Before Covid-19 halted our world, we all had plans – holidays, special occasions, parties, seeing friends and family or even career moves. It’s crazy to think that the last 6 months have been so disrupted that we’ve been forced to live life day by day, not quite comprehending what the next week will bring. For me, as a ‘forward-planner’, this has been challenging at times and never did I ever think I’d be lucky enough to have an Istanbul city break in September
For the first 6 months of this year I didn’t take any holiday because my ‘actual’ holidays were cancelled and I didn’t feel like taking time off whilst cooped up inside the house. Although I now know how much of a mistake that was and realise the importance of taking a break for my mental and physical wellbeing. G and I had booked off a week in September regardless and by the time I’d done 6 months of no proper time time off, this was getting me through the days.
We weren’t sure whether we’d go abroad (it was all looking very unlikely with the expanding list of countries on the ‘quarantine’ list which we were checking daily). We’d also done a couple of UK weekends earlier in the year – camping in Norfolk in July and staying at G’s family home in Suffolk in August. Therefore staying in the UK was definitely an option (and not a bad one either!)
It’s safe to say that an Istanbul city break was never on our list!
My boss went to Istanbul the first week of September and had the best time, ate the most amazing food and stayed at some beautiful hotels. That sounded pretty perfect to me…
G and I were then deciding between an Istanbul city break or Florence and started looking at flights and hotels about a week before we were due to depart. Nervous to book with the fear of losing money on flights and hotels if things were cancelled, we let the days go by. 36 hours before our flight to Istanbul was due to depart we decided that was the destination we wanted to go to. It was all very, very last minute.
We flew with Turkish airlines and flights were a really decent price (I think perhaps better than usual due to less demand). It was a total whirlwind and even as I was having coffee at Stansted airport at 10am I couldn’t quite believe in the midst of everything going on that we were actually about to go on holiday. There was a very real mixture of nerves and excitement and to be honest the worst bit was the airport. Once we were there it was fine and I felt very relaxed, albeit we were being careful/hand sanitising/wearing masks etc.
Some people questioned why we were bothering going abroad, and I too questioned whether it was a sensible idea. Yes, it would be safer to stay indoors in our 1-bedroom flat until 2021 and/or we get a vaccine, but there comes a point when you think you do need to get on with life even if that means taking a bit of a risk. Also going on the tube in London was riskier than us going to Istanbul at the time of us going, so in theory it was safer us going away! Anyway whether it was a good idea or not, we went and came back in one piece…
So, now I’ll get on with the good bits and I’m going to split our Istanbul city break into sections to make this an easier read and if you want to skip some bits…
Whether you’ve always wanted to go to Istanbul, or you’ve never contemplated it before – GO. It is amazing! Such a beautiful city filled with incredible culture and architecture, loads of things to do, stunning hotels and even better food. I didn’t know but it’s actually the largest city in Europe and is the only city to straddle two continents (Europe and Asia)! We went in mid-September and the weather was amazing – late twenties and definitely hot enough to sunbathe (and burn!) all day and walk around the city in shorts/t-shirt/summer dresses. The evenings get a little cooler, especially restaurants by the Bosporus so make sure you take a jacket or jumper to put on when the sun goes down.
Currency there is Turkish Lira and I found everything was generally really well priced inc. food and drinks (obviously at the really nice hotels the prices go up, but I was really surprised at how cheap everything was). 20 min taxi rides were £2-3, an evening meal, tapas-style including wine and dessert, was £40 for both of us (when in London it would have been double that!) and coffees were miles cheaper than their Pret equivalent.
We went for 5 days in total and this felt like the perfect time for an Istanbul city break. We split our stay across 2 hotels and I’d totally recommend doing this as it made our trip feel longer than it was and allowed us a really balanced holiday of ‘culture’ and ‘tourist’ stuff vs. relaxing and unwinding. Also the city is so big that we stayed in different ‘sections’, allowing us to explore what each part had to offer!
For our Istanbul city break, we stayed at 2 of the most beautiful hotels I’ve ever stayed in and as I mentioned above I’d actually recommend splitting your stay, so you can stay in different parts of this vast city. Taxis were really cheap and so moving around wasn’t an issue and we felt super safe hailing taxis when we needed. For a 20-minute journey across town it cost us the equivalent of £2-3!
Our first hotel was Soho House and although we’re not members you can stay at select number of their hotels around the world. Everything about this hotel was perfect, from the moment we arrived (late) on our first night and the concierge immediately booked us a local restaurant for dinner, to the boutique style rooms (and our free upgrade), to the incredible rooftop views from the member’s club next door. There was nothing ordinary about it…
The room itself was beautiful, showcasing some traditional Turkish design yet also feeling modern, cool and chic. The bed was huge and extremely comfortable, the bathroom was head to toe marble and the room was kitted out with a fully stocked bar (we aren’t talking a mini bar… a side board loaded with various full-size spirits!), coffee table books (a big win) and record player. The rest of the hotel was equally as beautiful with white garden sets hidden away in the bushes where you could eat breakfast, the rooftop was laid out with furniture allowing you to recline in the afternoon sun with an iced latte or sip an espresso martini to watch the sun go down, and the restaurant was my top food destination of the entire trip (more about that below).
Aside from dinner, the breakfast was scrumptious too and was offered in the peaceful gardens at the front of the hotel. Due to covid restrictions it was table service, but with the lack of other guests staying we were attentively waited upon every morning. Although usually I enjoy a ‘buffet’ style breakfast, one always eats far too much before 10am. I was glad that the offering at Soho House was paired back and you ordered from a menu that ranged from pancakes with berries, smashed avo on toast, eggs any style, morning smoothies and more. It was the perfect start to both of our mornings here.
If you were a guest of the hotel you could access the member’s club which was situated right next to the hotel itself. This building was the most grand building on the street, with regal steps leading up to the entrance and the wooden interior making it feel grand and exclusive. Nothing was ever too much and the hotel staff were attentive and helpful the whole time we were there – allowing us flexibility with our check out time, help answering our questions about the city (with our lack of research due to the last minute-ness of booking) and showing us around the hotel.
I’d go back here in a flash!
Our second hotel was also absolutely incredible, but a very different vibe. Instead of being in a central city location, we opted for a few days of pool time at the Four Seasons at the Bosphorus. Arriving just after lunch gave us time to be shown around the grand hotel, settle into our beautiful, spacious room and sunbathe before dinner. Our room had an equally comfortable bed as Soho House with lots of cushions and crisp, white bed linen, fresh fruit was waiting on our coffee table and our luxe bathroom was equipped with fluffy white gowns, rain shower and deep bath. It perhaps had less ‘character’ than the previous boutique hotel, but the Four Seasons was far larger and accommodated many more guests. The main selling point of this beautiful hotel was at the river front – large pool, sun loungers, bar, restaurant and water fountain. We spent most of our 3 days at this hotel in this area lounging by the pool, drinking cocktails and eating!
The Four Seasons has 4 restaurants (a couple of seasonal ‘pop up’ ones) and a drinks bar serving every cocktail imaginable – set against the backdrop of the Bosphorus and the famous ‘15 July Martyrs Bridge’, which connects Asia and Europe. It truly is a magical backdrop to watch the sun go down and the perfect spot for ‘people watching’ as guests hopped on and off their superyachts, couples proposed and the odd famous influencer or celeb walks on by!
This gorgeous hotel also has an amazing spa, which we unfortunately didn’t get a chance to enjoy due to maintenance work and covid restrictions. We did use the facilities on our last day before we left to change into our travel gear and so were able to see the incredible indoor swimming pool. Definitely make sure you visit here as I’m annoyed we left it to the last hour of our trip!
Everything about the Four Seasons was stunning, from the reception area on arrival, the hallways, the boutique shops and the garden features – I kept having to pinch myself to realise I was actually there! I’d definitely recommend going here if there’s availability, it’s a truly beautiful hotel. Be prepared for other guests to be dripping in designer gear from Prada beach bags, Chanel sandals, Dior sunglasses and more… (it made us feel extra boujie for being there!)
You can’t go to this city without some culture or tourism. We managed to tick off our list in a day and a half, which was perfect for an Istanbul city break, although there were some restrictions due to covid which meant we couldn’t do everything ‘properly’.
Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia – these beautiful buildings were under some construction when we were there, but it didn’t take away from how incredible they looked from the outside. Both the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia are incredible places, so grand and evoke powerful feelings. Due to the number of mosques in this beautiful and vast city, you will experience the call to prayer multiple times a day which is just mesmerising. You really feel like you’ve stepped into a special place!
Topkapi Palace – we were only going to pop in here to see the architecture, but ended up buying tickets to see the hidden treasures of the Ottoman Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries. There’s a LOT to see here and we could have spent far longer than our couple of hours walking around every corner, room and garden. What we saw was amazing – views of the city from walled gardens, intimate places of prayer, weapons, armour, relics and garments worn by the Ottoman sultans and meeting rooms where council met to discuss politics.
Grand Bazaar – possibly one of the most ‘bizarre’ places we visited whilst we were in Istanbul during the pandemic. We were wearing masks and were careful not to get too close to people/touch too much – but it was as if there wasn’t a pandemic at all (can’t imagine to think how busy it would be on a normal day!) The Grand Bazaar is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world, with 61 streets and over 4,000 shops. It’s previously been listed as the no. 1 most visited tourist attractions in the world – so it really is a must if you’re visiting the city. The stalls and shops sell everything from local goods such as rugs, pottery, lanterns and spices, to fake ‘everything’ (Louis Vuitton handbags, Dior sliders, Balenciaga trainers and more!) We couldn’t walk far before being invited into every single shop, offered Turkish delight or being given the ‘best’ deal. It was a lot of fun and I even managed to barter on a couple of items (much to G’s urge to pay and go after we were taken in a remote back room!!) Worth saying that we felt very safe the whole time, but you do need to be vigilant and not be fooled that everyone is just trying to get you to buy something. I’d definitely recommend going, but be prepared to get heckled throughout the whole experience and don’t be afraid to name your price if you want to buy something (they’ll 100% try and rip you off in the first instance!)
Boat Trip – we were fortunate enough to take a private boat trip down the Bosphorus and it was simply magical and something we’ll never forget. We opted for the Sunset Cruise and this 2-hour trip allowed us to see the city from a different perspective. Words can’t describe how beautiful, tranquil and special it was – hopefully the pictures can help show you…
You really can’t do an Istanbul city break without enjoying this beautiful city by water and there are many ways to do this including private yachts, sightseeing boats, ‘hop-on-hop-off’ tours, water taxis and ferries. Do some research beforehand and use trip advisor to see what is ‘legit’ or not. We used ‘Zoe Yacht Istanbul’ which had fantastic reviews, were able to pick us up from our hotel and catered to our needs the whole time.
FOOD & RESTAURANTS
I was most excited about the food when we booked this last-minute trip. Falafel, dips, salads and flat breads are my favourites in the UK, let alone in their country of origin! We were lucky to find some amazing restaurants and I’d definitely recommend the following 3…
Aheste – a small, local restaurant that was absolutely buzzing; our first impression of Istanbul having touched down only hours earlier. We shared a few plates of delicious dips, breads, salads and G had some meat. It was beautifully cooked, full of flavour and extremely well priced. We were sat in a back room with tall ceilings, stone walls/ceiling/floor and accompanied with ‘scene setting’ music that made it feel like we’d stepped into another world. Just beautiful. Some of the dishes we enjoyed included ‘Cretan mash with blueberries and Antep pistachios’, ‘Cracked wheat balls with lemon zest yoghurt’ and ‘milky cardamom fig dessert’!
Naavah at Soho House – my favourite restaurant of our entire trip was a summer pop-up in our first hotel. Their menu was inspired by the flavours of the Middle East and served up traditional Turkish food. We may have ordered slightly too many plates, but we enjoyed a lazy dinner with a cool bottle of ‘Whispering Angel’. Not only was the food incredible, but the setting was perfect too – al fresco rooftop dining, hanging fairy lights and an open-air grill. I wish I could go back! (I don’t have any photos because you aren’t allowed to take pics as to not disturb the other guests. Look it up on their website/google and trust me when I say go here if you’re staying at Soho House!)
Aqua at the Four Seasons – overlooking stunning views of the Bosphorus, for our final night we treated ourselves to a special dinner at Aqua. This was the hotel’s best restaurant and specialised in fresh fish and seafood dishes. We were given the best table in the house overlooking the river and it was the most perfect setting to end an incredible trip. A pale bottle of rosé, prawn spaghetti and burrata salad later it was the perfect ending to an incredible trip… oh and I can’t forget the baklava!
Have you done an Istanbul city break? Have you got any other recommendations for this beautiful city? Let me know by commenting below as I’m definitely planning on returning!