With the prices of a high-end hotel rooms in Paris, Amsterdam, and Vienna soaring, it is nearly impossible to tour Europe in style. Instead of experiencing Venice, Stockholm, or Amsterdam without views of the canals, skip the western half of the continent altogether and head to Istanbul, where the “Grand Tour” tradition lives on thanks to stately hotels, accommodating locals, and an incredibly dense collection of outstanding cultural artifacts.
Istanbul has gone by several names over the years. Founded as the Greek city of Byzantium in 660 B.C., it became Constantinople, a key part of the Roman Empire, some 700 years later. Roughly 300 years after that, the city was named the seat of the Byzantine Empire and given its modern moniker. The flotsam and jetsam of empire, massive mosques, churches, obelisks, and markets, remains. Walking around Sultanahmet, the oldest part of the city, travelers pass by a Roman hippodrome used for chariot races, over a 6th-century cistern, and through the arches of the Grand Bazaar, which still traffics in the gems and textiles that have been sold here for centuries.
The Blue Mosque, a vast stack of domes also called Sultan Ahmet Camii, welcomes visitors between prayers. The interior is a reproach to the stained-glass darkness of Europe’s cathedrals, all bright light and colorful carpet. The Hagia Sofia, a short walk away, is a monument to both God and history. It began as a church, built by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, became a mosque under the Ottomans in 1448, and was turned into a secular museum in 1935. The result is something utterly unusual: elaborate mosaics of Jesus and Mary plaster walls next to proclamations of faith written in gilded Arabic calligraphy. Even the geologic past is visible: Cracked floors and tilted pillars remain from a major earthquake.
Other neighborhoods, like Beyo?lu to the north of the Old City, are brimming with a more contemporary energy. The Istanbul Modern – the country’s first private modern art museum – showcases paintings, sculptures, and interactive exhibits by Turkish artists. Make an afternoon of it by stopping for a meal first at the top-floor café, a popular spot for locals to enjoy brunch al fresco on the balcony overlooking the Bosphorus Strait. New Mediterreanean – rather than traditionally Turkish – cuisine is fashionable with the trendy set, and several places in the city make it wonderful. For a classy meal set against a stunning view of the city, head to X Restaurant & Bar, and for dinner followed by cocktails and chatter late into the night, try the uber-popular Münferit (just be sure you have a reservation).
Perhaps the best way to glimpse all the sides of the city is a cruise down the Bosphorous, which splits Europe and Asia as well as the city’s eastern and western halves. From the boat deck you can see Ottoman palaces, waterfront homes whose historic wooden facades are strictly regulated and maintained, popular brunch spots, luxury hotels, and even Suada, a miniature island floating between the two continents complete with restaurants, a club, and a pool. That’s the sort of luxurious touch you can expect to find in Turkey, an affordable opulence all but gone everywhere else.
More information: Turkish Airlines flies nonstop to Istanbul from U.S. cities including New York, L.A., Houston, Chicago, D.C., and Boston. Connecting in Istanbul on Turkish Airlines can also help you get to other European destinations more economically (a quick search of summer trips found that, going from New York, it saved about $400 going to Rome or $200 going to Madrid and Paris), making it a convenient and affordable part of a larger trip.