Up and Down Istiklal Avenue
Staying in World House, you are ideally situated to take this iconic walk. Again and again and again… But luckily, this street is so layered in history and life that it’s hard to get bored. Get creative, get adventurous, give into the urge to explore those side-streets, and many treasures will certainly await you. And depending on the time of day, the weather and season, and even your state of mind, the things you notice could be entirely different.
But say it is your first time, here are some rough itineraries to get you started. You’ll realize that this is a place where the past merges with modernity – sometimes jarringly – and tradition merges with globalization.
Fresh morning walk to Gezi Park
It’s morning and the skies are clear and blue. Wake up, take an easy breakfast at World House , and step outside. Istiklal Avenue officially starts a few minutes up the street at the Tünel Square. This block, sometimes simply called Tünel, is famous throughout Turkey for its music and instrument shops. Recently, many alternative (or, ahem, hipster) clothing stores have sprung up as well. On a lucky morning, maybe a shop-keeper will let you try on a vest and fiddle around with a baglama.
Soon you’ll come to Tünel Square, and maybe catch a glimpse of the funny red Nostalgic Tram beginning it’s ascent to Taksim Square. This is a spot that adores the past. French-influenced Neo-Classical arcades and various antique book sellers.
On the right-hand side just before the Tünel Square, you can find the Galata Mevlevihanesi, better know as the Whirling Dervish hall, a former convent and now a functioning museum. The Whirling Dervishes were (and are) a fascinating and esoteric Sufi sect known best for their unparalleled dance ceremonies. You can check out the museum if you’d like a glimpse into an interesting brand of spirituality, or you can wait until Sunday evenings if you wish to see the dance in action.
As you continue, the shopping drag starts. You’ll notice the street getting busier, and see cafés and fashion stores popping up left and right. You’ll pass the Swedish, Russian and Dutch consulates, as well as a number of Starbucks and other international corporations, and you realize that this is indeed a globalized place. Yet still, charming traditional street vendors selling fresh simit will be waiting quietly in the wings.
Soon the street will open up to Galatasaray Square, bordered to the right by the renowned Galatasaray High School, a up-scale academy with a large, ornate gate that visitors are rarely allowed to enter. Peek through the bars: it feels like a different world in there!
A bit further on to the left you’ll see passages leading to both the Balık Pazarı (Fish Market) and Çiçek Pasajı (Flower Passage). Take some time to enjoy the sights (and smells) of both, as the vendors meticulously lay out their displays and sip their morning tea. These are both long-standing and immensely popular marketplaces, now adorned with restaurants and pubs of many sorts. It is fascinating to observe the lighted corridors, once buzzing with Victorian-era fishermen and farmers, now also filled with business men and women, ritzy tourists, and excited breakfasters.
By now, perhaps the fashion boutiques and touristy “lokum” shops have are spilling bright lights, and the street is nearly packed with people of all sorts. Take a break in a café, of you wish: Starbucks may be tempting, but avert your eyes! The Turkish chain Simit Sarayi, for example, can surfeit your pallet just as well. Or even better, turn into a side street and hunt down a kahvehane for a stronger, cheaper, and more genuine Turkish coffee that will send you skipping all the way to the end of Istiklal
Finally, emerge into the wide Taksim Square, a main transport hub of Istanbul and recently a spot of great international attention. Today though, you’ll probably see a rather drab public square bursting with pigeons, flower sellers, and people running to catch their train. But you may catch the Nostalgic Tram once more, doing a fancy circuit around the Monument of the Republic – a statue from 1928 highlighting Atatürk and commemorating the founding of modern Turkey.
Across the square is the small but charming Gezi Park, another name you may recognize from the news. It is one of the few sizeable parks in downtown Istanbul, recently spared from being turned into a shopping mall. It’s a popular place for locals to take their coffee break and clear their mind with a little tree-gazing.
Now the choice is yours! Grab a quick snack from one of the nearby vendors or restaurants (as long as it’s not Burger King!), and maybe take the lovely tram back down the street in reverse. Or, if you fancy a nice view, it’s one stop to take the funicular from Taksim to Kabatas and stroll along the waterfront. Or, if the fashion boutiques of Istiklal sparked something in you, you can continue past Gezi Park, down Cumhuriyet Caddesi in the direction of the up-scale shopping quarter of Nişantaşı.
Kariköy is a charming place. In ancient times, it has always been the sight of wide fishing operations, seafood and import markets, and the in and out flux of sea vessels. In these ways, very little has changed. But over the years, Kariköy has become welcoming of its international visitors, and this working-class neighbourhood now harbours a stellar (and cheap) fish market, strings of tea houses, and a various ferry ports connecting to other parts of Istanbul. Kariköy is certainly a place to walk through, but do your self a favour and take some time to explore it a little more intimately.
After leaving World House, follow the road downhill to the right. As you pass the Galata Tower and a few stray touristy shops, you’ll notice that the area becomes increasingly work-oriented. Tool and home shops, büfes, and kiosks become more frequent.
You’ll spot a busy road that runs clear over the Galata Bridge. This is Kemeralti Caddesi, and when you come up to it turn right and you’ll be looking down Bankalar Caddesi, one of the most important financial stretches in Istanbul from the days of the Ottoman Empire up until very recently. Now its a labyrinth of banks.
If you were to follow Bankalar Caddesi to the right, however, you would soon see The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews, or the Jewish Museum of Turkey. Once the sight of a Synagogue, the museum was inaugurated in 2001 as a collaboration of many groups, and is now preserves and presents many aspects of Jewish history in Turkey. This is also a great testament to the diversity and cosmopolitan history of Galata.
Continue along towards the Galata Bridge, past the street vendors certainly selling syrupy goods and fruit juices, and find a way over or under the road towards the bridge. Take a right along the banks of the water, and you’ll find yourself in the small but intense Kariköy fish. Stalls upon stalls of season raw, fried, or frying fish impale your senses.
At the fish market you can find the best prices for fresh-caught fish in all of Istanbul. But if you’re looking more for a snappy snack, there are plenty of options: you can find stalls selling simple balık ekmek (fish sandwiches), an inexplicably popular snack along the docks and a tourist essential. A world of anchovies, mackerel, and more depending on the season, and loads of fried onions, peppers, and lettuce.
If you continue along the banks, after the hustle of the market, you’ll encounter more than a few good eateries. Presumably you’re on the market for good fish? (—what can we recommend?—). Simply pick a place with a good view (shouldn’t be too hard!) and let that fish melt on your tongue: most of these places are licensed too, so don’t feel ashamed to wash down those gills with a bit of beer and raki, and watch the soft midday motions of the Golden Horn.
There are also a number of small parks with benches and cozy traditional tea houses along the water here. Depending on the weather, take your pick and admire the view of old Constantinople across the straight.
Once you’re finished, pass back through the fish market and cross the street again. You probably would have noticed, perhaps, the hoards for amateur and hobby fishermen casting their lines into the Golden Horn. If you’re worried about the quality of the water, don’t be concerned, these are not the fish that end up on your plate. But it can be amazingly serene to watch the groups toss line after line after line, in a kind of ritualistic harmony among men. Despite the tourism and other developments, this area retains is traditional fishing culture.
After crossing the street, you’ll find a small network of criss-crossing alleys and streets. Many of the shops cater to the neighbourhood’s industrial-based population: tool and material shops, warehouses, and more. It’s a fascinating pace of Istanbul to see. However, this area also holds many of the ferry docks, and so this working-class ambiance is conflated with an international, transitory crowd. Many good eateries, cafés, and any specialty shops have thus made their way here.
For example, it is here that you can uncover what we believe to be some of the best baklava in Istanbul. It’s a place called Gulluoglu.
To balance out the sweet and sugar overload that you will certainly undergo if you pay a visit to —-, this part of Karaköy is also home to a number of fine coffee shops. Try to track down Karabatak or ….
If you wind your way to the main street again, it can be a great idea to continue your walk East along the banks of the Golden Horn.
Spices and Bazaars
Some people – the chefs, shopping-lovers, thrill seekers, and fine silver-appreciators among them – will tell you that the best part about Istanbul’s Old City is the bazaars. Certainly, there is nothing in all world so dizzying and gratifying at once as getting your senses sucker punched by the seamless dazzle of the Grand Bazaar on a Saturday afternoon. Let this short guide take you down some of the most interesting and most challenging footpaths in Istanbul.
WHH to Tourist Landmarks
Exit World House and turn left. Maybe you noticed something peeking up over the rooftops – a simple stone tower with a nice pointed hat. That’s the Galata Tower: arguably one of the most profound landmarks on this side of the Golden Horn. It was built by the Genoese in 1348 and for centuries was the highest structure in Constantinople. You take the elevator to the top for a fee (which is almost unanimously agreed to be too expensive), and buy a pricy coffee while admiring the sea. (A tip: you can get similar views for nearby restaurants and other vantage points in the city for free!). Take some time to admire the majesty of the tower and the descend the narrow alleyways towards the docks.
The area you’ll emerge into is called Kariköy, an ancient harbour front – in use since the days of Greek colonists – now working class neighbourhood full of warehouses, tool shops and banks, where the smell of fish permeates the senses. Work your way over to the Galata Bridge and walk along the top to observe the swarms if eager fisherman casting their rods into the Golden Horn.
Upon crossing the bridge, you will find yourself in Eminönü, your first foray into the Old City and the districts that made up the historical Constantinople. And surely you can tell. Between the crowded tunnels full of tourist nick-nacks and shouting street vendors, you can make out the minarets of many world-renowned mosques and monuments. The first you might want to visit is the Yeni Camii – a 17th century mosque (which is new, relatively speaking) with an interior blazing with gold and marble.
The streets around this quarter are convoluted and mesmerizing. Don’t get lost, if you can avoid it, but don’t worry if you do – it’s all part of the experience. You may even find yourself in wonderful or quirky bazaars such as the pet bazaar, the plant bazaar, or the world renowned spice bazaar. Before your hands are full of goldfish and curry powder, it is recommended you ask a local or two to point you in the directions of the Blue Mosque. It should be a 10 minute walk or so. Following the tramline will work too.
With a little luck you’ll arrive at Sultanahmet Square – a wonderful open-space with pleasant gardens for a good afternoon stroll (if you can avoid the tourists). Believe it or not, most of this space used to be the Hippodrome – the entertainment centre of the city in the days of emperor Constantine, and formally the site of a circus, a chariot racetrack, and 100,000 screaming Byzantines. The structure may now be lost, but the wild ambiance – in a funny way – can still be sensed.
Incidentally, this is also something of a pre-packaged tourists paradise. The Aya Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace, and the Basilica Cistern are all within a 5 minutes walk of each other. These are undoubtedly all historical wonderments, and essential must-sees for tourists of Constantinople. Take your pick and begin the grand tour!
If you are looking for an intense history lesson, start with the Aya Sofia. Once a cathedral built by Justinian as a glorious crown of Christendom, the Aya Sofia was conquered and converted by the Ottomans into a mosque for the same purpose. Now the building is claimed by the Turkish government and operates as a museum. The entrance fee is steep (25 liras), but the eye-candy of the inside is incomparable. In the walls and the architectural features, you can trace the lines of history like a tree trunk.
If you need to clear your head of all those historical facts and take a moment to meditate, head across the square to the Blue Mosque (assuming the chattering of tourists doesn’t distract your meditation), remove your smelly travellers shoes, and spend some time admiring the phenomenal decoration of the hallowed domes. Let your eyes feast on the blue tiles (all 20,000 of them) from which the mosque derives its nickname, and make sure you close your eyes to appreciate the enchanting acoustics and spiritual radiance of the room. The Blue Mosque, unlike the Aya Sofia, is still a functioning mosque, so make sure you don’t try to get during a ritual prayer session, and stick to the designated visitor areas.
Relaxed? Now jive over to the Basilica Cistern for a bit of peace and darkness. An architectural amazement, the cistern was the primary water storage area for several empires, and today retains enough history to full a million wells, and more than a few subterranean mysteries – make sure you spend some time pondering over the Medusa heads. You’ll see what I mean.
At last, it’s to Topkapi Palace for a true taste of Ottoman extravagance. Guided tours are available, of course, but it is fun simply to wander the increasingly ornate halls and feel insignificant (or, pretend you’re a pasha and feel grandiose). You can enter Harem too (for a price), if you want to look into the lives of the sultan’s female relations and concubines.
Most likely, this tour will leave your head spinning and your legs sore. Luckily, the Sultanahmet metro station is right next to the square and you can take the tram back to Kariköy if you’d like, or even the opposite direction towards the Grand Bazaar if you have the stamina.