When you talk about Shangri-La Hotels, luxury immediately comes to mind. Plush furnishings, silk tapestries, a great spa, big rooms and fantastic views are just some of the things that one comes to expect of a Shang Hotel.
Having three modern Shangri-Las in Manila and two gorgeous island resorts in Boracay and Cebu, it is a brand that we Filipinos love and are familiar with — down to the scent of its lobby, rooms and spa, and our fave dim sum at its flagship restaurant Shang Palace.
Last year, on a weekend in Istanbul coming from another European city, I experienced how the Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Group brought its Asian character across the seas and onto the shores of Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait. Shangri-La Istanbul is only the group’s third hotel in Europe, following London’s modern hotel at The Shard and Paris’ former royal palace.
Located in Beşiktaş, near the ferry terminals that bring passengers to Uskudar on the Asian side, Shangri-La lives up to its mythical name — it is a quiet oasis in a very lively neighborhood that’s home to one of Istanbul’s Big Three football teams.
Shangri-La Istanbul is a great example of how an old, decrepit building is repurposed and turned into a modern structure. Looking at it today, you’d hardly believe that this luxury space used to be a tobacco factory and warehouse in the 1930s.
With the architectural firm Piramit Ltd., Shangri-La recreated the façade of the old warehouse since it is protected by the city’s Cultural and Natural Assets Committee. The hotel preserved the historic façade and built only seven stories above ground and seven under (for the function rooms and ballrooms). There must be a height restriction on buildings located on the banks of the Bosphorus because, second to the Dolmabahçe Palace which was home to a handful of Ottoman sultans, it’s the second tallest by the water.
For its interiors, they referenced the brand’s signature look of quiet opulence and luxury, working around a palette of earth tones with touches of blue and Chinoiserie accents such as the lamps and vases in the lobby.
A stunning four-story artwork called “Garden of Peach Blossom” hangs in the hotel’s atrium, as does a massive crystal chandelier, while the lobby’s furnishings are gold-leafed.
Shangri-La has set the standard for having some of the biggest rooms wherever the location, whether in a dense city like Hong Kong or an island resort like Boracay. Istanbul is no different. There’s generous space for its bathroom, walk-in closet and sitting area apart from a wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed.
The best part of its bedrooms? Most of them have Bosphorus views — and there is no better way to spend time inside than looking out to the Bosphorus Bridge at sunset.
The hotel’s Shang Palace serves authentic Cantonese food with dim sum served in the afternoon. A wide selection of tea is served from an elongated pot by a “kung fu tea master.”
I was lucky that on that weekend Shang’s Ist Too restaurant — serving Turkish and Mediterranean cuisines — was having its Gaziantep Kitchen festival, possibly the most renowned Turkish cuisine and where the best baklava comes from. The views from here are of the Bosphorus and you can step out to enjoy a stroll on the quiet street outside.
So, where is the Turkish touch of Shangri-La Istanbul? My friend Sena Kahraman, who used to work there and is now brand director at Shangri-La Barr Al Jissah Resort in Oman, showed me the hotel’s Chi Spa.
“This,” she said, “is the Turkish identity of the hotel.” I’ve seen a lot of Turkish baths in Istanbul, Antalya and Bodrum — and combined with the modern Asian feel of Chi Spa, this is definitely the most beautiful.
I’ve always said Turkey feels like a second home to me, and being at Shang just made my home a little closer.
Nobel laureate for literature Orhan Pamuk wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy. The Bosphorus Strait, he said, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”
That’s a little harsh, but it’s true that you can be walking in Istanbul’s historic streets and imagine yourself in the rich past of the Ottoman Empire and in the next block be jolted back to the reality of its modernity with hip coffee shops on both sides of the strait, gleaming shopping malls, and office towers.
Istanbul—a city where I’ve made friends and visited about 15 times in the past three years (sometimes just for the weekend when I’m coming from another city in Europe, sometimes for my annual vacation and then I head to Turkey’s coastline)—is a place I’ve come to regard like a second home. A friend calls me yenge (sister-in-law) as if I were married to the city, while another tells me that I should be granted honorary citizenship.
As with any first-time tourist to Istanbul, you go to where all the guidebooks tell you: the Blue Mosque, Grand Bazaar, Hagia Sofia, Topkapi and Dolmabahçe Palaces, Galata Tower, Maiden’s Tower, Eminonu and the Bosphorus Strait.
I did all that, but it was only when I set out on a tour of the Bosphorus that I fell in love with Istanbul. This strait that divides the city between Europe and Asia lends it romance the way the River Seine does to Paris, but in an entirely different way.
“To be able to see the Bosphorus, even from afar—for İstanbuller, this is a matter of spiritual import that may explain why windows looking out onto the sea are like the mihrabs in mosques, the altars in Christian churches, and the tevans in synagogues, and why all the chairs, sofas, and dining tables in our Bosphorus-facing sitting rooms are arranged to face the view,” Pamuk wrote.
On that first Bosphorus tour, the guide pointed out the palaces of the sultans, the magnificent Topkapi and Dolmabahçe, which served as centers of the Ottoman Empire and are museums today. You can look at the bedrooms of the sultans and their collections but you cannot touch them or stay long because there is always a long queue behind you.
Then something caught my eye near the first Bosphorus Bridge. It was Çiragan Palace sitting on the shores, looking so magnificent—as if every marble column and gate rose out of the bottom of the waters of the Bosphorus fully constructed.
The palace was built by Sultan Abdülâziz and designed by the era’s famous Armenian palace architect Nigogayos Balyan and constructed by his sons between 1863 and 1867. Before that, it was known as Kazancioglu Gardens at the beginning of the 17th century and a hundred years later, in 1719, Damat İbrahim Pasha of Nevşehir built a summer mansion for his wife, the daughter of a sultan.
The guide said, “The palace is now Çiragan Palace Kempinski, the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Istanbul. Its Sultan Suite costs about 33,000 euros a night.”
I thought, surely, that amount cannot be right—but it is.
The guide continued, “But superior rooms are affordable starting at 300 euros.”
And that was how, on my third time to celebrate the New Year in Istanbul, I found myself in this Ottoman Empire palace hotel—and I definitely did not book the Sultan’s Suite.
The Kempinski brand assures luxury and white-glove service— whether it’s a modern hotel such as Siam in Bangkok or a certain architecture, like the Selcuk-style The Dome in Belek—but more than that, I loved the idea of waking up, literally, to history. In Çiragan Palace Kempinski’s case, a faithfully reconstructed history.
Çiragan Palace was built during a period wherein all Ottoman sultans constructed their own palaces rather than using those before them. It is the last example of this period of extravagance. The inner walls and the roof were made of wood, the outer walls of colorful marble and a very high garden wall protected the palace from the outer world.
Sultan Abdülâziz did not live long in his palace. He was dethroned and succeeded by his nephew, whose reign lasted 93 days and lived here under house arrest until his death in August 1904.
Then the palace was used by the parliament until a great fire destroyed it in 1910 leaving only the outer walls intact and it lay abandoned for decades. Its third incarnation was as a football stadium.
And finally, in 1992, the Kempinski Group restored Çiragan Palace. Stones found still lying in the palace gardens through the years served as models for the master stonemasons to recreate the intricate latticework and marble colonnades by hand.
A mid-rise modern building was added (that’s where the affordable rooms come in!) and today it has 313 rooms, including 20 suites in the hotel, and 11 suites in the historical palace.
I am told this amazing history by two lovely and sweet women, Ciaran Palace Kempinski’s director of public relations Neslihan Şen and her assistant Cansu Baş.
“It feels very special to be working here,” Neslihan says. “Apart from the Kempinski brand, you’re looking after a Turkish heritage that means a lot to everyone. It’s a lot of responsibility because it really is the only Ottoman Imperial Palace and hotel on the Bosphorus. And it’s a lot of fun because celebrities hold their weddings and celebrations at the historical palace.”
We are having tea at Laledan restaurant, which is famous in Istanbul for its Sunday brunch, overlooking the infinity pool and the Bosphorus. The hotel’s pool is famous as well—it’s the only outdoor heated pool in Istanbul and they tell me that in winter some guests come here, quickly disrobe and jump into the warm pool—while it’s snowing.
Cansu takes me on a tour of the historical palace, which is connected to the hotel via a walkway filled with pictures detailing its history.
I’ve seen and written about presidential suites before, but nothing quite like the Sultan’s Suite. The centerpiece here is the lobby with its grand chandelier and staircase, a favorite place of brides and for pictorials apart from the terrace facing the Bosphorus.
And then there’s the two-bedroom Sultan’s Suite. At 400 square meters, it’s one of the largest suites in Europe and certainly one of the most expensive. The furniture and accessories in the room date back to the 19th century; they sit side by side with state-of-the-art technology.
The master bedroom has a marble hamam and a Turkish bath with a private steam room, rainshower and bathtub with gold-plated and crystal fixtures. The guest bedroom also has its own bathroom with a specially designed bathtub and a large window overlooking the historical peninsula.
Chandeliers, columns, replicas of paintings from the famous palace painter Fausto Zonaro, floor-to-ceiling windows and views of the Bosphorus and classical Ottoman architecture all recreate the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire.
If that wasn’t enough, Çiragan Palace Kempinski is the only hotel on the Bosphorus reachable by car, yacht or helicopter and guests of the suite enjoy complimentary transfer to and from the airport—by land, sea or air.
Royalty, heads of state and celebrities have all stayed in the sultan suite, which has received numerous awards including the World’s Most Luxurious Hotel Suite and the Most Opulent Hotel Room.
Walking back to the hotel side, Cansu tells me, “My dear Tanya, you are very special because you are the last guest for the year that I have taken on a tour at the palace.” (What did I tell you about Turkish women? They’re so lovely!)
Back in my room, I do what Pamuk wrote about the chairs facing the water. It is a new year and the past 12 months have been difficult for this country with terror attacks, but I have never seen its people bow even when the city bends momentarily.
I am sitting on the balcony and looking at the Bosphorus Bridge outlined in red lights that perforate the dark sky. I have looked at Istanbul in a million ways, in all the seasons, under all circumstances, and I have loved it in each.
I didn’t fall in love with Istanbul until I was about to leave it. And by then, I was so completely enamored of the place that I would come back two months later when I was in Paris for the New Year.
Friends told me, “But you’re in France, why are you going to Turkey?”
It was as if leaving Paris was a mortal sin, as if I had just told them I was going into the nunnery.
But I saw a lot of similarities between two of the world’s greatest cities, most significant is that they are both defined by their waters — the Seine for Paris and the Bosphorus for Istanbul.
That’s how I fell in love with Istanbul the first time I went in October last year. I took a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait on my last day and didn’t want the day to end even as it rained as I walked two kilometers from Eminönü back to the old part of Sultan Ahmed. (I didn’t have an umbrella!)
The idea of one city straddling two continents is so romantic, so exotic and exciting to me, and as it turns out even for the Turkish people for whom this is an ordinary, everyday fact. They love this uniqueness and are proud of it.
Though only three percent of Turkey is geographically in Europe and the rest in Asia Minor, historically and politically Europe is where it seems to belong.
The day before, I was on SMS with Sami Bas, who asked me what my plans were before the evening. I said I was going on a “river cruise.”
“And which river is that?”
“The Bosphorus,” I said.
“It’s not river, it’s a strait,” he said. “How can you be a journalist and not know this, Tanya?”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “I’m going to take a cruise on that narrow body of water.”
The truth is, even though friends who know me to be an adventurous traveler had been telling me for years to go to Istanbul, it was never high up on my bucket list…it was just there somewhere on the list.
I had taken a tour to the incredible Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque with colleagues before they left for Manila, but it was the Bosphorus that I fell in love with — what it represented and what actually sat on the coastline: the Dolmabahçe Palace, the villas from the Ottoman Empire, some of which have now been converted into hotels or private properties owned by affluent Turks, sheiks from the Middle East, and Europeans.
From my hotel in Sultan Ahmed, I went to Eminönü following the tram tracks. The dock is dotted with fish and bread restaurants — and you can smell them even before seeing them. They catch the fish, cook it on the boats and bring it to your table or just peddle them around.
On the boat before the cruise started, I asked two elderly gentlemen to take a picture of me on my phone. They hardly spoke English, but they bought me tea from a waiter who was deftly balancing a dozen glasses on a small tray.
People always say don’t accept anything from strangers, but in a way that I have grown accustomed to in all my years of traveling solo, I understood their kindness and hospitality.
Their wives arrived from the lower deck and one of them spoke English. The four of them were from the capital city Ankara and were doing the cruise for the first time, they said.
The Turks have an old proverb that says, “Every visitor is a gift from God.” Maybe that was what they were thinking. I was a visitor, all alone in their country, and so the wives bought me another cup of tea despite my protests that it was my turn to pay.
From the Bosphorus, you can see the Blue Mosque with its nine domes and six minarets, and across it Hagia Sophia with its four. Catholic churches have bell towers, mosques have minarets. In the old times, the imam would climb a minaret to announce that it was time for prayer; there’s no need for the imam to climb now as loud speakers amplify this call.
Dome upon dome, big or small and with seagulls flying about, the mosques all over Istanbul look incredibly beautiful, their gold-tipped minarets puncturing the skies, the silhouette softened and balanced by the sandstone domes.
The Blue Mosque or Sultan Ahmed Mosque got its nickname from the blue tiles used on its interior walls and ceiling. It is Istanbul’s most popular tourist attraction and remains an active mosque.
It is closed to tourists for half an hour or so on each of the five times that Muslims pray, the first at sunrise and the last at nightfall. Obviously, worshippers don’t have to stand in line but tourists have to wait up to an hour or more to get inside, which is the typical waiting time for most of Istanbul’s attractions like the Topkapi Palace and Dolmabahce Palace.
Across the Blue Mosque and a park between them is Hagia Sophia, older by a thousand years and originally constructed between 532 and 537 as a Greek Orthodox Church, a monument to the Byzantine Empire’s capital city Constantinopole (modern-day Istanbul), then it became a Roman Catholic Church, then an Imperial Mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over, and now it’s a museum.
Hagia Sophia’s fate reminds me of the temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia, particularly Angkor Wat. It was originally built as a Hindu temple and was converted to a Buddhist temple when a new king took over and effectively erased all spiritual symbols of the previous religion.
Hagia Sophia is no different. Outside, you would never think it was once a Christian church even though during the Renaissance churches also used domes as their main feature (Florence’s duomo and Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica).
Its bells, altar and paintings and tiles depicting Christ and the saints were removed and replaced with Islamic elements like medallions with Arabic writing and the four minarets outside. All but a few Christian features were plastered over, one of them a painting of Madonna and Child above the southwest entrance.
* * *
Despite the fact that 98 percent of its population follow Islam, Turkey is a secular country — it is mandated in its constitution. That was what the protests in Taksim Square years ago were all about: to remain secular and fight the move to be more religious as a state.
Turkey is Middle Eastern in faith, but also European in its secularism. And there is no better city that exemplifies its being at these crossroads than Istanbul.
Istanbul’s most famous writer, the Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk, once said, “Istanbul is so unmanageably varied, so anarchic, so very much stranger than western cities: its disorder resists classification.”
Around Taksim Square and in the malls — in fact, in all of Istanbul — most of the local women don’t wear chador or burka but a lot of them wear headscarves.
My friend Sami took me for a walk to the medieval Galata Tower, a nine-story tower with a café on top overlooking the city and the Bosphorus.
The streets around the tower look like any modern city in the world — vibrant, filled with local and branded boutiques, pavement cafes, restaurants and bars.
In the evening, you see young locals enjoying wine and cocktails, and Sami taught me how to drink raki, an anise-flavored spirit that you chase with water.
During the day, people who are not rushing to or from work are leisurely enjoying cups of tea or the yogurt drink aryan. I had seen this in Greece and Italy — that laid-back attitude to life not dictated by the hours, men and women lounging around and enjoying the buzz of the city happening before their eyes.
Pamuk, whose novels I love, wrote his memoir Istanbul: Memories of a City shrouded in melancholy, a kind of sadness that pervades even the waters of the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus, he writes, is a reminder “of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.”
I didn’t see or feel this melancholy in Sultan Ahmed or Eminönü, or the streets around Galata Tower, Taksim Square or Besiktas.
I did see it in the endlessly confusing Grand Bazaar when I took the wrong exit and got lost yet again. I found myself walking towards the water, the neighborhood blocks beginning to look more and more impoverished.