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Considered a favorite city by many Europeans, Istanbul, Turkey is vibrant, exotic, chaotic and very exciting. I spent eight dynamic days in Istanbul, wandering the lesser known neighborhoods, riding the trams and ferries, zipping back and forth between the Asian and European sides and seeing more than just the mosques’ minarets.

Istanbul appealed to all my senses.

Sweet and Salty

spice2From the moment I stepped off the plane, I smelled the sea. The city is surrounded and defined by water. The Bosphorus is the channel between Europe and Asia and flows in and out of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

The spice markets filled the air with the scent of cumin, cinnamon and lavender.

The smell of cooking meat—spicy souvlaki, kebab, lamb, beef and chicken—made my mouth water as I passed the food stands that dot the city.

My first experience of Turkish generosity came from three street vendors who insisted I sample a slice of their succulent lamb, chicken and kebab.

Sunset at Blue MosqueSounds of the Streets

To the street vendors, every passerby is a potential customer. Rug merchants invite you to sit and have a cup of tea, willing you to buy their hand-woven products. “Just for you, madame, a special deal,” they say.

The Muslim call to prayer (Ezan) is chanted six times a day: a melodious, haunting sound that no one can ignore. With over 3,000 mosques in the city, you can be sure there is one close to your bedroom. Turkey Tip: carry earplugs.

Past Meets Present 

fishingLike my home in San Francisco, Istanbul is surrounded by water ways, bustling with ferry boats and fishing vessels, and three gorgeous bridges. Like Rome, Istanbul sits upon seven hills, and was built and rebuilt upon many civilizations.

I’d seen lots of photos of the Byzantine and Ottoman mosques and monuments, but nothing prepared me for the grandeur of their physical presence. Awestruck visitors whispered “wow” as we looked heavenward in the majestic 6th-century Byzantine Basilica of Aya Sofya, the Ottoman Palace of Topkapi and the 17th century Blue Mosque with its 21,043 dazzling blue tiles. The past and the present mingle in all aspects of the city, especially the architecture.

Luxurious Digs and Wings

fourseasonsPrisons renovated and redesigned as upscale hotels is a new trend in travel. If they are all as unique and exquisite as the Four Seasons Sultanahmet, then I will volunteer to be an inmate. The Four Seasons enjoys a privileged location in the ancient city, two blocks from Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, with views of both. From the roof top terrace and several suites you can even see the Sea of Marmara.

The interior and decorations pay homage to the city’s rich Ottoman heritage with arched doorways, artifacts, antique rugs and neoclassical furniture. The spacious rooms and superb service are part of the Four Seasons experience. Every morning I indulged in the twenty-course breakfasts, including eight varieties of olives and fresh-squeezed carrot juice. Alas, all good things must come to an end, and I’m back to eating simple cereal at home.

Turkish Airlines, named the #1 European Airline in 2012, not only got me to and from Istanbul  safely, but in the lap of luxury. The service, flat beds, food (prepared by an on-board chef) and comfort I experienced in Business Class was truly exceptional.

Turkish Airlines and Four Seasons sponsored this press trip. I flew to Istanbul and spent four days exploring on my own before joining the media group.