İstanbul is a big city, and each of its neighbourhoods is an adventure in itself. For this reason, each Istanbul Instalment features different tips for separate, specific areas. Continue with this post to learn about:
- A bit of Turkish politics
- Arriving in the city from the airport
- The Galata region
- The Cihangir region
- Places to Eat/Drink in these neighbourhoods
There are few places in the world like Istanbul (İstanbul in Turkish). Turkey is the historical crossroads of various peoples and economies in general. And, its cultural capital on the Bosphorus remains a vibrant and bustling hub of cultures to this day.
One should be aware that İstanbul is not the actual capital of Turkey. That would be Ankara, in the centre of the country, with many of the nation’s most important government buildings.
However, İstanbul itself is still quite important in its own ways. Recently, losing the mayorships of this city (and the capital) was a big blow to AKP: the largest conservative party of Turkey. It is also the party of (Recep) Erdoğan, the currentpresident of Turkey with more than a few skeletons in his closet who is known for his draconian stances and ethical journalistic lapses.
The people of İstanbul voted (twice) for a more liberal option with the slogan herşey çok güzel olacak or ‘everything is going to be fine/beautiful/great’, much to the president’s chagrin. But, it is not surprising in the slightest; İstanbul is a city with an organised, vocal, and youthful demographic and with mixed religiosity.
Strolling through its various quarters, one will begin to see how the city itself could never be truly restrained by totalitarian politics. She needs to breathe.
The new İstanbul Havalimanı (Istanbul Airport) will likely be one’s point of arrival into the city. Recently opened, it is a massive complex on the far outskirts of the city. For Nina and myself since we were on a domestic flight, we travelled swiftly through the airport and exited. For those just arriving in Turkey, expect a customs and passport check, which may add some time.
I recommend taking a taxi and schlepping into the city compared to trying to deal with public transport. Traffic can be a menace, and being stuck on a bus is never fun.
The cost should be anywhere between 180 to 250 lira to get to the city centre, depending on how much the driver decides to charge as well as factoring in traffic. As always, speaking (fluent) Turkish will help lower the price, but it does not hurt to establish with the taxi driver that you know it should come to about 200 lira right off the bat.
Arriving in the city, Nina and I asked to be dropped off in Taksim Square: a famous landmark and centre to the European side of the city.
It is notorious for its protests as well as pickpockets, so watch one’s belongings and avoid flaunting any cash.
Our misterbnb accommodation was just south of the square, so it was a good shout, as every Turk knows one way or another to get to Taksim.
Whilst In Europe
İstanbul is famously separated into the European and Asian sides. It is all İstanbul, and people commute every day between the two districts. One will assuredly at least take one ferry to the other side via the Bosphorus. There are minor, minor structural and cultural differences between the two sides, but it is one city. And, do not let anyone tell you otherwise.
That said, I would recommend staying on the European side. Many locals say there is more to do on this end, so it makes less sense to stay on the Asian bank. However, there is still much to offer on the Asian side, which we will discuss in a different post.
On the European side, there are the majority of the famous mosques and other tourist destinations (ie bazaars). Additionally, there are some quaint neighbourhoods that one will be fortunate to get to know.
Two locations of interest for any visitors to the European side are Galata and Cihangir.
Situated close to each other, both neighbourhoods are hip and lively with young people and great places to eat and enjoy a quiet, but fun evening.
Nina and I stayed close by in Taksim, which borders Cihangir. My friend from university who I was able to meet up with while in the city had a (now ex-)boyfriend who worked at a café in this area (that I would highly recommend). On our first trip to this neighbouring hood, we obviously went to see him.
Definitely stop by Its Ok Cafe (Kılıçali Paşa, No, Akarsu Ykş. No:37) for a cold brew and shade on a hot summer day in the city. Unfortunately, while we were there visiting and enjoying the free wifi, the whole block abruptly lost power. As it turns out, this occurrence is not the most uncommon, as some areas lack up-to-date infrastructure …
Regardless, as I told my friend, you don’t need power for enjoy a cold brew!
Cihangir is littered with other scrumptious and friendly cafés all with a rather retro atmosphere that is classic to the city itself. It is quite hilly, however, so prepared for a bit of a hike if one is starting from the riverside!
Going to Galata
One of my favourite locations to just stroll through is Galata, which finds itself closer to some ferry terminals in Karaköy (the modern name for Galata) and a bit south of Cihangir.
A wealthy district, this neighbourhood is known for its iconic tower that overlooks the city. (It always has a line.) The attraction also has a signature restaurant on top of it, which as one can expect, is quite expensive.
The whole area itself is upscale with many boutique shops that cater to a younger crowd. Galata itself connects to Taksim through a huge commercial district and street called İstiklal Caddesi or İstiklal Street. Here, one will encounter big crowds, confectionary shops, street performers, tricky ice cream men, and also the school of one of my good friends that caters to the best and brightest in Turkey: Galatasaray High School. Look for the big gates!
Other (likely more interesting) attractions on this stretch include the famous Fish market, the historic flower passage (Çiçek Pasajı) building, antique street car, and various hole-in-the-wall bars and cafés that spread out in the alleyways of this massive route.
One of my favourites is actual a bit behind my friend’s old school, and from what we could reckon, it was very, very queer-minded. For some local queer Turkish culture (and virtually no tourists), try Ziba (Tomtom, Akansu sokağı) for a drink and bite.
Service was great, and the prices were not too bad either. Just try to find a table! And, yes, you can sit at one with a stray cat napping on it.
Grub in Galata
By far Nina and my favourite place to eat in Galata (and possibly all of İstanbul) is Güney.
A bit touristic, its prices are reasonable given the location, and it has a lovely view of the tower. For myself, dining was easy, as everything on the menu looked great. For Nina, there were quite the amount of meat-heavy dishes, but she found a decent mix of vegetarian ones to satisfy herself in the end. I mean, we did come back to the restaurant on our last night, so we had to have liked it.
I recommend any of the kebabs or the manti (a Central Asian/Turkic style dumpling dish). And, it turns out that this word is a cognate to the Korean mandu, which also means ‘dumpling’. Wildly different, imagine smaller and hearty ravioli for this Turkish variety, which are just delectable in their own way. Do not forget the yogurt sauce!
One of the most prominent features of the restaurant if I might say is that everyone that works there is just smoking hot. Um, I am not sure if it is a requirement, but it appears on the surface that to be a waiter there, it is a prerequisite to be a beefy, youthful moustached man. Alright; no complaints here. Go and verify for yourself!
For other dining options, I also suggest the Galata Konak Cafe & Restaurant. A popular rooftop bar and restaurant, it has a view of the entire city and Bosphorus. It is a bit pricey, but the service is fast and friendly, and one pays for the view in a sense.
It is located in a chic, quirky building that one must either ascend via a staircase or old elevator, to the bustling rooftop atmosphere that one seeks. I recommend an afternoon drink or perhaps a dessert here, but maybe not a full meal.
Shopping: Buyers Beware
While Galata is known for its views and food, what it is most popular for is its shopping.
İstanbul has its own antique, but hip aesthetic, and Galata is a good place to buy up many trinkets and wares to take a little bit of this style home. However, this neighbourhood is more expensive than others in the city. And, it is so hard to not want to buy everything.
Nina and I had to buy a small suitcase to schlepp everything we bought in the city back to Scotland because we did not anticipate how much we would come across that we would want. Of course, this load is including the bazaars and other regions of İstanbul. However, Galata definitely put a dent in our budget.
The area is known for modern fashion and also eclectic jewelry and accessories. It is one of our shining Turkish jewel’s, Zeynep’s, favourite places to peruse in her hometown.
My favourite shop is hands down Cosy. A low key, but fully stocked boutique, enjoy looking at all the things you can’t afford, but want!
Do not limit oneself when in this area however. There are tons of other small off-the-beaten track shops and cafés that one should explore and sample while in the district.
Just keep in mind that this area is on the pricer side of İstanbul, so do not do all of one’s spending here …
More than Meets the Eye
So far, I have painted Galata as more or less just an expensive, commercial paradise – which is very well may be for some. However, I would be remiss not to mention some of the history and traditional culture of this neighourhood.
Of course, there is the Galata Tower, which was constructed originally for Christian intentions, but now is areligious and just a cultural marker of the region’s long history. It has suffered crusades and multiple demolitions. And, now, it faces onslaughts of tourists daily.
Galata also hosts much of the İstanbul’s Jewish history.
Turkey has a long history of Jewish residence from mostly a Sephardic background (after the Spanish expulsion in the late 1400s), but also a more historical Romaniote population, originally from this territory.
Today, there are still relatively large populations of Jews in Turkey’s bigger cities, but many have immigrated elsewhere.
Presently, Galata possesses two synagogues: one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi. One can visit the Sephardic Neve Shalom Synagogue and adjacent museum just north of the Galata Tower and the Ashkenazi Synagogue of Istanbul, close to the Schneidertempel Sanat Merkezi, a once functioning temple-now art gallery all its own.
For security purposes, have one’s ID (a passport in the case of the Neve Shalom Synagogue) on hand, as it is necessary to possess to enter the synagogues unfortunately given past terrorist attacks. As one should expect, the synagogues will be closed on Saturdays and modest dress is best!
As one can plainly observe, there is much to see, try, and experience just in a corner, a mere sliver, of İstanbul. There are many other neighbourhoods and suburbs that one can wander through, and it truly takes living here to get it know the city and all it has to offer.
Luckily, I (for some reason) have many, many Turkish friends who were happy enough to help me navigate this city, guiding me with their lived experiences and adolescences here.
Some may say that Turks are overly prideful of their nation, which ties in largely with the country’s fervent nationalism. However, regardless of the veracity of this claim, Turks at least do love İstanbul, which makes it a pleasure to visit, as everyone will want to show you just how great this city is.
And, there is a lot of evidence to back it up.
More to come with the other Istanbul Instalments! We have three more; oy vey, so much to type. Then, it is back to discuss one or two things about our fair Edinburgh and then … off to Brasil! Stay tuned for more and travel often!