Napoleon famously said that if the earth was a single state, the Byzantine and Ottoman jewel of Istanbul would be its capital. Once capital of the eastern Roman Empire, today Istanbul is a bustling, modern metropolis where ancient architectural relics rub shoulders with the trappings of Turkey’s new wealthy economy. Istanbul’s spectacular skyline is dotted with mosques and minarets, but dominated by the Bosphorus Strait that divides the city; one side is in Europe and the other in Asia. With so much to see in three days, we arrived in Istanbul full of plans to storm the city and see as much as possible. Two hours later our hotel car was crawling in traffic and we still had yet to cross the bridge on to the European side. We were on our way to Raffles Istanbul – the hotel group’s eleventh property – just a few days after its opening.
The hotel is set in the heart of the Zorlu Centre, a new hub for fashion, food and the arts on the European shore in Beşiktaş – an upscale development that delivers a mix of top-ranking Turkish and international shopping, including the country’s first Apple store and luxury retailers such as Louis Vuitton, while the Performing Arts Centre hosts everything from Broadway shows and Turkish orchestras to Lady Gaga. Raffles Istanbul is the perfect epitome of the ‘new’ face of Istanbul: cutting-edge, eclectic and energetic. Interiors feature artworks commissioned from leading international and local artists. In the lobby alone, there’s a fantastical eight-metre-high photographic mural by Jean-Francois Rauzier, and a bronze sculpture, Lavinia by Martin Dawe, a huge abstract figure reclining in a reflective pool.
Our Signature Room had unbeatable views across greater Istanbul, the Bosphorus and the Princess Islands. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a sizable private terrace meant we had our own panorama across two continents. The room included a desk, sitting area, walk-in closet and spacious marble bathroom, with contemporary artworks inspired by the chandeliers of the Blue Mosque. Facilities run from a rooftop swimming pool to a heliport and the stunning Long Bar, inspired by the original at Raffles, Singapore, but with a very Turkish twist. The huge (3,000 square metre) state-of-the-art spa includes an extensive gym, three Turkish hammams, a yoga and pilates studio and indoor pool.
Arola is the hotel’s signature restaurant by the Michelin-starred Spanish Chef Sergi Arola. Serving creative tapas-style plates, his signature dishes include Las Bravas de Arola, or Calamares fritos como un clasico bocata de calamares (his famous ‘calamari sandwich’). Unpretentious, his food takes inspiration from traditional Catalonian recipes, and are simple, humble and delicious, but also arrive looking like works of art.
There are a few sites that are an absolute must on any visit to Istanbul, which include the astounding Hagia Sofia, an architectural masterpiece that was once the world’s largest cathedral. Next door is the seventeenth-century Blue Mosque – so called for the 20,000 blue tiles adorning its interior walls and its high ceiling – built by Sultan Ahmet as an Islamic workshop that would rival the Hagia Sophia. Visitors are also dazzled by the Topkapi Palace – an opulent enclosure of courtyards, ornate rooms and a Harem; the treasure-chest that housed the sultans for hundreds of years.
While in the neighbourhood, revel in the delights of the Grand Bazaar, haggling over artworks and jewellery, and drink fresh pomegranate juice from one of the city’s many carts. This is a city where it’s best to walk; you are more likely to stumble down side streets and make your own discovery of a small gallery, local restaurant or hole-in-the-wall workshop.
The past decade has seen an extraordinary growth in contemporary Turkish art and design. The launch of the Istanbul Modern on the shores of the Bosphorus in 2004 marked the start of a revolution. And three major museums are due to open in the city by 2017, one billed as the first structure in the city by famed architect Zaha Hadid. But Istanbul’s art explosion is matched in design, eating and entertainment. Raffles Istanbul offers its guests a personal shopping and styling service, to take them on a fashion trail through the city, and an Art Concierge, to steer clients through the city’s exciting new art scene.
Head to Karakoy where art spaces nestle between old-style machine shops and happening cafes. Karakoy Lokantasi is a modern spin on a traditional restaurant run by a husband and wife duo. Its crisp white tablecloths and distinctive blue tiled walls host lunching locals and an ever-increasing crowd of architects and designers who have set up in the area. In the evenings, head to the much-lauded Mikla for a rooftop dinner, or choose delicious fresh fish at the old- school Park Fora on the edge of the Bosphorus. For a party atmosphere, there’s the glamorous Sunset Beach, offering a great menu of some of the best Turkish, Mediterranean and Japanese dishes in town. The dancing starts after midnight.
Whatever your agenda – fashion, business or art – Raffles Istanbul will provide a calm, modern luxury oasis, perfectly placed to experience this timeless city. I recently met President of Raffles Hotels & Resorts, Peter French, who said: “Istanbul is a rising star of global tourism. It is a meeting place between East and West, between Asia and Europe. A city on which, over many centuries, great civilisations and cultures have left their mark. The Zorlu Centre is a new icon, both in function and design – very much like our hotels, wherever they are.” Quite so.
The weekend was now over, but there was so much that we hadn’t achieved: we hadn’t taken a boat trip on the Bosphorus, visited the Basilica Cistern, watched the whirling dervishes or travelled on the new sub-sea train connecting the Asian and European sides. We’ll just have to go back.