Editor’s note: On February 6, 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southeastern Türkiye and northwestern Syria, killing more than 50,000 people at time of writing. Many organizations are on the ground helping out in the aftermath and are accepting donations. Here’s some information on traveling to the country and how you can help. Per our sources in Türkiye, most of the rest of the country was not affected by the earthquake, and tourism remains an important industry for the entire nation’s economy. AFAR has resumed publishing stories that celebrate Türkiye as a whole.
Ever since my first visit to Istanbul decades ago, I’ve been smitten with its magical skyline of domes and minarets, the romance of its ferries gliding the Bosporus. In 2007 I bought an apartment there, and over the years I’ve seen so much change and gentrification that every time I return from New York, I pray that my favorite old-school teahouse or meyhane tavern has been spared the developers’ sledgehammers. But Istanbul (ex Constantinople ex Byzantium), former capital of three empires, is renowned for reinventing itself. And, as it happens, the latest stage of urban regeneration—the final completion of projects ongoing for years—has coincided with the end of pandemic restrictions and a vigorous tourism reboot.
Topping the list of Istanbul’s new mega-attractions: the launch of long-awaited Galataport. Completely transforming a disused dock warehouse area along the lower European shore of the Bosporus, it boasts the world’s first underground cruise ship terminal (designed by trendy local firm Autoban), and a mixed-use development stretching north from the mouth of the Golden Horn for almost a mile. Its much-hyped statistics include 52,000 square miles of 240 glitzy retail, dining, and cultural venues; 1.5 million annual cruise ship visitors forecast (gulp!)—and a price tag of $1.7 billion. What’s priceless? The new wide waterfront promenade revealing heart-stopping vistas across to the Asian shore and the Historic Peninsula of Topkapi Palace and Hagia Sophia that have been obscured by ugly dock structures for some 200 years. This, and a new plaza behind the Renzo Piano–designed Istanbul Modern Museum showcasing a graceful freshly restored 1848 Ottoman clocktower, and the ornate neo-baroque Nusretyie Mosque.
On my latest trip to Istanbul in fall 2022, I took a break from nostalgic old bookshops and historic bazaars. My aim: to bring you the latest in where to stay, eat, drink, and play in Istanbul, a kinetic megalopolis that culturally and geographically straddles Europe and Asia.
Restaurants to plan a trip around
The unstoppably creative chef Fatih Tutak spent most of his professional life in the top kitchens of Japan, China, and Singapore; had staged at Noma in Copenhagen; and owned an acclaimed Turkish restaurant in Bangkok. In late 2019, he finally realized his dream of opening Turk in his homeland—only to see the pandemic suck the life out of the city. But Tutak persisted, continuing to support his unique producers and artisans. His reward? Two bright stars in the recent inaugural edition of Michelin Guide Istanbul. Now you must book way ahead for a table at his warm blond-wood space, which sets the scene for Tutak’s theatrical postmodern forays into ancient Turkish traditions. The micro-seasonal 10-course tasting menu might start with clever trompe l’oeil stuffed mussels, their edible “shells” wrought from caramelized onions and squid ink. It might progress to mackerel smoked over cherrywood shavings and manti dumplings on a bed of smoked yogurt highlighted with umami-rich garum. At the end, guests are ushered backstage into the kitchen for a petit-four performance, concluding, perhaps, with liquid nitrogenated fragrant vapors of satsuma orange.
Among Galataport’s glut of touristy restaurants, Sait (reached by a discreet elevator) is the place locals hope to keep for themselves. Celebratory groups pack this smart modern balikci (fish restaurant), clinking glasses at tables covered with meze. Order the buttery slices of lakerda (cured bonito), zucchini flower dolma with a sweetly spiced rice filling, and a warm appetizer of sizzled baby squid served with garlicky crispy potatoes. Then pick your fish from the iced display, especially if it’s the season for lufer, the prized Black Sea baby bonito. When the friendly waiter recommends a dessert of plump roasted figs with kaymak (clotted cream), trust him.
Only a floor below, at the northern edge of Galatport with the same postcard vistas, Roka is also buzzing with chic Istanbullus. Though the trendy Japanese-inspired global robata-ya concept is imported from London, this local branch marks a triumphant home-coming for gifted local chef Suna Hakyemez, after her years in Britain that included a stint at Heston Blumenthal’s three-star Fat Duck in Bray. Among her signature dishes are bone marrow teriyaki accompanied by glazed pillowy buns and a wicked miso creme brûlée served with caramelized quince and nutty pistachio ice cream. Dig your spoon in as the setting sun casts its magenta glow over the water.
More sexy Asian imports? Local sushi addicts rejoiced when Nobu Istanbul opened last year, especially when co-owner Robert de Niro swooped in on his private jet to film part of a documentary here. What sets the Istanbul location apart from the usual Nobu pack is the chance to savor its tatakis, tiraditos, and maki rolls in a breathtaking setting perched on a hill looking over the sweep of the Bosporus and its night-lit bridges spanning two continents. Turkish vintages on the wine list and a crunchy baklava “cigar” with pistachio cream are cool glocal touches.
And for something totally Turkish? Join the young locals patiently waiting outside for a table at Papatya Dürüm, a wildly popular street food place opened in 2022 on a backstreet of the trendy Bosporus enclave of Arnavutkoy. The modest spot enlivened with a few flea market finds specializes in durum (wraps) that involve pliant flatbreads smeared with salca (spicy-fruity red pepper paste), tightly folded around juicy minced lamb kebab or chicken marinated in za’atar and hot peppers—then blistered on the gril. This style of durum—as well as the restaurant’s owner, Melina Abdo—hail from Turkey’s Hatay (Antakya) province that’s been almost completely destroyed by the earthquake. So each bite feels especially poignant these days.
New places to find a drink
In this city of glamorous rooftop bars, the hottest cocktail sensation is Fahri Konsolos, a den of wildly creative mixology on the Asian shore in the happening district of Moda. Presiding over the gleaming copper shakers of this pocket-sized bar? Burak Ayaz, a young former artist whose Orientalist potions feature local pomegranates, saffron, spices, and roses. A drink called Duthane blends raki, mastic, and white mulberry while Çīdem reworks a Manhattan with whiskey, sour cherry, and orange flower.
In a Beyoglu district building that once housed the U.S. consulate, Cok Cok Pera is the top new Thai spot in town. Clued-in drinkers also love its moody-dark Ernest’s bar, named after Hemingway who might have penned his 1922s Istanbul foreign reportage from this very building. Award-winning mixologist Fatih Akerdem updates a Negroni with plum and black mulberry and devises a drink called Tom Yam that has teriyaki and chile vodka among its ingredients. And yes, Papa’s favorite grapefruit Daiquiri is on the menu. As for beer, even local hipsters who usually shun Galataport’s crowds patiently wait for a panoramic upstairs terrace table at the Populist. This new branch of a beloved local microbrewery offers the same cool vibes, weekend live music, and artisanal beers as its original in the Bomonti neighborhood. Try the six-beer sampler, which includes my favorite creamy red ale and the rich dark nitro stout. And grab the pide (flatbread) with a topping of kokoreç, which is, um (and yum), roasted offal.
Cultural additions to the city
Done with your mosque-a-minute tour of Istanbul’s classic attractions? Now check out the bold new architectural projects that are revitalizing the cultural life of the city. On the massive Taksim Square, the long-defunct and demolished Ataturk Cultural Center was brought back to life in a new building designed by the son of its original architect. Behind the neo-modernist glass and metal facade, the warm oak wood interiors include a cinema, library, art galleries—and an opera house inside a dramatic tiled dome the color of pomegranate.
For a dose of visuals, visit Arter, a contemporary art center with edgy exhibitions and permanent works by the likes of Joseph Beuys (the iconic German conceptual and performance artist) and the British Palestinean multi-media artist Mona Hatoum. Designed by London-based Grimshaw Architects, its new home is a swish cube sheathed in pearlescent ceramics, quite an apparition in the still-ramshackle Dolapdere district of Beyoglu. Over at Galataport, everyone is still waiting for the long-promised reopening of Istanbul Modern museum in the striking premises of Renzo Piano’s design, supposedly slated for spring. Luckily, you can already visit the Istanbul Painting and Sculpture Museum, which displays fetching late-Ottoman and 20th-century art in yet another architectural showstopper repurposed by the award-winning Turkish architect Emre Arolat, from a 1950s industrial warehouse. It glows red at night.
Read and watch before you go
Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul. Charles King’s endlessly fascinating cultural history of interwar Istanbul inspired a popular Netflix series. The Pera Palace Hotel, its grand setting, is still one of the most atmospheric spots in the city.
Turkish Airlines has been consistently ranked by Skytrax as one of the world’s top 10 airlines. Its economy class provides a two-piece free luggage allowance, meals that taste like actual food, toys for traveling tots, and amenity kits in cute Mandarina Duck vinyl bags. Business-class travelers get fashion cosmetic bags from Coccinelle or Hackett, lie-flat sleepers, and meze and entrées.
Over the past couple of years, the country’s national carrier expanded its U.S. getaways with Newark and Dallas, and in 2022 four weekly direct flights were added from Seattle–Tacoma. This year, in time for its 90th anniversary—and the centennial of the Turkish Republic—the airline will offer passengers with lengthy transfer times in its Istanbul hub two complimentary nights at a four-star hotel for economy class and three nights at a five-star hotel for business-class passengers through its Istanbul Stopover Program.
If a passenger’s route doesn’t provide a natural long layover option, they can create one themselves to take the advantage of the Stopover service free hotel offering. Traveling from the United States via Istanbul to, say, Tel Aviv or Dubai? Just select the multi-city option on the Turkish Airlines website, and adjust your flights according to how many days you want to spend in Istanbul. For those with shorter Istanbul layovers (but at least six hours), the airline offers a complimentary Touristanbul program, which includes a tour of the city’s historic attractions and a car to take you from and back to the airport.