It is easy to get swept away by the history in Istanbul — and why wouldn’t you, the city dates back to 660 BCE, it has witnessed the rise and fall of empires and, to its credit, still maintains specks of their existence.
But as throngs of visitors descending upon the city romanticise its past, today’s ‘modern’ Istanbul comprising the real Istanbullus (Istanbul’s residents), who go about the city unfazed by the domes and minarets, is often overlooked.
My first visit to Istanbul (2014) was week-long, in which I did my share of sightseeing — including the glorious Sultanahmet district, the happening Galata area and the frantic yet colourful bazaars. I learnt a few phrases in Turkish, got lost while trying to follow directions and fell completely in love with the city.
My second trip to Istanbul (2016), en route from Alaçatı, was barely eight hours long and based purely on time constraints and proximity to the Ataturk Airport, I visited a new neighbourhood: Yeşilköy on the Marmara Sea.
Those few hours only drove home the need to return and explore more of the city; fast forward to 2019, I’m back in Istanbul. This time my itinerary revolved around neighbourhoods on the European side that have a rich history and a thriving present.
And whether you’re a first-timer or a traveller returning to Istanbul, these neighbourhoods will give you a sense of the city in a way the tourist attractions just can’t.
Istanbul is the only city in the world that falls in both Europe and Asia, the former being more touristy than its Asian counterpart.
The Vault Karaköy The House Hotel, a 19th-century Ottoman-era bank building on Bankalar Caddesi, was my home for three days.
As opposed to direct views of the Blue Mosque on my last visit, during which I stayed in the heart of the historical district, this time I was at a walking distance from the busy Karaköy pier.
Nestled in the Beyoğlu district, Karaköy has gone through a personality transformation over the years. The waterfront district that was once known for trade and business is where you now find the hipsters, the fashionable and the artists.
Start your day at Karabatak café, the Instagram-famous eatery in the Kemankeş Karamustafa Paşa Mahallesi that has plenty of character and serves great coffee, albeit on the steep side.
You’ll be spoilt for choice given the eateries and shops lining the streets in the area — one that stood out for me was FiLBooks, which serves as a bookshop and a café. Decked in pastel colours, the shop has material on photography, Turkish architecture and local art that you can buy or browse through without feeling hurried.
At night, the streets are lit up with colourful bulbs and despite the single-digit temperature, you can find people sitting outside having strong kahve and animated conversations.
Within walking distance is the French Passage where you’ll find the quirky Kağıthane House of Paper. If you like stationery, keep some liras to spend at this local design shop.
For a hearty and economical local meal, have the Turkish pilav at one of the many small restaurants serving the rice dish. The beauty of this unassuming dish — and what differentiates it from our local pulao — lies in the generous use of butter.
For dessert, there’s the 70-year-old Karaköy Güllüoğlu, which some proclaim serves the best baklava in the city. You can also take your baklava to-go and have it at the nearby Karaköy pier, sitting on one of the benches right next to the water.
Karaköy’s location makes it a prime spot to stay in for exploring the city; at its foot is the Galata Bridge — which connects to the bustling Eminönü harbourside and has picture-perfect views of the hills of the historical Fatih district against the Golden Horn — and in the back is Beyoğlu’s Galata/Taksim area.
Istanbul has four major water bodies to its name: Golden Horn, Marmara Sea, Bosphorus and the Black Sea.
If you want to explore the Galata quarter with its namesake medieval tower, you can walk upward from Karaköy and make your way to Taksim.
Otherwise, you can reach Taksim/Istiklal Caddesi — popular among residents and tourists for its nightlife — in 1.5 minutes through the Tünel funicular railway.
From there, make your way to Cihangir.
Pronounced ‘jahangir’, the hilly area gets its name from the Cihangir Mosque, built in 1559 for the hunchbacked son of Hürrem Sultan and Süleiman the Magnificent. The quarter is now considered a haunt for artists, writers and intellectuals.
There’s a distinct difference in the vibe as you leave tourist-filled Taksim and enter the residential Cihangir — for starters, you’ll see more cats than people and more houses than cafés.
The younger Istanbullus come here for drinks after work or to catch up on the weekends, filling up the sidewalk patios alongside colourful houses.
The neighbourhood first piqued my interest when reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City — a book anyone with the slightest interest in the city must read.
The author’s office is said to be in the neighbourhood while a museum, The Museum of Innocence, based on Pamuk’s book of the same name is located nearby in the Çukurcuma quarters — an area worth checking out for antique finds.
In Cihangir, you can visit the Orhan Kemal Literature Museum, dedicated to the famed author it is named after.
For those with an interest in music, there’s Opus 3A, an independent shop that stocks CDs, new and used vinyl recordings and a collection of Turkish pop.
There’s a mix of trendy restaurants and old joints in Cihangir when it comes to food; I opted for the Savoy Pastanesi, a few steps from the pale-green, understated Firuz Ağa Mosque.
The patisserie, established in 1950, has on display a variety of sweet and savoury treats, which will have you salivating as your brain and stomach try to narrow down what to order. Although it is known for its millefeuille, do not pass up the tahini cake, washed down with unsweetened tea or coffee.
If you’re going to Istanbul for the first time, you should definitely go on a cruise on the Bosphorus or/and take a ferry to the Asian side.
Having done both and with only three days at hand, I was very happy to learn that the colourful Balat and Fener — formerly Istanbul’s Greek Orthodox and Jewish neighbourhoods — could be reached via ferry on the Golden Horn.
For the uninitiated, it’s hard to distinguish where Balat ends and Fener begins. Both have their own İskelesi only a 10-minute walk away, so I took the ferry from Karaköy to Balat and on return, I took the ferry from Fener back to Karaköy.
As the ferry passes by Eminönü, under the Galata Bridge and then the Ataturk Bridge, you can tell you’re approaching Balat/Fener because there is a noticeable pop of colour on the landscape (even on a grey winter day).
The most prominent landmark visible from a distance is the redbrick Phanar Greek Orthodox College — which owing to its colour and design is at times referred to as The Red Castle by locals. Built in 1454, the building still functions as an education institute.
The red towering structure serves as your guide once you get off at the Balat İskelesi; most of the shops and cafes are around it, so if you’re without Google Maps, use the Phanar College to guide you up hill.
In contrast to Karaköy, the buildings haven’t been redone, the area has a more residential feel than commercial and you see more locals than tourists. With the rapid commercialisation of the area, however, the last bit appears to be on its way to changing.
Small buildings — most appearing to be three-storey — dot the intertwining streets that slant upwards. Chipped paint and sporadic graffiti aside, the structures look cheerful owing to their varying colours and their inhabitants, who you can find sitting outside on the steps, watching the tourists wryly.
Make your way to Balat’s main street, Vodina Caddesi, where you’ll find on sale everything from furniture and antiques to jewellery and handmade soaps.
Visiting in February, one of the (if not the) coldest months in the city, might not seem smart to many. But if you’re a café+coffee aficionado, then it’s an ideal time for sitting at cosy coffee shops found in abundance in Balat.
You can get your coffee or tea fix at any of them; the tiny, blue-painted Cumbali Kahve caught my eye.
The coffee shop had a friendly barista and books about Turkey, including on the Balat and Fener quarters. It is steps away from the Ahrida Synagogue, built in the 1400s by the Romaniote Jews. Bear in mind that to visit, you need permission beforehand from the office of the Chief Rabbi in Istanbul.
Walking along the coast to/from the İskelesi, you’ll come across the neo-Gothic Bulgarian St. Stephen Church, built in 1898. It is also known as the Bulgarian Iron Church as it is made entirely out of cast iron. Having been renovated over the years, the only remaining original feature is its stone altar, still in use to this day.
For food, I highly recommend Forno. When I went in, I was hungry and cold, and the eatery was full and warm. The staff, who spoke broken English, accommodated me on the communal table and took my order: sucuklu yumurta — fried eggs with spicy beef sausage — a satisfying breakfast/brunch dish.
If you’re feeling nostalgic, as one tends to feel in a city like Istanbul, take the ferry to Karaköy, cross the Galata Bridge into Eminönü and cap off your trip with a tour of ‘old’ Istanbul: Sultanahmet. One can never see the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia too many times.
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