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Best Things to Do in Istanbul, From Mansion Hotels to Hammams

Istanbul is a cosmopolis unlike any other—where the remains of former empires, the cultural influences of multi-ethnic communities, and contemporary Turkish identity all exist in delicate harmony. The Turkish megacity, which lifted all COVID-19 testing and vaccination requirements upon entry this month, continues to grow with new restaurants, boutique hotels, designer shops, and contemporary art galleries sprouting up in trending neighborhoods on both sides of the strait. Here are the essential things to do in Istanbul, from the traditional to the contemporary and experimental.

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An egg and beef pastrami dish at TURK

Ibrahim Ozbunar

The interior dining area at TURK

Ibrahim Ozbunar

where to eat

A nucleus of gastronomy representative of the endless recipes and traditions of Turkey’s many regions, this is also a palatal playground for celebrity chefs who are redefining Turkish cuisine with a modern verve, inclusive of wine lists that celebrate the newly sprouting boutique vineyards all over the country . A consistently excellent venue for lunch or dinner, locals love to dine on modern interpretations of classic Turkish dishes at Yeni Lokanta, especially the mantı (dumplings filled with meat) which has become rather famous in its own right.

For a more experimental take on the new Turkish kitchen, the tasting menu at TURK is a fascinating journey through Anatolia and its history told through creative dishes that look like works of art. More edible art can be experienced inside the former Ottoman Bank, where Neolokal looks out over the Old City, serving creative dishes inspired by tradition as well as one of the city’s most comprehensive Turkish wine lists.

For the classic rakı, meze, and fresh fish fare that is synonymous with Istanbul, reserve a table at Kıyı, a local institution known for bidding the highest price for the freshest catch at the fish markets. Go to Mahir Lokantası if you’re looking for a no-frills eatery with a daily spread of excellent home-cooked Anatolian dishes and desserts, as well as lahmacun (thin crispy dough with minced meat and herbs) and pide (flatbread loaded with different toppings) fresh from the wood-fired oven upon order.

If you’ve spent a day perusing the sights in Sultanahmet, skip all the touristy restaurants and head to Lokanta 1741 for beyond-par Turkish food served on a lovely terrace with its own cocktail bar. If you’ve ventured to the Asian side of the city to the trendy Moda neighborhood, make sure to try Turkish street food staples reinterpreted by two former fine dining chefs at Basta Street Food Bar, or more experimental recipes accompanied by wine at their newly opened venue, Basta Neobistro.

If you’re in need of a coffee break accompanied by something sweet or savory, spend some time at the minimalist Casa Cooklife, which also publishes an eponymous slow-living magazine. In the evening, get a thorough introduction to the world of Turkish wines at Foxy Nişantaşı, currently the city’s coolest wine bar. As for craft cocktails that interpret local ingredients and culture in a coupe glass, make sure to drop by Fahri Konsolos, touted as the city’s best cocktail bar.

Kolon, a 2010 piece by Sergiden Yerleştirme Görüntüsü, at the ARTER Museum

Orhan Cem Cetin

Darts target boards and arrows by Jacob Dahlgren at the ARTER Museum

Orhan Cem Cetin

what to do

No Istanbul experience would be complete without first getting thoroughly cleansed and rejuvenated at a Turkish hammam. Two of the very best Turkish baths are the beautifully renovated and modern Kılıç Alı Paşa Hamamı, and the smaller and more private Çukurcuma Hamamı with its flawless marble interior.

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