It always amazes me how newbies to Istanbul are blown away by the hipness of this city. Newsweek has called Istanbul one of the coolest cities in the world. So, what exactly makes Istanbul so hip? The mosques, Ottoman palaces and colossal cathedrals of centuries past top any itinerary, of course, but once conquered the city just brims to reveal the tantalizing secrets why it’s been slugged as one of the coolest metropolises in the world. Here are the top five reasons why I wholeheartedly agree.
Look past yestermillenium‘s skyline and you’ll find a mismatch of historical buildings on either flanks of the city. The turn-of-the-century consulates in the Pera (Beyoğlu) district, for instance, scream subdued European opulence, with ornate marble-clad façades. While a hop across the Bosphorus to the city’s Asian quarters reveals rows of traditional Anatolian houses with their second-story bays hanging over narrow streets. And there are also the newer, adjacent business centers of Levent and Maslak, whose skyscraping steel and glass towers give Manhattan a run for its money.
The onslaught of Western-trained Turkish chefs has transformed Istanbul into a culinary capital that’ll make you want to ditch the kebabs altogether. Don’t get me wrong, tender chunks of meat—slathered in tomato sauce or melted butter—are still great and should be savored in all of its incantations. But any cuisine—be it Asian or Continental—fused with Anatolian is now gaining the attention of master chefs worldwide. And there’s also the myriad of finned creatures indigenous to Turkey’s shores that whether grilled or fried create indelible impressions. The saliva-inducing sumptuousness of mezes—tiny platters of feta, cantaloupe, brined fish, veggies seared in olive oil to name a few—are great in their simplicity and super freshness of ingredients.
In a land so hailed for its pious history, it may come as a surprise that Istanbul enjoys such a dynamic nightlife. The über-posh nightclubs lining the Bosphorus, like Reina, continue to rate among Europe’s finest late night party havens for continental jet-and mega yacht-setters. But come 10 p.m. Asmalımescit is where the action is, as partygoers stroll past the sidewalk terraces of traditional meyhanes like Refik, drink in hand, schmoozing with hundreds of kindred spirits. Beyoğlu’s also privy to swanky roof bars, where the melontinis are just as unbelievable as the wraparound view of Istanbul’s waterways and its antiquities; the whole dramatically up-lit for effect.
Much like the Italians, Turks are warm and super hospitable. Turkish hospitality, as a matter of fact, is ranked as one of the best throughout the very congenial Mediterranean region. They may take a while to warm up to strangers, but once you’re in don’t be surprised if they invite you to tea to meet the entire family. And Istanbul’s—in fact Turkey as a whole—vibe is ironically very youthful and quite infectious.
The waterway of legends, these straits even featured in Greek mythology. And a cruise aboard a nostalgic steamboat is the perfect way to experience these waters which delineate the continental boundary between Europe and Asia. Sit, drink tea and nosh on sesame seed encrusted tea rings while ogling at the façades of the sweeping Ottoman palaces that line the Bosphorus shores.