Urbane Nomads' founder's guide to Istanbul and more

Hajar Ali, founder of Urbane Noman – Roomorama blog

City guide: Istanbul

Hajar is a Singaporean and the founder of Urbane Nomads, a travel company specializing in luxury travel to remote places.

What made you start Urbane Nomads?

I was in Argentinian Patagonia when I conceived the idea for Urbane Nomads. It's the perfect setting for the conflation of adventure travel and

What kind of traveller are you? What are some of your must-dos when you travel?


Must-dos: try to learn some local words, more an annoyingly dilettantish habit than anything else. If it's not too long a trip and I have luggage space- something for back home.

What are your travel essentials?

You can see that these revolve around my phone:

  • Phone
  • Phone charger
  • Google maps if I'm in a city

Do you have any memorable travel stories to share?

The incredible generosity of Istanbullus. Or the time I thought of petting an elephant in Africa who appeared on our walk back to the lodge. How a horse bolted with me back to the stables in Kenya, thoughtfully 'depositing' me close enough to the stables to get help, and the challenges of having a bucket shower while spending a night in the star bed after what is probably my worst fall off a horse.

Hajar Ali, founder of Urbane Noman – Roomorama blog Hajar Ali, founder of Urbane Noman – Roomorama blog

How do you find a hidden gem when you're travelling?

Savvy locals or expats who'd stayed for some time.

What is your favourite city in the world?

Istanbul- where I'm living now.

Can you tell us your favourite spots in Istanbul?


Feriye Lokantasi has amazing views.

For Sunday brunches, I like:
Müzedechanga- the views over the Bosphorus are amazing.

Although I really should check out La Boom in Emirgan, too. Will finally get around to checking out the Asian side. Ciya Sofrasi is definitely on the list!

Feriye Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Feriye Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Feriye Lokantasi (photo credit: Feriye Lokantasi)
Müzedechanga Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Müzedechanga (photo credit: silverkris.com)

Müzedechanga Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Müzedechanga (photo credit: enroutemagazine.tumblr.com)

La Boom Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: La Boom (photo credit: k-array.com)


I don't 'drink' in the sense of how most people interpret the word. However, I'd meet friends at St Regis Spago. In the old part of town the garden in Nola, located in one of the backalleys near Galata Tower reminds me of the garden in London's Chiltern Firehouse. There's a DJ playing over weekends.

Spago Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Spago (photo credit: Spago by Wolfgang Puck)

Nola Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Nola (photo credit: Nola)


Soho House in Istanbul is beautiful. Colonie in Karakoy has a good vibe as well.

Soho House Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Soho House (photo credit: Soho House)

Colonie Istanbul - Roomorama Blog Pictured above: Colonie (photo credit: vbenzeri.com)

Urbane Nomads

What are the top 5 destinations that requested by people?

We've had our 'destination fads'- when we first started, Syria and Iran were some of our earliest selling destinations.

Syria was just beginning to see a lot of interesting boutique hotels in the main cities of Damascus and Aleppo. I also knew very interesting personalities- art curators with private collections that European royalty pay a visit to while in town, as well as niche musicians with very interesting homes in the historical part of town.

Iran, I noticed, is beginning to come up with very interesting hotels as well- appropriating cave houses, traditional caravanserais as well as old houses in the towns.

Previously, Africa did very well for us and I really am trying to get it back to its previous level for Urbane Nomads.

This year it's Asia- mostly long-haul clients travelling to Indochina.

How do you decide on your itineraries?

I always ask clients the basic questions- how much time they have, what they'd like to see, the preferred pace of travel, get a sense of how adventurous they are- and then propose the first draft of the itinerary. I also take into consideration the fitness levels, personalities and interests of the parties travelling.

In this age of independent travel, can you tell us what is the value of using travel agent rather than trying to do it all on your own?

If you're looking to go to the more touristy places and are looking for experiences that are accessible to anybody, then it's really easy to put together a plan on your own. It's probably even more efficient as hotels and flight bookings are available online.

However, if you're going to more remote destinations, these lodges do not have automated online bookings and the higher-end lodges in Africa do not accept bookings from individuals.

Experience and understanding of the locations and characteristics of these different places then come into play- this isn't information that you can find online as there are a lot of lodges and it's highly unlikely that someone other than a travel professional would have experienced most/all of them.

The panoply of different lodges makes it impossible for you to know if you're getting the best experience from your trip- even if your friend had had a good experience in a certain lodge or game park- it might not be the best option, or even the most suitable, for you.

This, in tandem with the number of new places opening every year, renders a lot of information obsolete really fast. Good travel planners/designers keep up with all this information and invest in trips to familiarize with and keep themselves updated.

What are your top destination predictions for 2016?

Be it Africa/Asia/Latin America- places where most of Urbane Nomads'destinations are concentrated- an understanding of the best, most efficient connections, is essential.

What can someone expect when travelling with Urbane Nomads?

Someone travelling with Urbane Nomads can expect very logistically efficient itineraries, in the sense of there being no back-tracking. Where there is inefficiency due to local transport routes, we highlight this to clients.

There's some self-selection in the people who come to Urbane Nomads to have their trips planned- our clients tend to be very adventurous and come to have an itinerary that incorporates an adventurous element.

Those looking to travel to cities or less 'remote' destinations usually come to us with a specific interest- from art history to architecture, sports or politics. This can be a meeting with an esteemed art collector in Istanbul in his yali (Ottoman house by the Bosphorus,that figure as some of the most expensive real estate in the world today), to an Iranian artist/political commentator.

Where to stay in Istanbul

This vacation rental is conveniently located on Bogazkesen Street, a hip and famous street for art galleries in Istanbul.

Vacation rental apartment in Beyoglu – Roomorama blog Vacation rental apartment in Beyoglu – Roomorama blog Vacation rental apartment in Beyoglu – Roomorama blog

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