Istanbul, the noisy metropolis on the Bosporus Strait lauded by many a travel ranking, has much more to offer than grand mosques and bazaars. Away from the din of typical tourist haunts, a walk around the neighborhoods of Karakoy, Balat and Kuzguncuk will peel back the surface to reveal the city’s multilayered history, and the lifestyles of those who’ve lived it.
And while headlines persist on Turkey’s uneasy political situation, which included a recent government shutdown of Twitter to silence critics, protests have dwindled for now. For tourism, it’s business as usual, with the government counting 35 million people visiting last year, a 10 percent increase over the previous year. As proof of Turkey’s popularity among travelers, TripAdvisor just named the country the world’s top destination, based on the website’s ratings and user reviews.
Descending from the Galata Tower in the Beyoglu district, often regarded as the “pulse of Istanbul,” one of the city’s steepest hills will lead to Karakoy, an up-and-coming area hemming the Bosporus Strait.
This one-time industrial neighborhood is still home to a number of shops where anything from fishing equipment to Bunsen burners can be procured. But the hardware stores and workshops must now negotiate their space with new galleries and cafes that have created a hub for young hipsters.
Past the Karakoy ferry terminal, one street over from the water, look for Namli Gurme, a restaurant and small marketplace offering a large selection of “mezes,” or cold appetizers. Also served here is a cut of meat called “lokum,” which means Turkish delight and is the term for anything wildly tasty and juicy (unlike the narrower meaning of the term Turkish delight outside the country, referring only to chewy sugary candies).
One of Istanbul’s busiest baklava shops is next door, known for “sutlu Nuriye” or milky Nuriye, a puffier and creamier version of baklava. Farther north along the road parallel to the Bosporus, past a few deserted buildings and construction sites, a green iron gate opens into the Franciz Gecidi Is Merkezi, a small collection of cafes and restaurants. Around an easily missed corner toward the Mother Mary Turkish Orthodox church nearby is another hidden nook for cafes that are usually full on the weekends.
You can wander through galleries and boutique shops punctuating rows of nondescript buildings before reaching the luxurious renovated Kilic Ali Pasha Hamam and the more widely-known Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
The Balat district is a quiet historic area by the Golden Horn, the narrowest stretch of the Bosporus. Its twisting streets and weathered houses, like antiques in an open museum, echo a past occupied by waves of Jewish, Greek, Bulgarian and Armenian residents. These ethnic groups were forced out or chose to move in response to political events or socioeconomic conditions at various points in the 20th century, and the area is now home mainly to working-class Turks from Black Sea towns and Central Anatolia. Adventurous tourists who can find the beauty in the decaying buildings and who are willing to forgo the reliability of a map or definitive street names, will enjoy wandering the hilly streets.
Walking from the Galata Bridge by the seaside toward the end of the Golden Horn, the Gul Mosque is not to be missed. Formerly known as Saint Theodosia church, the cross-in-square orthodox church was converted into a mosque by Ottomans. Farther along the spine of the horn, the Church of St. Mary of the Mongols, which has not been converted to a mosque, and St. Stephen’s Bulgarian Church, made entirely of iron, are among the markers of the neighborhood’s mixed history. The former seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Church of St. George, can also be found here.
A walk uphill toward the Fener quarter will reveal the Rum Lisesi (Greek Boys School), which features prominently on the Golden Horn skyline, perched at the top of a hill, drawing spectators with its lacquered, bloody red hue. Near the foot of the structure is a famous street corner, which appears in many Turkish TV series and films. During Ottoman times, Fener was the residential neighborhood for the dragoman, multilingual Greeks who often served as diplomatic linkages between the Ottoman Empire and its European neighbors. It was also the seat of the Greek patriarchate, and a refuge for Bulgarians, Armenians and Jews.
Restoration projects have risen up in recent years to address some of the dilapidation, seeking to turn the district into a cafe-filled boutique neighborhood of ateliers. The municipality for instance, converted a historic building into a gallery space and workshop for glass art, now called Camhane. Like many historic neighborhoods in Istanbul, Balat deserves an attentive stroll before the bulldozers and property developers have their way.
On the Asia side of this continental crossroads of a city, the quiet, pictorial village of Kuzguncuk is minutes away from the Uskudar ferry terminal by “dolmus,” one of the city’s many minibuses. Kuzguncuk is not a village in the traditional sense, but a leafy residential district lined with shops and restaurants, lauded as a quieter, perhaps less jaded version of upscale Ortakoy on the European side. It is another well-known Jewish quarter, home to two synagogues.
Among the seaside fish restaurants bearing views of the Bosporus Bridge, Ismet Baba generates the most fanfare. Uryanizade Sokak, running perpendicularly from Ismet Baba and the seaside, is a restored street lined with Ottoman houses and studios for artists. Farther north, the waterside showcases a string of Istanbul’s famous classic wooden-framed mansions, known as “yali.”
A bit beyond the Bosporus bridge is Cengelkoy district, with its part of the shoreline caving in for about half a mile, showing few signs of strain. Among the most conspicuous structures of this village is the red yali named after Sa’dullah Pasha, a literary figure during the mid-1800s. Another notable feature of the waterfront, Sumahan on the Water is a boutique hotel converted from a distillery for raki, Turkey’s much-loved aperitif.
Both Kuzguncuk and Cengelkoy cater to a nostalgia common among Istanbulites for a bygone era of neighborhood camaraderie and chivalry, when fine street manners were the norm against a backdrop of local shops, tea gardens, and fish restaurants.