Turkey has been luring visitors to its azure seas and ancient sites for thousands of years, but only recently has it gained a reputation as a Hollywood hangout -- not to mention a filming location. Until the late '90s, the most well-known movie set in Istanbul was 1978's Midnight Express, a cautionary tale about its prison system. Long a source of consternation among Turks, it was banned locally until 1992.
Flash forward to 2012. That prison in Midnight Express now is one of two plush Four Seasons -- the Four Seasons Sultanahmet (Tevkifhane Sokak 1, rooms from $405). The hotel is one of dozens of Turkey's new breed of ultraposh resorts in a city increasingly renowned for its cuisine and contemporary art. Hollywood has caught on, too, with more than 15 recent projects filmed in Istanbul, including Liam Neeson's Taken 2, Ben Affleck's Argo and Daniel Craig's new James Bond pic Skyfall. Soho House even plans to open there in 2014, and the city -- population 13.5 million -- is a finalist for the 2020 Summer Olympics.
"Almost every star I know has visited Istanbul of late, from Elton to Ozzy to Ellen," says A-list interior designer and Million Dollar Decorators star Martyn Lawrence-Bullard. "The once-capital of the Roman Empire is now the most exciting city I know." (In 2011, Turkish Airlines, one of Europe's best carriers, introduced a 13-hour direct flight from LAX to Istanbul.)
WHERE TO STAY
Recent hotel openings include the aforementioned Four Seasons -- which joined Istanbul's other property, the Four Seasons Bosphorus (Ciragan Caddesi 28, rooms from $460) -- and the serenely modern boutique Edition (Buyukdere Caddesi 136, Levent, rooms from $275), with a Cipriani restaurant and guestrooms done in rosewood and blond oak. Craig stayed in two hotels during production: the palatial 172-room Legacy Ottoman Hotel (Hobyar Mh. Hamidiye Caddesi 64, rooms from $155), filled with Byzantine marble and silk rugs; and the Park Hyatt (Tesvikiye Bronz Sokak 4, Sisli, rooms from $340), due north of the central Taksim Square. It's an ideal antidote to the city's glut of Ottoman decor with 90 rooms, averaging 635 square feet, in dark wood with Deco details.
While shooting the upcoming indie Rhino Season, star Monica Bellucci and husband Vincent Cassel bedded down at the 16-room A'jia Hotel (Cubukli Caddesi 27, rooms from $360), a former mansion located directly on the Bosphorus that has been stripped to sleek minimalist bones. Taken 2 director Olivier Megaton and actors including Maggie Grace stayed at the opulent, historic 115-room Pera Palace Hotel Jumeirah (Mesrutiyet Caddesi 52, Tepebasi, rooms from $200) in the artsy Beyoglu neighborhood. Says Grace: "As a guest, you feel like you're visiting an Agatha Christie novel. She wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411!" (The hotel is careful only to say Christie is believed to have penned the classic there.) Even more grand is the famed Ciragan Kempinski Hotel (Ciragan Caddesi 32, rooms from $340), a former palace that has drawn Oprah Winfrey, Christina Aguilera and Julianne Moore. The top room among its 313 is the 5,000-square-foot Sultan Suite (about $38,750 a night), with 180-degree water views.
WHAT TO DO
While cruise-ship tourists predictably flock to bazaars and mosques (the famed Blue Mosque is one of 2,944), insiders know Istanbul has evolved beyond Byzantine splendor. Istanbul Modern (Meclis-i Mebusan Caddesi Liman Isletmeleri Sahasi Antrepo 4) is a fantastic art museum in a converted warehouse near the docks, and multimillion-dollar contemporary art space Salt (Istiklal Caddesi 136) recently opened in a 120-year-old former bank. Upscale department store Armaggan (Nuruosmaniye Caddesi 65), near the Grand Bazaar, carries jewelry and home wares that reflect an of-the-moment Anatolian aesthetic.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a tourist. Affleck visited the Grand Bazaar and Hagia Sophia several times. (During shooting, he had to alter the lighting in the Hagia Sophia with management's permission.) One of Argo actor Tate Donovan's discoveries was the Chora Church. "It's one of the lesser-visited gems," he says. "The ancient mosaics there are unforgettably lovely." Taken 2's Famke Janssen offers these tips: "Focus on the older neighborhoods of Galata and the Golden Horn, where one can find layers of history -- Greeks, Ottomans, Romans, Arabs. It's also worth taking a boat up to the Black Sea for an amazing perspective on the historical meeting ground of Europe and Asia."
WHERE TO EAT
There are more than 8,000 restaurants in Istanbul, so recommendations are essential in navigating the city. Chic newcomer Nar Lokanta at Armaggan department store is the first dining venture by food retailer Nar Gourmet. Like its shop, Nar plays up Anatolian cuisine like stewed lamb with fresh fennel in an elegant dining room overlooking a dramatic vertical garden. In 2010, chef Didem Senol opened Lokanta Maya (Kemankes Caddesi 35A, Karakoy), a casual neighborhood bistro that has drawn a cult following for its mucver, zucchini fritters so popular the recipe is written on a bathroom mirror. Semsa Denizsel, Turkey's Alice Waters, serves pizzas with an heirloom-wheat crust topped with ground lamb and a runny organic egg as well as sea bream crisped in a wood-fired oven at Kantin Dukkan (Akkavak Sokak 30, Nisantasi). Three years ago, Parsons design student Ferit Sarper opened Munferit (Yeni Carsi Caddesi 19), a loungy go-to with pressed-tin ceilings, a DJ on duty and triple-distilled raki -- an anise-flavored spirit that is considered Turkey's national drink -- made by Sarper's father. "Munferit focuses on creating new tastes of traditional recipes," says Turkish actress Beren Saat (Rhino Season). "The melted cheese with truffle is one of my favorites."
The city abounds in fish restaurants such as the classic spot Eleos (Istiklal Caddesi 231), where Megaton regularly took the Taken 2 crew. "Liam and Famke wanted to go every day," he says. "It's a great rooftop restaurant with a beautiful view. You see everywhere in Istanbul." However, insists The Chew co-host Daphne Oz (daughter of The Dr. Oz Show's Mehmet Oz): "Eat the rest of your meals at local taverns. You must try manti -- Casita Manti (Nispetiye Caddesi Yeni Carsi 65) has great ones -- which are tiny meat dumplings in a garlicky yogurt sauce. And sutlac, which is like rice pudding, is wonderful."
WHERE TO WEEKEND
Sun-kissed Bodrum, the Hamptons of Turkey, draws a high-profile set including Sting, Nicole Kidman and Tom Hanks. VIPs can be found staying in one of 36 seaside cottages at Aman Resorts' newly opened Amanruya (Bulent Ecevit Caddesi, rooms from $990) or munching on salads at the new Cipriani in the center of town. With a moneyed Riviera feel, Bodrum is developing rapidly, perhaps too fast. Properties from Four Seasons, Viceroy and Mandarin Oriental are on the way, and yacht-lined marinas nearly overshadow the historic Castle-Museum, which emphasizes the region's underwater cultural heritage with recovered shipwrecks that span 5,000 years of history. Escape the flash for dinner at the nearby tranquil village of Gumusluk. Local favorite Ali Riza (Yalisi Sagdan Ikinci) serves authentic fish dishes on a beachfront terrace. Another hotel option is the Macakizi (Kesire Mevkii Narcicegi Sokak 48400, Golturkbuku, rooms from $287), opened by Istanbul native Ayla Emiroglu, who runs the hotel with her son, Sahir Erozan. He helmed stoves for two decades at several D.C. power restaurants, explaining why guests have included Chelsea Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia. "It's an amazing hotel with a dock bar that you leap right off of into a gorgeous Mediterranean cove," says Oz. "You will have a wonderful time."
- Hit the Spas: "The hammams are not to be missed," says Donovan. "I recommend Cemberlitas, too, the oldest and most beautiful in the city. You really feel like a sultan."
- Don't Walk: "Istanbul is not a walking city," says Oz. "The drivers are horrendous. So take a car to whatever areas you want to see."
- Heed the Call: "The call to prayer happens five times a day, and for the first week it drives you crazy -- and then it just gets into your spirit, and it's the most beautiful, beautiful thing," Neeson told Jimmy Fallon recently.