Yes, lodging in Istanbul is incredibly inexpensive in the winter, with plenty of hotels offering rates under $100. But if you're willing to make a small splurge in low season, you'll enjoy luxury that's leaps ahead of what your dollars will get you elsewhere.
Take for example the newly unveiled Raffles Istanbul, opened just this past September in a shiny new shopping and entertainment complex called the Zorlu Center. For a brand internationally known for offering some of the best hospitality on earth, deluxe rooms here are as low as around $235 per night in December and around $350-$380 through April -- significantly less than the $600 rates in high season. Sure, the low season prices are still on the high end, but the level of service you can expect in return? Butler access for all guests, not just those in the expansive suites.
The deluxe rooms are the lowest categories offered at the Raffles Istanbul, yet they're anything but basic. After all, they're 775-square-foot sanctuaries with coveted amenities like walk-in closets, furnished terraces with city or ocean views, and -- our favorite -- TVs in the bathroom mirrors. As with the rest of Istanbul, there are beautiful patterns and tasteful pops of color everywhere, from the graphic wallpaper behind the bed to the geometric moldings on the ceiling. And techie guests will love using the state-of-the-art touchscreen panels to adjust room lighting and air conditioning. (The settings can also be controlled from the in-room tablets, where room service and newspapers orders can be placed.)
There are plenty of culturally inspired touches to please design hounds, too. In the bathrooms, face towels rest on Iznik plates -- a legacy of Anatolia, or the Asian side of Turkey. A metallic mural made from HD photos of the Dolmabahçe Palace, where photography is now off-limits for visitors, spans most of one lobby wall. Even the indoor pool lies under an art installation of disks that glitter underneath a soaring skylight.
Speaking of the spa floor -- that's where the indoor pool is located -- if you've never experienced a Turkish hamam, we recommend that you splurge on a service here. While ordinary hamam commonly frequented by the locals are more affordable, first-timers will appreciate the instruction and guidance at posher establishments. Appointments fill up unsurprisingly quickly, despite the long operating hours (6 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m.), so make sure you plan ahead. It's around $383 for a traditional 120-minute treatment with scrub, mask, tea ceremony, and massage; or $170 for a modern 60-minute treatment with scrub and massage.
While the property does have seven restaurants and bars -- including the Michelin-starred tapas restaurant Arola -- you'll be conveniently located for exploring options in the city, too. We know, it's tempting to simply cocoon yourself in these comforts, but just steps from the hotel back entrance is an indoor pathway through Zorlu Center leading right to the metro. (That's actually the preferred way to go in any season, because a highway blocks pedestrian paths above ground.) Then it's just two stops to Taksim Square in downtown, and an easy transfer to the tram to Old Town Sultanahmet.
Bonus: Just for fun, let us share what €25,000 -- or about $31,010 -- gets you here per night. A stay in the Raffles Suite includes round-trip helicopter airport transfer, a butler that unpacks and re-packs for you, all minibar items, and personalized everything (think: bathrobes, iPad covers, and stationery). Then there are extra perks like a half-hour helicopter or private yacht tour, an in-room couples massage, and a private chef's table at the restaurant. As for the suite itself? It encompasses two bedrooms.... in addition to separate living, kitchen, dining, dressing, exercising, working, and entertaining rooms. And that's not to mention the 925-square-foot terrace -- larger than an entire deluxe guest room. Trust the home of the former Ottoman Empire to dream up such lavishness!