By Karen Loftus
As we crossed over the Bosphorus, the strait in Turkey that separates Europe and Asia, we caught the golden sun reflecting on the water. The bridge that we were on looked like The Golden Gate Bridge. Yet, my nearly 14-hour flight on Turkish Air from LA to Istanbul was proof enough that we were a long way from LA, let alone San Francisco.
The many mosques that dotted the busy hills on either side of the Bosphorus were another sign that we had clearly arrived in Istanbul and not Northern California.
In search of the famous Blue Mosque, I pointed to a prominent mosque on the hill, asking our guide Atakan, “What mosque is that?” “There are 3,000 mosques in Istanbul. I can’t name them all.” The Turks are very direct and unapologetic.
As we got to town, we drove up the very busy Istiklal Street. Atakan said, “This is the busiest shopping street in Istanbul. No cars are allowed here.” I was confused as we drove through throngs of pedestrians, until he added, “We’re special. Your hotel is here.”
The Hotel Richmond Istanbul is the only hotel on Istiklal Street. Taking in the twinkling expanse of the city at night, which is over 2,000 square miles, from the terrace of the hotel’s Leb-I-Derya Restaurant certainly made us feel special. It was a warm Turkish welcome, complemented by local wines, marinated salmon with horseradish foam, goat cheese brulee and walnut flavored eggplant.
We started our local tour in the morning in the new section of the city, which is where our hotel was. It was a more contemporary, less touristy and gentler dip in to Istanbul.
There are several bohemian enclaves throughout, areas of the city that were once too dangerous to visit. Similar to the gentrification that has taken place in many American cities, they are largely inhabited by artists today. In the Sepa neighborhood the streets are filled with bright graffiti art. Galata and Cukurcuma streets in particular, are teeming with galleries, cafes, vintage shops, chic boutiques and hip, local restaurants and bars.
The area boasts a bit of culture and history as well. The Mevlevi Museum’s name is in honor of the 13th century sufi mystic and poet Rumi, called Mevlana (Our Leader) by his disciples. Dervish history, artifacts, clothing and accessories fill the museum. The semahane (whirling dervish hall) was erected in 1491 and is home to rare dervish ceremonies today.
The Galata Tower is a great way to take in the city, the bridges and the many mosques. The more intimate Museum of Innocence, named after the novel by the Turkish Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, is a fascinating reflection of his novel, the local culture, class and recent gender politics.
Lunch on the Bosphorus in the well-heeled Beyoglu section of the city, at Istanbul’s Modern Museum of Art, properly whet our appetites for the private yacht ride that followed. It was the single best way to take in the city, as we jetted along the Boshporus on both the Asia and the European side of the city. It can be confusing, but both sides are Turkey, yet each belongs to a different continent. No passport is necessary to go between the two.
On the European side we passed the posh waterfront Four Seasons and Kempinski hotels. We managed to capture the circle of life with a funeral and a wedding taking place, side by side. We also saw the Rumeli Fortress and castle, which dates back to 1452 with it’s Ottoman architecture. The 19th century Summer Palace or the Beylerbeyi Palace, a part of the second Ottoman empire, is on the Asian side. Both sides are filled with waterfront mansions with retail tags ranging between 20 to 65 million USD.
Dinner that night at The Poseidon Restaurant on the Bosphorus was an easy and sexy extension of our day, as yachts dropped off and picked up jetsetters right from their waterfront tables.
The following day in the historic district of the city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, was a full one. The history of Constantinople as it was once called, was starting to sink in.
Istanbul has always been an important city, as it was strategically positioned on the Silk Road. The Bosphorus, which separates the Sea of Marmara (The Mediterranean) and the Black Sea, was and is one of the world’s busiest waterways. With all of this importance, Turkey has seen it’s share of empires from the Roman to the Byzantine and Latin Empire, when Christianity was on the rise. Collectively they ruled between 330 - 1453 when the Ottoman Empire took over, transforming Turkey into an Islamic stronghold.
All of this together with a lot of biblical history is revealed in the old city tour of it’s key attractions; The iconic Blue Mosque with it’s blue tiles, The Hippodrome, The Topkapi Palace with the Ottoman Empire’s crown jewels, which blow the Brits baubles away and of course the Basilica of Hagia Sophia.
The Basilica was most interesting as the church was built by the Byzantines in 537, then taken over by the Ottomans in 1453 when it became a mosque. It is a museum today reflecting both cultures and religions with it’s many restored mosaics. There is no other place in the world quite like it.
We finished with visits to The Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market, which was great for people watching, as it was more locals than tourists. We had a traditional Turkish and Ottoman Empire inspired lunch at Nars Restaurant in town. Then we may have had the sexiest dinner to date at Suada. Suada is a private club on a private island between two continents; Asia and Europe. The only way to arrive is by boat, many of which are private yachts. It was a more sophisticated slice of Ibiza and the perfect place to take in your last tipple in Istanbul.
After our busy urban adventure, we did what many jetsetting local Turks do. We went to Lake Sapanca to finish our visit. Sapanca has been compared to Italy’s Lake Cuomo and is often called The Hamptons of Turkey. Regardless of the comparisons, it is an idyllic spot.
We checked in to Richmond Nua Wellness Spa, Turkey’s only destination spa and Spafinder’s Readers Choice Award in 2013. Richmond Nua’s own Belgin Aksoy has created a complete oasis with a spa that goes above and beyond steam, sauna and plunge pools.
Aside from stunning aesthetics, that are Architectural Digest worthy, there’s an herbal, osman, and salt inhalation steam bath and a gorgeous loft sauna that is by far the hottest place I have ever been. There are cold aqua caves, ice grottos and salt pools to plunge into and a series of relaxation rooms, if looking to dip deeper into your decompression.
Morning yoga, hikes, private trainers and the Austrian Hypoxi program, where you can lose a full size in four days, are but a few of the ways to dive in to health at Nua. If movement isn’t your thing, a hammam or an endless list of spa treatments with Kirsten Florien products are available. Laying by the pool and eating their Beautifood spa menu is another easy, breezy step towards wellness.
Global Wellness Day, which was spearheaded by Belgin herself, was celebrated at Richmond Nua while we were there. Naturally, we capped the day’s success off with a bottle of bubbles toasting to good health, gratitude and a promise to come back.
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