Hagia Sophia

Istanbul is a shopper’s paradise, offering handcrafted items to designer labels. To get an idea of the wide range of local goods offered, a trip to the Grand Bazaar is a good starting point. It’s one of the world’s oldest and largest shopping malls, with over 4,000 shops, attracting both tourists and locals. This labyrinth of shops has an array of Turkish mementos, from hand-woven organic cotton to fragrant olive oil soaps. It is here where you’ll find rugs, gold and silver jewelry, Pashmina shawls, leather goods, antiques, souvenirs and just about anything else.

Another large bazaar is the Spice Market, not only known for its spices but medicinal herbs, fragrant essential oils, seasonal fruits like pomegranates, honey, dried fruits and nuts. There are also a variety of confections, olives, grape leaves and every imaginable cooking utensil.

The Nişantaşi shopping area is luxurious with upscale boutiques such as Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Prada. Mixed into these recognized brands are contemporary Turkish designers and dozens of restaurants and cafes.

Known worldwide for its fine cuisine, Istanbul offers a cornucopia of choices, from street food to chic restaurants. Its healthy Mediterranean and Ottoman dishes feature fish, kebabs, endless grills, stuffed dumplings, legumes, fresh vegetables, yogurt and subtle spices to further enhance flavor.

Not to be missed is Shang Palace, the signature restaurant at the Shangri-La Bosphorus, which serves superb Cantonese cuisine in a sleek contemporary interior. Menu items include wok-seared duck wrapped in lettuce leaf, oven roasted chicken encased in hardened rock salt and other outstanding selections that include seafood, vegetables and barbecue. Tea is served by a Chinese tea master who performs a dance-like ritual twirling a bronze kettle with an elongated spout prior to serving the tea, resulting in tea poured as an art form.

The hotel’s IST TOO restaurant, open for breakfast, lunch and dinner with views of the Bosphorus, serves a multi-stationed breakfast buffet showcasing delectable selections hard to resist. The restaurant also features a Japanese sushi bar and grill station. Service here and at Shang Palace was unparalleled, adding the perfect touch to fine dining.

Topaz is another fine dining restaurant with a panoramic view of the city and Bosphorus that’s also highly recommended for its exquisite gourmet menu. With its floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s absolutely stunning in the evening when the Bosphorus Bridge is lit up, putting on its own light show throughout the night.

A popular lunch spot is NAR Restaurant, located on the second level of luxury goods retailer Armaggan, which serves all natural regional specialties in an airy space with protected terrace seating. The most dramatic aspect of the décor is the vertical garden cascading down two stories to the floor below. This dining spot is the first restaurant venture by NAR Gourmet, a product line that specializes in all-natural regional products from the area.

Traditional Turkish coffee is often said to be Black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love by the Turks. Yet, as popular as it is, if there’s a national drink in this country it’s Turkish tea, served in tulip-shaped glasses and consumed several times a day. In fact, tea consumption is greater than that of Turkish coffee in this country and Turks drink more tea per capita than any other nation in the world.

Olive oil is used extensively throughout the country. With 117 registered olive varieties and almost a 100 million olive trees under cultivation, Turkish olives and olive oil production increases every year and a fair amount is exported to the United States.

The fourth largest carrier in the world by number of destinations, Turkish Airlines has direct flights from Chicago to Istanbul – its hub city. In business class the roomy seats feature eight positions and fully recline to create a 75-inch-long sleeping space. Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries are provided in a sleek, dark blue iPad case. Another nice touch: the battery powered votive candles encased in a four-inch, opaque paper bag that provide a relaxing ambiance. Service surpasses expectations and the gourmet food proves that airlines can serve top quality meals when they make a sincere effort to do so.

The airline’s modern departure lounge at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport is a two-storied venue with a capacity to hold over 1,000 guests at a time. Guests can select from a wide range of food and beverages, get a massage, take a shower, play a game of billiards, use a meeting room and take advantage of the free Wi-Fi, printers and computers. There’s even a children’s playroom.

Since Istanbul has a sizeable under 30 population, there’s an active nightlife with numerous trendy spots spread throughout the city. The best way to rock the city after dark is to pick up Time Out Istanbul, which will guide you to the places to see and be seen.

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About Sherren Leigh

Sherren Leigh is president and founder of Today's Chicago Woman and Today's Chicago Woman Foundation. She muses about life - the good, the bad, the ugly - and anything else that's on her mind in “Girl Talk.” Sometimes funny, other times serious, she's always thought-provoking and often controversial.