With the city zooming up these and other business- and leisure-travel rankings, in March the Istanbul Convention & Visitors Bureau (ICVB) and Turkish Airlines hosted more than a dozen international journalists to show off what’s behind all the buzz. Turkish Airlines had arranged for a personal escort to whisk me through passport control at Istanbul Ataturk Airport, and it wasn’t long before I was checking in to the 62-room Vault Karakoy, The House Hotel, which recently opened in one of the city’s buzziest neighborhoods, Karakoy. The 1863 Neo-Renaissance building formerly housed a bank, and the property’s renovation retained features such as a curving white-marble staircase and bank vaults — the latter of which are used as small meeting rooms.
THE CITY ON THE SEVEN HILLS
We dined the first night at Asitane Restaurant, specializing in authentic cuisine from the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from 1299 to 1922. Our five-course meal was prepared from recipes that date back to 15th-century palace kitchens, and included almond soup flavored with pomegranate seeds and nutmeg and baked quince stuffed with lamb and raisins.
After dinner, we stopped at Uniq Istanbul, a newly opened arts and entertainment center, where we toured “Magnificent Century: The Exhibition,” a tourist attraction reproducing the sets of a popular prime-time soap opera which is based on the 16th-century sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his family. The exhibition’s palatial rooms are popular for corporate receptions and special events.
That dance between old and new continued throughout our packed, three-and-a-half-day visit, as we toured event venues that ranged from Hard Rock Café Istanbul to the Victorian-era Sait Halim Pasha Mansion, home to a Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire. The fifth-largest city in the world, Istanbul is built on seven hills and straddles two continents — Europe and Asia. That’s a lot to absorb, particularly for a first-time visitor, but at lunch on our second day, Burcu Omeroglu, groups sales coordinator at the Renaissance Polat Istanbul Hotel, offered the key to understanding it. “Istanbul,” she said as our group sipped Turkish coffee on the hotel’s terrace, overlooking the Sea of Marmara, “is a city with many centers.”
THE AIRPORT AREA
In fact, we were sitting in one of Istanbul’s major centers for meetings: the Airport Area. One of a number Airport Area hotels with event space, the Renaissance Polat has more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space, including two ballrooms, 13 meeting rooms, and five restaurants.
We also visited the nearby CNR Expo, which has an indoor area of 1.6 million square feet and eight exhibition halls. We toured a food-services exposition that was in full swing, where we learned to brew Turkish coffee and tied on aprons to cook lamb chops on the show floor. (A chef handled the sharp knives.)
THE GOLDEN HORN
That afternoon, we visited the historic Golden Horn area, named for a horn-shaped inlet where the Bosphorus Strait meets the Sea of Marmara. The Golden Horn is home to the turreted Halic Conference Centre, where four interconnected, natural-light–filled buildings offer more than 100,000 square feet of indoor space, including five auditoriums and 20 meeting rooms. The center, built in 2009, is the only seaside convention center in the city, and offers more space outdoors, where docks allow visitors to come and go by boat.
There are views of the domes and minarets of Istanbul’s Old City, which exerts its own irresistible pull. Few travelers, including me, leave the city without visiting the Hagia Sophia, built in Byzantium in 537; the 1609 “Blue Mosque,” named for its 20,000-plus hand-painted interior tiles; or the Grand Bazaar, founded in 1461.
An area around the city’s central business district has such a well-established meetings infrastructure that it’s known as Congress Valley, where a relatively recent addition is the Istanbul Congress Center (ICC). The largest convention center in Turkey, ICC opened in 2009 as host of the World Bank–International Monetary Fund annual meeting. It has a decidedly vertical orientation — it’s built into the side of a hill on seven levels — and includes 115 meeting rooms, a 3,700-seat auditorium, and nearly 1.3 million square feet of function space.
We also toured the newly renovated, 551-room Conrad Istanbul, with 27 meeting rooms, including a ballroom that accommodates 1,100 people. We had lunch in the Conrad’s 14th-floor Summit Bar and Terrace Room, where we met with representatives of local PCOs and enjoyed panoramic views of the city skyline and the Bosphorus.
I chatted with Michel Neijmann, a managing partner of K2 Conference and Event Management, who has worked in Istanbul for two decades. With plentiful hotel rooms within walking distance of Congress Valley, holding big meetings in the city is “a piece of cake,” said Neijmann, who serves as a diplomat and cultural translator as much or more than as a provider of event services. He said: “This is a very international city.”