There are two trips that I have held so sacred that I didn’t know if I would ever be able to take them: Vienna and Istanbul. These are two trips that my stepdad and I agreed that we would take together. A few years before he passed away, my dad called me at work and said that he was ready to plan our trip to Istanbul. That weekend, I headed to my parents’ house, armed with books and ready to plan our Istanbul itinerary. My dad loaded us in the car and drove us to Cafe Istanbul and said that we were there. He thought this was the funniest thing in the world. I was so mad that I cried and refused to have lunch. Looking back, I can see why he was so amused, but I’m still so sad that we never got to take the trip together.
In April 2016, six months after my dad passed away, Tom and I went to Vienna and I struggled immensely. Ultimately, I didn’t think that my dad would have enjoyed it as much as he romanticized its place in history. My second and third trips to Vienna for the Christmas markets were better because I embraced the place for what it was for me. I didn’t know if I would be able to go to Istanbul though. When we decided to take that trip, I kept it entirely to myself because I knew I would need a lot of time to process it. I also didn’t know if I would be able to separate my emotion from my experience.
I can tell you now though. Go to Istanbul. From the moment we arrived, I was struck by the hospitality of the Turkish people. The food was so savory and there is so much to experience. Every experience on this trip was an incredible adventure. Visiting Istanbul is one of my favorite trips we’ve taken in recent years. (Who am I kidding? Every trip is one of my favorites.) And, for what it is worth, I felt like my dad was with me every step of the way. I was overcome with emotion when I stepped into the Hagia Sophia and remembering whispering to him that we made it.
All that said, I will say to give yourself enough time to enjoy the adventure. Istanbul is so much more than a cruise port, day trip, or a long layover.
Treat it as such and savor it.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links for tours and products I love at no additional cost to you. You can read my full disclosure policy here.
Getting to Istanbul from the US
Despite generally being OneWorld loyalists, we flew Star Alliance from DFW-EWR-FRA-IST departing mid-day Saturday and arriving early evening on Sunday. We flew Polaris by United on the EWR-FRA leg on the Dreamliner. (Definitely influenced by Jenn Lake to upgrade this leg – she’s an amazing United loyalist.) She isn’t wrong; the service was incredible. United has really improved their transatlantic business hard product, along with their soft product.
American truly pales in comparison at this point. (I don’t know what I’m going to do about this now.) Our layover in Frankfurt was a couple of hours, which worked out well to grab a fresh pretzel. It took us about an hour to walk between the terminals and clear security again. (We were faster on the flight back and even quicker on subsequent trips. Give yourself enough time though. Frankfurt is huge and some flights arrive at remote stands requiring a bus to the terminal.)
We flew Turkish Airlines for our last leg. Given all the changes to meal service over the last few years, Turkish provided a substantive meal for a (relatively) short flight. (I loved the marble cake even if it did spike my blood sugar like crazy.)
US Citizen Requirements to Enter Turkey
US Citizens need a visa to enter Turkey. It’s easiest to apply for this in advance. Make sure you fill out the form correctly, as you cannot make changes after the fact. You will have to pay for a new visa if you make a mistake.
In 2021, US citizens need a PCR test (no more than 72 hours prior to arrival) to enter Turkey. You will also need to register your passport information for an HES code, which you will use in tandem with your Istanbulkart to board public transportation, enter shopping malls, check into hotels, etc. This code is used for contact tracing and is designed to keep everyone safe. Make sure that you check the US Embassy site for updated regulations and information about the current situation. Turkey also has a mask mandate in effect.
Remember, if you’re not willing to observe rules and regulations to keep everyone safe, it’s probably not a good time for you to travel. Check out my tips for traveling in 2021.
It took about an hour to walk from our gate to passport control, clear customs and get our bag. The process felt very easy.
Istanbul Airport Transportation
I booked a private Istanbul airport transfer to our hotel prior to our departure. I figured it would be easier than navigating the cab situation and worrying about getting Turkish Lira at the airport. For me, this makes everything so much less stressful upon arrival. They texted us a code prior to arrival, so all we had to do was collect our luggage and find the driver holding our code. The drive from IST to the JW Marriott Istanbul Bosphorus took about 45 minutes on a Sunday afternoon around 5:15pm.
We used the same Istanbul airport car service for our flight back to the US. Our flight left IST at 7:10am on Sunday morning. We had a 3:45am pickup time from the Four Seasons Bosphorus. There was no traffic and the trip took about 40 minutes.
Putting Together Our Istanbul Itinerary
I purchased the 10 Best Istanbul and the Rick Steves Istanbul travel guide for my preliminary research. I felt like the 10 Best book was incredibly helpful and informative for sightseeing. Tom really liked using the Rick Steves book for restaurant ideas and learning more.
Once I did my preliminary reading, I made a list of everything both Tom and I wanted to see or want to do. (I use excel for this.) I make a list of the days and times when something is not available. From there, I researched Istanbul guided tours and attraction tickets that I may to want to book in advance and add the links to the spreadsheet. We use Viator to book tours because of their extensive inventory and booking flexibility. If there are must visit restaurants, I add those on a separate tab, but I didn’t do a lot of Istanbul restaurant research in advance this trip.
Not surprisingly, I ended up with a very exhaustive list of things to do in Istanbul. It was clear that one week in Istanbul would not be enough. Typically when we travel, we try and schedule something in the morning, rest during the midday, and do something else in the early evening before dinner. Because we spent a week in Istanbul, we decided to stay in two different hotels in two different neighborhoods. I used those locations to map out what made the most sense given our hotel location. This ended up being a really good idea because traffic in Istanbul is intense. The excel sheet made it really easy to fit together tours and attractions to create the perfect itinerary for Istanbul.
Our trip ended up being 7 nights (including the overnight flight), so I ended up putting together a six day Istanbul itinerary, which excluded the day we arrived and the day we departed. We just opted for drinks at Octo and an easy dinner on our first night in Istanbul.
If you only have a short time, here are my 5 top tours to book in Istanbul
Istanbul Travel Tips
Use the Istanbulkart and Public Transportation
The best tip I can give you is to get comfortable navigating public transportation. The tram system is much more efficient than relying on taxis. Everything took us more time than we expected when we relied on cabs. Istanbul traffic is no joke, even when you are traveling a short distance. (I feel like we were not prepared for this at all.) Also, we had a lot of trouble getting the popular taxi apps to work for us, and many cab drivers turned us down because the time to get to a destination wasn’t worth the fare. You will need both public transportation and taxis to get around.
Do not rent a car. We witnessed many experiences that showed us that driving in Istanbul is best reserved for locals.
Go for More than the ‘Gram
One of the things that made me really sad was the number of times our guides referenced that we could get our instagram pictures here or there. When we asked for recommendations on where to go, there was always a discussion about where to get the “perfect” photo opportunity, too. There was always a bit of an edge to those comments, too. It wasn’t nasty, but it did feel like there was some (justified) frustration. The tone changed considerably when we asked for places they would go. While we had guides that offered to take photos for us (and we took them up on it), visiting a destination should be about more than the perfect instagram shot. It’s easy to see that lot of tour guides feel like their knowledge is being belittled by people who aren’t investing in learning…. and I don’t blame them.
In Croatia, our guides told us about people who insist on seeing the Game of Thrones sites and don’t want to hear the history. Don’t book a tour if you’re doing do to do that. Game of Thrones has no historical relationship to Dubrovnik or Croatia. It’s a film site. You can book those tours, but don’t book a history and culture tour and spend the entire time preening for the ‘gram. There are tours and guides who offer those experiences and will be more than happy to facilitate those experiences if that’s your thing. Most guides choose to offer tours on topics they love or because they want to share more about their experience or culture with you. Be respectful of that.
Personally, I’ve never been a “do it for the ‘gram” traveler. Don’t get me wrong – I love to share my photos, write about our experiences, and generally encourage and inspire people to travel. However, it’s never about getting the perfect instagram shot of me or us. (Our parents hate this about me. So many travels, so few pictures of Sara and Tom.)
What to Wear In Istanbul
sIstanbul is far more conservative that other European capitals. It bears mentioning: be mindful of your attire. Turkey is a country that is 98% Muslim. Some mosques and churches turned museums are being transitioned back to mosques. Err on the side of modesty to be respectful of local custom. Women will need to pack a scarf to cover their hair to visit mosques. I opted for my dresses with longer hem lines, wearing tights and panty hose so I could take off my shoes without apprehension when visiting mosques, and opting for demure colors (black and navy). It is easiest to wear flats for mosque visits.
Tom wore dress slacks, dress shirts, and black dress shoes. Men have it so easy.
Both of our hotels had spas. I’ve needed a new swimsuit for a few years, so I purchased a Summersalt sidestroke swimsuit for this trip. It provided more coverage than anything I could find locally. (I’m a big fan of their long torso suits and I’ve now purchased two more in other colors.) The only thing I change about this suit is to have cups sewn into it for a little more coverage and support. This is a pageant trick that has served me well throughout my life. It’s a really inexpensive fix.
I took a Hill House Home Ellie nap dress as a cover up to wear around the hotel (and as a nightgown). (Ellie nap dresses are the fastest growing segment of my year-round wardrobe.) Tom wore long swim trunks. The men’s and women’s saunas were completely separate, but again, I felt like it was important to be modest out of respect for locals.
Stay Open Minded
If you are visiting Istanbul, I expect that you have some idea that things will be different. I hope you do your research before going. You might be challenged in different ways than you expect – whether that is engaging in haggling at the markets, learning about Islam and visiting mosques, or embracing different cultural norms. All of these experiences are part of what makes Istanbul such a rich place to visit. Embracing all of that with an open mind will make your trip that much better.
Personally, I truly loved learning more about Islam from our tour guides. While I have had Muslim friends and students, I have a very elementary understanding of Islam that is very tainted by the things that I’ve been exposed to through the media for much of my adult life. The discussions we had in Istanbul were academic, not evangelical. Understanding the similarities between Islam and Christianity is a great framework for deprogramming some of the misinformation, and it is essential to better understanding the history of Istanbul. One of our guides provided us a copy of the Quran so that we could learn more for ourselves. (This was another experience that proved my dad was with us on this trip. At some point, I purchased my dad a copy because he wanted to study it for himself.)
Another one of my favorite experiences was learning more about spices, rugs, and other Turkish products at the markets around Istanbul. Let them show their products to you without abandon. One of my favorite mornings was spent trying dry spices at the Spice Market. We brought so many spices (including saffron!) back to the US and bottled them as souvenirs for our friends and family. I never want to forget the way Tom laughed when we visited a rug shop and, in a last ditch attempt to convince us to buy, the salesman pulled out a tiny rug. (He was channeling my dad at that moment.) The hospitality did not fade when we did not buy.
It should go without saying that we should approach people with a sincere desire to learn more about their experiences when we travel. Our understanding of history is so limited and largely skewed by where we grow up. On one tour, we asked how much people learn about the US. It totaled up to about 5 pages. When I think about the significance of so many places – and how little time and energy we give to them – I want to learn everything I can from others.
There is so much to appreciate about the city of Istanbul if you’re willing to indulge in discussions about culture and history. Remember: we are all complex humans and everyone wants to be seen and treated as such.
Istanbul Itinerary Day by Day
One Day in Istanbul
MORNING: Your first stop in Istanbul needs to include this Hagia Sophia Tour (pronounced Aya Sofya). Muhammet was such a thorough and thoughtful guide. Muhammet took us to visit some ruins of the original city before leading us back to the Hagia Sophia to learn more about the mosque, as well as its evolution between a mosque, a church, and a museum. Muhammet is very well versed in Christianity, so he is prepared to answer questions about both Islam and Christianity. Don’t be afraid to ask! This introduction provided us a deeper understanding of the history of the Hagia Sophia and its place within the world over time. This conversation is missing from the guidebooks, which is why I recommend taking a tour. (I actually messed up on our scheduling of this tour, and we ended up taking this tour on our second day. You should do this on your first day in Istanbul though.)
MID DAY: We walked across the Galata Bridge to get back to the JW Marriott for a mid-day break. It’s really interesting to see how the fishermen provide fresh catches to the restaurants below the bridge. They use a lot of traditional methods in the modern world, and this is such a great way to see one of the dichotomies that makes Istanbul so special.
AFTERNOON: One of the places I was most excited about visiting was the Blue Mosque (also known as the Sultan Ahmet Mosque). Just FYI, the Blue Mosque is currently under construction, so you can only see a smart part of it. We took a Blue Mosque tour because it included the Hippodrome and the area around the Hagia Sophia and Sultanahmet square. Given the tiny glimpse we got inside the Blue Mosque, I can’t wait to see it when the construction is finished. The tile work looked absolutely breathtaking.
Two Days in Istanbul
MORNING: The most delicious place to start your morning is at the Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsisi). You also want to do this so that you can avoid the crowds. Skip the guided walking tour so that you can spend as much time as you like. My recommendation is to stop by Masala 49 meet Muhammed. Muhammad is happy to let you try spices, flavored teas, and (real) Turkish Delight. He knows so much about everything and has an amazing memory for things you try and like. I loved trying all of the different dry spices and figuring out what to bring home. We brought back several pounds of vacuum-sealed spices, including saffron. I purchased these spice bottles to store them and gifts them to friends and family, too. They packaged them in a reusable shopping bag with a zipper, and we had no trouble getting the spices home through customs. (They can ship to the US, too!)
MID-DAY: A couple short blocks outside the Spice Market is Durum Bufe. This tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant, hidden behind market stalls, makes the most delicious kebab. (Try everything, but don’t miss the chicken.) We sat in a cramped corner on tiny stools next to the grill and enjoyed watching them make the food. We were the only English speakers in the restaurant. Our fellow customers and the wait staff enjoyed teaching us a little bit of Turkish vocabulary. One of my favorite memories is how the restaurant would get absolutely silent and then erupt into laughter after our attempts. It was such an amazing moment. Tom eventually did so well with his thank you that the Four Seasons asked him where he learned Turkish.
EVENING: I love doing hands-on things we travel, which usually manifests itself into cooking classes. However, as soon as I saw this Turkish marbling workshop, I knew we would be doing it. This art studio is located on a small backstreet of the artsy neighborhood of Karakoy. (It’s very close to Galata Tower and Istiklal Street. We had intended to explore that area further after the class, but it was raining.)
Full disclosure: Neither Tom nor I are very artistic, but this was very fun to do together. It was also very relaxing and almost meditative. Tom is way better at Ebru than I am.
The staff is so very welcoming. While they were finishing up the class before us, we headed to their rooftop terrace for amazing views of both the Bosphorus strait and the Golden Horn. The class included a short instructional video, a demonstration, and hands-on assistance in creating your own works of art. (I’ll be gifting our pieces to our mother as Mother’s Day gifts.)
Three Days in Istanbul
MORNING: Our third day wrapped up our stay in Karakoy, so we decided to take a tour of Topkapi Palace for the morning. I think this is one of those places where you really should use a guide. Yes, you can wander through the grounds of the palace on your own – and possibly even have a coffee overlooking both sides of Istanbul, but you would know anything about the significance of the design of the palace. The Topkapi Palace is made up of four connected courtyards, each one leading you further into the Palace. This was done by design. Oziel, our tour guide, helped us better picture how the palace was used. There are a number of side exhibits to visit after the tour. One such exhibit I found interesting was the room of relics, which further reiterated some of the things I had learned on the Hagia Sophia tour with Muhammet. I also enjoyed seeing the beautiful tile work throughout the palace. The colors are just breathtaking.
MID-DAY: Originally, we were just looking for a place to pick up a cab, but I insisted on walking through the Arasta Bazaar. Looking back, I found this to be less intimidating than the Grand Bazaar, though many of the merchants here also have shops in the Grand Bazaar and were happy to direct us over there if we couldn’t find something we liked in these smaller shops. Though we were traveling in a slower season, it wasn’t too busy around mid-day. This gave me an idea of the various products that we could purchase and bring back as souvenirs. I found the Turkish bath towels and robes, linens, and carpets to all be especially beautiful. There are plenty of tasty treats, but we purchased those at the Spice Bazaar.
EVENING: We checked into our second hotel, the Four Seasons Bosphorus. When our room wasn’t ready, they sent us out to their terrace restaurant for a complimentary drink. It was there that I discovered the delightful Golden Fleece. After settling into the room, we took advantage of the gorgeous spa and had dinner at one of the Igloos overlooking the Bosphorus. (This would end up being a mainstay of the second half of our trip to Istanbul.)
Four Days in Istanbul
MORNING: We had hoped to visit the Chora Church, but it was closed for restoration. Since we were already in the cab, we decided to head over to the Süleymaniye Mosque. The Suleymaniye complex is one of the most beautiful (and underrated) sites in Istanbul. While you are there, you will probably be approached by one of the mosque volunteers who is happy to share more about the mosque, Islam, and answer any questions you may have. Talk to them! If you’re really interested in learning more, visit the adjacent cultural center for a longer conversation. For us, it was helpful to hear more about what makes a mosque a mosque and the core tenants of Islam. It’s an uphill climb from the old city, so it offers amazing views of the city.
Remember: You’ll want to plan your visit around prayer times.
MID-DAY: Stroll downhill for a visit to the Grand Bazaar. You’ll pass through a number of merchant districts and wish you had more eyes to take everything in. There is certainly something for everyone at the bazaar or along the way. Bring your negotiating skills and don’t be afraid to counter (and walk away). Keep an open mind and listen closely as you pass the vendors. The sales pitches are incredibly entertaining and always respectful. We had a lot of laughs with the vendors. One jacket salesman told Tom he was cold for him because Tom wasn’t wearing a jacket.
Before heading back to your hotel, grab a meal at Sehzade Cag Kebap. This small restaurant has a few tables outside, a few tables inside, and a few more upstairs. We opted for a table inside where we could watch them slice the meat with incredible precision. You can order a few kebabs at a time and the staff will allow you to order fresh skewers as you finish. The meat is served with a delicious flatbread. This restaurant is cheap, delicious, and often filled with locals. It’s not a secret and the hype is worth it. You can grab a cab or the tram from the station a couple blocks away.
Five Days in Istanbul
We had six nights in Istanbul, so our fifth day was reserved for our serious shopping. What does this mean? It means that we did our surveying while sightseeing and were ready to learn more and decide if we wanted to buy. For us, that meant spending more time learning about Turkish rugs.
Full disclosure: We didn’t know we wanted a rug until we got to Istanbul. There is something hypnotizing about the beauty of Turkish rugs. Even if you don’t think you’ll want a rug, go ahead and take the measurements of somewhere that you might want a rug. Some rugs can be used as wall hangings, so consider those measurements as well.
Even if you don’t need a rug, we really enjoyed sitting down with a glass of chai (apple tea for me, please) and learning more about these stunning works of art. Here are a few places where we learned the most and saw the most unique pieces:
Written up in guidebooks and newspapers, Sisko Osman is the place to go to learn about rugs. It is now run by Nurallah, son of the original owner, and he is a wealth of knowledge. This is not a slick sales pitch. This is a visit for learning. Visiting Sisko is an exercise in better understanding the Turkish carpet tradition, how to identify handmade carpets vs. machine-made carpets, and seeing traditional designs from different regions of Turkey. We saw the most beautiful silk-on-silk rugs, which we did not see anywhere else on our trip to Istanbul. Those are definitely made to be wall hangings or tablecloths.
Nurallah explained how they source their carpets from the countryside, showed us traditional designs specific to certain areas, and what is used to make the natural dyes. We were able to see several rugs that were over 100 years old. In many cases, they seemed more vibrant than their newer counterparts. It was also a good reminder that quality can stand the test of time, and in many cases, outperform mass production. These rugs are not inexpensive, but they are beautiful and certainly not mass-produced.
Sisko’s shop can be a little hard to find because its location is both inside and outside the Grand Bazaar. We found vendors were very happy to help us find it though.
We met Suat from Ottomania while walking around the Sultanahmet. This interaction started as a typical Istanbul exchange. My husband made a joke about how he had already purchased a rug and ceramics but asked Suat where were we could find a cab. Suat indulged the conversation and (unsurprisingly), we ended up at Ottomania with Nuri, Saut’s uncle, who insisted on sharing tea and showing us his rugs. We saw some gorgeous rugs over the course of a few visits to his shop.
The bottom floor of this Sultanahmet shop is a museum and, similar to Nurallah above, Nuri and his team are happy to show and teach you more about the rugs. They have a number of machine-made and handmade rugs available – in every imaginable size and color. What I loved about this visit is that they were willing to show us a number of rugs at various price points. Not everyone can afford a huge handmade carpet. They didn’t try to insist that machine made was better (or worse) than handmade. They just showed us beautiful rugs and tried to get a better sense of our style preferences. They showed us things that were one-of-a-kind and showed us things that weren’t. The exchange felt very honest, and their hospitality was absolutely incredible.
We came very close to buying a rug here, and I’m not entirely sure that we won’t contact him to buy it in the not-so-distant future. My favorite was a bumble silk, machine made rug that would match the color scheme of our house beautifully. It is completely different from the silk-on-silk rugs we saw at Sisko, but it fit our aesthetic more.
Six Days in Istanbul
We started our last day in Istanbul with a late morning and a leisurely breakfast. Since we booked with a Preferred Partner, our reservation included breakfast, a room upgrade, and a $100 hotel credit. On Saturdays, the Four Seasons offers the choice between breakfast or brunch. We opted for breakfast and it was delicious.
With our shopping out of the way (and continuing to sleep on a big rug purchase), we wanted to use our last day to catch up on anything we missed seeing. Unfortunately for us, the Basilica Cistern and the Chora Church were closed the entire time we were in Istanbul. However, we chose to return to Hagia Sophia for another visit.
We also opted to slow down and really take advantage of the hotel spa on our last full day.
EVENING: For our final evening in Istanbul, we booked a Bosphorus Cruise and it really felt like the best way to end our time in Istanbul. Why? Because our guide was able to point out so many places that we had not been able to see on this trip. We already have more great ideas on where to go when we return to Istanbul. Unlike some cruises, this Bosphorus cruise did not have constant commentary, so you could enjoy the scenery, in addition to learning more about what we were seeing. Though it was a cloudy day, we were able to get some beautiful photos of Istanbul coming alive throughout blue hour. There is an open-air roof with seating, so you can take photos unobstructed, too.
Since there were so few people on the boat, we were able to engage our guide in some interesting conversations about world affairs.
One of the crew members acted as a photographer and took photos of us as a couple. We purchased the album of prints (approximately $50USD) since we rarely get photos together when we travel.
While there are numerous Bosphorus dinner cruise options available, we opted to just book the cruise so we could enjoy our final dinner and drinks from our igloo at the Four Seasons. (I never got tired of that beautiful view or that delicious drink.)
Where to Stay in Istanbul
As I mentioned, we tried two hotels in Istanbul since we were staying a week. This worked out really well because the second half of our trip was pretty rainy in the evenings, so it was nice to have a hotel with a nice spa and a restaurant with a view when we didn’t feel like getting out. It was a bit disappointing though – we didn’t feel like fighting the rain to try and get out and explore the area restaurants, so I feel like we need to go back again. Both hotels were amazing, and I recommend either one without any reservations. I’ll likely do a detailed post on each property, but I’ll hit the highlights in this post.
JW Marriott Bosphorus Istanbul
We used our free night certificates for the JW Marriott hotel. I had two and Tom had one. We used my Titanium Suite Night Awards to upgrade to a Premier Bosphorus Suite for two nights and we moved to an Executive Room with a view of Galata Tower for the third night. The rooms were very comfortable and very quiet. Our bathroom only offered a walk-in shower, but the water pressure was outstanding.
As a Marriott Titanium member, breakfast was included in our stay. The breakfast buffet offers a variety of cold and hot dishes, and the staff will make fresh egg dishes for you. Tom loved the eggs benedict. I enjoyed fresh scrambled eggs every morning. There are plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with delicious pastries. I enjoyed trying a little bit of everything over the course of our stay. The view is absolutely breathtaking.
As I mentioned, we had a cocktail and appetizer at Octo on the night we arrived. Our drinks were served with fresh hazelnuts (the best anywhere). The view from the bar is absolutely stunning. Of course, we had no idea what we were looking at, but this is a great place to take it all in. The shrimp dish was delicious with delicate spices and tasty shrimp.
The staff makes this hotel shine even more so than the elegant décor (though I loved that, too). Everyone was incredibly helpful, and all the bellmen were happy to offer suggestions on what to do and see. They recommended everything from restaurants to cafes with views to mosques not to miss. We also relied on them for help with taxis. While there is a lot of construction around the hotel, there are also a lot of delicious restaurants and cute shops. It feels very lived in and local, though I suppose that dynamic might change when they open the new Peninsula hotel and a new shopping mall. The JW Marriott is about two blocks from a tram stop, so it is very convenient to public transportation.
Overall, we had a perfect stay at the JW Marriott and would have been quite content to stay there for the entire trip. It is the perfect location for a first trip to Istanbul.
The Four Seasons Bosphorus is about 4 miles from the JW Marriott and about 5 miles Sultanahmet, so you’ll need to rely on taxis to get around. The tram doesn’t extend this far. It is possible to take it to the last top and walk to the hotel, though we opted not to do that in the rain. The location is beautiful, but it’s not as convenient for sightseeing.
The Four Seasons is a large hotel with beautiful grounds, multiple restaurants, and plenty of space. The layout of the room felt very similar to the Four Seasons Prague (a property I adore), but it did not have the same detail to the decor. Overall, the design of the rooms at the JW Marriott offered more personality, but the Four Seasons rooms are very, very comfortable. (I keep thinking about buying the Four Seasons bedding. It is so beautiful and so soft.) The bathroom offered both a walk-in shower and a soaking tub, which was nice.
We booked through the Preferred Partner room, so we were entitled to a room upgrade (we had a partial sea view deluxe room), breakfast, and a $100 hotel credit. When we arrived, there was a fruit basket in our room; it was replenished daily. We made good use of the credit by spending most evenings enjoying cocktails and dinner at the igloos on the Bosphorus. We enjoyed the breakfast at Aqua – the pastries were especially delicious. I try to start my day with protein, but it was impossible to ignore the delicious baked goods.
The spa at the Four Seasons is huge at beautiful. I was able to make reservations for the sauna on a regular basis and it was extremely comfortable. They have both indoor and outdoor pools, along with an extensive treatment menu. One of my favorite things to do is to book local spa treatments – which provides a better understanding of how a culture values different parts of wellness. The Four Seasons is no exception.
Like the JW Marriott, the Four Seasons staff is truly exceptional. At one point, the staff anticipated one of Tom’s questions and when he expressed his surprise, the man told Tom that it was his job to know the guests that well.
One thing that will continue to set the Four Seasons apart for me is their Lead with Care initiative. We stayed at the Four Seasons Dallas in June 2020 and learned more about their partnership with Johns Hopkins to keep everyone safe. Their safety measures include temperature checks, mask / hand sanitizer amenity kits upon check in, sanitizing luggage, and more. The Four Seasons Bosphorus offers all of this while also offering on-site PCR tests for $35.
I would love to try the Four Seasons Sultanahmet on a future stay. Their restaurant receives rave reviews, and you couldn’t find a more central location. I noticed that the Four Seasons Istanbul offers a package that lets you stay at both hotels, so that might be something worth looking into.
Four Seasons Istanbul Bosphorus
Last Thoughts on our Istanbul Trip
The cacophony of Istanbul and the dichotomy between East and West makes Istanbul an absolutely fascinating destination. There is so much to see and so much that we missed. I think you could spend a lifetime of visits in Istanbul and barely peel back the layers of the city.
When I was doing research on Turkey, I couldn’t find a lot of substantive travel blogs. A lot of things focused on instagrammable destinations, particularly Cappadocia. While I look a lot of beautiful photos in Turkey, it is so much more than an instagram destination. It served as the crossroads of the world for a very long time, and if you want to understand more about the rise (and fall) of the Venetian Republic, you also have to understand the role and position of the Ottoman Empire.
Our travels to Istanbul gave me a better understanding of history, which is exactly what I think my dad would have wanted.