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Well Traveled In Istanbul, Turkey: What To Do & Where To Stay In This Lively City

Alexandra Engler
Author:
May 30, 2024
Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
By Alexandra Engler
mbg Beauty Director
Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.
Well Traveled: Istanbul Turkey
Image by Anna Berkut / Stocksy
May 30, 2024
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Travel can restore your well-being. We're here to help you on that journey with Well-Traveled, a go-to destination for travel recommendations and tips. 

Sitting at the crossroads of two continents—Asia and Europe, East and West—Istanbul is a deeply enriching travel destination that's like nowhere else in the world. Because it is steeped in history and landmark buildings, there is no shortage of awe-inspiring sights and locations to explore—from Roman ruins to grand mosques.

The food is a rich culinary blend of Mediterranean fare, fresh seafood, kebabs, global spices, and sweet treats (a la Turkish delight). The culture is infused with centuries' worth of influences, such as Roman, Greek, Ottoman, and Byzantine empires.

And the city's architecture reflects its storied past and present—you'll see grand palaces, winding bazaars, picturesque parks, and some of Europe's tallest skyscrapers.

All in all, this city is a must-add to your travel bucket list. So, when you start planning, here's what you need to know. 

Well Traveled: Where to stay in Istanbul
Image by mbg Creative

There's no shortage of stunning, lavish hotels to stay at in the city—including those that have well-being elements. 

Soho House Istanbul 

The international social club and hotel opened their Istanbul establishment in 2015 and is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful of the many houses. Built in the historic Palazzo Corpi and located in the Beyoğlu district, the house has restored many of the grand palazzo's elements, making it a jewel box of a building.

The interiors are designed with the same luxurious flare as the other international houses but with some local touches that make you still feel right at home in Turkey. 

But it's not just a great place to awe at, the hotel amenities are top-notch too. (To be expected of Soho House's reputation.) The hotel has several restaurants and bars to eat at, which serve meals to accommodate many eating preferences.

It also has a beautifully designed gym that features a boxing ring, a wide variety of tools, classes, and a juice bar. Finally, the spa offers several indulgent treatments and two hammam rooms. 

  • Price point: $$
  • Area: Beyoğlu district
  • Amenities: Restaurants that accommodate a wide range of eating preferences (gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, etc.), gym, workout classes, private trainers, spa, event spaces 
  • Book now

Ciragan Palace Kempinski

Every city has that one hotel that's synonymous with Old World luxury. That's the Ciragan Palace Kempinski in Istanbul, a truly iconic hotel. Sitting on the Bosphorus strait, the palace has world-class views of the water and city.

The Ottoman-origin building was originally built as a gift by a sultan to his daughter, so you can imagine the sort of opulence on display.

Rest assured, it may be internationally known for luxury, but it's still uniquely Turkish: Apparently, most of the elements from the hotel (from design features to food) are still sourced from Turkey. 

  • Price point: $$$$
  • Area: Bosphorus Strait
  • Amenities: Pool, 5 restaurants that accommodate several eating preferences, spa, hammam 
  • Book now
Well Traveled: What to do in Istanbul
Image by mbg Creative

There's a lot to do in Istanbul (and Turkey in general). It's worth a longer trip so you can really explore without feeling like you're cramming everything in.

Blue Mosque & Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque 

The two most famous mosques in Istanbul are the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, both quite different and equally breathtaking. They're in a similar area (which is easily walkable), so you may want to plan to visit them on the same day. 

The Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque (pictured below) houses some of the world's most treasured religious artwork—from not just the Islamic faith but the Christian faith as well. (It functions as both an active prayer site and a museum.)

Built in the sixth century, it functioned as a place of worship for the Catholic, Orthodox, and Islamic faiths at different points throughout its history. 

The Blue Mosque is a massive structure that gets its moniker from the thousands of blue tiles that decorate the inside of the dome. It was built during the Ottoman Empire, and much of the design features reflect the historic time of the country.

What makes the Blue Mosque unique is the six minarets (towers traditionally built for the call to prayer) and the massive courtyard. 

Editor’s note:

White Turkey is a secular country, the dominant religion is Islam. It's important to be respectful of the religion's practices, especially while visiting places of worship. On days you plan to visit mosques and sightsee, dress conservatively (such as pants or long dresses, and non-revealing necklines) and bring a headscarf to drape over your hair and shoulders.  
Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque
Image by mbg Creative / Alexandra Engler

Topkapi Palace 

Now a sprawling museum, the Topkapi Palace once served as the home of the sultans, their families, and their harems. It also served as the headquarters and center of the Ottoman Empire. So, yes, a lot of history has happened within its walls. 

Plan to spend some time wandering around the courtyards, the harem (fascinating tidbits to learn here), exhibits, and the treasure (where stunning jewels and precious stones are on display). 

Topkapi Palace
Image by mbg Creative / Alexandra Engler

Basilica Cistern  

This'll be a quick tour but worth seeing the ancient underground cistern. Cisterns are used to store water below the city, and this one is the largest remaining cistern from the Byzantine Empire. The ruins are stunning and also filled with unique local art that speaks to the history of the great city. 

Basilica Cistern
Image by mbg Creative / Alexandra Engler

Hammam 

Bathing culture comes in many forms across the world, and one of the most famous is the Turkish Hammam (sometimes called a Moorish bath or Turkish bath in the West).

The practice has deep religious and societal roots, as for centuries it has been used as a place for social gathering, ritual purification, and general hygiene.

Hammams are traditionally public bathhouses (in the vein of Roman bathhouses), separated by sex. There are private hammam experiences, too, if you're more comfortable alone.

As for the ritual itself, you're taken into a warm bathing room where an attendant will wash and vigorously scrub you. (Emphasis on vigorously—this is serious exfoliation.) 

After, you'll typically be treated to tea, water, and other treats while you relax and unwind. 

Editor's note:

At most hammans you're given slippers and a towel to cover yourself, but I recommend asking the Hammam the protocol ahead of time so you arrive comfortable and prepared. If you're uncomfortable with nudity (many hammams are public), you may also consider bringing a swimsuit, but again, I recommend asking beforehand. If finding a private experience is a priority, make sure to find one that offers that as an option.

Grand Bazaar 

This is a cultural experience you simply can't miss. Spend half a day wandering around the Grand Bazaar. It's one of the oldest and largest bazaars in the world. Within the twisting aisles and shops, you'll find everything from spices and scarves to antique jewelry and rugs. 

While it's certainly easy to get lost while making your way through the stalls, there are sections where a majority of the stores focus on the same goods, such as leather, gold, jewelry, and rugs.

So if you have something specific in mind, you'll want to make sure you go to the specific section. And not far from the Grand Bazaar is also the Egyptian Bazaar. This is where you'll find perfume oils, spices, herbs, and delicacies. 

Bartering is par for the course, so brush up on your negotiation skills. 

Shopping tip:

For the best scarves and kaftans, visit Cashmere House by Ilyas Aksu, where you'll find high-quality fabrics and unique designs. 
Grand Bazaar
Image by mbg Creative / Alexandra Engler
Well Traveled: Where To eat in Istanbul
Image by mbg Creative

Be prepared for meze plates, fresh seafood, kebab, and sweet treats.

Akin Balik

A comfortable, unstuffy place to dine on excellent seafood, this lively restaurant is a favorite among locals and tourists from far and wide. Located on the waterfront, it also serves stunning views of the strait and ​​Galata Bridge.

  • Cuisine: seafood
  • Setting: casual 

Editor's note:

Under the Galata Bridge, you'll also find a famous fish market, where you can get delicious fish sandwiches and other Turkish seafood specialties. It's worth taking a stroll along the bridge as well—make yourself a little seafood tour. 

Rutin

A small cafe serving impressive and experimental dishes, this hideaway is for the serious foodie. 

  • Cuisine: Local fare with a fresh twist
  • Setting: casual 

Çiya Sofrası

This locale has earned itself a reputation as a restaurant that doubles as a "culinary anthropology center." Go here to try foods from all over the region—with recipes sourced from locals that were passed down for generations.

The restaurant's tagline, "The garden of lost cultures and forgotten tastes," is an apt description.

  • Cuisine: Variety 
  • Setting: casual

Editor's note:

You must experience Turkish coffee while there. There is no shortage of cafes to pop into and order yourself a cup. Most come with a small helping of Turkish delights, so you can test out the sweet treat as well. 
Well Traveled: What to pack for Istanbul
Image by mbg Creative

Come prepared with these essentials. But do leave room in your suitcase for what you plan to bring home from the bazaar. 

Bee&You Mineral Natural Sunscreen For Face

Why we love it

  • Uses non-nano zinc oxide
  • Each product purchased, the brand donates 1% back to the local beekeepers who source the honey, propolis, and royal jelly
  • This uses propolis sourced from the Anatolian region of Turkey, which gives it more potent antioxidant properties

Do yourself a favor and get this sunscreen from Turkish brand Bee&You — it’ll come in handy for the Turkish sun, but it’ll also become your new favorite sunscreen. The star ingredient is the propolis harvested from the Anatolian region of Turkey. Propolis is a special extract from beehives that has profound healing properties, and this specific type from Bee&You (unique to the brand) is chock-full of antioxidants, such as phenolic and flavonoid components. The formula’s rounded out aloe vera, shea butter, olive oil, vitamin E, and more.

Quince Cashmere Silk Fringed Scarf

Why we love it:

  • 8 classic colorways
  • Made from 60% cashmere and 40% Silk
  • Dyes are certified by Standard 100 OEKO-TEX
  • Produced in Sedex certified factories which aims to improve working conditions throughout the supply chain

You’ll absolutely want to pick up a few scarves while in Turkey (there are endless options at the Grand Bazaar), but if you want to come prepared, this silk and cashmere blend is the perfect ratio of high quality yet reasonably affordable.

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Well Traveled: Bon Voyage
Image by mbg Creative

This lively city has so much to offer a curious traveler—from centuries-long and dense history to delicious food and drink. Come ready to walk, explore, and learn all about Turkish culture.

Meet The Experts

Alexandra Engler is the beauty director at mindbodygreen and host of the beauty podcast Clean Beauty School. Previously, she's held beauty roles at Harper's Bazaar, Marie Claire, SELF, and Cosmopolitan; her byline has appeared in Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Allure.com.

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