What’s new for tourists heading to Istanbul this year

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By Dan Sears

Who says it’s nobody’s business but the Turks?

Despite a catastrophic earthquake and the hotly contested reelection of President Tayyip Erdoğan, Istanbul is booming this year with some of the best new luxury hotel and tourist offerings in the world. 

Straddling Europe and Asia along the 20-mile-long Bosphorus Strait that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, it’s easy to see why the city formerly known as Constantinople is attracting big-name hospitality brands like the W, Soho House and Peninsula.

The Hagia Sophia and the the Blue Mosque are still as spellbinding as ever. The city’s 500,000 mellow feral cats are still on rat patrol. A trip to the underground Basilica Cistern (where Sean Connery rowed a boat through its 336 columns in “From Russia With Love”) is still a can’t-miss experience.

The Turkish capital’s massive $4.4 billion Galataport waterfront project.
Ali Bekman

The Galataport, a $4.4 billion redevelopment project, has transformed 28 acres of the Karaköy waterfront into a public playground. Think the best of Brookfield Place, Stone Street and the East River’s Seaport with low-rise buildings and a few X-ray bag scanners to ensure safety.     

Opening the seaside to the public was a longtime dream of Serdar Bilgili, chairman of the family company Bilgili Holding and BLG Capital. A textile merchant who became a developer, he once led the Beşiktaş Sports Club, which now has a new soccer/football stadium.   

In New York, BLG previously partnered with Michael Shvo at the Aman New York, 711 Fifth Ave., 530 Broadway and the Mandarin Oriental at 685 Fifth Ave. But Bilgili’s been on the prowl for other Big Apple projects. 

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Posed shot of Serdar Bilgili.
BLG’s Serdar Bilgili is a mover and a shaker in Istanbul — maybe the biggest.

To redevelop his hometown port, Bilgili teamed up with Turkey’s Doğuş Group in 2013 and has since invested over $1.8 billion in the LEED-platinum venture. 

The unique patented port redesign allows three large cruise ships to dock, while a decorated fence becomes a boundary between the public and port operations in 300,000 underground square feet that can handle 1.5 million passengers a year. 

Those walking on the esplanade have no idea what lies beneath their feet. Several enormous floors host customs, cruise line operations and parking for 2,400 cars.  

Exterior of a cruise ship.
Galataport can easily accommodate three large cruise ships.
Ali Bekman

Exterior of Istanbul Modern and the Tophane Clock Tower.
Renzo Piano’s Istanbul Modern sits pretty in Museum Square next to the revamped Tophane Clock Tower.
Orhan Kolukisa

The Galataport’s Museum Square includes the redeveloped Tophane Clock Tower and MSGSU Istanbul Museum of Painting and Sculpture and the new, Renzo Piano-designed Istanbul Modern, which opened in mid-June. 

Restaurants and cafes serving all cuisines are abundant, and diners and strollers are entertained by the many boats and ferries that ply across the turquoise waters. 

Among the 230 storefronts in 560,000 square feet of nooks and crannies is Ottoman 1860 Turkish Delight, where colorful logs of pistachio, pomegranate and other flavors are a treat. There’s also 463,000 square feet of offices and co-working space with rooftop terraces as well as a marina for private boats and ferries. 

Exterior of the Peninsula Istanbul.
The new Peninsula Istanbul is bringing modern luxury to the ancient city.
Emre Dorter

At the southern end of Galataport, the developers are 50/50 partners in the soft-opened $300 million, 177-room Peninsula Istanbul — the waterfront’s only hotel — that occupies several new and historic buildings including the Karaköy Passenger Terminal.

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Its top room is a 5,690-square-foot penthouse with its own mini-pool. If you can’t spring for that, head to the hotel’s equally exquisite hammam with heated marble benches at the hotel spa, or go outside to the pool and order chow from a restaurant by Fatih Tutak, Turkey’s only two-star Michelin chef (rates from $1,045). 

Other unique hotel options are the W Hotel and Soho House. BLG Capital created the latter by intertwining historic and new buildings — it was former US embassy abandoned after 9/11 when a rocket struck a courtyard tree.

Exterior of a restaurant and event area at Soho House.
The buzzy club Soho House recently opened in the former US embassy in Istanbul with spaces for dining, events and a spa.
Engin Aydeniz

Interior of a room at Soho House.
Rooms at the snazzy new, members-preferred hotel range from $350 to $1,477 a night.
Engin Aydeniz

Today, visitors are awestruck by the setting sun as well as restored frescoes on the ceilings and walls of its bars, screening room and ball room. 

Open to non-members when available, rooms range from $350 to $1,477 per night and include several with mezzanines and plush, green velour beds with flatscreens that pop up from their footboards. Restaurants include Cecconi’s for Italian food, Aphelia for Turkish “with a Mexican twist” on an outdoor terrace and the Allis for light cafe fare in the secluded garden and lobby where cats lazily find cushioned seats.

In June, a DJ rocked a Pride event on the highest roof where an archway of rainbow balloons framed the setting sun.  

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Interior of the W Hotel's bar.
RiRi, Fiddy and Amy Winehouse have all spent time at the perma-cool W in Istanbul.
Eric Laignel

For a more Americanized experience, pick the W Hotel in the Beşiktaş district. BLG Capital previously restored the Akaretler Row Houses, which include the W, plus the townhomes, upscale shops and cafes. 

Rihanna, 50 Cent and the late Amy Winehouse have slept in the round bed of its penthouse suite which, for $4,400 per night, has a living room with a shaded glass roof and private terrace. 

The W will soon be refreshed, but for now, it costs $195 for a king bed to $658 for a suite that includes breakfast and a shuttle to the modern, duty-free-shopping-filled airport where you can pick up Cartier jewelry, spices, Turkish delights or the omnipresent evil eye trinkets that will protect you on your flight and at home. 

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