If you didn’t have the chance to visit Karaköy while in Istanbul, it’s like you haven’t seen the city at all. This historical neighborhood located on the northern end of Galata Bridge, is the exact reflection of how fast the city is changing. Here you can find the niche and the mainstream, the expensive and inexpensive, local and foreign, old and new, which altogether create an interesting blend of all the things contemporary Istanbul stands for. In just a few years, from a forgotten, industrial quarter Karaköy dethroned Beyoğlu as the city’s nightlife capital. During daytime, it’s freelancers’ favorite hangout with coffee shops and little eateries at hand’s reach.
Although Beyoğlu municipality is much larger, people generally use “Beyoğlu” to mean the area around Taksim and İstiklal Caddesi. The Byzantines knew this area as Pera, coming from the Greek word for “across,” because it stood across the Golden Horn from the walled city of Constantinople. The ports of Pera became a lucrative spot for foreign traders, and when the Ottomans arrived in 1453 the neighborhood continued to be dominated by Europeans and non-Muslim minorities. A variety of churches can be found here, as well as mosques and synagogues.
Today the neighborhood has an amazing assortment of bars, cafes, bookshops, clubs, restaurants, music venues, galleries, cinemas, and shops. İstiklal Caddesi itself is full of architectural delights, as well as shopping arcades and rooftop terraces. Beyoğlu’s side streets also offer a lively world of antiques, vintage clothing, record stores, jewelry, art, and museums.
Take a walk from Taksim Square down Sıraselviler Caddesi and you’ll quickly find yourself free of the crowds and the kebab salesmen: as soon as the streets grow quieter and you can smell roasting coffee, you’re in Cihangir. On the side of one of Istanbul’s hills, between Taksim and the Bosphorus, Cihangir is known for its cosmopolitan locals and café culture. Take a walk around at any time of day and you’ll see crowds of people of all ages, often with some kind of dog nearby - drinking tea or coffee, eating anything from börek to vegan desserts.
The area is known to attract foreigners, many of them students visiting Istanbul for a few months. This makes it a good option for first-timers: you’ll find that many of the shopkeepers and baristas speak one or another European language.
That being said, Cihangir is no tourist trap. Originally settled by the Ottoman Empire’s European inhabitants - who moved out of the more expensive Pera neighborhood - Cihangir’s character changed gradually over the last century, as Anatolian migrants replaced the European residents. It retains the stamp of that mixture today, making it a neighborhood that’s very comfortable with its own mixture of different people, their art, their politics, and their lifestyles.
Occupying the walled peninsula that was once the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Old City is the historic heart of Istanbul. From Neolithic artifacts to Greek, Byzantine, Roman, and Ottoman architecture, the heritage of humanity is condensed into this neighborhood. It is a place of cultural coexistence: a Roman hippodrome stands next to Sultanahmet mosque, and Ottoman minarets embrace the Hagia Sophia. The thriving trade of the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Market entrances visitors with a profusion of handmade goods and foodstuffs. As well as four UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Old City also has lesser-known wonders such as an underground Roman cistern and Ottoman-era prison. The neighborhood is served by a number of luxury hotels and excellent restaurants for kebabs, mezze, and fish. Beauty and wellbeing are also features of the Old City, with historic hammams still pampering in Ottoman style.
In nine out of ten cases, what others describe as the “Asian side” is in fact Kadıköy, the busy port where one gets off the ferry to explore the neighborhoods on the other side of the Bosphorus.
Although Kadıköy is an action-packed, chaotic organism of its own, weekend travellers often prefer to skip it and go directly to Moda, a waterfront residential district filled with centuries of history. In the past, cosmopolitan residents of the area used to dictate the latest international trends in the city, hence the neighborhood’s name which in Turkish stands for “fashion.” Today, no less fashionable by any means, this popular breakfast destination is filled with cafes serving the best brews in town, and boutiques offering original crafts by up-and-coming local talents. You might want to pick a weekday instead of weekend if you want to fully enjoy Moda’s carefree character.
An old Bosphorus neighborhood, Bebek has been the the beloved haunt of Istanbul’s well-heeled crowd since Ottoman times. Nowadays, it is filled with everyone from the city’s rich young set. The pretty streets and busy cafes are never dull, and Bebek’s location means it has so far escaped the crush of people that you’ll find in many other parts of the city.
If you want to dig a little deeper, the best thing to do is look up: many of Bebek’s buildings tell stories of the area and its history that have otherwise been forgotten. There is the grand Egyptian Consulate right on the Bosphorus, and on a sidestreet you’ll find the Lazarist Church compound, housing an unusual church built by the Lazarists, a society within the Roman Catholic Church.
Tucked into a curve of the Bosphorus, there’s more to Bebek than meets the eye - but what meets the eye is more than enough reason to start exploring.
Beşiktaş is probably most famous for its football club: one of the city’s oldest, the Beşiktaş team is at the heart of the neighborhood. There are also a number of universities nearby, so the area is full of young people talking, shopping, drinking, and debating. Of course, it is also home to the famous Dolmabahçe Palace, one of the grandest examples of the opulence of late-Ottoman design. Its location right on the water makes it one of Istanbul’s most striking pieces of architecture.