Napoleon Bonaparte, the first French emperor, is reputed to have said that "if the world was only one country, Istanbul would be its capital." And having briefly visited Turkey's cultural and economic capital city for briefly 4 days, I couldn't agree more with the unofficial tag that this Eurasian city has been given.
Being a GCC resident for quite some time now, I am fortunate to have traveled to an Arab country (Jordan), a North African kingdom (Morocco), a South Asian tropical nation (Sri Lanka), and a Caucasian country (Georgia) all in just less than two years. Backpacking to these destinations is a tad more convenient because of their proximity to the country where I'm currently based at -- the tiny but downright impressive State of Qatar.
Thinking of which country to travel to next, I'm well aware that the decision making will not be as easy as it may seem as Qatar is so strategically-located in the world map and wherever I set my eyes on, there's always something interesting to discover about a specific region, peninsula, nation, micro state, or city. The possibilities are ruthlessly endless.
With approximately a dozen of equally-diverse countries which made it into my shortlist in terms of richness in culture, sights to see, and affordability, my once-lengthy list was drastically scrapped upon my discernment of this Turkish city which actually has lands in both Asia and Europe—making it a bridge between the two major continents.
Luckily for me, Turkish Airlines and Shangri-La Bosphorus have teamed up to make one of my rarest travel fantasy come to life. Their intent of bringing one journalist from our company to the magical land of Istanbul was a no-brainer as these companies—which are set to provide me the grand Eurasian experience—are hands down the best in what they do.
Turkish Airlines, a proud member of the Star Alliance, currently has a fleet of 328 (passenger and cargo) aircraft flying to a record-breaking 302 destinations worldwide—253 of them international and the rest domestic. Having snagged the title of being 'Europe's Best Airline' for six epic years (2011-2016), it prides itself as the airline which flies to the most number of destinations in the globe, hence its 'Widen Your World' tagline.
I was able to experience Turkish Airlines' extraordinary service and hospitality myself when they picked me up from the HIA to embark on an almost 5-hour flight from Doha to Istanbul. Being a Business Class first-timer, I honestly have no idea on how different it would be to fly with special attention, extra leg room, and a window seat right in front of the aircraft! The staff has guided me deftly on the things that I need to be familiar with while boarded inside their state-of-the-art Business section.
What I love most about Turkish Airlines' broad set of services is the dedication of its cabin crews to really put passengers to sleep. As a frequent traveler, a great nap is on top of my priority (more than food) that's why it's extremely important for me to recharge before immersing myself into a whole new adventure. And with the help of the airlines' top-notch services in general (special mention to the in-chair massage technology), I was able to get more sleep than expected—mainly because the staff never disturbs me to bring food or whatever just so they can stick to their schedule. They respected the fact that I was tired and needed some rest—a gesture that's hard to find in most airlines nowadays.
When we arrived at the Atatürk Airport (in Yesilköy on the European Side of the city), the weather was undoubtedly cold but definitely not the Turkish people. We were greeted very warmly by two ground staff who willingly took us around—despite of the crazy crowd—to help us get some essential stuff such as a tourist sim card and quick access to local money changers.
In the van, we were blessed with a cool driver who was talkative and informative enough to keep us entertained. And because he speaks English well, he was able to disseminate some core facts about Istanbul's history and the like. The almost one hour drive from the airport to our hotel was all worth the while with the driver's smiling face and irresistible charm.
Formerly named Constantinople, Istanbul is a transcontinental city straddling the Bosphorus strait (which separates Istanbul's European and Asian side) between the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea. Bosphorus—a melting pot where most of Istanbul's biggest waterway transactions occur—is the perfect setting for one of Shangrila Hotel's only three branches in the European continent.
Located in the financial and entertainment municipality of Besiktas, Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul showcases not only 186 luxurious rooms and suites for their discerning guests but also more than 1,000 pieces of European and Asian art inspired by Dolmabahce Palace's interior.
Upon arrival, I was welcomed with staff who were all smiles from the time they gave me my room card, toured me around, until my first glimpse of the humongous suite where I spent the next 4 days. Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul was also generous enough to surprise me with more gifts and treats on my first day of stay at their posh accommodation with the one-hour soothing Turkish Hammam session at Chi, The Spa highlighting the overall experience.
On my second and third day of stay, I had to wake up extra early in order to stick to the hectic itinerary while still having time to roam around the 'mini palace' that I am in. Seeing Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul's all-embracing interior design on a personal level is a real feast to the human eye as every corner is picturesque and hanging a camera on your neck while doing so could be the the best decision ever. Its architect, Victor Adaman, is triumphant at playing with both subtle and overt luxury. In guestrooms, the rich teal, creme and caramel color scheme is elegant and comforting at the same time.
Nearly all of the hotel's 17 suites have private terraces offering beautiful Bosphorus vistas—and mine is not an exception. The calming view from my room to the Bosphorus pavements—where thousands of pedestrians converge for the port—is a hybrid of chaos and serenity. It's as if inviting me to descend from my suite and join the huge influx of crowd while appreciating the slightly cold—but still lovely—weather that day. But because all rooms in Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul come with complimentary high-speed Internet access, I always end up being torn between the decision of chilling inside the room or giving in to my wanderlust instincts.
Cuisine-wise, you'll never go wrong with Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul's two dining options namely IST TOO—the traditional one—and Shang Palace—the hotel's signature restaurant.
While IST TOO is a treat for all senses which offers a uniquely satisfying combination of Asian, Mediterranean, and Turkish cuisines, Shang Palace on the other hand proudly introduces Mainland China's culinary to the diverse land of Istanbul. It provides authentic delights in the elegant ambiance of its spacious main dining area, private dining room, wine room, and intimate booths.
We dined in Shangrila Bosphorus Istanbul's signature restaurant on our third night of stay and the food that they served was just bomb! I can't exactly describe how hospitable Shang Palace's staff were while serving us the best of what China has to offer but with the wide selection of irresistible Asian cuisine laid in front of us, I forgot for a little while that I was in Istanbul—that's how magical the dining experience I had with them was!
Besides the two above-mentioned fine dining restaurants, Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul also has 'Lobby Lounge' and 'Le Bar' for more delicate eaters. For fitness buffs, they have a gym called 'Health Club' where you can workout anytime of the day while immersed in Shangri-La Bosphorus Istanbul's finest wellness equipment. 'Style Salon,' on the other hand, is the place to go if you wanna trim that extra strand of hair and look a tad sharper.
To give you a better idea on what to expect on your first trip to Istanbul and possibly help you get around more easily, we've rounded up—in categories—the important must-know points and facts in order for you to maximize your time while sandwiched between two of the biggest continents in the world.
Istanbul has great monuments reflecting vast past empires and also holds an ideal location for defensive purposes. It was also considered the gate to the East with all the trade that had in its prime flowed through there. If any city in the world would work nicely for that purpose, it would be Istanbul. It is also worth-noting that the city was the capital of three major empires: Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman. Once you hire an English-speaking tour guide, he or she will surely tell you that it was at Pera Palas Hotel, Istanbul where British author Agatha Christie wrote her famous novel 'Murder on the Orient Express' and he will deliberately call it a "very cool fact." Well after all, it really is, right?
As mentioned in the introductory part of this piece, Istanbul's culture is a mixture of both Asian and European influences due to its purpose-made location in the world map meaning whichever tribe you're from, you'll surely find a fit in Istanbul's exciting plethora of things to do and sights to discover as it is an ultimate melting pot of everything diverse. In accordance to this, approximately 12.56 million foreign visitors arrived in Istanbul in 2015, five years after it was named the 'European Capital of Culture,' making the city the world's fifth most popular tourist destination that year. How cool is that?
Istanbul has been chosen as the 'Humanity Capital of the World' by the International Humanitarian Forum through an initiative implemented by activists from different countries, religions and cultures. Istanbul is the first city to be awarded this title because of Turkey's commitment to altruism and its vast amount of humanitarian projects. Another trivia to jot down is Turkey's helping hand to host some three million Syrian refugees, who have been fleeing their war-torn country since 2011. And just like Qatar, the country is likewise multi-culturally diverse with the government saying: "There are refugees from many countries living in Turkey. We welcome them in the best possible way."
Located in the north-west of Turkey, Istanbul has a mild climate. And while it is possible to experience all four seasons, The best times to visit Istanbul are from March to May and between the months of September and November if you prefer a colder version of the city. That's when crowds at the city's attractions are manageable, room rates are average, and daytime temperatures generally sit in the 60's and 70's. And did I mention that compared to tropical countries, Istanbul has longer days than nights? Meaning you have longer time to take advantage of their gorgeous magic hour!
Istanbul is primarily known for its Byzantine and Ottoman architecture, but its buildings reflect the various people and empires that have previously ruled the city. There was even a travel video featuring an American guy who's been to all 195 countries and when asked about Istanbul's effect to his life, the 'impressive architecture' was all that he could say. Make sure to take a selfie in the Sultanahmet Camii mosque with its six breathtaking minarets in the background!
Simply put, street photography is at its peak in Istanbul. The sights are not only interesting, you also have all the liberty to take pictures of almost every subject and some locals are even more than glad to strike a smile or pose for you. Hagia Sophia, Dolmabahce Palace and the Naval museum—which are all accessible from the Bosphorus area—are all erected for your eyes to feast on. And if you prefer a more laid-back sightseeing venture, then take an hour-long ferry trip to the Prince Islands and detox yourself from air pollution as the islands are entirely car-free!
For those flying through Istanbul and has a waiting time of at least six hours, you are all welcome to Tourist Istanbul! After passengers arrive at the Ataturk Airport, you will be picked up for a tour to the historical places and beautiful restaurants scattered around the city. Sightseers will enjoy Istanbul's iconic and natural beauties rather than wasting time on the airport. After the tour, you will then be brought directly back to the airport just in time before your flight.
We've explained this category in the Shangri-La part, so if you want to add anything else, please feel free! One tip though: In Istanbul, they don't say Shawarma -- they call it Doner!
Besides the usual taxis, buses, trains, and sometimes trams, your Istanbul experience won't be complete without a ferry ride and a 20-minute round trip from Besiktas to Kadikoy—for example—ticks all the boxes and more. Ferries dart across the Bosphorus strait for the meager price of five Liras (a little more than $1) per ride. Also, Istanbul houses the third oldest subway in the world and it's still being used until today in the hip district of Beyoglu.
The world-renowned Grand Bazaar is well-known for its 4,000 shops making up the covered area's massive entirety. Often regarded as one of the first shopping malls in the world, the Grand Bazaar together with the nearby Spice Bazaar attract between 250,000 and 400,000 visitors on a daily basis. If you prefer a less-crowded shopping spot, head on to Nisantasi—a luxury shopping and fashion quarter located in the Şişli district on the European side of Istanbul.
Turkish people are crazy for football. And I was able to prove this during my last day when there was an ongoing match between Besiktas and another team—which I can't remember the name. And because football fans are insanely-scattered in the major streets that time, the influx caused heavy traffic and it almost costed me my precious flight back to Doha.
To sum it up, Istanbul is budget-friendly for those who will choose to look at it that way. It is one of the very few cities in the world where tight budgeting is not really a pre-requisite as one's daily cost will solely depend on the traveler's interests and intent. If you're in Istanbul to shop, then prepare to shell out a few more Liras. But if you're in for the experience, then your luggage will surely be brimful with memories, not the usual souvenirs.
There are lots. But on top of my mind are the Galata Bridge where fishermen of all ages cast their lines, the Egyptian/Spice Bazaar, and the stylish night market neighborhood of Tunel—which is also a historical underground funicular line in Istanbul.
So let's take a look back at the headline of this article. Why did we call Istanbul the most ideal city to visit from Qatar on Eid—or any vacation leave that you can possibly get? The answer is simple. Besides the facts that we've discussed on the earlier part of this article, there's so much more to see in Istanbul besides the famous landmarks that we see on postcards and movies. Plus if you feel like heading out of civilization, Turkey itself is blessed with provinces which caters to almost anything that you could ask for.
You can take a one-hour flight to Bodrum to marvel over its gorgeous beaches or reroute to Antalya and bathe on its countless waterfalls. Not to mention the semi-arid region of Cappadocia which we already know what is famous for.
Also, ever since the onset of the blockade, Qatar and Turkey has been the best of allies that's why going for a trip to Istanbul is at its peak—especially at the moment—as Turkish Airlines is also stepping up the game to make itself more well-known in the Qatari market. Giving Istanbul a prominent space on your bucket list is the least that we can do—as Qatari residents—to say thanks to Turkey's unending efforts on providing for Qatar in gloomy times like this.
To know more about Shangrila Bosphorus Istanbul and Turkish Airlines, check out their contact details below!
Address: Sinanpasa Mah., Hayrettin Iskelesi Sk. No.1, 34353, Besiktas/Istanbul
Contact number: +90 (0212) 275 88 88
Turkish Airlines operates flights to Doha since 2006 and flies 10 times per week in the winter season and 14 times per week in both directions in the summer.
Where are you planning to spend your Eid holidays this year? Is Istanbul on your list? If not, did this ILQ Globetrotter article convinced you to give the city a try? Let us know in the comments section below and also, don't forget to like and share this article—it keeps us going!
(Cover image source: IStock photos)
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