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Girls Getaway to Istanbul
(By Amber Gibson)

There's no better way to get to Istanbul than a direct flight in business class on Turkish Airlines. The 10 hour and 40 minute flight from Chicago went by in a flash and I was able to truly sleep for the first time in my life on a plane thanks to the lie-flat beds that slowly recline like the chair in a dentist's office. I could do yoga, I had so much space. And with the hundreds of movies to choose from, I must have spent at least a half hour simply scrolling through the selection. Turkish Airlines is proud of its flying chef program, and the food was impressive to say the least, both in quality and quantity. A five-course dinner included appetizers from an elaborate trolley, my selection of an entrée and a dessert trolley to finish the night. Business class is definitely a splurge, but on Turkish Airlines the services and amenities really do surprise and delight.

 

My accommodations were at the grand Four Seasons Hotel at Sultanahmet, within walking distance of the majestic Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, in the heart of the city's historic center.

 

Compared to the Four Seasons Bosphorus the Sultanahmet location is a more intimate, charming boutique hotel and more centrally located to see the main historic sites. Bosphorus is grander, with a sexier vibe, and a quarter of the rooms overlook the Bosphorus River. Both properties are elegant, with impeccable service (if you go out for a morning run, they'll be waiting for you at the front door with a towel and water to cool off), so you can't go wrong with either. Between the two, I like the traditional Turkish décor and vibrant colors of the Sultanahmet location more. The hotel was built to be a prison and detained political dissidents, murderers and thieves for much of the 20th century. Ironically, it's now become a place to escape to instead of from. As part of my escape, I had the pleasure of experiencing the Sodashi mineral marine facial, complete with hand and foot massage. It's a gentler facial than I'm used to, but still with nice results, giving me a natural luminosity sans extractions.

 

Get cultured

With our ideal location, I could look out my window and see the breathtaking Hagia Sophia. It's the only place in the world that you'll find Christian mosaics depicting Christ and the Virgin Mary alongside Arabic inscriptions. The Blue Mosque is another beautiful monument and free for visitors to enter, save for prayer five times a day. Women need to cover their heads with scarves before stepping inside, but the dome - The Basilica Cistern - is another must-visit stop and only a stone's throw away. The cathedral-sized cavern was built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the sixth century and used to store water for the entire city. It could hold almost three million cubic feet of water!

 

 

Speaking of water, no trip to Istanbul is complete without a visit to Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami to experience the cleansing ritual of Turkish baths. I recommend the traditional full cleanse, which includes a body scrub followed by a relaxing bubble wash and massage while lying on a marble stone. Cool off afterward in the relaxation lounge while sipping sherbet, a cool drink made with rosehips and spices. Bachelorette party, anyone?

 

 

Art lovers can check out the Istanbul Modern, Turkey's first private museum of modern and contemporary art. There are a surprising number of female artists, and several galleries dedicated to Turkish artists. Multimedia collage is interspersed with sculptures and more traditional paintings as well. I've really only touched the tip of the iceberg with the wealth of culture and I have so much more to learn about the Ottoman Empire

 

Foodie Paradise - spices, meat and sweets

The food in Istanbul was in a word - fabulous. Let's just say I ate way more than I should have on this trip. But the food kept coming, and it was fantastic. I had a chance to experience historic dishes served to the sultans, like Hünkar Beğendi, a dish of stewed lamb over eggplant purée, and also taste creative uses of local ingredients like pistachios, pomegranate, chestnuts and sumac, by young chefs.

 

Our first evening in Istanbul, Zubeyir Ocakbasi, a traditional Turkish kebab house, introduced me to healthful Mediterranean food. The cuisine here is perfect for sharing with a group, a mix of mezes, vegetables dressed simply in olive oil and hearty meat kebabs. I don't consider myself a big red meat eater, but I went into a carnivorous frenzy with the juicy chunks of lamb.

 

For a sexy night out, try X Restaurant, with a sweeping panoramic view of the city and modern takes on Mediterranean ingredients, including a delicious roasted turbot fresh from the Black Sea dressed with a citrus fennel vinaigrette, grilled asparagus, artichokes and tomatoes. And liver never tasted as good as the seared calf liver with arugula pesto and beetroot sauce. Even though we were stuffed, dessert was too tempting. Warm chestnut cake with an oozing caramel center was the perfect way to end the meal.

 

Turkish desserts tend to be very sweet, almost cloying at times, with lots of honey, nuts and simple syrup. It's hard to differentiate between all the variations on baklava and different flavors of Turkish delight. One of my favorite desserts, however, was a simple almond cookie, Badem Kurabiyesi, that I had at Pandeli in the Spice Bazar. Dipped in Turkish coffee, this crumbly almond shortbread was divine.

 

I'm also a little obsessed with pistachios, so the pistachio paste cakes at NAR Lokanta were too addictive...subtly sweet with an intense nuttiness. I had to get an entire box to bring home. The ingredients are simply pistachios, sugar and egg whites and since no preservatives are used, this has a very short shelf life. That was no problem though, as I devoured the whole box in just a couple days. The NAR restaurant is run by Turkey's premier gourmet food company and located in the sophisticated Armaggan boutique. Imagine if Tiffany & Co. and Dean & DeLuca joined forces, Turkish style. Armaggan's mission is introducing Turkish culture to the world, showcasing the finest local designers of jewelry, clothing, textiles and housewares, as well as gourmet olive oils, Turkish delight and organic spices. Many NAR products are just recently available to purchase online and they are expanding their brand to the states, so be on the lookout. A few of my favorites include their raspberry Turkish delight, chili olive oil and of course my pistachio and almond pastes.

 

On my way back to Chicago, I had one last luxurious experience in the absolutely enormous Turkish Airlines VIP lounge at Istanbul's Atatürk Airport. There's a baby grand piano, putting green, movie theater, library and billiards table, not to mention an array of freshly prepared foods. After eating far too much Turkish delight and baklava on this trip, I reigned myself in for a sampling of Turkish mezes from the salad bar. Luckily I had a couple girlfriends on my flight back to Chicago or I might have missed my flight. The bright and spacious lounge is just so comfortable that it takes away all the normal stressors of traveling and being at the airport. Turkish Airlines may call it business class, but this is definitely a first class experience.

 

Author Amber Gibson is a Food/Travel Writer, Model & Actress from Chicago. To find out more about Amber, visit www.AmberGibson.com. 

Thanks for reading, and we hope to see you soon.  Safe travels!      
Sincerely,    Casey Wohl, The Getaway Girl®
Author of the Girls Getaway Guide series
Travel Correspondent for the Daytime TV Show