The 30 kilometer-long, deep blue Bosphorus strait separates Europe from Asia and splits Istanbul in two. But the bustling waterway is also the city's great uniter, prettier than a central park and far more useful. A good number of Istanbulites commute via ferry between the continents daily, so urban life plays out on the water: If your stay in the city is brief, maximize your time near the water and really take in the trade hub's maritime culture. The best front-and-center view of this civic cinema comes from the waterfront suites of the newly-opened Shangri-La Bosphorus, an ultra-luxe 192-room hotel perched immediately in front of the Besiktas ferry terminal on the European side – a few miles removed from the dolled-up hotels of Sultanahmet.

Much of the day and night, ferries surrounded by seagulls quietly pull in and out a stone's throw from the Shangri-La's panoramic, floor-to-ceiling windows;  if you've scored a waterfront room, you'll likely leave the TV off and watch the drama unfold under the dusty, shifting Turkish sky. The hotel was built from the bones of a 1939 tobacco factory and warehouse. Though it looks identical to the seven-story facade in old photographs from the water, it's actually all new construction; seven new floors created by digging underneath the original footprint.

The Shangri-La is flanked on one side by the Dolmabahçe Palace, where the Ottoman Empire ruled from 1856 to 1922. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved some of his offices there last year; as a result, the hotel's security is high. Armed gunmen are posted near the entrance, and before entering the lobby, you’re sent through a metal detector. Once inside, you'll encounter an abundance of flowers, crystal, far-east artwork, and general old-school world-travel opulence, a signature of the Hong Kong-based hotelier. We walked in with an overstuffed backpack but felt like we should have instead been trailed by a few steamer trunks. The rooms are hushed, pastel blue spaces with giant, marble-clad bathrooms. Service is ever-present, almost to the point of being overbearing: each time the elevator doors open, for example, expect to see be welcomed by a staff member asking if they can assist you with anything. Tell them to open the curtains.

More information: Rooms at the Shangri-La run from around $450 a night. Turkish Airlines runs direct flights to Istanbul from New York.