Istanbul: The Whirl of a New “Soho”

Photo courtesy of Turkish Tourist Office

“Stay in Beyoglu,” advised my Turkish friend Haldun when I was planning a trip to Istanbul, his hometown.  The historic district was too quiet at night, he continued. But in Beyoglu, we’d be smack in the middle of one of the city’s liveliest spots.

Haldun’s advice was perfect. Beyoglu, in the center of the European side of the city, is just a short train ride to the “Old City,” where top sites like the Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, the Hippodrome, and the Grand Bazaar are clustered together.

All must-sees, of course, but we quickly discovered that this area offered plenty to explore itself — both during the day and later in the evening.

Positioned north of the Golden Horn, the waterway that separates the “old” from the “new” parts of European Istanbul, the former Embassy neighborhood is now emerging as Istanbul’s Soho.

Its wide pedestrian street, Istiklal Caddesi, runs southwest to Tune and is best explored by walking, entering churchyards, and noting the consulates with their spacious fenced-in grounds. An historic tram runs up and down the street’s center, too — a fun alternative.

Chain stores are gradually opening along the street, so many of the independent artisans, cutting-edge design shops, restaurants, and cafes are moving south.

Some of the best fish restaurants are just north in a warren of alleys branching off to the northwest across from the Swedish Consulate. The fish market and jewelry markets are to the east, and can be reached via small streets.

Photos courtesy of Istanbul.com

Here’s a way to explore the new, hip Beyoglu. Go south on Kumbaraci Street near the Russian Consulate. Peek into the first floor of artisans’ quarters in centuries-old homes, and then wind back up to Istiklal Caddesi on small streets.

Then walk south starting at Postacilar Sokak and down to Tomtom Kaptan Sokak, passing some of the oldest houses in the city. Italian and French families came here to settle after the Crusades. Be sure to stroll on Yeni Carsi Caddesi to check out the many new restaurants and cafes opening up.

Find the “Algerian Street of Desire,” Cezayir Sokak, a stepped, winding alley of nightclubs and shops east of Yeni Caddesi.

There’s a lot more to see if you have time, like the Museum of the Whirling Dervishes, ; the French Cultural Institute; many small mosques and churches; and the Pera Museum, located in a 19th-century hotel. The latter is next to the Istanbul Culinary Institute and its excellent restaurant Enstitü, noted for outstanding contemporary food with seasonal ingredients and cooking classes for travelers.

And of course you must eat: Try Haci Abdullah, a centuries-old restaurant with an Ottoman-Turkish kitchen just off Istiklal Caddesi. Mikla is situated at the top of the Marmara Pera Hotel, and offers Mediterrean cuisine created by the talented young chef Mehmet Gurs.

Refik, an old-fashioned meyhane (Turkish tavern), is popular with journalists (and has the best eggplant appetizer in Turkey, I swear). And Max Thomae, the award-winning German chef at Agatha, serves up tastes of France, Venice, and Istanbul at the Pera Palace Hotel, which has been recently restored to its Orient Express-era opulence.

Wandering around, you really begin to feel attuned to this exciting neighborhood. The lines of the architecture blur with the buzz of conversations in outdoor cafes, and the energy of shoppers and residents begins to attain the thrilling whirl of those dervishes.

  • Jonathan Simmons

    Congrats on a great article! It’d be pretty hard to add to your summary of things to do in Istanbul’s downtown. You may be aware that since your piece was published, they’ve passed a new regulation in the Beyoglu municipality against outdoor seating for bars and restaurants. Nightlife in the area has suffered as a result, but is by no means finished.

    If you’re curious about some of the other parts of Beyoglu (Cihangir, Cukurcuma, etc.), I’d recommend The Guide Istanbul’s Neighborhood guide. It’s even got a piece on Sultanahmet by Lonely Planet’s Pat Yale. Here’s the link if you’re curious:

    http://www.theguideistanbul.com/articles/istanbul101/neighbourhoods

    Thanks again, and hope you’ll return to Istanbul!

    Jonathan Simmons