Big question about Aussies’ new No.1 hot spot
It's difficult to talk about Istanbul without mentioning the elephant in the room (hint: it begins with "t" and ends with "ism"). In 2015, the exotic city - known and appreciated around the globe for its arresting blend of ancient eastern aesthetics and modern western lifestyle - was riding high as one of the globe's most visited cities. When the first bombs went off later that year, the streets fell silent and visitor numbers plummeted as tour operators and cruise lines pulled out of the country.
Three years on, Istanbul's making a comeback of epic proportions; not only is the city back on tour itineraries, but operators are reporting significant growth in global bookings.
"We believe it could be one of the hottest destinations of 2019," says James Thornton, Intrepid Travel CEO.
"In September alone, we saw a 132 per cent increase in travellers compared with the previous year, and as people continue to be captivated, we're expecting Turkey's popularity to rise and rise as time goes on."
IS IT SAFE?
It's a fair question - particularly since smartraveller.gov.au still advises Australians to reconsider their need to travel to Istanbul.
It's worth noting, however, that Istanbul has actually had fewer incidents of terrorism than London or Paris, and security is tight in all good hotels and tourist attractions. Perspective is required.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Qatar Airways flies multiple times a day from Doha to Istanbul, with daily flights to Doha from Melbourne, Perth and Canberra, and twice-daily flights from Sydney.
Istanbul New Airport, a $17 billion juggernaut which opened in October 2018 to replace Ataturk Airport, is the best bet for those staying in the city's European district, while Sabiha Gokcen airport is better for those located on the Asian side.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT?
When it comes to your back pocket, there's no better time to visit than right now. Turkey's economic crisis has seen the Turkish lira plummet, allowing Australians to flash the cash without feeling the heat.
Of course, if you'd rather base your holiday decisions on climate, the shoulder season months of May to June and September to October are best, when the temperature hovers around a balmy mid- to high 20s. Outside of that, Istanbul's weather can be extreme, ranging from hotter than hell to arctic, so best avoid.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
It's hard to go past an opportunity to stay in a former Ottoman palace-turned luxury Kempinski property, and with its location right on the scenic Bosphorus, Ciragan Palace is tough to beat - particularly when features of the property include a handmade marble hammam (Turkish bath), and a celebrated Sunday brunch venue with a dedicated chocolate room.
If you'd prefer to steer clear of tourist-heavy places, the Asian side of the city sets the scene for a more authentic experience, serving up little pockets of quaint pastry shops, vibrant street markets and cheap and cheerful cafes. Sumahan on the Water, a stunning waterfront hotel in Cengelkoy, is one of the best in the area but if you'd prefer to book a private rental, you can do no better than picking one located right by Bagdat Caddesi, a 14km-long shopping strip dotted with designer boutiques, cafes and well-dressed locals.
HOW DO I GET AROUND?
Perhaps the question should be reframed: exactly how can I get around without having to cross any of the three bridges connecting the two continents? We won't beat around the bush; the traffic in Istanbul is frightening stuff at peak hour. And every hour is peak hour.
Fortunately, the city's elaborate ferry system is efficient and quick; use these wherever possible, and opt for a dolmus (communal taxi) for areas distant to the network.
WHAT ARE THE NOT-TO-BE-MISSED ACTIVITIES?
Any trip to Istanbul must be planned with military precision. The city is gargantuan and constantly growing (current stats: 5345sq km and an official population of 15 million) so you can easily fill two weeks with back-to-back activities and still not have touched the sides.
Must-sees for first-timers include opulent palaces Topkapi, Dolmabahce, the museum of Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, a 400-year-old active mosque which was given its name thanks to its impressive interior tile work. Completing the touristic "hit list" of course is the historic Grand Bazaar, a 560-year-old market comprised of more than 4000 stores and just as many rug sellers.
To see the real Istanbul, however, be sure to allocate a day to simply enjoy (and photograph) the sights of Balat, a former Jewish quarter and one of the city's most historic suburbs, and take a trip out to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes' Islands, where cars are banned, ancient Ottoman mansions are plentiful and the local cherry ice-cream (supposedly) has zero calories.
Then it's a matter of kicking back on a cheap and cheerful Bosphorus cruise, meandering the streets of chic European suburb Beyoglu and - even though it seems an unlikely choice - keeping your Tuesday free for Istanbul's famous Sali Pazari (Tuesday market).
It's no Grand Bazaar, but there's simply no better way to gain insight into local life - even if you have to wade through mountains of "Louise Vuitton" to get it.
WHERE SHOULD I EAT?
While there's no denying the magic of a well-timed doner kebab, a quick meaty fix is no comparison to tasting rich layers of 600-year-old Ottoman history in every bite you take.
For an education like no other, book a table at Tugra Restaurant & Lounge, a decadent establishment which serves up authentic Ottoman cuisine in a spectacular setting, and follow it up quickly with a terrace-seat booking at Mikla, a fine dining establishment which prides itself on a contemporary take on Turkish food.
At the lower end of the price scale, you're spoiled for choice (meals for less than a dollar are not unheard of), but a traditional balik ekmek (fish sandwich) on a ferry port after a commute is not to be missed.
The key to avoiding the dreaded "Sultan's Revenge"? Choosing a stand with a lengthy queue of locals.
WHAT'S THE NIGHTLIFE LIKE?
How would you like your nightlife served with a landscape of ancient ruins and Ottoman palaces stretching as far as the eye can see?
Istanbul is (rightfully) famous for its rooftop bar scene and there's no better start to the evening than watching the sun set from 360 Istanbul, or 5.Kat which offers a slightly more relaxed take on the trend.
Once you've had your fill of the Beyoglu area, Alexandra Cocktail Bar in upscale Arnavutkoy draws in the crowds, as does the more relaxed Arka Oda a live music venue in the Asian suburb of Kadikoy. Either way, be prepared for plenty of cigarette smoke.
WHERE CAN I SHOP?
You've loaded up on spices from the Egyptian Bazaar and bought enough leather jackets from the Grand Bazaar to look as though you've gone rogue on a cattle farm, so now what?
Leave plenty of room in the suitcase because Istanbul also happens to be the land of the shopping mall, with close to 360 centres opening across the city since 2000.
Stick lifestyle destinations Istinye Park and Kanyon on the list, but don't rule out making the trek over to Viaport, a massive outlet centre in Pendik, waaaay out in the Asian 'burbs. It may not be the easiest place to get to, but you'll be rewarded for your efforts with Mavi jeans for less than $20, and major discounts on high-end local brands such as Yargici and Ipekyol.
As for the $64,000 question: will you leave the city without buying a Turkish rug? Probably not; acceptance is key.
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