Maybe it's the markets selling exotic spices and flavorful tea, or maybe it's the alluring juxtaposition of ancient mosques and modern architecture. And then there's the cuisine, from Old World street fare or 21st-century takes on Mediterranean delights. Whatever the reason, it seems that these days the flights to Istanbul are packed with tourists ready to get full on food.
Future visitors will be delighted to hear that Istanbul has responded to its growing popularity by building more everything -- more hotels, more restaurants, and more bars and shops. Best of all, many of these new options to rest your head and fill your belly come at a favorable price. Here are some of our favorite picks:
Karaköy, an up-and-coming part of town within walking distance of the Old City, houses the three-month old Vault Karaköy, a 19th-century bank-turned-hotel. From the outside, the building seems daunting, with bars on the windows and a stark white facade that imply "no funny business tolerated here." But guests will find a lively sense of humor inside, from old safes that now house bottles of wine or an ATM machine. An original steel cage elevator that once led to the bank's vault today leads into the wine cellar and the Turkish hamman spa. As for the 69 rooms themselves, they show little signs of the past either -- with flatscreen TVs, iPod docking stations, rainforest showers, and free WiFi. The only evidence? The glimpse of churches and cobblestone streets outside the window. Rates from $181, including full breakfast.
For some travelers, there are other Turkish delights besides shelling out on expensive hotel. If you belong in this camp, the Room Mate Kerem, which opened in July, is right up your alley. Its prime location in Beyoğlu, right next to the restaurant- and store-heavy Istiklal Street, is a bonus for those who want to be in the center of action. Though the Spanish brand's hotels are normally quite bare-bones, this outpost is unusually opulent. The lobby is filled with both antique and modern Turkish art and glassware. Rooms are larger than most and come with free WiFi -- but you'll probably be on the outdoor terrace people-watching or in the spa relaxing after a day of pounding the pavement. Rates from $84.
The ten-month-old Haze Hotel, also in Karaköy, is just minutes from Taksim Square, where locals gather for cheap eats and drinks. This historic building once housed a reel factory but now has a jazzy, art-deco feel that set it apart from other hotels in the neighborhood. Low-key but still trendy, the rooms range from petite to penthouse. Most have floor-to-ceiling windows that give a great view of the famous Galata Tower, a few blocks away. Rates from $54, including breakfast and WiFi.
Bargain Eats & Drinks
Most visitors to Istanbul are familiar with kebabs, dürüm, or gyros from home -- made by placing the meat inside lavaş (a Turkish tortilla, pita, or over rice), then stuffing or topping it with tomatoes, onions, peppers, and yogurt sauce. Whether it's lamb, chicken, or beef roasting on a rotating vertical spit or being grilled on skewers, it all makes for delicious eating. While no one will ever agree on the best place for chowing down, one that serves a serious spread is Kebapci Baris Usta in the Asmalimescit district. For less than $15, you’ll get a heaping silver platter filled with enough kebab skewers, flatbread, and at least eight side garnishes from roasted red peppers to cucumbers to tomatoes. Even better? The portions are enough to feed at least four people, meaning you're enjoy an under-$4 meal.
One thing you’ll notice about the rooftop bar and restaurant Ferahfeza is that it’s filled with mostly well-heeled Istanbulites. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the hangout, which quietly opened in August 2013, is super-expensive. It’s just that locals have caught on that the Karaköy eatery is a great spot for a sophisticated night out without losing all their lira (the local currency). The Pan-Mediterranean menu features dishes like pistachio-crusted salmon and phyllo stuffed with goat cheese, which one can enjoy with a glass of local Turkish wine or anise-laced raki for around $50 total (alcohol is heavily taxed in this mostly Muslim country). If you don’t want to stay for dinner, at least come up for a drink on the outside terrace and take in the front-and-center view of the Galata Tower, which lights up at night.
Love drinks with a view? The rooftop ZeldaZonk Bar at the Gradiva Hotel in Karaköy offers one of the city's best vantage points of the Blue Mosque, the Bosphorous Bridge, and the Old City. Mixologist Panagiotis Anastasatos, who returned to Istanbul after bartending stints in NYC and LA, makes drinks like the Gin Tail -- with muddled cucumber and lime -- and creates his own bitters from ingredients he buys from the city’s famous Spice Market. While there's a premium of $16 for his talent, the local Efes beer is a better bargain at $7. Plus, for a night to remember, the ridiculous panorama and jazzy weekend music is worth paying a bit more for drinks than at a nondescript side-street tavern.