Where East meets West … the Georges Hotel in classic old Istanbul.
Seductive, chaotic and bewildering, Istanbul is a difficult city to get your head around; even the taxi drivers have problems navigating their way through this ever-changing metropolis. Two things you need to survive are plenty of patience and a good hotel room to sink into at night. These three do the job nicely.
THE SMALL STUFF
The street on which the Georges Hotel is located is classic old Istanbul: a narrow lane leading up to the Galata Tower, its elegant buildings graced with traditional wooden Ottoman balconies jutting out into the street. The Georges Hotel itself is also narrow, and feels more like a private house than a hotel. The front door opens onto an exposed red-brick room that serves as bar, restaurant and general help desk. A sweeping velvet curtain hides the glass elevator that takes you up to the 20 guest rooms.
The stylish rooms and suites are also modestly proportioned, but furnished with every five-star necessity, from eiderdowns and L'Occitane bath products to excellent soundproofing (a must in a city crowded with horn-honking drivers and loud calls to prayer from minarets). The soaring ceilings make the rooms feel larger than they are, while the cheerful staff will arrange just about anything on request, including a private yoga instructor.
Fish from your balcony … absolute waterfront at A'jia Hotel.
While the Georges is a lovely place to retreat to at the end of a long day, it's also a great place to set out from. There are plenty of shops and restaurants nearby, as well as the tram that takes you to the sights of the historic Sultanahmet district. It's also an easy walk down to the Galata Bridge for dinner at one of its many fish restaurants. Yes, they're touristy, but between the ferries and the strollers, the anglers and the hawkers, you'll see all of Istanbul pass by as the sun sinks slowly behind the city's seven hills.
Georges Hotel, Galata.
+90 212 244 2423, georges.com.
Rates start at €110 ($130) a night.
Turkish bath … the luxurious modern facilities at Tomtom Suites.
My first morning in Istanbul, a dolphin frolics not 10 metres from my breakfast table. That's just one of the benefits of staying at the A'jia, a rare Istanbul hotel right on the Bosphorus. In a city as defined by the water as Istanbul is, it's surprising that more hotels haven't invested in a ringside seat, but the fact they haven't just makes the A'jia so much more special.
It's not just its waterfront perch that sets the A'jia apart. The 16-room hotel is housed in a gorgeous 19th-century governor's mansion, with ultra-chic black-and-white interiors and private balconies from where you can watch the ships sail by.
Depending which way you look at it, the A'jia's location is its biggest advantage, its biggest drawback, or both. If you want to step from your hotel right into the thick of things, stay somewhere else. If, however, you want a good night's sleep, gorgeous views, and a chance to explore a lesser-known side of the city, step right this way.
The A'jia is perched on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, directly across from some of Istanbul's most desirable neighbourhoods, filled with gorgeous old houses, stylish boutiques and chic restaurants. On the weekend, take the hotel's free shuttle boat across and stroll along the water's edge, watching the chic young things brunching, while older men throw a line into the water. With downtown just a short taxi ride away, it's the best of both worlds.
A'jia Hotel, Kanlica.
+90 216 413 9300, ajiahotel.com.
Rates start at €250 ($300) a night.
BANG THE DRUM
Istanbul is one of the world's true melting pots - Eastern and Western, Christian and Islamic - so it should perhaps come as no surprise that the 100-year-old building that's now the Tomtom Suites was once a convent for French nuns. However, like everything else in Istanbul, the building has been reinvented, and is now one of the city's most sophisticated boutique hotels. With chic decor – classic neutrals offset by boldly coloured signature pieces and eye-catching artworks – and creature comforts such as heated bathroom floors, in-room espresso machines and wi-fi, Tomtom Suites hits all the marks.
The hotel has just 20 rooms, each generously sized, and a tucked-away position that shields it from traffic noise while still offering easy access to the best of Istanbul.
A quick walk uphill takes you to the buzz of Istiklal, the city's main pedestrian street, and the elegant Pera quarter. Head downhill and you'll arrive at Istanbul Modern, the city's impressive contemporary art gallery.
The area is rich in bars and restaurants, but plan to spend at least one night in. The two chefs at the hotel's restaurant have made La Mouette one of Istanbul's top tables with their innovative East-meets-West cuisine. The shrimp charred with red pine is terrific, or try the rock bass with cucumber linguine and anise-vanilla-scented green pea fava.
Tomtom Suites, Beyoglu.
+90 212 292 4949, tomtomsuites.com.
Rates start at €190 ($225) a night.
From Sunday Life