Protravel's A-List Turkey Expert Offers Insider Insights

An interview with leading Luxury Travel Advisor Earl Starkey

By Earl Starkey and Eva Braiman

Perched at the edge of Europe, Istanbul and the Bosphorus strait have served as a gateway between the continent and the rest of the world since the second Millenia BC. Centuries of exotic influence through trade and conquests can be seen in its architecture, culture and cuisine.

Istanbul was ruled variously by Greeks, Persians, Arabs, Romans and Ottomans. Conquerors included Alexander the Great, Constantine the Great, Emperor Justinian I and Sultan Mehmet II, who ruled until World War I, after which Ataturk led years of struggle against the occupying forces, culminating in the birth of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. Today, Istanbul’s population is over 15 million, and includes people of many origins: Turks, Kurds, Albanians, Arabs, Armenians, Syrians, Azerbaijanis, Bosnians, Chechens, Georgians, Greeks, Romas and more. Like New York City, Istanbul is a perfect place to meet people from all over and learn about their political and personal stories and aspirations. Also like New York, Istanbul continues to be the commercial and cultural center of Turkey and should be on your bucket list of iconic cities to visit at least once in your life.

Istanbul is a trip in itself, or a perfect jumping-off point to travel onward to Cappadocia, Ephesus, Bodrum and the Mediterranean coast. 

What to See in Istanbul

Elegant Byzantine churches stand side-by-side with the ornate domes and spired minarets of mosques from which the mu'azzin issue their haunting calls to prayer (adhan) daily. For a stunning example of Ottoman design, visit the delicate stained-glass windows and decorative tiles of the 1557 Suleymaniye Mosque. For spectacular city views, head to the top of the Galata observation tower, built in 1384. And of course, do not miss the truly breathtaking Blue Mosque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site completed in 1616. It is an absolute masterpiece, inside and out. Then head to the nearby Hagia Sophia, built in in AD 537, the former Greek Orthodox Christian patriarchal cathedral, later an imperial mosque and today a museum.

One of the most relaxing ways to visit bustling Istanbul is on a boat trip down the Bosphorus from which you can view the Dolmabahçe Palace, Maiden’s Tower and many more sites. Interact with local families aboard the public city ferry or Earl's team can arrange a private boat to the charming fishing village of Buyukada (Prince’s Island or Prinkipo), where cars are not permitted, and you can explore by foot, from a horse-drawn carriage or bicycle.

And no trip to Turkey would be complete without a spin around the colorful bazaars. The 1461 Grand Bazaar has a labyrinth of lanes and corridors selling everything from leather to ceramics, rugs, spices, sweet treats and silver. Bring home some authentic kofta spices, saffron, and of course Turkish delight!

Be sure to pamper yourself at the glorious Çemberlitas Hamam. Its white marble interiors and massages are to die for, and perfect after a day of sightseeing. Earl notes, "A new venue I highly recommended is the Hurrem Sultan Aya Sofya Hamam. It was originally built by the wife of Suleyman the Magnificent and has been wonderfully restored. It is now the city’s most beautiful. The women’s and men’s sides are identical and they use fantastic soaps and lotions and the masseuses are the best I have found in Istanbul."

Cuisine

You will enjoy the fabulous cuisine to be found all over the city. Some of Earl's favorite restaurants include:

  • Mikla, named one of the top 50 restaurants in the world
  • Sunset Grill has delicious food and a spectacular view from a hilltop overlooking the entire Bosphorus

Also, the Meyhane or tavern culture is very much an Istanbul local thing. Enjoy wonderful mezze and delicious meat or fish with Raki, Turkey’s special anise-infused liquor. Some of his favorites are Asmali Cavit and Savoy Balikci, for fish.

View of traditional Turkish food during luxury international vacation to Istanbul Turkey

When to visit Turkey

July and August are hot and humid, December to February can bring snow. The Turkish love an excuse for a party and you are likely to be able to catch an event most months of the year. Highlights include the International Istanbul Film Festival in April and open-air concerts of traditional music in the summer. Every Fall is Contemporary Istanbul where there are wonderful exhibits and modern art from around the world, with local artists also participating. Every two years we have the Istanbul Biennal where there are exhibits all over the city, including on the Princes Island.

Safety

"In 2016 and 2017 we had some very serious problems in Turkey. Fortunately, those days are behind us," says Earl. "In Fall 2019, the United States State department raised Turkey to security level two. And the only reason that it didn’t go up to level one is there are still areas along the Syrian border that are not recommended for travel. These areas are far from the normal tourist areas and Turkey is now as safe to travel to as anywhere. Violent crime is very rare in Turkey. One has to take the standard precautions with personal belongings, but Turkey is now getting back to once again being on everyone’s bucket list of places they want to see."

Earl Starkey: Sophisticated Travel

To ensure the most stress-free, comfortable and enriching experience, we strongly recommend letting a true expert arrange every detail of your trip so you can focus on enjoying this fascinating country.

With offices in Istanbul and New York, Protravel Luxury Travel Agent Earl Starkey handles over 1,000 travelers annually, matching each to one of his sophisticated English-speaking guides—among them historians, journalists, and guidebook writers—in whose care clients access the authentic Turkish culture that most tourists miss. He can get you into everything from spectacular private Ottoman mansions in Istanbul to a village wedding in Cappadocia or arrange a private  yacht or a gulet for a coastal voyage (minimum price per day for two people: $800).

Where to stay

As a 30-year veteran in the travel industry and a Travel + Leisure A-List specialist for Turkey, Earl knows Istanbul’s hotel scene inside and out. “It is a really exciting time to come to Istanbul. The city is just so happening, and besides the new hotels, we are having a complete renaissance in art, food and wine. We still don’t have enough five-star hotels in Istanbul, so we are happy that so many new places are opening.” Bodrum has wonderful beach hotels.

"In the old days, a guest was considered a gift from God, and foreigners remain very special here. The more people, the better they like it."
Earl Starkey, quoted in Town & Country

My favorite hotel in Istanbul is the Four Seasons Bosphorus, which has an amazing spa with three hamams: one for women, one for men and one mixed, and a beautiful outdoor space right on the Bosphorus. After that, I would choose either the new St. Regis or the Park Hyatt. The Park Hyatt is a great bargain because they don’t have views but does have lovely rooms and a great location in the upscale neighborhood of Nisantasi.

We continue to love the legendary Pera Palace—built in 1892 to host passengers of the Orient-Express—noting “it is so beautiful and authentic. Because it’s a historic building, the Golden Horn View rooms are small, but the Pierre Loti Suite has Golden Horn and Sultanahmet views and is reasonably priced. They also undertook a 30-million Euro renovation a few years ago.” Guests can relive the glory days of luxury travel with the ghosts of former guests like Greta Garbo, Ernest Hemingway, and Agatha Christie, who wrote Murder on the Orient Express while staying in Room 411.

“The Kempinski Ciragan Palace is going to start renovating their rooms, which will be great as they have more water-view rooms. Also in Bodrum is a new Edition Hotel in Yalikavak where there is a new ultra-luxurious marina. I have stayed there, and it is wonderful. Of course, we still like the Mandarin Oriental, which is beautiful, with three beaches in Bodrum. Macakizi is still the hip place to stay for the young and moneyed.”

The Shangri-La (Starkey serves on their advisory board) has a “great location, at Besiktas. 14 suites will have their own terraces overlooking the Bosphorus and they will not be as super-priced as a lot of Istanbul’s suites are. I know the Shangri-La staff and I’m convinced that guests are going to get service to rival any hotel in Istanbul.”

“My heart beats for Turkey and I am the travel expert to ask if you want to fall in love with the country, its people, and astonishing sights.” —Earl Starkey, Virtuoso

View of traveler glazing at the Maiden Tower during luxury international vacation to Istanbul Turkey

View of terrace guest room inside of Park Hyatt Istanbul, Turkey, Luxury hotel

Park Hyatt Istanbul - Macka Palas

Tesvikiye, Bronz Sokak No. 4, Istanbul, Turkey

  • 100 USD Food & Beverage credit (excl. minibar and room service)
  • Complimentary Buffet breakfast for two daily
  • Property will offer late check-out upon availability
  • Property will offer upgrade upon availability at time of check-in
  • Basic Wi-Fi
Ciragan Palace Kempinski, Istanbul, Turkey, Luxury hotel

Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul

Ciragan Caddesi 32, Istanbul, Turkey

  • 100 USD Hotel credit (excl. room service)
  • Complimentary Buffet breakfast for two daily
  • Early check-in upon availability
  • Property will offer late check-out upon availability
  • Property will offer upgrade upon availability at time of check-in
  • Basic Wi-Fi
View of Mackizi Hotel in Bodrum Turkey, Luxury hotel

Macakizi Hotel Bodrum

Kesireburnu Mevkii,, Bodrum, Turkey

  • 100 USD Spa credit
  • Complimentary Buffet breakfast for two daily
  • Property will offer upgrade upon availability at time of check-in
  • Early check-in upon availability
  • Property will offer late check-out upon availability
  • Basic Wi-Fi

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