From the Asian Bank of the Bosphorus the skyline is dominated by the minarets and cupolas of the Sublime Porte. The sultans may have long since departed, but their palaces and mosques remain little altered from five centuries of Ottoman rule. Today, it is the rest of Istanbul that pulses with change, as art and commerce reinvigorate a city that still displays its Greek, Roman and Byzantine origins everywhere you look, from mighty walls to aqueducts. In Besiktas they are building a new Grand Bazaar; alongside its traditional apothecary is an Apple store. Above towers a Raffles hotel, opened in September, its signature Long Bar extending into a champagne lounge. From the rooftop helipad, the airport is just minutes away; it is the future that has just landed here.
Istanbul is the cultural beneficiary of upheaval in neighbouring countries, a haven for Levantine painters, Syrian poets, emigré Egyptian writers and now Crimean artisans with skills all but lost elsewhere. Such is the extent of the renaissance that the hip new Vault hotel in Karaköy fields its own art concierge. No aberration this, for when I request gallery recommendations from a local friend, she reels off a dozen, mainly new, all showing dazzling work. Fashion, restaurants and nightlife are in close contention. And with a flying time from European capitals of under four hours, Istanbul delivers plentiful exoticism per air mile. Indeed, Turkish Airlines has increased flights from London to a whopping 59 a week; earlier this year visa queues on arrival were replaced by online purchasing; and a spectacular new airport is in the planning.
No surprise, then, that Istanbul has captured the imagination of hoteliers, with openings including the aforementioned Raffles, St Regis, due in February, and Mandarin Oriental in 2016. There are also inspired – sometimes eccentric – conversions of historic buildings: Vault Karaköy, formerly a bank, cellars its wine in a strongroom worthy of Ocean's Eleven. Soho House, also set to launch in February, occupies Palazzo Corpi, the former American consulate; rumour has it that Russian bugs are still being dug out of the walls.
Navigation is straightforward. Sultanahmet, the quarter encompassing Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern, commands the Sea of Marmara from a promontory on the southern bank of the Golden Horn. Across Galata Bridge is the city’s buzziest zone, Karaköy, from which a funicular ascends to the 14th-century Galata Tower and Beyog˘lu, the diplomatic (and now also party) district. Running northeast from here towards Taksim Square is Istiklâl Caddesi, the central shopping street plied by a vintage tram. Parallel below are the summer palaces, ancient mosques and grand hotels of the Bosphorus waterfront. Happily, there are ways to navigate between them that do not involve taxi drivers of uncertain reliability: trains run through the new Marmaray tunnel beneath the Bosphorus, from the Asian side of the city to Sultanahmet, in minutes, while waterfront hotels such as Çıragan Palace Kempinski and Four Seasons Bosphorus offer motorboats.
Nonetheless, careful planning is essential here; the main bazaars close on Sundays, Hagia Sophia Mondays, Topkapi Palace Tuesdays, and so on. Beyog˘lu, Karaköy and the quirky markets off Istiklâl Caddesi require a day of their own. Day three might incorporate a Bosphorus boat trip, circumnavigating Maiden’s Tower, before disembarkation on the Asian shore. Here one should explore Beylerbeyi Palace, more charming and revealing – for my lira – of harem life than the famous, and crowded, Dolmabahçe Palace on the opposing bank.
While the main museums seldom rotate their sumptuous collections, Stamboulis are excited by the reopening of Topkapi’s long-closed Palace Kitchens, home to a magnificent display of porcelain. To the treasure trove of palaces, mosques, churches and bazaars should be added The Museum of Innocence, the creation of Turkey’s Nobel laureate novelist Orhan Pamuk. It presents a movingly melancholic realisation of his 2008 novel of the same name, recording in photographs, clothes and objects the life of the narrator’s obsessive love. So affecting is it that even visitors who have not read the book leave in tears. Another fairly recent addition: the reopened, and exquisite, 16th-century Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamami, between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia (although old hands swear by the traditional lathering and thrashing administered for 273 years at Cag˘alog˘lu Hamami, close to the unmissable Basilica Cistern). Little wonder events specialist Cazenove + Loyd reports the city is becoming the go-to destination for exotic celebrations.
Residents fret about development, yet for every new build in the centre there is the sympathetic reconstruction of an old one – best embodied by the yalis, traditional wooden waterfront mansions. An authentic example, decorated with gorgeous textiles and objets d’art is Armaggan, in village-like Ortaköy. It was built in 1869 by the great palace architect Sarkis Balyan as his own residence, on land gifted by the sultan. It occupies three adjoining yalis and is available to rent in its entirety, as three separate houses or as individual suites with butler service and Anatolian cooking. It also has a motor yacht in which to explore the Bosphorus.
But Armaggan is also the name over the door of an intriguing design store close to the Grand Bazaar. As well as housing an art gallery, it offers exquisite jewellery and handwoven textiles, with chic leather bracelets costing from £7 and traditional silk dresses from £350. Its rooftop restaurant, Nar, serves medieval dishes such as a sublime aubergine imam bayildi (“the imam swoons”).
Equally gratifying are the nearby Spice Bazaar and district markets, such as the one reached through Çiçek Pasaji, the art-nouveau flower passage off Istiklâl, where pomegranate marmalade is ladled from amphorae. In the same quarter, Denizler Kitabevi is piled with folios and objets at affordable prices and Lokum has branched out from honeyed Turkish delight to traditional fig and mimosa (thought to deter ineligible suitors). Local denizens of chic visit Arzu Kaprol in Kuruçesme, which shows her full collection. Crisp, local linen is found at Haremlique in the glittering Zorlu complex, above the new Performing Arts Center. A characteristic gift is chestnut baklava from Güllüoglu, Karaköy: Nadir Güllü’s family have been perfecting their 55 variations since 1820.
But it is contemporary art that is causing the greatest buzz here and it is pouring out into the city’s hotels, restaurants and even offices. The best starting point is Istanbul Modern, followed by galleries such as artSümer, CAM and Sanatorium, which showcase young artists (with online magazine Ice providing valuable guidance).
Istanbul’s literary heritage survives in atmospheric bars serving raki and salgam flavoured with fermented turnip. While spies are still said to unwind in the Pera Palace’s Orient Bar – once patronised by Hemingway and Fleming – the place for glamorous dates is Ulus 29, with its vista of the Asian Bank. My favourite for sundowners overlooking Hagia Sophia is A’ya Lounge, atop the old prison, now the Four Seasons at Sultanahmet; Stamboulis are more likely to take a ferry up the Golden Horn, ascending by cable car to the outdoor Pierre Loti Café. The weekend hotspot is Lucca in Bebek, serving coffee, mezes and cocktails into the “harem hour”, when dancing spills onto the street. The ultimate club experience has to be Reina, a waterfront legend with five restaurants, an open- air bar and a dance floor.
Contemporary Turkish cooking is growing in confidence, often presented in spectacular settings, but with generational divisions. The new Duble meze bar on a roof terrace overlooking the Golden Horn serves street food such as goat pachanga to the jeunesse dorée in a succession of dishes. Their parents, meanwhile, will likely be enjoying immaculate Ottoman classics at the appropriately Asia-facing Topaz. An affordable panoramic escape from Beyog˘lu shopping is 360istanbul, acclaimed for its slow cooking and popcorn crème brûlée. But for the big romantic night out, it has to be Vogue. Ignore the unprepossessing location atop an office block: this is the glamorous place to enjoy imaginative modern cooking and exceptional wines. And to work it all off? Follow Byron’s example and swim the Hellespont in the Bosphorus Cross-Continental race. Or take the new seaplane service to Bodrum for a rest.