The fabled capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires is a glittering, glorious muddle of influences and impulses
Author Jacqueline Detwiler Photography Jan McGready
DAY ONE There may well be more historical sites in Istanbul than there are grocery stores, so it’s in your interest to exit your lustrous gold-tinted room at The Istanbul Edition to see them, even if your 9-foot-high rain shower is doing its best to convince you otherwise. Reluctantly, you shut the thing off and get dressed, grabbing a handful of fat-bottomed figs from the bowl on your coffee table for sustenance. You wend your way downstairs, past the subdued shimmer of the bachelor pad-style Gold Bar (complete with prodigious fish tank) to ask a concierge for a map.
Your plan is to see the Hagia Sophia, the golden-domed Byzantine church that was the center of the Orthodox Christian world until it became a mosque in 1453 (and then a museum in 1934). First, though, you must contend with the subway, where you approach a ticket machine and tap the British-flag icon—a technique that has proved effective on multiple continents. Here, however, a malfunction leads the machine to start shrieking at you in Turkish. You adopt a suitably sheepish expression as a smiling attendant appears and helps you buy a token.
You reach the Hagia Sophia and gawp beneath its riot of mosaics—masterfully detailed down to the blush in Mary’s cheeks—then walk next door to Topkapi Palace, sliding into line to see the Ottoman sultans’ treasury. Inside, you are dazzled and a little disoriented by an array of precious stones—emeralds the size of limes—adorning everything from scimitars to chalices. Finally it’s on to the pavilions, where the sultans imprisoned various irksome family members (albeit in luxurious cells).
Your attention has just migrated from the jewels to your stomach when you turn a leafy corner and run smack into Matbah, a lavish, garden-style restaurant where the chefs have painstakingly replicated centuries-old recipes. The creamy bitter-almond soup and the honeydew melon stuffed with minced beef, rice, almonds and raisins are sweet and salty without too much heft. Ah, it is good to be sultan.
With daylight fading, Istanbul’s legendary Spice Bazaar beckons, so you wander spiceward, toward the banks of Golden Horn, and enter a hall filled with multicolored dunes of saffron, cloves, tea, nuts, dried fruits and lokum (a.k.a. Turkish delight). Sweet scents draw you ever deeper into a scribble of alleyways clogged with chattering vendors and their equally garrulous clientele. You settle on a bag of sumac, a sour and locally popular spice, which the store helpfully vacuum-packs for your trip home.
After your earlier row with the subway token machine, you figure you’d better take a taxi to the waterfront neighborhood of Emirgan, where you’ll be dining tonight. The driver deposits you in an otherworldly garden of jasmine vines and fruit trees, which you navigate with some confusion until you reach the Sakip Sabanci Museum. Inside is MüzedeChanga, a sleek terrace restaurant that overlooks the Bosporus and produces Asian-inspired riffs on Turkish food. Here you consume, in short order: grilled halloumi cheese wrapped in grape leaves and topped with sweet chili sauce, spicy sausage in an arugula salad with pomegranate vinaigrette, slow-cooked lamb served with sour cream, and painfully delicious mushroom dumplings in tea leaf-infused yogurt. Finally, to the amusement of your waiter, you hold up your hands in a gesture of defeat and return to your hotel. You have a 9-foot rain shower to attend to.