Hagia Sophia

“The coolest city in the world.”

Tell people you’re planning a trip to Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey with a population of 14 million, and you’re sure to hear rave reviews. This top travel destination, the fourth largest city in the world, is simply magical. The monuments. Museums. The rich history. The cuisine. The breathtaking beauty. tnd the people? Guidebook after guidebook describes the Turks as the friendliest, kindest and most trustworthy in the world. Turkey is a fusion of cultures dating back to ancient civilizations of Paleolithic, Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman empires and the influences of these various chapters in history are apparent in Istanbul.

Istanbul is divided with a European side and an Asian side by the Bosphorus, which connects the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. Tour guides refer to Istanbul as the “hip city on the horn” because geographically the Golden Horn, a major inlet that flows into the Bosphorus, separates the European shore of Istanbul into two.

Since Istanbul is a major tourist destination, the range of hotels is as varied as the visitors. If you’re seeking the ultimate 5-star hotel experience, the Shangri-La Bosphorus opened in May 2013 and offers the attentive hospitality and impeccable accommodations that Shangri-La hotels are known for. The Shangri-La Bosphorus was named to Travel + Leisure’s 2014 It List of Best New Hotels. Built on what once housed a tobacco factory, the hotel is an eclectic mix of European, Asian and Turkish design. Entering the hotel through the courtyard, guests can’t help but notice the enormous pair of Sycamore trees estimated to be over 350 years old. During construction, great care was taken to avoid damaging their massive root system.

Shangri-La Bosphorus Hotel

Shangri-La Bosphorus Hotel

The hotel lobby’s dramatic three-story domed atrium, lit by a natural skylight, has a stunning oversized chandelier with glistening crystals raining down nearly two stories. There are more than 1,000 pieces of European and Asian art throughout the hotel.

The 186 spacious guest rooms provide complimentary high-speed broadband Internet service, luxury linens, plush beds, and the marble bathrooms feature heated floors and Bulgari amenities. The hotel’s 17 suites have private terraces with views of the Bosphorus. In fact, the majority of rooms have views of the Bosphorus, due to the hotel’s configuration.

In addition to the fully equipped fitness center and indoor heated swimming pool, the hotel has introduced Europe’s first CHI, The Spa at Shangri-La. The spa is based on traditional Asian healing philosophies, with treatments structured on the principles of restoring balance and harmony to mind and body.

The hotel’s two ballrooms have a capacity ranging from 100 to 750. The beautiful venue of the hotel itself makes it an ideal destination for weddings or personal celebrations such as anniversaries. State-of-the-art conference and banquet facilities cater to corporate and diplomatic functions.

Today Istanbul is rapidly expanding as a vibrant megacity, so it’s an accurate assessment to say that Istanbul hasn’t grown; rather, it has exploded. Centuries old buildings and modern architecture mix harmoniously. Exploring a city with so much to offer can be daunting, so it’s most efficient to hire a guide. Osman Ozmen, representing MEP Destination Business Solutions, was our guide throughout the trip, taking us to popular tourist destinations, as well as quite a few off the beaten path.

As a secular state, Turkey is a moderate Muslim nation. Istanbul has 10 imperial mosques, but Hagia Sophia (translated to Divine Wisdom and erected in 537 AD) is Istanbul’s most famous monument and considered among the most significant monuments in the world with its historical richness. Once a Greek Orthodox church, then a mosque and now a museum, its massive dome – more than 18 stories high – is only slightly smaller than that of Rome’s Pantheon, which is the largest in the world.


The Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmed Mosque), built in 1616, is known for its blue painted plaster décor. An active mosque, it’s important to plan your visit to avoid the five daily prayers. To enter, visitors remove their shoes. The structure’s floor is carpeted, so a hushed tranquility adds to the ambiance.

The city’s commitment to modern art is evident at Istanbul Modern, a hip museum housing multi-faceted edgy contemporary art and interactive exhibits. The waterfront café overlooking the Sea of Marma is ideal for lunch, and in cooler weather, blankets are provided. Nice touch.

Visitors often overlook Chora Church, a Byzantine structure featuring millions of mosaics cut so small that the tiny stones add depth to the artwork, because it’s in the less-visited Western Districts of the city.

One of the most memorable experiences on the trip was climbing up onto the rooftop of an abandoned hotel. Here we not only had a spectacular view of the city, but it was the eerily melodic Muslim call to prayer that reverberated from the mosque minarets throughout the city that was so haunting and intense.

A boat tour on the sapphire waters of the Bosphorus is an armchair way to view the landscape, check out the seaside mansions and enjoy the pure sea air.

We explored the city mostly on foot, and it was somewhat of a surprise to see so many free-roaming cats and dogs. Turks enjoy the street animals, feeding and caring for them, and since the people are ethically against euthanasia, the dogs are caught/spayed/neutered/vaccinated/treated/tagged and released.

Continue reading about Istanbul on the next page…


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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.