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Insider Guide: Best of Istanbul
By Feride Yalav, for CNN
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Istanbul -- half Europe, half Asia, completely stunning.
CNN Insider Guides are thoroughly checked for accuracy. Given the fluid nature of the travel industry, however, some listings may fall out of date before guides can be updated. The best practice is to confirm current information on official websites before making plans to visit any business or attraction.
(CNN)Nowhere does fusion like the best of Istanbul, a metropolis that owes as much to its centuries of history as it does to its emergence as one of the most dynamic cities in Asia or Europe.
It's strikingly beautiful.
The Bosphorus -- aka the Istanbul Strait, the stretch of water that divides two continents -- stretches calmly before you under the warmth of the sun while the city soars above the shore.
But, mostly, the best of Istanbul is a jumble of activity, over 14 million citizens strong, from celebrants staggering out of bars at 4 a.m. to imams calling the faithful out to prayer at dawn.
You can hear the hustle just as surely as you can see it.
The horns of impatient taxi drivers.
The lilting melodies of street musicians.
The laughter of children.
The clinking of raki glasses.
And always, the whining cries of seagulls overhead.
The one thing to know about the best of Istanbul is that it's growing, giving visitors more options than they can fit into any single trip.
Not that it's ever stopped us from trying.
Most of best hotels are located on the European side in either Sultanahmet (location of most popular historical sites) or near and around Taksim Square (the city center), including the Besiktas, Macka, Tepebası, and Galata neighborhoods.
Four Seasons Sultanahmet
Once an Ottoman prison, this best of Istanbul neoclassical building is now the Four Seasons boutique hotel located in the center of the old city, or Sultanahmet.
With a view of the famous Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia mosques, the hotel is steps away from Topkapı Palace and a 10-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar.
Some 65 uniquely designed rooms offer modern amenities and a serene courtyard, where genuinely great dining is available at the Seasons restaurant.
The Lounge serves cocktails, coffee and snacks. A fitness and spa center is also available with a range of massage options, including aromatherapy and Balinese massage.
Located near the city center in the Macka neighborhood, Swissotel provides expansive views of the Bosphorus from a wonderfully high vantage point.
Its award winning Amrita Spa & Wellness facility includes indoor and outdoor pools, private fitness trainers, daily group exercise classes and three tennis courts.
Restaurants include the Cafe Swiss, gourmet food at Gaja restaurant and Asian cuisine at Miyako restaurant.
The Les Ambassadeurs Bar is a classy spot for a warm-up drink.
Located in the Galata district close to the city center, this best of Istanbul hotel has 40 individually designed rooms with custom-made wooden furniture and natural fiber curtains.
Housed in a renovated apartment building built in 1874, original architectural details are all around in the form of frescoes, columns and vaulted ceilings.
Along with modern amenities, the Adahan Istanbul has two restaurants, Baylo and Goodmoodpera, which are popular with the city's residents -- a sure sign you've picked a winner.
The House Hotel Bosphorus
This 19th-century landmark is now a hotel offering, among other rooms, a penthouse suite with a 180-degree view of the surroundings and a private wraparound terrace.
The modern and minimalist interior was created by the famed Turkish Autoban design firm, while the Lounge Bar serves drinks with a seaside view.
It's a bit far from the city center (a 20-minute drive), but the area has restaurants, cafés and shopping, as well as a close-up view of the Bosphorus Bridge.
Step back in time at the Rooms Galata.
This 16-room hotel occupies two historic buildings. While the decor combines modern design with antique details, the walls still showcase their original frescoes.
All rooms have high ceilings, wooden floors and kitchenettes, but not all have private terraces.
If you need to breathe a little, there's a rooftop terrace with a sea view, as well as a downstairs cafe and courtyard with outdoor seating.
The Galata is located in the Beyoglu district, which is packed with an array of dining and nightlife options, a 20-minute walk from the city center.
Close to the major historic sights in the old city, Ibrahimpasa is in a renovated, three-story, turn-of-the-century Ottoman townhouse.
The hotel's 16 rooms have elegant designs, while the rooftop terrace shows off a full view of historic sights, as well as a bar for guests only -- a nice touch.
An establishment that could easily win a few Michelin stars, Nicole offers haute cuisine without any of the usual pretension synonymous with fine dining.
The short or long tasting menus are inspired by the season's freshest ingredients and change every six weeks.
Dishes exuding contemporary Mediterranean flavors are accompanied by wines from Turkey's best boutique vineyards.
Make sure to leave space for dessert, because the few rounds of saccharine creations are truly unforgettable.
The team behind Nicole are Aylin Yazıcıoğlu and Kaan Sakarya who were both trained at Michelin-starred restaurants in France.
Located at the top floor of Tom Tom Suites, it also owns a view that stretches from Beyoglu to the lights of historical Sultanahmet.
For those unlucky enough not to grow up eating the home-cooked recipes of a talented Turkish grandmother, Hunkar may become a second home.
Whether from the buffet or the menu, every dish -- from cold meze starters to main dishes of Ottoman descent -- tastes the way locals like it.
Items include Hunkar Begendi (smoked eggplant puree topped with lamb or beef chunks), fava bean spread and asure (pudding of chickpeas, kidney beans, rice and sugar topped with walnuts, pistachios, pomegranate, almonds and cinnamon).
The tasting menu encapsulates almost everything Turkish cuisine has to offer and is a good start for beginners.
Reservations are mandatory at Istanbul's favorite contemporary Turkish restaurant.
Chef Civan Er takes on traditional recipes and ingredients from Anatolia and serves them with a modern outlook.
From the homemade bread warm out of the oven all the way to the fried mastic milk pudding, everything at Yeni Lokanta is impeccable (including a very understated and comfortable interior design).
Diners should try to snag a cocktail at the bar before heading to their table, because the drinks are just as good as the food.
An Istanbul standout since 1927, Borsa stands for the essentials of the Turkish kitchen.
The rich interior of dark mahogany, white tablecloths and floor-to-ceiling windows leads to a terrace that's open in the summer.
The menu speaks of equally grand values, with everything from simple artichoke cooked in olive oil with fava beans, carrots and potatoes, to iskender kebap -- roasted lamb slices over pita bread covered in tomato and butter sauce and yogurt.
When Alancha opened a branch in Istanbul (after much success in Cesme) fine dining enthusiasts rushed to get a table.
This restaurant's success lies behind a rather simple fact: there's nothing like it in Istanbul.
Prominent chef Kemal Demirasal and his talented team of cooks and researchers have used the history of Anatolia to create a unique menu of experimental and molecular gastronomy.
Dishes are served hidden among moss and pebbles, or atop a plate carved especially with ancient letters.
If the tasting menu doesn't appeal, guests can hang out downstairs, where a more informal menu is accompanied by very peculiar (delicious) cocktails with such ingredients as celery and hibiscus salt.
Meze by Lemon Tree
A trip to Istanbul wouldn't be complete without a round of delicious meze (a collection of small platters that are served both hot and cold) and Meze is the prime destination for such an endeavor.
After being seated, diners head to the display to choose from among many delicious meze types that always change according to seasonal ingredients.
Favorites are the fried sweet green peppers filled with cheese from Ezine or the mashed broad beans.
Chef Gençay Ucok has also managed to go beyond meze with some of the most delicious meat dishes found in the city, including the grilled lamb sirloin and the grilled marinated beef slices on a skewer.
Order a large bottle of rakı to stick with Turkish traditions.
Reservations are needed at this rather small yet very popular restaurant.
Unlike most cosmopolitan cities, a rampant clubbing scene is not what most locals look forward to on their weekends.
Istanbul's nightlife revolves, instead, around trendy restaurants that transform into crowded bars after dinner, with the music turned up loud.
Another restaurant that transforms into a dimly lit bar with throbbing music after midnight, Lucca has remained one of the most popular places to show your face and mingle.
Don't be surprised if someone hands you their business card after checking you out for several minutes from across the room.
The well-prepared cocktails, especially margaritas, are another lure, of course.
During the weekdays Unter is the place for a casual dinner and a few beers, but on the weekend some of the city's best DJs play all night as the crowd takes up much of the street.
The city's coolest young people can be found smoking and drinking outside this popular bar.
Want to throw your own party?
You can make use of their loft on the third floor, which is open to private events.
Nardis Jazz Club
For a more relaxed evening, Nardis Jazz Bar is an alternative to the excitable crowds.
It has an intimate performing space within a historic building.
Named after a Miles Davis song, the club is the city's only internationally acclaimed jazz venue.
Because of its small 120-person capacity, reservations are recommended on weekends.
Opened up by the former manager of Lucca, Mitte came to Karakoy right at the height of its popularity.
We're quite fond of its bar not only because it's beautiful, but also because of a list of very original cocktails that are quite the rarity in Istanbul.
The fact that DJs spin on the weekends is also a plus.
Istanbul's most important concert venue moved away from the heart of Beyoglu to take over an old beer factory in Bomonti.
The result has been successful because now there is so much more space for all the local and international acts.
The thin Turkish towel used at the hamam called "pestamel," has become synonymous with Istanbul.
Peche de Malle is one of the best places to choose from a large variety of color, thickness, and patterns.
From the simple and traditional to the more bold and colorful, this small Galata boutique offers a piece of Turkish tradition that you can take home or give away as a gift.
Some people find their pestamels so beautiful that they use them as a scarf rather than a towel.
Make sure to also check out their selection of olive oil and olive oil soaps.
The peaks and domes of the city's historic mosques and basilica are the images that accompany the story of Istanbul.
The Basilica Cistern, Blue Mosque, Dolmabahce Palace, Grand Bazaar, Spice Bazaar and Topkapi Palace are photographed millions of times a year.
Slightly off the well-beaten path of the major attractions, Galata Mevlevihanesi was once the retreat of the dervishes (Sufi mystics).
It was closed with the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Half a century later, it was reopened as the Divan Literature Museum in 1975.
Costumes and memorabilia from Mevlana schools are on display here, along with the graves of famous Mevlana scholars and whirling dervish performances.
The Turkish bath is a revelatory experience.
The process includes a period of preparing the skin for bathing in a sauna-like room, followed by a full-body wash and massage.
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami provides a luxurious, female-only hamam experience inside a building designed by Mimar Sinan in 1556 for the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Hürrem Sultan.
Services include traditional Turkish bath, redbud essence peeling application, body clay masks, aromatherapy massage and much more.
Another notable Turkish bath is the Kilic Ali Pasa hamam in Karakoy.
This historical 16th century hamam was renovated and now offers a very modern and clean interior and the full hamam treatment including exfoliation, rinsing, massage, and relaxation.
The best of Istanbul hamam has been featured on television and film and has been the site for illustrious visitors like Edward VIII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm, Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Tony Curtis.
Yildiz Ceramic Workshop
There are colorful ceramics all over Istanbul (known as Iznik Cini) and making your own is an irreplaceable experience.
Yildiz Ceramic Workshop in Galata offers classes that introduce newcomers to the whole process from clay kneading to surface design.
Students will be introduced to many techniques such as airbrushing, stamping, scratching, fragment insertion, and even figurative modeling.
Expect to become a professional ceramic artist at the end of it all.
While there, it's worth perusing Yildiz's store, where a spectrum of colorful ceramics await their new owners.
Feride Yalav is a freelance writer and editor based in Istanbul who has written for The Guide Istanbul, Brownbook, A Book From Lind, and her personal blog Istanbul22 where she chronicles worthy discoveries.