ll get that historic experience for about €120 euros for a double per night (no-frill, economic lodgings start at a very competitive €55 per night with breakfast). For even cheaper digs, the Orient Hostel offers cleanliness, hip-ness and all-out fun for its clientele, which mostly comprises of backpackers and 20-somethings. Its rooftop offers panoramic views galore and an ambience among the crowds of foreigners just dying to make friends over tea and a hookah pipe or a game of backgammon is contagious. And at around €15 per person per night for communal lodgings and private doubles starting at around €40, the rates just can’t be beat. Beyoğlu, on the other hand, features a row of pricier boutique options. Among them, Eklektik Galata combines affordability and charm. Its eight, individually-themed rooms reflect its inspiration with antique-meets-modern amenities.
4. If money wasn’t an option, where would you rest your head?
In Istanbul, Hôtel Les Ottomans is my personal winner. Its waterside, historical property was lovingly restored about a decade ago by one of the city’s glitzy socialites into a 10-suite, uber-posh destination. Its award-winning spa and wellness facilities, super customized touches like in-room laptop and predetermined pillow selection, as well as its namesake restaurant worthy of Michelin stars are some of the reasons why Hollywood megastars (Kevin Costner and Paris Hilton to name-drop just two!) come back when in town.
5. Istanbul has many historic seafood restaurants. Which one is your favorite?
Asking the self-professed avid gastronome that I am to boil down the city’s fish eateries to just one is rather unfair since there is about a handful of contenders for my best-of. However, Balıkcı Sabahattin remains way up there on my list for its superior array of delectable mezes (small appetizer platters) originating from Turkey’s four corners and perfectly prepared fish. It’s recently moved to a location right in the heart of Sultanahmet, a step away from Istanbul’s historical landmarks. It’s very touristy, but well worth a couple of hours’ time after a busy day of sightseeing.
6. Besides Turkish delight, are there any other confectionaries or delicacies you’d recommend trying?
Definitely! Baklava—the sweet, syrupy, diamond-shaped pastry made of flaky layers that encase finely chopped nuts—is a must. Hint: the dry kind—or Kuru Baklava—travels well and makes for an ideal gift for relatives or yourself that’ll last for a week. Turkish marzipan has never reaped the attention it deserves; it’s excellent and also packs great. Also great are the myriad of strictly Turkish fresh herbs and spices (tangy red pepper flakes, and heady oregano); cheeses (the semi-hard kashar is a great choice that can be vacuumed packed for travel); nuts (pistachios and pine nuts are must’s); dried fruits of all kinds (my top picks are cranberry and, of course, the delectable Turkish apricot). Lest we forget, Turkey’s a major producer of olive oil and olive-related products, such as olive pastes and soaps. Turkish olive oil, particularly those pressed out of olives grown around the Northern Aegean region, possess one of the lowest acidity levels.
7. Name three architectural marvels every visitor should see.
Hagia Sophia. It’s colossal, with its main dome seemingly floating at 55 meters above ground. Its gilded mosaics are spectacular in their detail; so is the juxtaposition of Muslim scripts and early Christian art all in one place. The second is Topkapı Palace; once the largest of its kind in Europe. The labyrinthine harem is just as impressive for its mammoth size as it is for its sumptuous decor. The armory, jewel and china collections of the Ottomans as can be seen today are almost overwhelming in their breadth as they are in complexity. For my third choice I’ll ditch the Grand Bazaar to opt for the Basilica Cistern. This massive, underground water tank is one of my favorite places in the entire city. Measuring almost 10,000 square meters, the ultra serene reservoir lies beneath the chaotic streets of Sultanahmet. It dates back to the 6th-century, so it was designed in true Byzantine style: 336 marble Ionic and Doric supporting pillars jut some 10 meters high to meet the vaulted ceilings. It’s amazing!
8. What do you love most about Istanbul?
Istanbul’s incomparable history and beauty titillates me. It’s what I consider the ultimate example of a melting pot, where cultures and religions live side by side with hardly a ruffle! Being a tri-national myself that’s perhaps why I feel so at home here. Daily life here never ceases to amaze me; it’s just taken as it comes, with a grain of salt and a barrel of laughs. That levity is infectious! Istanbulites—Turks in general—are the warmest, most vivacious and hospitable individuals I’ve ever come across. So much so that I’ve been married to one for almost 20 years. Now that’s putting your money where your mouth is!