Business trip: Istanbul
Straddling the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul bridges Asia and Europe in a surprising cacophony of contrasts. Old and modern collide in beautiful fashion; tradition and innovation are visible at every turn; spice markets and pastry stalls intertwine with modern skyscrapers; and religion and secularism live together in comfortable harmony.
The port city has always been an important commercial hub along the busy trade route between East and West, but Ataturk International Airport is fuelling the city's more recent boom thanks to Turkish Airlines, Europe's fourth largest carrier. The airline flies to 200 destinations around the world and even offers a free city tour to passengers with long layovers.
While plans are underway to build a third international airport for the city, Turkish Airlines has not stopped investing at Ataturk, recently opening an impressive business class lounge outfitted with billiard tables, a cinema, roaming masseurs and a half dozen live cooking stations preparing everything from Turkish coffee to grilled kebabs and fresh pides (Turkish pizza) stuffed with meat and cheese.
Turkish Airlines' growth mirrors the city's increasing importance on the business stage. In 2012, Istanbul was ranked seventh worldwide for hosting meetings and conventions, according to the International Congress and Convention Association. In 2011, the city was ranked number one globally by the same organisation for hosting functions of more than 500 people.
Even the staggeringly slow motor traffic is a solid indication of the constant buzz that comes with a strong economy and heavy tourism. Luckily, the city’s metro line is expanding, including a direct link to Ataturk airport, and a new underwater tunnel opening in late 2013 will ease the traffic strain across the Bosphorus Bridge.
The Gezi protests that began on 28 May had little effect on business travel; outside of the Taksim Square area much of the city operated as usual. With the scale of most demonstrations now diminished, leisure travellers are returning to the city as well, with much of the dispute more of a political and legal battle than physical protest.
The city's newest address is the 186-room Shangri-La, located between the Dolmabahce Palace and the Naval Museum and fronting the Bosphorus in a former 1930s tobacco warehouse. Carefully restored, the six-storey Neoclassical facade is protected and the two towering sycamore trees that stand in the courtyard date back as many as 350 years. Its May 2013 opening introduced the influential Asian brand to the local hotel scene and is quickly drawing the business crowd for delectable Cantonese cuisine at its signature Shang Palace restaurant. Choose a room with floor-to-ceiling Bosphorus views and decor that appears traditional at first glance, but is overtly modern with electronic blinds, Nespresso machines and marble baths with heated floors.
On the banks of the Bosphorus, the legendary 313-room Ciragan Palace Kempinski Istanbul was originally built at the end of the 16th Century and is the only Ottoman imperial palace and hotel in Turkey. The hotel is divided between the restored palace wing where 11 suites are located (Madonna, Bill Clinton and Oprah have all stayed here), and the modern wing where most of the rooms face the water with private balconies. Business-friendly benefits include free wi-fi and large, unique meeting spaces, like the former Sultan's hammam and palace living areas. The hotel’s new outdoor pavilion with hookah pipes, Le Fumoir, is a popular place to puff and watch the passing ships. Laledan restaurant and patio offers a breakfast buffet of more than 300 items, including local baklava and halva, and a Sunday brunch with its own chocolate room.
If views of monumental Istanbul are paramount, there is no better choice than the 65-room Four Seasons in the Sultanahmet neighbourhood. Small and compact, this sophisticated hotel is located in a century-old Turkish prison with Neoclassical design. Reserve a room with views of the Blue Mosque through the shuttered windows and arched doorways, or for an even closer look walk two blocks to Sultanahmet Square where the Hagia Sofia (the Byzantine-style church converted to a mosque by Sultan Mehmet II in the 15th Century) and the Blue Mosque (built by Sultan Ahmet in the 17th Century) dual it off for the top tourist attention. Stick around for the hotel's new Thursday menu which features unlimited fresh sushi on the hotel's garden terrace.