Spanning Europe and Asia, Istanbul has always been a major hub, for travellers and traders alike, from its incarnations as the ancient shipping port of Byzantium, the Silk Road stop of Constantinople, and the terminus of the iconic Orient Express. Although officially secular since 1928, silhouettes of minarets are still around, and most visitors don’t venture beyond the sights of Sultanahmet. Beyond the neighbourhood, Istanbul is one of Europe’s most populous cities, home to nearly 15 million residents, and while much of its suburban sprawl consists of identikit modern Asian architecture, there are districts replete with Parisian parlours, artistic enclaves, and offbeat treats to be found just a stone’s throw from the centre.
The epicentre of Istanbul’s antiques scene, Çukurcuma is the place to go for weird window shopping. Here, you’ll find elderly rag-and-bone men heaving impossibly overloaded carts uphill along meandering cobblestone lanes lined by dilapidated 19th-century mansions. Sure, there are a handful of stylised, rococo, high-end antique shops, but it’s between the gloriously gold-leafed offerings of these more sedate stores that the real gems are found: collections of such pedantic purity as to transcend their commercial motives. Here, a blizzard of snow globes jostles with a deluge of dentures, and rows of misplaced prescription glasses and bric-a-brac bifocals hang from rafters, watched with quiet reverence by solemn shopkeepers who have long forgotten the difference between sales and curation.
Particularly charming among them is Osmanli Antik Palas, with its eclectic trove of trinkets piled high beside rows of medicine bottles, anatomical models, and a ginger tomcat — a tolerated squatter — propping up a hotchpotch of odds and ends.
The Works is the lifelong obsession of a compulsive hoarder, A. Karaca Borar, the shop’s owner. He tuts when you, inevitably, knock something over. Borar revels in his assumed role as mastermind behind this museum of miscellanea, where antique toilet bowls clog the bathroom and prosthetic limbs grapple with erotic art. He’s the proud supplier of useless ephemera to The Museum of Innocence, a self-referential, real-world counterpart to the Orhan Pamuk novel of the same name.
A few doors along from The Works, the neighbourhood’s nocturnal playboy, Erkal Aksoy, hosts serious shoppers at his opulent showroom, A La Turca. There’s more than a whiff of mysticism across these four storeys: head down to the basement and there’s a faint bouquet of decay emanating from the Iron Age Tokat urns, while the rest of the place is redolent of a lavish Ottoman-era townhouse, populated with plunder from around the globe. It’s not unusual to find the sunlight-shunning Aksoy entertaining regulars here at 3am, each sipping a thick, claret-coloured liquid from antique goblets: his famous home-made cherry vodka. Like the labyrinthine pseudo-Parisian streets that surround it, the scene is as decadent and sumptuously crumbling as the backdrop to an indie vampire flick.
Once the financial centre of the Ottoman Empire, and — overlooking the mighty Bosphorus — a port since time immemorial, Karaköy hit hard times in the 20th century, and the neighbourhood’s grand edifices fell into dereliction. Then, in 2004, the city’s most innovative art gallery, Istanbul Modern, opened its doors and the march of gentrification began. As recently as five years ago, these were still seedy dockyard back streets, but now the area’s myriad commercial lighting wholesalers dazzle alongside luminaries of Istanbul’s art and design scene.
The abandoned shells of buildings are festooned with strings of coloured bulbs, steampunk-style Edison lamps adorn interiors bereft of plasterwork, and neon tubes backlight bicycles-as-ersatz wall art. Vault Karaköy reimagines a neoclassical former bank as a luxury hotel, complete with its own opulent hammam, while abandoned warehouses have become hip boutique stores selling offbeat originals by Turkish creatives. A seemingly endless influx of tortoiseshell-bespectacled entrepreneurs are flocking to fill these industrial spaces with a diverse selection of homemade housewares, handmade jewellery, artisan chocolates, and myriad locally crafted goods, plus social project products that range from threadbare carpet bags to drinking receptacles designed by autistic children.
Shops throughout the neighbourhood are littered with food bowls for the area’s feral cat population; surely some of the best-fed strays on the planet. The store owners wouldn’t dream of shooing them away, insisting: “Karaköy is more beautiful with them.”
With liquor licences taking a while to acquire, it gets a little quieter around here after dark, but Ferahfeza, a restaurant and bar hidden away on the roof of the Chamber of Architects, is a chic spot for dinner and drinks with its inventive interior — all subway tiles and chemistry-lab glassware — and a show-stopping exterior.
Meanwhile, the neighbourhood’s hip kids eschew booze and stay up late, fuelled by the quadruple espresso and Sachertorte served in Karaköy’s best-loved cafe, Karabatak. However, despite the global third-wave cafe phenomenon, the Turks are traditionally big tea drinkers and nearby Dem offers a kaleidoscope of unusual infusions from around the world until late in the evening.
While on-the-rise Karaköy is already in danger of going the same way as London’s Shoreditch — a hipster enclave gentrified beyond the reach of locals — the adjoining residential neighbourhoods of Fener and Balat have together quietly become one of the city’s truly coolest quarters. Despite emerging as a design district dotted with galleries and craft workshops, big business and sleek hotels are yet to infiltrate the neighbourhood. This is somewhat surprising, since it’s located on the Historic Peninsula, just a few miles along the Golden Horn from the sights of Sultanahmet.
The stomping ground of arts and media students from nearby Plato College, the area still retains a traditional feel. The hip cafes and quirky stores peddle vegan bites and vintage delights alongside other local businesses, which seem to sell just about everything, from hubcaps to bubble wrap.
Forget Viennese cakes and pulled pork po’ boys, this area is a little more lo-fi and a bit more boho than self-conscious Karaköy. With its slightly seaside-y vibe, and multicoloured Ottoman houses stacked up along steep, winding streets, expect instead to find canteens serving homemade cakes and mezes, chipped teapots stewing herbal brews, mosques functioning as actual places of worship rather than tourist hotspots, and trendy venues, such as craftstall-cum-music-hall Atolye Kafasi, that intentionally remain wi-fi black-spots.
Balat’s been a Jewish neighbourhood since the Byzantine era, and Fener’s home to the Greek Orthodox cathedral, so it’s no wonder there’s an undercurrent of multiculturalism. Although you won’t see any umbrella-waving tourist groups or backpackers falling out of bars, if you listen carefully in cafes, you’ll hear a smattering of international accents from expats and those in the know.
Gastro-globalisation is yet to infiltrate Istanbul though, with most restaurants, like Balat’s award-winning Agora Meyhanesi 1890, focusing on nailing Middle Eastern and domestic cuisine. Forno Balat mixes things up a little by serving stone-baked pizza alongside its very similar and just as tasty Turkish cousin, lahmacun.
Not the place for nightlife, this is the perfect neighbourhood to while away an afternoon. Café Naftalin K. has such an adorable DIY ethos — all hand-scrawled menus and homemade mezes served on odd crockery — that the general state of disrepair only adds to the ambience. Walls are papered with vintage magazines and adorned with flea-market finds. If this is all a bit ramshackle for your taste, simply pop next door, to Cafe Maide, where you’ll get consistent cappuccinos without the clutter, arguably defeating the point of visiting.
No trip to Istanbul is complete without getting out on the Bosphorus: the arterial strait that slices the city is also its lifeblood and raison d’être.
Take the 20-minute ferry crossing to Kadıköy for the best experience of Asian Istanbul. With the imposing Haydarpaşa Terminal looming on the embankment, Kadıköy will be familiar as a transport hub to those who have flown into the Asian side of the city with Pegasus, whose flights land at Sabiha Gökçen Airport. Most visitors don’t take the time to explore this modern, cosmopolitan neighbourhood, as they hotfoot it over to the better-known bustle of the European sights.
From the docks, jump on the Kadıköy-Moda Nostalgia Tramway, which runs antique 1950s and ’60s tramcars on a circuit around the Kadıköy district. Passing by the bull statue at Altıyol (the most popular meeting place for locals on a night out), and the main shopping street of Bahariye, the route’s furthest extremity is the bohemian Moda area.
Here, street artists paint the walls of tattoo studios, while their inhabitants ink designs into skin, and young entrepreneurs can be seen sewing clothes or making jewellery behind vivid window displays. Stop at Kemal’in Yeri (Ferit Tek Sk. 34, Kadıköy; +90 216 336 0394) for a traditional Turkish tea accompanied by spectacular views across the Bosphorus.
Heading back into central Kadıköy, Tellalzade Street is the place to go for antique shopping, with stores selling everything from 18th-century furniture through to needful things from the 1970s. Nearby you’ll find Kadıköy fish market, which is a treat for all the senses, except the olfactory.
The compulsory dining experience in Kadıköy is Ciya Sofrasi. This inauspicious-looking little place is a self-service canteen with meze priced by weight and a dozen or so hot dishes served over a counter. What it lacks in ceremony it more than makes for up in flavour, and this is rightly one of Istanbul’s most celebrated restaurants. Try the inexplicably incredible Mercimek Corbasi, to see just how good a humble lentil soup can taste.
Skip pudding and head to Baylan (Muvakkithane Cd. 9/A, Kadıköy; +90 216 346 6350), a family-run patisserie famous for its French-inspired desserts and ice creams. Their speciality is Kup Griye, a secret recipe of caramel and vanilla ice creams, with pistachio, honey and almonds, which has been stoking the creative furnace of Istanbul’s writers and versifiers for decades.
If you’re not off next to the eclectic drinking dens of Kadife Street (locally known as Bar Street), then catch your ferry back to Europe at dusk, because sailing back to Sultanahmet at sunset to see minarets in silhouette is pure poetry.
When in Istanbul…
Skip Turkey’s signature desserts of baklava and candied pumpkin and blend in with the locals by ordering trileçe. A very light sponge cake soaked in evaporated milk, condensed milk and cream, the pudding’s origins aren’t Turkish; tres leches cake has been popular in Latin America for years. However, it’s this sweet-toothed city’s latest food trend.
In a city where the doner kebab is a culinary keystone rather than a drunken mistake, Peymane in Tophane elevates it to fine-dining status. Head to Ortaköy’s street markets to sample a kumpir, an overstuffed jacket potato loaded with local hype.
Since 2011, the Çapa district has become home to many of the 600,000 Syrian refugees in Istanbul. Urban Adventures organises small-group trips to the neighbourhood’s Olive Tree community centre, set up by Small Projects Istanbul, to eat lunch cooked by Syrian immigrants and hear their fascinating stories.
The grand and imposing Pera Palace Hotel is where Agatha Christie is said to have written Murder on the Orient Express after arriving in Istanbul on the iconic, titular train. Tuck into the generous buffet afternoon tea in this museum/hotel, listening to the live pianist, and cancel plans for the rest of the day.
How do the antique shops of Çukurcuma and Kadıköy’s Tellalzade Street find their eclectic stock? To find out, head to Feriköy Flea Market (aka Bomonti Flea/Antiques Market) on a Sunday where over 200 stallholders display their incredible creations and collections. This is also a great place to try gözleme, a pastry filled and folded like a quesadilla.
Locally Istanbul organises tours for the more curious tourist.
Pegasus Airlines flies from Stansted twice daily to Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen airport. Return flights from £92.99, including taxes.
Published in the April 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)