At the intersection of two continents, Istanbul offers Mediterranean hospitality with Oriental flair. Olivia Michel visits the Four Seasons hotels as she dips her toes into the city's European side.
Walking through the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is a sensory experience. I’m immersed in the colours of oriental lamps, crockery and jewellery; the smells of hammam soap, incense and freshly-brewed tea and, as I’m there around midday, the melodic tones of the call to prayer. The iridescence and liveliness captivated in this labyrinthine market is one that permeates throughout this sprawling city.
The Bazaar is also a reminder of Istanbul’s ideal location as a stop-off for superyachts cruising the Mediterranean. It’s a remnant of the Ottoman Empire’s early days, when the city amassed its wealth as the western world’s principle trading port. Istanbul has therefore always been geographically favourable for sailors. Indeed, a number of superyacht shipyards, including Bilgin and Alia, are now based in the region where East meets West.
Travellers looking to immerse themselves in Istanbul should explore the Old City, where mosque minarets, gilded domes and Byzantine towers pierce the skyline. Here the city’s landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque and Topakapi Palace, are characterised by thousand-year-old tiles painted in aquamarine, crimson and emerald.
The dandelion-yellow Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet adds another splash of colour to this part of town. This cheery little oasis holds an unassuming history; previously a prison, the site was converted in the 1920s. But the only tangible remnants of the hotel’s macabre past are the wall etchings left by past prisoners, which guest experience manager Engin Alper points out to me. “Most people do not believe this was a prison,” says Alper, as he gestures to the property’s original turquoise tiles. Indeed, it’s hard to believe given the opulent décor and luxurious grandeur of my spacious room. But the hotel is proud of it’s past; Alper emphasises that “guests can really feel the history in the hotel – it’s the perfect place for discovering the old city”. There are only 65 rooms, but an extension is planned in the next two years.
Within walking distance of the city’s major sites, the Four Seasons at Sultanahmet attracts cultured travellers looking to explore Istanbul’s oldest district. Yet despite its central location, the hotel provides a retreat; a verdant garden fills its inner courts and breezy views over the Hagia Sofia are offered from the rooftop bar. As I sit down to lunch, the courtyard transports me away from the sounds of traffic. The call to prayer still manages to seep into the background as I enjoy a starter of tender braised artichoke and stuffed zucchini flowers dressed in a hollandaise-style sauce. This is followed by the smoky and sweet flavours of a traditional Aubergine Pide – the crunchier, Turkish version of pizza. This idyllic spot, filled with the sounds of a running water and humming bees, also serves breakfast each morning. A portion of Menemen, spicy scrambled eggs with grilled tomatoes and peppers, will set you up for a day of sightseeing.
Outside of the Four Seasons’ gourmet offerings, a snack is never more than 10 metres away. Vendors selling char-grilled corn, chewy Turkish ice cream or oversized bagels are stood at every corner in Sultanahmet. At the popular Spice Bazaar, heaps of powdered saffron and paprika are sold alongside the fragrant buds of rose and lavender tea. Melt-in-the-mouth Turkish Delight and chewy nougat can also be bought here, usually after taste-testing. I am offered sweet apple tea multiple times during the sales negations of edible goods or handmade crafts in Istanbul. After wandering into a carpet shop near the basilica cisterns, I’m told by the owner that this tea-drinking ritual symbolises the making of a 40-year friendship.
For those who find the haphazard streets of Sultanahmet overwhelming, respite is available at a second Four Seasons hotel on the banks of the Bosphorus river. As Alper confirms, “it’s very common for people to do nights in both hotels”. Constructed from the ruins of an old Ottoman palace, the Four Seasons Hotel at the Bosphorus boasts a sweeping palatial property offering a resort-style getaway on the fringes of the city. Here, there’s plenty of room to roam; guests will find an expansive outdoor swimming pool, a spacious 24-hour gym and a subterranean spa with further hot tubs and hammams.
The modern design and contemporary artwork used to furnish the Bosphorus interiors further cements its difference from the Sultanahmet residence. Duty Manager Öykü Yıldırım explains that while “Sultanahmet is for the nostalgic and the history lovers, our hotel represents the Bosphorous”. Yıldırım is clearly proud of the diversity between the sister hotels: “we are lucky to have two properties both in the city and by the Bosphorus: this way you can see the best of both and understand the two different souls and personalities of the hotels and the city”, she says.
As Sultanahmet guests are invited to use the Bosphorus spa, the resort makes use of a yacht and private jetty for transporting visitors between the two residences (thus circumventing Istanbul’s infamous traffic). Yıldırım assures me that the jetty can also be used for mooring smaller yachts or tendering to shore. However, the renowned Atakoy marina, which can accommodate yachts of up to 100 metres in its 1000 berths, offers an alternative anchorage 30 minutes from the hotel.
The highlight of the 170-room hotel is clearly the riverside terrace. Looking across at Asia, guests sip Turkish coffee while riverboats rush past on the Bosphorus below. Yıldırım indicates that from where we stand, we can see the Black Sea to the left and the Aegean to the right. This atmospheric terrace is where dining takes place during the summer. There are five restaurants in total, including the newly introduced taverna-style Anason 34 and Turkish Tea Room, plus a long-standing shisha bar for ending the warm evenings in. Upon arrival, I’m brought to the terrace and treated to a mezze lunch featuring creamy hummus and spicy tomato dips, followed by a selection of sweet, pistachio-stuffed baklava.
After sundown, I’m back on the terrace for dinner at the seafood speciality restaurant Aqua. Sushi and a customised catch of the day are all options here, but their tasting menu really shows off Turkey’s take on Mediterranean cuisine. My meal culminates in a buttery, paprika-infused red mullet, accompanied by slow-cooked onions and delicately layered potato mille-feuille. Aqua serves up show-stopping dishes in both presentation and taste, but meals are enhanced by the ambience of the riverside setting.
The two Four Seasons hotels offer a taste of Istanbul’s characteristic duality. It is up to the traveller to decide which side of the city they wish to explore; the bustling centre, the spacious riverside, or, as I have done, a little bit of both.