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Exploring Istanbul

by Olivia Balsinger

They say it’s where East meets West. But in reality, it is so much more than that. The dichotomies in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, are unparalleled—the metropolis is a dynamic and modern-day world center steeped in history and relevance for thousands of years. The bridge between Asia and Europe, physically divided by the Bosporus Straight, Istanbul embodies the best of all worlds—it is truly an epicenter of art, culture, food, and history.

Surrounded by history in the heart of the Sultanahmet District, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1985, On my first morning, I found shelter in a rustic coffee house. Turkish coffee is more than just a means to a caffeine-rush in Istanbul—it is an integral part of the city. There is a ritual of bringing sugar to the boil in a unique pot called a cezve, which is then served elegantly in a dainty cup and saucer.

Once caffeinated, it was time to explore the intricacies of the old city further. My first stop was the 400-year-old Sultan Ahmed Mosque, often nicknamed The Blue Mosque, as the blue tiles that envelop the structure are breathtaking. Though one of the most popular tourist spots in the entire city, The Blue Mosque is still functioning as a worship place and is not a museum. Staring at The Blue Mosque is the equally stunning Hagia Sophia museum, a testament to how sophisticated the ancient world was during Byzantine times. Built from around 537 until 143, Hagia Sophia has been the world’s largest cathedral for nearly one thousand years.

Following my time travel to the ancient world and Istanbul’s antiquities, I stepped back into the modern world with a visit to The Istanbul Modern Art Museum, located in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul. A homage to contemporary and experimental art, the installations and sculptures at this museum feature some of Turkey’s most acclaimed contemporary artists.

Any epic city with so much to see will surely be wary on the body. Luckily, Istanbul’s traditional hammams offer authentic and rejuvenating experiences for the intrepid traveler. Hammams are not quite bathhouses and are not entirely massage parlors—they are chambers designed with wall to wall stones and a scorching altar-like slab in the middle of the room.

I split my time in Istanbul between two luxurious hotels. Located in the city’s prestigious Sariyer district, The Six Senses Kocataş Mansions lives up to the brand name. With stunning interiors, a fantastic art collection, and a spa that captivates serenity, this hotel should be on the wishlist of any discerning traveler to Istanbul. Next, I went to the heart of Taksim Square for a stay at The Grand Hyatt Istanbul, another five-star urban resort surrounded by peaceful gardens that prides itself on its four restaurants that each bring out the unique flavors of Istanbul.

A transcontinental city bursting with history, Istanbul is one of those rare gems that services all. For the luxury traveler, for the curious backpacker, for the historian, for the lover of culture, Istanbul not only delivers but withstands the tests of time.