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Istanbul -- half Europe, half Asia, completely stunning.
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(CNN)Nowhere does fusion like the best of Istanbul, a metropolis that owes as much to its centuries of history as it does to its emergence as one of the most dynamic cities in Asia or Europe.
It's strikingly beautiful. The Bosphorus -- aka the Istanbul Strait, the stretch of water that divides two continents -- stretches calmly before you under the warmth of the sun while the city soars above the shore.
But, mostly, the best of Istanbul is a jumble of activity, over 14 million citizens strong, from celebrants staggering out of bars at 4 a.m. to imams calling the faithful out to prayer at dawn.
You can hear the hustle just as surely as you can see it. The horns of impatient taxi drivers. The lilting melodies of street musicians. The laughter of children. The clinking of raki glasses. And always, the whining cries of seagulls overhead.
The one thing to know about the best of Istanbul is that it's growing, giving visitors more options than they can fit into any single trip.
Not that it's ever stopped us from trying.
Most of best hotels are located on the European side in either Sultanahmet (location of most popular historical sites) or near and around Taksim Square (the city center), including the Besiktas, Macka, Tepebası, and Galata neighborhoods.
Four Seasons Sultanahmet
Once an Ottoman prison, this best of Istanbul neoclassical building is now the Four Seasons boutique hotel located in the center of the old city, or Sultanahmet.
With a view of the famous Sultanahmet and Hagia Sophia mosques, the hotel is steps away from Topkapı Palace and a 10-minute walk from the Grand Bazaar.
Some 65 uniquely designed rooms offer modern amenities and a serene courtyard, where genuinely great dining is available at the Seasons restaurant.
The Lounge serves cocktails, coffee and snacks. A fitness and spa center is also available with a range of massage options, including aromatherapy and Balinese massage.
Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, Teyfikhane Sok No 1 Sultanahmet, Istanbul 34110 Turkey; +90 212 402 30 00
Located near the city center in the Macka neighborhood, Swissotel provides expansive views of the Bosphorus from a wonderfully high vantage point.
Its award winning Amrita Spa & Wellness facility includes indoor and outdoor pools, private fitness trainers, daily group exercise classes and three tennis courts.
Restaurants include the Cafe Swiss, gourmet food at Gaja restaurant and Asian cuisine at Miyako restaurant.
The Les Ambassadeurs Bar is a classy spot for a warm-up drink.
Swissotel The Bosphorus, Bayildim Cad No 2 Macka Besiktas, Istanbul 34357 Turkey; +90 212 326 11 00
Located in the Galata district close to the city center, this best of Istanbul hotel has 40 individually designed rooms with custom-made wooden furniture and natural fiber curtains.
Housed in a renovated apartment building built in 1874, original architectural details are all around in the form of frescoes, columns and vaulted ceilings.
Along with modern amenities, the Adahan Istanbul has two restaurants, Baylo and Goodmoodpera, which are popular with the city's residents -- a sure sign you've picked a winner.
Adahan Istanbul, Asmali Mescit Mah. General Yazgan Sok. No:14, Istanbul 34430 Turkey; +90 212 243 85 81
The House Hotel Bosphorus
This 19th-century landmark is now a hotel offering, among other rooms, a penthouse suite with a 180-degree view of the surroundings and a private wraparound terrace.
The modern and minimalist interior was created by the famed Turkish Autoban design firm, while the Lounge Bar serves drinks with a seaside view.
It's a bit far from the city center (a 20-minute drive), but the area has restaurants, cafés and shopping, as well as a close-up view of the Bosphorus Bridge.
The House Hotel Bosphorus, Salhane Sokak No 1 Ortakoy, Istanbul 34347 Turkey; +90 212 327 77 87
Step back in time at the Rooms Galata.
This 16-room hotel occupies two historic buildings. While the decor combines modern design with antique details, the walls still showcase their original frescoes.
All rooms have high ceilings, wooden floors and kitchenettes, but not all have private terraces.
If you need to breathe a little, there's a rooftop terrace with a sea view, as well as a downstairs cafe and courtyard with outdoor seating.
The Galata is located in the Beyoglu district, which is packed with an array of dining and nightlife options, a 20-minute walk from the city center.
Storie Rooms Galata, Sahkulu Mahallesi Kumbaraci Yokusus No 37, Istanbul 33430 Turkey; +90 212 293 31 86
Close to the major historic sights in the old city, Ibrahimpasa is in a renovated, three-story, turn-of-the-century Ottoman townhouse.
The hotel's 16 rooms have elegant designs, while the rooftop terrace shows off a full view of historic sights, as well as a bar for guests only -- a nice touch.
For those unlucky enough not to grow up eating the home-cooked recipes of a talented Turkish grandmother, Hunkar may become a second home.
Whether from the buffet or the menu, every dish -- from cold meze starters to main dishes of Ottoman descent -- tastes the way locals like it.
Items include Hunkar Begendi (smoked eggplant puree topped with lamb or beef chunks), fava bean spread and asure (pudding of chickpeas, kidney beans, rice and sugar topped with walnuts, pistachios, pomegranate, almonds and cinnamon).
The tasting menu encapsulates almost everything Turkish cuisine has to offer and is a good start for beginners.
Hunkar Restaurant, Mim Kemal Oke St. Nr:21 Nisantasi, Istanbul Turkey; +90 212 225 46 65
Reservations are mandatory at Istanbul's favorite contemporary Turkish restaurant.
Chef Civan Er takes on traditional recipes and ingredients from Anatolia and serves them with a modern outlook.
From the homemade bread warm out of the oven all the way to the fried mastic milk pudding, everything at Yeni Lokanta is impeccable (including a very understated and comfortable interior design).
Diners should try to snag a cocktail at the bar before heading to their table, because the drinks are just as good as the food.
Yeni Lokanta, Kumbaraci Yokusu No: 66, Istanbul Turkey; (0212) 292 25 50
An Istanbul standout since 1927, Borsa stands for the essentials of the Turkish kitchen.
The rich interior of dark mahogany, white tablecloths and floor-to-ceiling windows leads to a terrace that's open in the summer.
The menu speaks of equally grand values, with everything from simple artichoke cooked in olive oil with fava beans, carrots and potatoes, to iskender kebap -- roasted lamb slices over pita bread covered in tomato and butter sauce and yogurt.
Borsa Restaurant, Vanikoy Cad. Siraevler Sok. Adile Sultan Sarayi No.12 Kandilli, Istanbul Turkey; +90 0212 232 42 01-02
When Alancha opened a branch in Istanbul (after much success in Cesme) fine dining enthusiasts rushed to get a table.
This restaurant's success lies behind a rather simple fact: there's nothing like it in Istanbul.
Prominent chef Kemal Demirasal and his talented team of cooks and researchers have used the history of Anatolia to create a unique menu of experimental and molecular gastronomy.
Dishes are served hidden among moss and pebbles, or atop a plate carved especially with ancient letters.
If the tasting menu doesn't appeal, guests can hang out downstairs, where a more informal menu is accompanied by very peculiar (delicious) cocktails with such ingredients as celery and hibiscus salt.
Alancha Istanbul, Husrev Gerede Caddesi Sehit Mehmet Sokak No:9 Macka Kempinski Residence Macka, Istanbul 34365 Turkey; (0212) 261 35 35
Meze by Lemon Tree
A trip to Istanbul wouldn't be complete without a round of delicious meze (a collection of small platters that are served both hot and cold) and Meze is the prime destination for such an endeavor.
After being seated, diners head to the display to choose from among many delicious meze types that always change according to seasonal ingredients.
Favorites are the fried sweet green peppers filled with cheese from Ezine or the mashed broad beans.
Chef Gençay Ucok has also managed to go beyond meze with some of the most delicious meat dishes found in the city, including the grilled lamb sirloin and the grilled marinated beef slices on a skewer.
Order a large bottle of rakı to stick with Turkish traditions.
Reservations are needed at this rather small yet very popular restaurant.
Meze By Lemon Tree, Mesrutiyet cad No:83 Asmalı Mescit mah. Beyoğlu, Istanbul Turkey; (0212) 252 83 02
Unlike most cosmopolitan cities, a rampant clubbing scene is not what most locals look forward to on their weekends.
Istanbul's nightlife revolves, instead, around trendy restaurants that transform into crowded bars after dinner, with the music turned up loud.
Another restaurant that transforms into a dimly lit bar with throbbing music after midnight, Lucca has remained one of the most popular places to show your face and mingle.
Don't be surprised if someone hands you their business card after checking you out for several minutes from across the room.
The well-prepared cocktails, especially margaritas, are another lure, of course.
Lucca, Cevdet Pasa Caddesi 51, Bebek, Istanbul Turkey; +90 212 257 12 55
During the weekdays Unter is the place for a casual dinner and a few beers, but on the weekend some of the city's best DJs play all night as the crowd takes up much of the street.
The city's coolest young people can be found smoking and drinking outside this popular bar.
Want to throw your own party?
You can make use of their loft on the third floor, which is open to private events.
Unter, Kemankes Mahallesi Karaali Kaptan Sokak No:4 Karakoy, Istanbul Turkey; (0212) 244 51 51
Nardis Jazz Club
For a more relaxed evening, Nardis Jazz Bar is an alternative to the excitable crowds.
It has an intimate performing space within a historic building.
Named after a Miles Davis song, the club is the city's only internationally acclaimed jazz venue.
Because of its small 120-person capacity, reservations are recommended on weekends.
Nardis Jazz Club, Bereketzade Mh., Galata Kulesi Sk No:8, Beyoglu Galata, Istanbul Turkey; +90 212 244 63 27
Opened up by the former manager of Lucca, Mitte came to Karakoy right at the height of its popularity.
We're quite fond of its bar not only because it's beautiful, but also because of a list of very original cocktails that are quite the rarity in Istanbul.
The fact that DJs spin on the weekends is also a plus.
The process includes a period of preparing the skin for bathing in a sauna-like room, followed by a full-body wash and massage.
The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamami provides a luxurious, female-only hamam experience inside a building designed by Mimar Sinan in 1556 for the wife of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Hürrem Sultan.
Services include traditional Turkish bath, redbud essence peeling application, body clay masks, aromatherapy massage and much more.
Another notable Turkish bath is the Kilic Ali Pasa hamam in Karakoy.
This historical 16th century hamam was renovated and now offers a very modern and clean interior and the full hamam treatment including exfoliation, rinsing, massage, and relaxation.
The best of Istanbul hamam has been featured on television and film and has been the site for illustrious visitors like Edward VIII of England, Kaiser Wilhelm, Franz Liszt, Florence Nightingale and Tony Curtis.
Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam, Cankurtaran Mahallesi Ayasofya Meydani No:2, Istanbul 34122 Turkey;
Kilic Ali Pasa Hamami, Kemankes Mah. Hamam Sok. No:1 34425 Tophane, Karakoy Next to Kilic Ali Pasha Mosque, Istanbul Turkey; (0212) 393 8010
Yildiz Ceramic Workshop
There are colorful ceramics all over Istanbul (known as Iznik Cini) and making your own is an irreplaceable experience.
Yildiz Ceramic Workshop in Galata offers classes that introduce newcomers to the whole process from clay kneading to surface design.
Students will be introduced to many techniques such as airbrushing, stamping, scratching, fragment insertion, and even figurative modeling.
Expect to become a professional ceramic artist at the end of it all.
While there, it's worth perusing Yildiz's store, where a spectrum of colorful ceramics await their new owners.
Feride Yalav is a freelance writer and editor based in Istanbul who has written for The Guide Istanbul, Brownbook, A Book From Lind, and her personal blog Istanbul22 where she chronicles worthy discoveries.