A luxury weekend in Istanbul
I first went to Istanbul back in October 2014 for a dedicated 5 days of sightseeing, which I absolutely recommend due to its fabulously rich history and beautiful art (you can see my full itinerary here). But this post is about spending a more relaxed weekend in Istanbul with some sightseeing, shopping and relaxation.
Istanbul is a huge city (bigger than London by population within the city limits) and because of this it has a lot of different things to offer. I enjoyed splitting this trip between sightseeing and relaxing and I have some great tips on how to balance the two.
If you don’t much know about the history of the city I highly recommend reading up before you visit; everything is all the more impressive for the weight of history behind it. In just a small area in the centre of Sultanahmet stand Roman ruins, the huge Byzantine building of Hagia Sophia and a 17th century mosque.
How to get to Istanbul
From London a number of airlines operate routes to Istanbul, although the main two carriers are British Airways which flies from Heathrow to Ataturk and Turkish Airlines which flies from both Heathrow and Gatwick to Ataturk. Flight prices vary depending on the time of year but are often only £150 return in economy or £350 in business. Flights typically take around 3.5 to 4 hours depending on flight conditions.
We started our trip very early on Thursday morning with a 7am flight from Istanbul to give us time in Istanbul the other end. You could be in your hotel by 2pm with this flight option, although there is also a more sociable 10:20am BA flight or a 11:50am with Turkish Airlines from Gatwick- both of which will get you there in time for shish kebab for dinner. Our flight home was around 5:30pm, which gets you back to London at a reasonable time once you account for the time change.
From the airport you can get a taxi to the main tourist area of town for about £15 – 20. Uber also operates in Istanbul.
Traffic can be bad in Istanbul so it’s best not to travel by car at peak times. Another option from the airport is the metro, changing for the tram. This can be quite busy and tricky with bags but does give another option when travel by car is slow. For a map of the public transport system you can click here.
Istanbul is also a major stop on many Mediterranean cruise itineraries.
Where to stay in Istanbul
Istanbul has a number luxury hotel chains as well as many upscale boutiques. For quality boutique hotels, Mr and Mrs Smith is a great resource.
For a real luxury experience and a taste of a variety of areas of Istanbul, I recommend luxury hotel hopping to give you a chance to explore different areas the shops and restaurants in different parts of town.
Start in Istanbul’s ancient heart at the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, which is beautifully positioned next to the main tourist attractions of Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and the Basilica Cistern. The hotel is built in an old prison, slightly creepy but it does mean that it benefits from some large, vaulted rooms. We didn’t stay here during our trip, but the reviews- as you would expect- are excellent, and you’ll struggle to beat the location. Rooms start from about £300 a night with breakfast included.
For a more relaxed pace away from the hustle and bustle of the city, Four Seasons Bosphorous offers roomy accommodation, an outdoor pool with views across the Bosphorous and an indoor pool and spa. Rooms are also around £300 per night.
For a more modern stay, the St Regis in Nişantaşı is close to a variety of shops, cafes, restaurants and nightlife as well as being home to its own restaurants and bars. The spa also offers three private pools to choose from.
Where to shop in Istanbul
For the ultimate souvenir you should pick up some baklava from Faruk Güllüoğlu, the best in Istanbul. We came back with so much it nearly put our suitcase over the weight limit.
The whole area of Nişantaşı is great for shopping with Chanel, Cartier and Hermes all having stores within short walking distance of each other. You can also browse through Beymen, one of Istanbul’s department stores. When you’re tired of shopping, the bistro downstairs is a good bet for lunch, especially if you’ve had enough kebab. The beef carpaccio and the ice cream profiteroles are especially good.
Back in Sultanahmet the Grand Bazaar is a busy and exhausting experience, but one well worth trying out. On previous visits I’ve picked up some very fine silk and wool scarves there. There’s an almost overwhelming choice, but the shopkeepers will sit you down with a Turkish tea and keep bringing out samples until you find something you like.
What to see in Istanbul
Some of history’s most amazing buildings are in Istanbul so it’s a sightseeing dream. Many major sites are concentrated in a fairly small area in Sultanahmet, so you can fill a day with sightseeing and not feel you’re missing too much if you then spend the rest of your weekend relaxing or shopping.
If you do nothing else, these are my top picks for Sultanahmet:
Start your morning here. Queues build quickly so arrive when it opens at 9am (easy if you’re in the Four Seasons next door!) and spend an hour or two wandering around the cavernous interior. A single admission ticket is 40 Lira. If you’re planning on spending several days on sightseeing then you can get the five day ticket for 85 Lira, but it only allows you one visit at each site and cannot be used for the Basilica Cistern.
I’ve easily spent 2 hours here every time I’ve been in Hagia Sophia because it is so completely breath-taking. Only a handful of sights on my travels have left me awestruck and this is one of them. The sheer scale is amazing, especially considering the building dates from the 6th century, built by the emperor Justinian, replacing earlier churches built by Constantius II and Theodosius II. It stood as the largest cathedral in the world for 1,000 years, although the dome did have to be reconstructed fairly early in its life.
The remaining mosaics from various periods in the building’s history are small and easily missed but are beautiful examples of byzantine art spanning the period from the building’s birth to its last years as a Christian church until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman’s in 1453 and it was converted to a mosque. It’s interesting to see the impression its Byzantine style had on Ottoman builders constructing the Blue Mosque which faces it.
A number (apparently around 200!) of ancient cisterns are hidden underneath modern-day Istanbul and this is the largest. A Roman construction dating from the 6th century, it reused architectural elements from pagan buildings, likely from across the empire, to make a vaulted underground chasm of 9m high Doric and Corinthian columns.
It’s beautifully atmospheric inside, damp and dripping with low light illuminating the columns and slightly eerie music playing. A number of fish live in the shallow remaining waters around the column bases. Of interest are the two nicely carved medusa heads used as column bases towards the rear of the cistern from the entrance.
The Museum of Great Palace Mosaics stands on the edge of the Hippodrome where the emperors’ Great Palace stood. The mosaics are more in keeping with what most people expect from Roman mosaics, namely not Christian and full of images of food, animals and every day life. Laid around the 4th and 5th centuries they are brightly coloured and wonderfully ornate. Together with the Hippodrome they help visitors to Istanbul start to piece together how the Roman city might have looked and felt.
Kariye Museum / Chora Church
Best reached by taxi, which will take around 25 minutes from Sultanahmet, the Chora Church is an 11th century reconstruction of an earlier 4th century church with interiors dating largely from the 14th century.
While impressive byzantine structures are common in Istanbul, this building is rare due to its almost totally intact interior decorative scheme. The exonarthex is covered with scenes from the life of Christ and is resplendent in golds and blues. Although fairly small, you can easily spent over an hour here as the decoration is so detailed and ornate. Outside there’s a restaurant where you can stop for a Turkish tea before heading back to Sultanahmet.
Where to eat in Istanbul
I am a sucker for a great view, especially when accompanied by sunset. There are a view choices in Istanbul if you’re looking for outdoor dining with a view. We ate one night at the St Regis, which has a beautiful rooftop restaurant with a modern European menu and excellent wine list. It’s set back somewhat from the Bosphorous so it’s not the must stunning view, but it’s still nice to sit outside and watch the sunset.
Develi Kebap is a large, upscale kebab restaurant right in the heart of Nişantaşı. It makes a great lunch option due to the outside terrace which opens onto one of Nişantaşı’s main shopping streets.
Istanbul 3 day itinerary
Day 1 – arrival
Spend the first day relaxing in the hotel spa and walking around the Sultanahmet area in the evening to see Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque lit up. If you have the energy for some shopping after your journey, you could spend the afternoon exploring the Grand Bazaar. For dinner take a taxi to Nicole restaurant on the other side of the Golden Horn for contemporary Mediterranean food with views across Istanbul from the terrace.
Day 2 – sightseeing in Sultanahmet
Head to Hagia Sophia at 9am when it opens to beat the queue and crowds. Spend time admiring the vast space but also the fine details of the highly decorated column capitals and glowing mosaics
Visit the Basilica Cistern and marvel at the beautiful proportions of a building which was only meant to hold water
Walk through the Roman Hippodrome to see the remaining monuments, including a couple of Egyptians obelisks. It was from here that the bronze horses of St Mark’s were looted in the 13th century and moved to the façade of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
Head to the Museum of Great Palace Mosaics which houses mosaics uncovered under the great palace of the emperors dating from the 4th and 5th centuries. They depict bright and vivid scenes of everyday life including hunting scenes.
Head back to the hotel to get lunch in the hotel’s courtyard. After lunch take a taxi to the Kariye Museum to see the Chora Church and it’s busy decorative theme of mosaics and frescoes.
Take a taxi back to the hotel to pick up your bags and move on up the Bosphorous to the Four Seasons Bosphorous. Catch what you can of the sun by the beautiful outdoor pool then grab a pre dinner drink while watching the sunset over the Bosphorous. Stay in the hotel for dinner at one of the restaurants or the kebab stand in the grounds.
Day 3 – relaxation time
Today is all about chilling and eating by the pool and watching the world go by on the Bosphorous.
Start with breakfast outside- see how much of the buffet you can sample and make sure you sample some local Turkish specialities like Çilbiri (poached eggs in yoghurt) – some of which you will need to order from the waiters.
Grab a club sandwich in the hotel for lunch and a smoothie or two by the pool.
If you feel in the need of even more relaxation then head to the spa area and indoor pool where there’s a steam room, sauna and hot tub. There’s also a fitness room and salon if you fancy a work out or pamper. The spa offers a number of treatments including a traditional private hamam. Prices are around £100 – 200 depending on the length and type of treatment.
Once you’ve had your fill it’s only a short taxi ride to the St Regis in Nişantaşı. Continue your relaxing day with a trip to the spa downstairs where you can use one of three private pools where you can chill totally uninterrupted by other guests.
Finish the day with dinner in Spago restaurant on the roof of the hotel with beautiful sunset views across the city towards the Bosphorous. The Maine Lobster and king crab cocktail makes a tasty starter and the mac and cheese is an inelegant if delicious accompaniment to your main. It’s worth spending some time (and money) on the wine list, which has a great selection.
Day 4 – shopping in Nişantaşı
Wander the Nişantaşı area, spend some time in Beymen, the department store then take lunch in their brasserie. After lunch it will soon be time to head to the airport for your flight home.