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Neighborhood Guide to Istanbul

Istanbul

Where to go now—neighborhood by neighborhood in Istanbul.

On my first visit to Istanbul, in the mid 1980’s, donkey carts still trundled across the iron Galata Bridge between the historic Old City and the Europeanized Beyoğlu quarter. And right away I was hooked...on faded Byzantine frescoes and smoky kebabs and tulip-shaped glasses of tea. I’m even more smitten today, as I gaze over the Bosporus boat traffic from the window of a little apartment I bought in the leafy Cihangir quarter. Istanbul is a global megalopolis now, a place where grit and gloss, East and West, secularism and Islam all collide with a jolt—or just as often cohabit gracefully. This is my Istanbul.

Old City

Pride of Byzantine emperors, Ottoman sultans, and clingy amateur guides, the historic peninsula is postcard Istanbul come to throbbing, haggling life. Sophisticated locals didn’t frequent the Old City—unless they wanted fabrics from the wholesale streets of Mahmud Paşa. Lately though, they’ve been bathing at the new Ayasofya Hamami, near Hagia Sophia and under domes constructed by Mimar Sinan, the Michelangelo of Ottoman architects. Or blowing fortunes on haute couture and crafts at the Armaggan concept store in the fast-gentrifying Nuru Osmaniye street. Could the imperial city be plotting a renaissance?

A lunch of moist grilled sea bass at stately Balikçi Sabahattin is just dreamy. Ditto a dinner of Aegean-inflected meze in the garden of Giritli. But easy on the raki, Turkey’s compulsively quaffable anise spirit. Best to keep a clear mind for the bazaar day ahead.

Sixty-four streets, more than 4,000 vendors, ferociously expensive retail spaces: the 15th-century Grand Bazaar is both tourist trap and fantastical treasure trove. Textiles? Ikat silks and wood-block prints at Sivasli Istanbul Yazmacisi draw the likes of Jean Paul Gaultier. Rugs? Choose between geometric patchworks recycled from old kilims at Ethnicon and gorgeous classics collected by the Sorbonne-educated owner at Şişko Osman. Snack on a slender döner wrap from the cult favorite Gül Ebru Kantin nearby. Then off to Koç Leather & Fur for butter-soft jackets and on to Kafkas, where locals buy their wedding jewels. Eğin Tekstil is for soft, striped hammam towels; elite vintage baubles gleam at Epoque; and Iznik Classics sells beautifully crafted ceramics.

Head spinning? Relief awaits at the modern dining room of Nar Lokanta, inside the Armaggan store. Its consulting celebrity-chef-scholar, Vedat Başaran, romances Ottoman flavors with delicate zucchini-flower dolmas and thimble-size imperial-style manti (dumplings). I love winding my way down to the Spice Market through the wholesale district, for everything from screwdrivers to head scarves. Then I buy baklava from Hamdi restaurant’s pastry shop, to savor while crossing the Galata Bridge; as the dusk gathers, the minarets are illuminated, and commuter ferries glow like fantastical lanterns.

Hotels

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet: Sentence yourself to the luxury of this fragrantly historic 65-room hotel converted from a 19th-century prison. Or at least have cocktails at its new neo-Ottoman rooftop lounge, with the massive buttress of Hagia Sophia at eye level. $$$$

Hotel Empress Zoe: This rustic-chic guesthouse is such an inviting, affordable option that its 25 rooms are booked months in advance. $

Hotel Ibrahim Pasha: A welcoming family vibe, tasteful guest quarters, and delicious fresh breakfast jams in a 19th-century town house right off the Hippodrome. $$

Beyoğlu

Historically settled by foreign envoys and non-Muslim minorities, Beyoğlu (formerly Pera) has always been Istanbul’s cosmopolitan heart. After flourishing at the turn of the 20th century, the neighborhood floundered in the 1980’s, but now reigns again as the city’s creative Western-minded dining and entertainment quarter. Best savored by staying at one of its new hotels, Beyoğlu is actually an eclectic patchwork of sub-quarters.

Karaköy + Galata

Istanbullus are abuzz over the unstoppable gentrification of Karaköy, the docklands area once known for hookers and hardware shops. It started with the tiled meze haunt Karaköy Lokantasi (now very crowded), continued with the stylish Lokanta Maya (the zucchini fritters are eternally wonderful), and took root when the Salt Galata contemporary art center opened in a palatial 19th-century bank building. As Karaköy awaits a slew of hotel openings, the action is on the once-seedy backstreets. Dive into a half-hidden alley and behold a vision of raven-haired voluptuaries sipping frothy Viennese coffee by the distressed vine-covered façade of boho-chic Karabatak, Beyoğlu’s café-of-the-moment. Visitors buy adorable gifts at Atolye 11 and order crisp kokoreç (rolled offal) on brioche at the restaurant Unter, whose retro-industrial look and eclectic menu would go groovily in Berlin—or Brooklyn. Me? I still find time for the classics: breakfast of briny cheeses and olives at Namli Gurme (a Eurasian Dean & DeLuca); the sublime, unadorned grilled lüfer (bluefish) and views at Tarihi Karaköy Balikçisi fish restaurant; the Ottoman craftsmanship of the leather notebooks at the century-old Ece Ajandasi. The roar of construction is drowning out ferry whistles in Karaköy. I sigh and wonder if the precious old Citir simit bakery (for Istanbul’s iconic sesame bread rings) will survive the next wave of development.

Up its steep slope, anchored by a conical 14th-century Genoese tower, is trendy Galata. From the beat-up cobblestones of Serdar-i Ekrem street you wouldn’t know it was Beyoğlu’s chicest shopping corridor. But look! The futuristic, sharply cut silhouettes of Arzu Kaprol and the flowy, whimsical dresses of Bahar Korçan—the grande dames of Turkish couture both have boutiques in Galata. Lunapark Shop has a jazzy remix of nostalgic local brands—ah, the Proustian scent of Rebul cologne—and emerging designers of housewares and accessories (grab the cool tea set by Faruk Malhan). Nearby, the ceramics shop Sir updates and declutters old Iznik patterns. And why not wear a playful, Istanbul-themed necklace from Aida Pekin to dinner at the new Yeni Lokanta? At his handsome neo-meyhane (drinking den) young chef-owner Civan Er roasts killer lamb shanks in a wood-burning oven, and sprinkles New Anatolian accents—tamarind; smoky “burnt yogurt”—onto traditional meze.

Cihangir + Cukurcuma

Once the preserve of bearded, chain-smoking artistes, the gracious, stylish streets of Cihangir below Taksim Square are being taken over by young Turks and expats, myself included. Developers are noisily refurbishing peeling Art Deco façades. Travelers have discovered the secret panoramic perch that’s the tiny garden of the neo-Baroque Cihangir Mosque. But our courteous old butchers and greengrocers keep alive the unself-conscious neighborhood charm. On weekends it’s breakfast at the sidewalk tables of Journey and Smyrna cafés, which morph into drinking dens after dark. Or bring handcrafted Anatolian cheeses from Antre Gourmet Shop to the thronged tea garden by the petite green Firuzaga Mosque. Across the busy street the seasonal fruit flavors at the new gelateria, Mua, run by a Florentine expat, are fab. One treasures such relics as the pungent pickle shop, Asri Turşucu, in business since 1913, and the homey embrace of Özkonak, a lunch canteen. Was it the caramely top on Özkonak’s mastic-scented kazandibi pudding that had me move to Cihangir?

Behind Firuzaga Mosque, in the adjacent Çukurcuma antiques district, even the feral street cats seem hip to the market value of Midcentury Modern. Here, visitors peruse the heartrending mementos of fictional love—and real old Istanbul—arrayed within novelist Orhan Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence—before sifting through the hoarder’s troves of curios at the Works (which supplied various items to Pamuk). Ladies admire the feathery, beady, crocheted vintage purses and hats at Pied de Poule; shelter-magazine addicts search for lamps, paintings, and statuary at Hakan Ezer, owned by a celebrity interior decorator. Even if you don’t buy anything at A La Turca House—four swoony floors of exquisite kilims, antique globes, and green-glazed pottery—owner Erkal Aksoy will treat you to some cherry liqueur, a nice prelude to the juicy char-grilled meatballs at Çukurcuma Köftecisi.

Asmali Mescit

Though the dark, narrow alleys north of Istiklal are falling prey to tequila guzzlers, I’m still drawn to the area’s restaurants. For a lesson in smoke I book a counter seat at Zubeyir Ocakbaşi (a kind of Turkish robata) and let the parade of skewers begin. Among the area’s signature meyhane (think meze and rivers of raki) Asmali Cavit is the choice, for sublime cornmeal-crusted sardines, petal-thin flash-fried slices of liver, and an insider clientele of actors and writers. And while Mikla’s wood-chrome-and-marble interior and jaw-dropping vistas have been much lauded, its charismatic Turkish-Finnish chef-owner, Mehmet Gürs, makes the place. His new set menu marries Nordic minimalism with sunny ingredients sourced in remote Turkish villages. Ask, and the glamorous manager-sommelier Sabiha Apaydin will talk you through local Bogazkere and Emir wines one grape at a time.

Hotels

Adahan: Warm recycled wood, white walls—and nary a kilim—create a Zen-like effect in the rooms of this eco-conscious hotel, an Italianate 19th-century former apartment building. $$$

Georges Hotel Galata: An unmarked door leads to a Parisian-style hôtel particulier with a rooftop restaurant that offers breakfast croissants and Bosporus vistas. The 20 high-ceilinged rooms have original Neoclassical moldings. $$$

Mama Shelter: Cool kids adore the cheeky Pop vibe and the Batman masks at this Philippe Starck–designed fun house on Istiklal Avenue, Beyoğlu’s pedestrian artery. $

Marti Hotel: This sleek 11-story hotel near Taksim Square has serene blue-hued rooms created by local design goddess Zeynep Fadillioğlu. $$$

Nişantaşi

Just north of Taksim Square, leafy Nişantaşi embodies the European aspirations and tastes of Istanbul’s early-20th-century haute bourgeoisie. The city looks—almost—like Paris. With its chic café life and women in Louboutin heels clicking past Art Nouveau façades toward Cartier or Cavalli or local couturiers’ ateliers—Nişantaşi is fashion central in Istanbul. Watch the skinny-jeans-and-stilettos set forsake their fad diets for wicked double-chocolate brownies at high-design Delicatessen. Then trail them to Fey boutique, where Fatoş Yalin Arkun, formerly of Turkish Marie Claire, curates a sexy mix of 1950’s Lanvin scarves, handmade Turkish porcelain, and snakeskin ballet slippers. Close by, step into the future through the angular entrance of V2K Designers. At this hip offshoot of the Vakko department store created by local style icon Demet Müftüoğlu Eşeli, mannequins clad in Maison Martin Margiela and Hussein Chalayan pose in an avant-garde space from the trendsetting Autoban firm. (Their design showroom is down the hill, in the Akaretler fashion row.)

Linger too long at Room, a new multi-brand showcase of young Turkish fashion talent, and you’ll never get in for lunch at Kantin. High priestess of the locavore faith Şemsa Denizsel imperiously refuses to take reservations; by 1 p.m. fashionistas and foodies practically beg at the door of her sage-colored bistro for a taste of such ethereal blackboard specials as baby lamb braised with spinach roots and a pilaf of the season’s first artichokes. Nearby is Yastik, fashion designer Rifat Ozbek’s nook dedicated to cushions; the Central Asian ikat fabrics arrayed against blinding-white walls are sleekly Orientalist eye candy. End with a pliant, charred round of the city’s best lahmacun (thin Turkish pizza) at Tatbak. Here Nişantaşi looks—and tastes—Turkish.

Hotels

Park Hyatt Istanbul Macka Palas: The 90 airy rooms retain the spacious layout and original detailing of the Art Deco building. Nostalgic blowups of Istanbul by the iconic local photographer Ara Guler add old-world glamour. $$$$

Sofa Hotel & Residences: Expect to find museum-worthy contemporary art in the lobby, 82 designer rooms with rain showers in the gray marble bathrooms—plus the city’s most happening jazz scene at its upstairs restaurant, Frankie. $$$

Bosporus

You come to Istanbul for the mosques and bazaars and leave bewitched by the Bosporus. This legendary 14-mile strait—one side is Europe, the other is Asia—besots the locals too with its salty breezes, medley of boats, shifting aquatic light illuminating miles of lyrical shores dotted with palaces, and elaborate waterside mansions called yali. On the banks of the Bosporus Muslim families light portable grills, gruff anglers threaten to snag you with fishing rods, lovers loll, old men play tavla (backgammon)—and shiny Porsches jam entrances to nightclubs. And everyone argues forever about the ultimate fish restaurant.

Formerly the summer refuges of aristocratic Istanbullus (now prime real estate for city dwellers), the genteel old villages on the European shore offer pure romantic enchantment. I like starting from the northern ones, closest to the Black Sea, then slowly making my way toward the city center. Emirgan’s laid-back sweetness is best savored at its cluster of languorous tea gardens shaded by plane trees. Then it’s Ottoman art at Sakip Sabanci Museum (its fusion restaurant Müzedechanga is fabulous) and an amble among furry pines and wooden chalets in Emirgan Park. From here a quick taxi ride brings me to the 15th-century Rumeli Fortress—Mehmed the Conqueror built it with miraculous speed for his conquest of Constantinople—where I rejoin the passeggiata, toward the gorgeous shores and affluent buzz of Bebek. Mornings, arty locals colonize tables by a pretty marina at the ramshackle Bebek Kahve (great eggs sizzling in a copper skillet) while macaron lovers have chichi breakfast trays at the venerable patisserie Baylan. If it’s dusk, decide between gin and tonics on the waterside deck of the old-school Bebek Hotel or satsuma-orange martinis at the jeunesse dorée hangout Lucca. Either way, nab vividly nutty marzipans from the stern dames at Meşhur Bebek Badem Ezmesi—to nibble while strolling southward past the Art Nouveau extravaganza of the newly spruced-up Egyptian consulate. From here a heart-stoppingly scenic coastal mile leads to nostalgic Arnavutköy, with its florid wood carvings on waterfront yali and teetering old-style wooden houses leaning over steep narrow backstreets. At Adem Baba, a beloved fish joint, extended families devour piles of greaseless fried mussels and anchovies—good luck finding a table. Should a party mood strike, join models and wannabe moguls on the deck of the Anjelique nightclub.

But wait! The Asian shore! Hillier, greener, slower, more residential. Magical sunsets. I love the authentic mahalle (neighborhood) spirit of the formerly Christian village of Kuzguncuk (walk here from the Üsküdar ferry pier), where the barbershops, bakeries, and artisans’ workshops are from a sepia snapshot of another time. I love buying the crunchy thin-skinned cucumbers of Çengelköy from the altar-like grocers’ displays, plus some shaggy, buttery börek (savory pastry) from Çengelköy Börekçisi, to savor while watching the sun sink at the Çinaralti Aile Çay Bahçesi teahouse. And now for that ultimate fish restaurant.... Mine is Suna’nin Yeri, farther north in Kandili. It’s a simple place, no menus or ceremony—just tables set out on cobblestones by the water—that serves basic meze and tasty fried tekir (mullet). But the setting! Lights twinkle on the soaring Bosporus bridges, seagulls caw overhead, a passing tanker sends its wake swelling against mossy stone banks. Just as I take my first bite of the velvety fava-bean spread and the first sip of raki, the muezzins’ calls echo across the water. This is what I miss most when I’m away from this city.

Hotels

Ciragan Palace Kempinski: For lovers of old-school grand hotel theater: society weddings; heads of state pulling up in black limos; oligarchs mingling with sheiks at the opulent breakfast buffet. $$$$

Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus: It has an exclusive resort ambience, ultra-plush rooms, three private hammams, and a majestically marbled waterside terrace. An attendant cleans your sunglasses while you splash in the pool. $$$$

House Hotel Bosphorus: At this stylish 26-room mansion, the design—by the über-cool Autoban firm—seamlessly blends old and new, the Bosporus gleams outside the swank lounge, and the lovely general manager plots her guests’ eating and shopping adventures. $$$

Shangri-La Bosphorus: The 186-room property opened last May inside a 1930’s former tobacco factory next to the Dolmabahçe Palace. No gardens or grounds, but really large guest quarters with views that create an illusion of floating on water. $$$$

Anya von Bremzen is a T+L contributing editor.

T + L Guide to Istanbul

Eat

Old City
Balikçi Sabahattin 1 Seyit Hasan Sk.; balikcisabahattin.com. $$$$
Giritli 8 Keresteci Hakki Sk.; giritlirestoran.com. $$$
Gül Ebru Kantin 4 Aci Çeşme Sk.; 90-212/512-3393. $
Hamdi Baklava 17 Kalsin Sk.; hamdi.com.tr.
Nar Lokanta 41 Nuru Osmaniye Cad.; narlokantasi.com. $$

Beyoğlu
Antre Gourmet Shop 40 Akarsu Cad.; antregourmet.com.
Asmali Cavit 16B Asmalimescit Cad.; 90-212/292-4950. $$
Citir 83-85 Mumhane Cad.; no phone.
Çukurcuma Köftecisi 1/A Hacioglu Sk.; cukurcumakoftecisi.com. $
Journey 21 Akarsu Cad. $$
Karabatak 7 Karaali Kaptan Sk.; karabatak.com.
Karaköy Lokantasi 37 Kemankeş Cad.; karakoylokantasi.com. $$$
Lokanta Maya 35A Kemankeş Cad.; lokantamaya.com. $$$
Mikla Marmara Pera Hotel, 15 Mesrutiyet Cad.; miklarestaurant.com. $$$$
Mua 126/B Kaybaşi Cad.; 90-212/299-8484.
Namli Gurme 1/1 Rihtim Cad., Katotopark Alti; namligida.com.tr. $$
Özkonak 46B Akarsu Cad.; 90-212/244-2466. $
Smyrna 29 Akarsu Cad.; 90-212/244-2466. $$
Tarihi Karaköy Balikçisi 30 Tersane Cad., Kardeşim Sk.; tarihikarakoybalikcisi.com. $
Unter 4 Karaali Kaptan Sk.; unter.com.tr. $$
Yeni Lokanta 66 Kumbaraci Yokuşu; lokantayeni.com. $$$$
Zubeyir Ocakbaşi 28 Bekar Sk.; 90-212/293-3951. $$

Nişantaşi
Delicatessen 19/1 Mim Kemal Öke Cad.; delicatessenistanbul.com. $$$
Kantin 30 Akkavak Sk.; kantin.biz. $$$
Tatbak 38/B Akkavak Sk.; tatbak.com. $

Bosporus
Adem Baba
2 Satis Meydani Sk.; adembaba.com. $$
Baylan 52-54 Cevdet Paşa Cad.; baylangida.com. $$
Bebek Hotel
34 Cevdet Paşa Cad.; bebekhotel.com.tr.
Bebek Kahve 18 Cevdet Paşa Cad.; 90-212/257-5402. $
Çengelköy Börekçisi 41 Çengelköy Cad.; cengelkoyborekcisi.com.
Çinaralti Aile Çay Bahçesi 4 Çengelköy Cad.; cengelkoycinaralti.com.
Lucca 51/B Cevdet Paşa Cad.; luccastyle.com.
Meşhur Bebek Badem Ezmecisi 53 Cevdet Paşa Cad.; 90-212/263-5984.
Suna’nin Yeri 4-17 Iskele Cad.; 90-216/332-3241. $$

Do

Old City
Ayasofya Hürrem Sultan Hamami
Ayasofya Meydani; ayasofyahamami.com.
Grand Bazaar grandbazaaristanbul.org.

Beyoğlu
Museum of Innocence 2 Çukurcuma Cad., Dalgic Çikmazi; masumiyetmuzesi.org.
Salt Galata 11 Bankalar Cad.; saltonline.org.

Bosporus
Anjelique
5 Muallim Naci Cad., Salhane Sk.; anjelique.com.tr.
Sakip Sabanci Museum 42 Sakip Sabanci Cad.; muze.sabanciuniv.edu.

Shop

Old City
Armaggan
41 Nuru Osmaniye Cad.; armaggan.com.
Eğin Tekstil 1 Yağlikçilar Cad.; egintekstil.com.
Epoque 38 Sandal Bedesten Sk.; no phone.
Ethnicon 58-60 Takkeciler Sk.; ethnicon.com.
Iznik Classics 188 Ic Bedesten Serifaga Sk.; iznikclassics.com.
Kafkas 4-6 Kalpakçilar Cad.; kafkasjewellery.com.
Koç Leather & Fur 22-46 Kapalicarsi Kurkculer; kocderi.com.
Şişko Osman 15 Zincirli Han; siskoosman.com.
Sivasli Istanbul Yazmacisi 57 Yağlikçilar Cad.; 90-212/526-7748.

Beyoğlu
Aida Pekin 44A Serdar-i Ekrem Sk.; aidapekin.com.
A La Turca House 4 Faik Paşa Yokuşu; alaturcahouse.com.
Arzu Kaprol 22 Serdar-i Ekrem Sk.; arzukaprol.com.
Asri Turşucu 9 Ağa Hamami Cad.; 90-212/244-4724.
Atolye 11 47 Mumhane Cad.; atolye11.com.
Bahar Korçan 9 Serdar-i Ekrem Sk.; baharkorcan.org.
Ece Ajandasi 30 Necati Bey Cad.; eceajandasi.com.
Hakan Ezer 5 Faik Paşa Cad.; hakanezer.com.
Lunapark Shop 17/B Serdar-i Ekrem Sk.; lunapark.com.tr.
Pied de Poule 19/1 Faik Paşa Yokuşu; 90-212/245-8116.
Sir 38/1 Serdar-i Ekrem Sk.; sircini.com.
The Works 6/1 Faik Paşa Cad.; fleaworks.com.

Nişantaşi
Autoban 20 Şair Nedim Cad.; autoban212.com.
Fey 9 Mim Kemal Öke Cad.; feyistanbul.com.
Room 109 Teşvikiye Cad.; room2shoppers.com.
V2K Designers 31 Abdi Ïpekci Cad.; v2kdesigners.com.tr.
Yastik by Rifat Ozbek 13/1 Şakayik Sk.; yastikbyrifatozbek.com.

Hotels
$ Less than $200
$$ $200 to $350
$$$ $350 to $500
$$$$ $500 to $1,000
$$$$$ More than $1,000

Restaurants
$ Less than $25
$$ $25 to $75
$$$ $75 to $150
$$$$ More than $150

Appeared as "Neighborhood by Neighborhood: Istanbul" in T+L Magazine

Related Links:
A Chef's Istanbul Travel Guide
Literary Life in Istanbul's Changing Society
World's Best Trip: Istanbul

Photo by Michael James O-Brien

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