Straddling the Bosphorus Strait, Istanbul is a city so sprawling that it literally spans continents. With so much to see, you might feel a bit overwhelmed when deciding what to add to your itinerary. That said, like most major cities, Turkey’s most populous metropolis is divided into a variety of neighborhoods, each with its own distinct character and offerings. If you know where to look, Istanbul has something for every traveler.
As you’re planning your explorations around the city, take some time to get familiar with its lively neighborhoods.
At first glance, the interwoven neighborhoods of Fener and Balat feel like the Brooklyn of Istanbul. Lively aromas from micro coffee roasters linger in the air above the streets, while hip galleries and design boutiques are to be found around every corner. But don’t be fooled — the Greek Orthodox area actually boasts a rich history dating back to the Byzantine era, and remnants of this past life are still woven throughout the new-age infrastructure. Note the red-brick facade of the Fener Lycee overlooking the neighborhood and the ornate decorations of the Church of St. George. Take a break from cold-brews and cappuccinos at Balat Coffee and Guide to relax and sip in a traditional tea garden like the one at Café Vodina, or stop by the studio of glass artist Yasemin Aslan Bakiri to witness her practiced art. Whether you prefer the old or the new, in Fener-Balat, you’ll find that the two can be beautifully entwined.
The short — but spectacular — ferry ride to Istanbul’s less-touristy Asian side is well worth the trip solely for an exploration of the stunning Kadiköy district. Popular among local entrepreneurs, this section of the city has a lot to offer in the way of restaurants, cafés, bars, and shops. We recommend starting out with a traditional Turkish coffee from Montag Coffee, as it will give you an extra boost before tackling the bustling crowds and enticing scents of the Kadiköy Produce Market. In the afternoon, walk off whatever you indulged in with a stroll along Moda Beach, where you can enjoy a gorgeous view of the European continent you departed from. And as the sun sets, immerse yourself in the local nightlife with the lively pubs along Kadife Street or some live music and eclectic cuisine at Komsu Kafe Collective.
If you’re the type of traveler who likes perusing old curio shops and filling your suitcase with antique bric-a-brac, you might want to allot a few days for exploring Çukurcuma. Adjacent to Cihangir, this stylish neighborhood is famous for its array of wondrous vintage shops, favorites of which include A La Turca for fine rugs, carpets, globes, and furniture; Hakan Ezer for lamps, wall art, statues, and all things interior design; and Pied de Poule for crocheted purses and feathery hats. When you’ve had your fill, don’t forget to stop by the Museum of Innocence as well, a quirky tribute to the novel of the same name written by the Nobel-prize-winning Orhan Pamuk. Filled with exhibits and mementos that capture both the novel’s setting (upper-class Istanbul in the 1970s) and its themes of love and obsession, this museum is a can’t-miss for any fan of literature.
Less than a decade ago, Istanbul’s waterside neighborhood was deteriorating and rather desolate, but in recent years, it’s experienced a resurgence of sorts. Today, it’s one of the hippest areas of the city, offering an exhilarating mix of trendy cafés and boutiques while still maintaining the rich heritage and atmosphere that once made it one of Istanbul’s most important ports. With its vine-colored exterior and strong-as-sin espresso, Karabatak Café is a must-visit for travelers in need of a caffeine fix — but don’t let your day slip away without stopping in at Lunapark Shop as well, where you can find chic apparel, jewelry, and accessories crafted by emerging local designers. Once you’ve fulfilled your shopping needs, end your explorations with fine food and Parisian ambiance at the ever-popular Karaköy Lokantasi.
Located within the larger Beyoglu district that also houses the Karaköy neighborhood, Galata is marked by its cobblestone streets and neoclassical architecture, both of which are watched over by the lone spire of Galata Tower. Begin your explorations from the central spot of Galata Tower Square and wander down whatever side street beckons to you (spoiler alert: they all offer hip shops and boutiques just waiting to be discovered). The more artistically inclined traveler should also carve out a few hours to explore Salt Galata, a contemporary art institution uniquely housed in a 19th-century bank building. If, at any point, you need a pick-me-up, you can stop by the gallery’s in-house café (with free WiFi), or if you’re up for a walk, we recommend marching over to Mavra, a funky café and design workshop where you can grab an espresso and hang out for a bit. At the end of the day, make your way back to the Hogwarts-esque Galata Tower, take an elevator to the top (you’ll actually need to climb the last three flights on your own), and watch the sun set over the sparkling city below.
Popular among young Turks and expats, the Cihangir neighborhood is enjoying its own rebirth as a chic staple of Istanbul’s diverse cultural menu. The streets surrounding Taksim Square, where you would once find elegant artists relaxing in the sun and admiring the Art Deco architecture around them, are now filled with travelers and Istanbulian millennials soaking up the exciting atmosphere of the city. They enjoy their breakfast and morning coffees (or, on the weekends, perhaps something a little stronger) at the outdoors tables of Smyrna Café and then relax in the idyllic shade of the Cihangir Mosque’s secret garden. When it’s time to indulge their sweet tooth, they make their way to Mua, a cozy gelateria that offers the best homemade ice cream in the city. They even frequent nostalgia-inducing mainstays like Asri Tursucu, a pickle shop that’s been in business since 1913. Wherever your journeys through Cihangir take you, be careful — you might just find yourself unpacking your suitcase and calling your family to tell them you’ll be extending your stay indefinitely.
By day, this glittering neighborhood on the banks of the Bosphorus is the perfect spot for basking in the glow of coastal life. You can enjoy the salty sea breeze during a long walk along the scenic waterfront, admire the wood carvings and beautiful Ottoman mansions lined up over the narrow side streets, and fill up on anchovies and mussels at the popular Adem Baba restaurant. Don’t tire yourself out, though, because as night falls, Arnavutköy transforms into the hub of the city. Put your dancing shoes on and make your way to the countless cocktail bars along the waterfront, where you can bump elbows with frenzied partiers and local moguls as you soak up the nightlife the neighborhood is well-known for. The clubs can become so packed, in fact, that the party often spills out into the streets as late-night revelers fill the main drag, drinks still in hand. If you’re looking for the most popular in the area, head to Anjelique, a lively nightclub housed inside a three-story mansion. That said, if loud music and big crowds aren’t your idea of a good time, then maybe make your way back to the hotel before the sun sets on Arnavutköy.
Now that you know where you’ll be going, it’s time to decide what to photograph when you get there. Check out out Instagrammer’s Guide to Istanbul next!
Cover Photo by Seçilmiş Mutluluklar